Al dente pasta, swirled in a salty, creamy cheese sauce, macaroni and cheese is like a hug wrapped in a warm sweater, unparalleled in its ability to comfort and satisfy. While boxed and frozen varieties have made it impossibly easy to prepare the dish at a moment’s notice, a homemade version is worth the effort. We’ll teach you the foundations of a perfect macaroni and cheese, and how to make two styles: baked and stovetop. There will be no leftovers.
By definition, classic macaroni and cheese should be made with, well, macaroni, a style broadly defined as any short, cylindrical extruded pasta. This includes tubes like ziti, penne, rigatoni and, yes, elbows, as well as corkscrew shapes like fusilli. All this is to say that plenty of shapes are suitable for macaroni and cheese (many of which are gluten-free). But you will want to make sure you stay in the world of tiny, tubelike shapes or those undeniably cute little shells. (Like cutting a grilled cheese into triangles instead of rectangles, they may actually improve the taste of the finished product, if only in our heads.) Avoid long, thin shapes like spaghetti or linguine.
Elbow enthusiasts should also note that there’s a new kid in town: Cavatappi, a curly, ribbed noodle that’s longer than an elbow, may very well be the platonic ideal for baked macaroni and cheese. Its length and curl perch perfectly on a fork, its ribbing is optimal for gripping luscious sauce, and its thickness (slightly thicker than elbows) decreases any risk of mushiness.
Regardless of which pasta you choose, it’s important to remember two things: Always cook the noodles in water that’s as salty as the sea to season them from the inside out, and make sure they’re cooked more al dente than you might think they need to be. The pasta will continue to cook in the cheesy sauce, which not only gains thickness from the noodles’ starch but also deepens the flavor of the noodles themselves.
The keys to good macaroni and cheese are in the texture, flavor and creaminess of the sauce. Made of just four elements (milk, thickener, cheese and seasonings), it should be pleasantly creamy but not too thick. Note that when the noodles are added to the sauce, they will soak up the liquid like a sponge, and, if there’s not enough, you’ll be left with dry macaroni and cheese: a true punishment.
The rule for cooking with wine also applies to cheese: Don’t cook with anything you wouldn’t want to drink or eat on its own. On average, you’ll need 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of cheese per pound of pasta. But the type of cheese can vary depending on the style of macaroni and cheese you are making and your preferred flavors and textures.
Cheddar reigns here, somehow always behaving exactly as it should. It melts wonderfully, never breaking or becoming greasy, with just the right amount of salt and tang. Sharp, extra sharp and sharp white are best.
To bolster flavor, adding something a bit more assertive like fontina or Gruyère is excellent, but be sure that at least half of the cheese used is cheddar. Fontina and Gruyère are richer and fattier and could cause a sauce to break if used on their own. Avoid ultramild cheeses like Monterey Jack or colby: While they are fine for melting, they lack the salt or tang to make them worth your while.
A bit of Parmesan or pecorino (up to an additional 1/4 cup grated) can always be added for a hit of deeper flavor and saltiness, but too much and the sauce could become grainy.
Whatever cheese you use, it’s always best to grate from a block rather than buying pre-grated cheese (which can contain additives to prevent it from clumping in the bag).
Now, in a perfect world, any cheese worth eating would be a good candidate for your macaroni and cheese, but that’s not the world we live in. There are many factors — fat, salt, protein and water content — that make one cheese more suitable than another. For example, resist the urge to melt your favorite creamy Camembert (too fatty) or salty Gouda (too grainy) into a sauce. They’re much better as a sprinkle here and there.
Beware of too much experimentation. If, in adding cheeses, you find your sauce appears broken, you can occasionally remedy it by whisking in more milk (if too thick) or cheddar (if too runny) while it’s still warm. But unlike, say, mayonnaise, once dairy breaks, it’s often broken for good. It doesn’t mean your sauce is inedible; you may just need to lower your expectations. It’ll still be delicious, but not as creamy.
No matter the style of macaroni and cheese you make, it should be sufficiently saucy, which is to say it needs a good amount of liquid. For that, whole milk is the ideal base. Heavy cream or half-and-half are too rich, even for the most die-hard mac-and-cheese lovers. In a pinch, 2 percent will work, but avoid nonfat, as it’s likely to break the sauce and make it grainy.
Milk and cheese alone are not enough to emulsify the sauce in a macaroni and cheese, nor are they enough to properly thicken. The solution is typically in a traditional béchamel-like sauce (milk thickened with a roux of melted butter and flour), although it is possible to do a stellar version without. (A weeknight macaroni and cheese that uses cream cheese as the thickener is one excellent example.)
Whatever you do, use caution: The sauce in the pot should be decidedly thinner than you’d want it to be in the finished dish. It will continue to thicken as it is absorbed into the pasta or reduces in the cooking process.
The cheese sauce should be properly seasoned with salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper (which cannot be undervalued, especially if you know the pleasures of a good cacio e pepe). But it doesn’t have to end there.
For some, 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of ground spices like hot or smoked paprika, cayenne and dried mustard are a welcome addition, especially if you like a little heat. A pinch of ground turmeric is fun if you’re looking to mimic the neon-orange hue of a boxed macaroni and cheese.
One to two cloves of raw garlic or 1/4 medium onion can be grated and added to the milk before the cheese to increase the savoriness and complexity.
Baked vs. Stovetop
Macaroni and cheese comes in many forms: There are ultracreamy macs made with processed cheese, tangy ones made with farmhouse cheddar, those packed with noodles and baked into a pie and those poured out of a box and cooked in an instant. But two styles more or less define the genre: stovetop and baked.
Both baked and stovetop macaroni and cheese stem from the same basic elements, but the differences lie largely in the sauce, cooking method and, of course, the time.
A classic baked macaroni and cheese relies on a béchamel-like sauce. While the technique for building it is the same, a béchamel for macaroni and cheese is thinner than what you’d need for lasagna or croque-monsieur. It should be cooked and whisked until it coats the back of a spoon with the viscosity of cold heavy cream. The added cheese and cooking time will thicken it.
Once the macaroni and the cheese sauce are combined, and the breadcrumbs added, it’ll go into the oven. You’ll want to place the baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil to catch the inevitable bubbles and drips of cheese sauce, making clean up exponentially easier.
You’ll know it’s done when the breadcrumbs are a deep golden brown, and the macaroni in the center of the baking dish no longer seems runny. (The edges will always cook faster than the center, excellent news for those who love crisp bits.) If you notice the center becoming dry before the breadcrumbs are golden brown, increase the temperature to help them along.
You could make a baked macaroni and cheese on a quiet weeknight, when you have a bit more time or don’t mind eating late. But sometimes that’s not possible. That’s where the stovetop mac comes in.
Perfect for busy weeknights, when it feels like everything is spiraling and you need comfort quickly: Our stovetop macaroni and cheese comes together in less than half an hour, no fancy sauces required. Al dente pasta (shells are especially festive, but you can use anything you’d like) is combined with milk, cream cheese and cheddar. Before you think about skipping the cream cheese, don’t. The emulsifiers in it are what binds the sauce, preventing it from breaking (thus, rendering a flour roux unnecessary), and adding a silkiness that will make you forget about those instant versions.
Extra stovetop macaroni and cheese is a myth, but if you do have any leftovers, it’s easy to gently reheat on the stovetop over low heat. Add a splash of milk and stir gently but frequently to prevent scorching your pot.