How to Make Rich and Creamy Macaroni and Cheese From Scratch

Follow our recipe for the best homemade macaroni and cheese ever. Plus, learn how to make mac and cheese in the oven, on the stove, or in your Instant Pot.

Whether you're serving a kid, parent, college student, or a gourmet chef, there are a few dishes that appeal to virtually everyone: mac and cheese. Sure, the stuff in a box from the store is easy, cheap, and filling, but sometimes a comforting bowl of homemade macaroni and cheese is just what the soul needs. Variations on macaroni and cheese recipes are endless, but most classic versions of the casserole include elbow macaroni baked in a cheese sauce commonly made from American and/or cheddar cheese.

The main difference between stovetop and baked versions is that baked versions set up more firmly and densely. Stovetop versions are looser and creamier in texture. Baked versions also develop an appealing (and irresistible) toasted-cheese crust on top. Since each of these types are popular, we're going to show you how to make macaroni and cheese on the stovetop and in the oven.

Best Four-Cheese Macaroni Cheese
Kritsada Panichgul

How to Make Macaroni and Cheese in the Oven

It would be nice if you could just mix cooked macaroni with shredded cheese and bake it. However, to attain the dish's beloved rich and creamy appeal, the cheese needs to be melted in a white sauce (aka Béchamel). Fortunately, it's one of the easiest sauces to make. We'll be referencing the Better Homes & Gardens four-cheese macaroni and cheese recipe for this process.

Step 1: Cook the Pasta

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cook your elbow macaroni (or another favorite pasta shape) according to package directions. Drain the pasta and set it aside.

Step 2: Make the White Sauce

Melt butter in a 3-qt. saucepan ($35, Target) over medium heat. Stir in all-purpose flour, salt, and pepper. Gradually whisk in cold milk. Cook, whisking constantly until it's thick and bubbly. Add your shredded cheeses. Cook and stir until the cheeses melt. Stir in the cooked pasta.

Test Kitchen Tip: The secret to silky cheese sauce is buying blocks of cheese and shredding yourself. During testing, we found pre-shredded cheese didn't melt as smoothly because of added starches that keep the shreds separate in packages.

Step 3: Bake the Macaroni and Cheese

Transfer pasta and cheese mixture into a lightly greased 2½- to 3-qt. baking dish ($27, Bed Bath & Beyond). Sprinkle with crunchy topping mixture (panko, butter, and Parmesan), if you like and bake in the 350°F oven 20 to 25 minutes until top is golden brown. Letting the casserole stand up to 10 minutes to allow it to set into a firmer consistency.

How to Make Macaroni and Cheese on the Stovetop

If you're short on time (or just want extra-creamy mac and cheese), skip the oven! Simply omit the casserole dish and crumb topping in our baked version above, then serve and dive right in. You can also try our classic stovetop mac and cheese recipe.

Pressure Cooker Mac and Four Cheeses
Jacob Fox

How to Make Macaroni and Cheese in a Slow Cooker or Instant Pot

Yes, you can use your favorite countertop appliances to whip up some fast or slow mac and cheese. Since you're not cooking the pasta first, look for recipes specifically calling for use of the Instant Pot or slow cooker ($50, Target) so you don't end up overcooking your noodles or having too much liquid.

Mac and Cheese Variations

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:

  • Pesto: Add 2 Tbsp. basil pesto to the pasta mixture. Before baking, top the mixture with ¾ cup soft bread crumbs combined with 2 Tbsp. melted butter.
  • Veggie: Add 2-2½ cups fresh broccoli florets and/or thinly sliced carrots to the pasta water the last 5 minutes of cooking, and continue as directed.
  • Greek-Style: Add ½ cup pitted, halved Kalamata olives to the pasta mixture. After baking, top with crumbled feta cheese and snipped fresh oregano.
  • Meat Lovers: Add 1½ cups crumbled cooked sausage to the pasta mixture. After baking, top with chopped red sweet pepper and snipped fresh basil.
  • Blue Cheese-Garlic: Cook 4 cloves garlic, minced, with the onion. Substitute ½ cup crumbled blue cheese for ½ cup of the cheddar.
  • Smoky Apple: Use smoked cheddar cheese for the cheddar cheese. Add 4 slices crisp-cooked bacon, crumbled, to the pasta mixture. After baking, top with thinly sliced apple and some additional shredded smoked cheddar cheese.
  • Tuna: Stir two 3-ounce pouches or cans of tuna into the pasta mixture. Before baking, top with fish-shape crackers.
  • Crunchier Crumb Topping: Before baking, top with a mixture of 1½ cups cornflakes, 3 Tbsp. melted butter, and 1 Tbsp. snipped fresh parsley.
  • Chicken and Stuffing: Add 1½ cups shredded roasted chicken and 1 tsp. dried thyme, crushed, to the pasta mixture. Before baking, top with crushed herb-seasoned stuffing mix.
  • Chili-Style: Stir one 15-ounce can chili beans in chili sauce into the pasta mixture. Before baking, top with crushed corn chips.

Switching the Cheeses

Just about any cheese that melts smoothly into sauces and casseroles will work in macaroni and cheese. You can substitute Brie, Comté, Edam, Emmental, Fontina, Gouda, Gruyère, 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 kinds of cheese differ from cheddar, so you'll need some cheddar (or another cheese that melts smoothly) to attain a good, creamy consistency.

Is Mac and Cheese a Main Dish or Side?

Macaroni and cheese can be served as a main dish or a side dish. When serving as a main dish, include a cooked green vegetable or serve with a crisp green salad. Or you can go ahead and add your protein and greens to the main event in this chicken macaroni and cheese recipe. The cheesy pasta is a wildly popular side dish for barbecued meats or sandwiches.

In recent years, American bistros and steakhouses have put refined spins on macaroni and cheese by adding upscale ingredients. Try some of these creative takes at home by adding in some flaky lobster, rich crab (with brie!), or caramelized onions. Need a healthy option? Try this veggie-filled version made with whole-grain noodles.

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