This Creamy Stovetop Mac and Cheese Recipe is so rich and creamy that you won’t even miss the boxed kind. Plus, this scratch-made version is ready in the time it takes to boil the macaroni!
If you have kids who like to help in the kitchen, grating the cheese is a fun task to let the kids get involved. I know my daughter always asks to grate the cheese. Another task she enjoys is measuring the spices and this gives us a teachable moment to go over fractions! What better way to get some math homework done than while making her favorite meal? It hardly seems like learning at all!
What is the best cheese for Stovetop mac and cheese?
Cheddar cheese is my go-to for the classic take on macaroni and cheese. I use mild or medium. Do not use aged, sharp, or extra sharp cheddar cheese. These varieties have less moisture due to aging and tend to turn the sauce grainy in texture.
To change the flavor of this dish for variations, I add small amounts of different cheeses like Parmesan, smoked Gouda, Jalapeno Jack, or mozzarella into the sauce. For extra creaminess, I like to add two ounces of mascarpone cheese (or cream cheese). This is one dish my whole family enjoys. The secret is how easy it is to make!
For best results, use block cheese that you have grated yourself. The pre-shredded cheese contains cellulose to keep the cheese from clumping. These extra ingredients transfer into the cheese sauce giving it a grainy texture.
Freshly grated block cheese is more flavorful than the pre-shredded cheese which is dry and dusty from the addition of cellulose powder.
What Variations Can I make with this Classic Mac and Cheese?
- Bacon and Blue: Add 4 pieces of crumbled bacon and an ounce of blue cheese crumbles.
- Bacon and Broccoli: Add 4 pieces of crumbled bacon plus a cup of steamed chopped broccoli.
- Cauliflower: Add a cup of steamed chopped cauliflower, and an ounce of brie cheese, and 1 tbsp chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley.
- Butternut Squash: Add a cup of steamed, mashed, or cooked diced butternut squash, 1-ounce goat cheese, and 4 to 6 pieces of fried sage leaves that have been crumbled.
- Spicy: Add a tablespoon of your favorite hot sauce, 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (more or less to taste), and a cup of jalapeno jack cheese.
- Chili Mac: Add 1/2 tsp chili powder, plus a can of Fire Roasted Diced Tomatoes, diced jalapenos, or mild green chili peppers.
Ingredients for Stovetop Mac and Cheese
The ingredients listed for stovetop mac and cheese serve specific purposes in creating the desired flavor, texture, and consistency of the dish.
- Elbow Macaroni or Pasta: This is the main component of the dish, providing the base and texture. Pasta is cooked to al dente to ensure it has a firm bite and holds up well with the cheese sauce.
- Butter or Margarine: Adds richness and contributes to the overall creaminess of the dish. It also enhances the flavor of the cheese sauce.
- All-Purpose Flour: Used to make a roux, a thickening agent for the cheese sauce. It helps create a smooth and consistent texture.
- Salt: Enhances the overall flavor of the dish. It’s crucial for balancing and bringing out the taste of other ingredients.
- Ground Black Pepper: Adds a hint of spiciness and complements the richness of the cheese. The amount can be adjusted based on personal preference.
- Ground Mustard (optional): Provides a subtle tangy flavor that complements the cheese. It’s optional but can add depth to the dish.
- Paprika: Adds a touch of smokiness and color to the mac and cheese. It contributes to the visual appeal of the dish.
- Onion Powder: Adds a mild onion flavor without the texture of actual onions. It enhances the overall taste profile.
- Garlic Powder: Similar to onion powder, it imparts a subtle garlic flavor without the texture of fresh garlic.
- Milk: Forms the liquid base for the cheese sauce. The choice of milk can affect the creaminess of the sauce.
- Cheddar Cheese: The star of the show, it provides the rich and savory flavor that defines mac and cheese. Shredded cheddar melts into a smooth sauce.
- Parmesan Cheese (Grated): Adds a nutty and salty flavor to the cheese sauce, enhancing the overall complexity.
- Cream Cheese (optional): Offers additional creaminess and a slight tang. It can elevate the texture and taste of the dish.
How to Make Stovetop Mac and Cheese
- Cook the Pasta
- Make the Sauce
- Combine and Serve
Recipe tips and kitchen tricks
- Grate Cheese Before Using:
- Grate your cheese rather than buying pre-shredded cheese. Pre-shredded cheese often contains anti-caking agents, which can affect the texture of your dish. Freshly grated cheese melts more smoothly and provides a creamier texture to your recipes.
- Bring Ingredients to Room Temperature:
- For recipes that involve ingredients like eggs, butter, or dairy, allowing them to come to room temperature before use can make a significant difference. Room-temperature ingredients mix more easily, creating a smoother batter or dough. This is particularly important in baking for achieving even textures.
- Taste and Adjust as You Go:
- Don’t be afraid to taste your dish as you cook and adjust seasonings accordingly. This helps you develop a better understanding of flavor balance and allows you to make real-time adjustments. It’s easier to add more seasoning gradually than to correct an overly seasoned dish.
- Spicy Jalapeño Mac and Cheese:
- Add diced jalapeños or pickled jalapeño slices to the cheese sauce for a spicy kick. You can also sprinkle some crushed red pepper flakes for extra heat. The spiciness complements the creamy cheese, creating a flavorful and zesty mac and cheese variation.
- Bacon and Broccoli Mac and Cheese:
- Cook crispy bacon until it’s well-browned, crumble it, and stir it into the mac and cheese. Additionally, blanch or steam broccoli florets until they’re tender-crisp and mix them into the dish. The combination of smoky bacon and fresh broccoli adds savory and crunchy elements to the creamy mac and cheese.
- Buffalo Chicken Mac and Cheese:
- Toss shredded cooked chicken in buffalo sauce and fold it into the mac and cheese. Drizzle extra buffalo sauce over the top for added flavor. You can also top the dish with blue cheese crumbles or ranch dressing for a tangy twist. This variation combines the comfort of mac and cheese with the bold flavors of buffalo chicken.
I typically serve macaroni and cheese as a side dish to our main meal. Here are some dinner ideas where I typically serve mac and cheese as a hearty side:
- Perfectly Tender Eye-of-Round Roast
- One-Pot Roasted Lemon Chicken
- Crispy Oven-Fried Chicken
- Instant Pot Meat Loaf
Storing, freezing, and reheating instructions
- Refrigeration: Allow the mac and cheese to cool to room temperature. Transfer it to an airtight container and store it in the refrigerator. Consume within 3-4 days for the best quality.
- Cool Completely: Let the mac and cheese cool completely to room temperature before freezing.
- Portioning: If possible, divide the mac and cheese into individual portions for easier thawing and reheating.
- Freezer Bag or Container: Place the mac and cheese in a freezer-safe bag or airtight container. Squeeze out excess air to prevent freezer burn.
- Labeling: Clearly label the container with the date of preparation to track freshness.
- Freeze: Store in the freezer for up to 2-3 months.
- Thawing (if frozen): If frozen, transfer the mac and cheese to the refrigerator to thaw overnight.
- Microwave: For small portions, use the microwave. Heat in 30-second intervals, stirring between each interval until the desired temperature is reached.
- Stovetop: For larger quantities, reheat on the stovetop over medium heat. Add a splash of milk to maintain creaminess and stir frequently to prevent sticking.
- Oven: Place the mac and cheese in an oven-safe dish, cover with foil, and bake at 350°F (175°C) until heated through. Stir occasionally for even reheating.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is the best way to cook pasta for mac and cheese?
Boil pasta in salted water until al dente, then drain and set aside
Can I use a different type of cheese in the mac and cheese recipe?
Absolutely! Feel free to experiment with different cheeses based on your preferences. Gouda, mozzarella, or pepper jack can add unique flavors.
How can I make my mac and cheese gluten-free?
Use gluten-free pasta and replace all-purpose flour with a gluten-free alternative, such as rice flour or cornstarch, for the roux.
Can I prepare the mac and cheese ahead of time for a party?
Yes, you can make it in advance and store it in the refrigerator. Reheat it just before serving, adding a bit of milk to maintain creaminess.
What can I add to make my mac and cheese more flavorful?
Enhance the flavor with ingredients like Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, or a pinch of cayenne pepper for a subtle kick. Experiment with different herbs or even caramelized onions for depth.
Wine & Cocktail Pairings
- Pair with: Creamy Mac and Cheese
- Why: The buttery and oaky notes of Chardonnay complement the richness of the cheese sauce, creating a harmonious balance.
- Sauvignon Blanc:
- Pair with: Spicy Jalapeño Mac and Cheese
- Why: The crisp acidity of Sauvignon Blanc contrasts well with the spiciness of jalapeños, providing a refreshing balance to the dish.
- Pinot Noir:
- Pair with: Bacon and Broccoli Mac and Cheese
- Why: The red fruit flavors and moderate tannins of Pinot Noir complement the smokiness of bacon and add depth to the overall flavor profile.
- Classic Martini:
- Pair with: Traditional Mac and Cheese
- Why: The clean and crisp nature of a classic martini provides a simple and elegant accompaniment to the classic flavors of mac and cheese.
- Pair with: Buffalo Chicken Mac and Cheese
- Why: The citrusy and tangy notes of a margarita enhance the bold and spicy flavors of buffalo chicken, creating a dynamic pairing.
- Old Fashioned:
- Pair with: Parmesan and Herb Mac and Cheese
- Why: The balanced sweetness and depth of flavor in an Old Fashioned complement the savory and herbal notes in the mac and cheese, offering a sophisticated pairing experience.
Creamy Stovetop Mac and Cheese
- Cheese grater
- 5-Quart Sauce Pan
- 3-Qt Sauce Pan
- 8 ounces Elbow Macaroni or your favorite pasta shape (2 cups)
- 2 tbsp Butter or Margarine
- 2 tbsp All-Purpose Flour
- 1/2 tsp Salt more or less to taste
- 1/4 tsp Ground black pepper more or less to taste
- 1/4 tsp Ground mustard optional
- 1/8 tsp Paprika
- 1/8 tsp Onion Powder
- 1/8 tsp Garlic Powder
- 2 cups Milk
- 2 cups Cheddar cheese Shredded [See Note 1]
- 1/4 cup Parmesan Cheese grated [See Note 2]
- 2 oz Cream cheese optional
- Cook the Pasta: In a large pot, cook pasta according to package directions. If you prefer your pasta softer, cook for a little longer than the package suggests. Note that the al dente pasta will absorb the cheese sauce and soften a little more once combined. Once cooked to desired firmness, drain pasta and return to the pot. See Step 3.
- Make the Sauce: Meanwhile, in medium saucepan , melt butter over medium heat; stir in flour, salt, black pepper, ground mustard, onion powder, garlic powder, and paprika forming a roux. Next, slowly add the milk and cook until bubbly, whisking constantly. When you can feel the weight of the sauce begin to thicken against the whisk , stir in the cheeses and continue to whisk until melted.
- Combine: Add the cheese sauce into the cooked pasta and stir to combine. Stir in optional ingredients for variations on the original. [See Note 3]Serve immediately.
- Storage: Store leftover mac and cheese in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
- The sauce for this mac and cheese tightens up a lot especially after it’s been cooled. I recommend reheating it on the stove over low heat and adding a tablespoon of milk (per serving) or a some cream (I use half and half) to reconstitute the sauce while it reheats.You can also reheat in the microwave under half power for a minute or two adding a splash of milk or cream and stirring in 30-second intervals.
- Cheddar cheese is my go-to for the classic take on macaroni and cheese. Use regular (sometimes called mild), medium, or sharp cheddar cheeses only. Do not use aged or extra sharp cheddar cheese. These varieties have less moisture due to the aging and do have a tendency to separate and turn the sauce grainy.
- For best results, use block cheese that you have grated yourself. The bagged cheese contains cellulose to keep the cheese from clumping. These extra ingredients often produce a grainy cheese sauce. I also find freshly grated block cheese to be more flavorful than the pre-packaged grated cheese which can be dry and dusty from the addition of cellulose.
- Optional Variations (not included in the calculated nutritional values):
- Bacon and Blue: Add 4 pieces of crumbled bacon and an ounce of blue cheese crumbles.
- Bacon and Broccoli: Add 4 pieces of crumbled bacon plus a cup of steamed, chopped broccoli.
- Cauliflower: Add a cup of steamed chopped cauliflower, and ounce of brie cheese, and 1 tbsp chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley.
- Butternut Squash: Add a cup of steamed, mashed, or cooked diced butternut squash, 1 ounce goat cheese, and 4 to 6 pieces of fried sage leaves that have been crumbled.
- Spicy: Add a tablespoon of your favorite hot sauce, 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (more or less to taste), and a cup jalapeno jack cheese.
- Chili Mac: Add 1/2 tsp chili powder, plus a can of Fire Roasted Diced Tomatoes, diced jalapenos or mild green chili peppers.