Few dishes appeal to a broader spectrum of people than macaroni and cheese. The under-5 crowd likes it because it's not broccoli. Moms and dads like it because it's a child-friendly food that they actually enjoy. College students like it because it's cheap and filling. And gourmet-food lovers appreciate it because the dish can be dressed up with anything from lobster and Brie to truffle oil -- and still retain its beloved comfort-food appeal.
Classic macaroni and cheese is a casserole of elbow macaroni baked in a cheese sauce commonly made from American and/or cheddar cheese. Saucepan versions made on the stovetop are also popular. The main difference is that baked versions set up more firmly and densely than stovetop versions, which are looser and creamier in texture. Baked versions often develop an appealing toasted-cheese crust on the top, while stovetop versions do not.
Variations on macaroni and cheese are endless. Whatever goes well with pasta and cheese (and few things don't!) can be added to the dish. Also, a variety of cheeses may be substituted for the American or cheddar. Check out our variations, below.
Baked pasta dishes have roots in European cooking. However, over the years, mac and cheese has become as American as, well, Thomas Jefferson. According to culinary historians, our nation's third president popularized the dish by serving it in the White House. Although Jefferson did not invent the dish, he was a fan of pasta -- a staple that was not widely used in America in his time. He imported a macaroni mould from Europe, and several recipes for making pasta exist in his handwriting.
Main Dish or Side?
Macaroni and cheese can be served as a main dish or a side dish.
How to Make Macaroni and Cheese -- Oven-Baked Version
It would be nice if you could just mix cooked macaroni with shredded cheese and bake it. However, to attain the dish's much-loved luscious and creamy appeal, the cheese needs to be melted in a white sauce. Fortunately, it's one of the easiest sauces to make. This recipe makes four main-dish servings.
1. Cook the Pasta
Tip: You can substitute another shaped pasta, if desired. Use 8 ounces rotini, small shell macaroni, ziti, cavatappi, or bow ties.
2. Shred the Cheeses
Shred 6 ounces cheddar cheese and 6 ounces American cheese. You should end up with about 1-1/2 cups of each cheese. Set aside.
Tip: See below for other varieties of cheese that you can use.
3. Make the Cheese Sauce
4. Bake the Macaroni and Cheese
Tip: Letting the casserole stand helps it set up for a firmer consistency.
How to Make Macaroni and Cheese -- Saucepan Version
Saucepan macaroni made on the stovetop will not set up quite like a baked version, but it will bring rich and creamy results to the table in about half the time. To make, prepare the above recipe as directed, except:
Switching the Cheeses
Just about any cheese that melts smoothly into sauces and casseroles will work in macaroni and cheese. You can substitute Brie, Comte, Edam, Emmental, Fontina, Gouda, Gruyere, or Havarti for the cheddar and/or American cheese. You can also substitute mozzarella and provolone for the American cheese; however, do not substitute mozzarella or provolone for the cheddar cheese. The melting properties of these two cheeses differ from cheddar, so you'll need some cheddar (or another cheese that melts smoothly) to attain a good, creamy consistency.
Make it meaty, spicy, crunchy, or colorful by adding a few extras to the basic ingredients. Follow the recipe for the baked version of macaroni and cheese, and amend as follows: