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How to Make the Mac and Cheese of Your Dreams

We can't think of anything more comforting than this one-pot mac and cheese. It's our test kitchen's hands-down favorite! Here's everything you need to know, plus two indulgent variations.

Associate Food Editor
test kitchen mac and cheese
Photography by: Armando Rafael

Rich, creamy, and just about impossible to resist, this childhood favorite graduates to grown-up status with our quick yet elegant recipe. The secret is a blend of three cheeses, plus mustard powder for a subtle kick. We’ve dreamed up two delicious variations, too, so you can get creative with your winter carbo-loading.

 

Grocery List

Short pasta

Unsalted butter

Unbleached all-purpose flower

Mustard powder

Whole milk

American cheese

Sharp cheddar

Parmesan

 

Get the Test Kitchen's Favorite Mac and Cheese Recipe

Essential Tools

Medium heavy pot: Minimize cleanup by choosing a medium pot to cook your pasta and make your sauce. Mac and cheese can definitely be a one-pot meal.

Box grater: Grate the cheese by hand! Pre-packaged cheese lacks the flavor of the real thing and often has stabilizers and additives. Grate cheese on the medium (not large) holes for easiest melting.

Colander: For straining the pasta.

Whisk: For making a proper roux and ensuring a creamy sauce.

Large spoon: For mixing in the pasta and evenly coating.

1. Cook Pasta

Prepare 1 pound short pasta in a medium pot of boiling salted water until al dente, about 2 minutes less than per package instructions. Drain, reserving 1 cup pasta water (which you can use later -- see The Magic of Pasta Water, below).

noodle cavatapi macaroni rigatoni
Photography by: Armando Rafael

Pick a Noodle

Choose a small shape with ridges or curves that the cheese sauce can cling to.

2. Make a Bechamel

Return empty pot to medium heat; add 3 tablespoons butter. When butter melts and foams, add 1/4 cup flour and whisk until darkened slightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Add 2 teaspoons mustard powder; whisk to combine. Slowly whisk in 3 cups warm whole milk. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, 3 to 4 minutes.

bechamel sauce pot whisk
Photography by: Armando Rafael

Keep It Smooth

To prevent clumps, warm the milk in a saucepan or microwave before adding it to the roux.

3. Melt the Cheese

Reduce heat to low and add cheese in 3 batches, starting with 1 cup (4 ounces) chopped American. Follow with 2 cups (8 ounces) grated sharp cheddar and 1 cup (2 ounces) grated Parmesan. Whisk to fully combine after adding each cheese. Season with 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper. Add pasta, stir to coat, and serve.

cheeses parmesan cheddar american
Photography by: Armando Rafael

Blend Well

Each cheese plays a crucial role in this dish’s flavor and texture. For easier grating, put the blocks of cheddar and Parmesan in the freezer for five minutes first.

The Magic of Pasta Water

As mac and cheese cools, the sauce tightens and loses some of its creaminess. But if you don’t serve it right away, no worries -- just place the pot over a low flame, and stir in reserved pasta water, a few tablespoons at a time, to loosen the sauce without diluting the rich flavor.

 

 

Next Level: Two More Ways to Indulge

baked macaroni cheese broiled tomatoes
Photography by: Armando Rafael

Baked Mac and Cheese with Broiled Tomatoes

For this remix of the beloved tomato soup and grilled cheese combo, slice 3 Roma tomatoes into thick rounds, drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Broil until tomatoes start to brown, about 8 minutes; let cool slightly. Prepare 12 ounces cavatappi per step 1; toss with cheese sauce from step 3 and 1/4 cup pasta water. Transfer to an 8-inch baking dish. In a bowl, mix 1 cup panko with 2 tablespoons melted butter and 1/4 cup each grated Parmesan and cheddar. Top pasta with broiled tomatoes and panko mixture. Bake at 350 degrees until bubbly, about 30 minutes.

 

Get the Baked Mac and Cheese with Broiled Tomatoes Recipe
swiss fondue mac cheese
Photography by: Armando Rafael

Swiss-Fondue Mac and Cheese

Take a quick trip to the Alps. Prepare 1 pound rigatoni, and replace 1/4 cup of the whole milk with dry vermouth. In step 3, use these cheeses: 1/2 cup (2 ounces) finely chopped Raclette, 2 cups (8 ounces) grated Gruyere, and 2 cups (4 ounces) grated Emmentaler. Sprinkle with chopped flat-leaf parsley; serve.

 

Get the Swiss-Fondue Mac and Cheese Recipe
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