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Perfect Macaroni and Cheese Recipe

Make your own gooey, delicious macaroni and cheese with this no-fail macaroni and cheese recipe. You'll learn how to get the perfect creamy macaroni and cheese consistency, plus the history of mac and cheese and how it became popular in America.
Martha Stewart Living, February 1999

Thomas Jefferson, purportedly a great lover of both cheese and Italian food, brought a macaroni maker back from Italy and served his baked macaroni and cheese at dinner parties.

If you have ever managed to have a lucid thought while eating this gooey, delicious dish, it may have been to wonder how macaroni and cheese -- American cheese melted into a traditional British white sauce served over Italian pasta -- came about. It all started during the age of European colonization, when seafaring men transported dried macarone -- one of the few staples that could survive a year aboard ship -- from Italy to Britain and to the American colonies.

American colonists did not have the selection of fresh produce and other ingredients that the Italians had; their meals were improvised from a larder of fresh or sour milk, stale bread, and pork drippings. So the imported pasta would often be served with a simple white sauce -- milk thickened with flour and butter. Sometimes it was baked in a casserole with buttered breadcrumbs on top. A recipe for a casserole of macaroni, white sauce, and grated yellow cheese was first recorded in the "Boston Cooking School Cookbook" in 1896.

Kraft introduced its macaroni-and-cheese dinner in 1937 as a way to market processed American cheese and Tenderoni macaroni. It swept the nation. Recipes for homemade macaroni and cheese began to appear frequently in cookbooks.

Nowadays, making delicious homemade macaroni and cheese has become a mission for some people: They are always trying to make it more comforting, cheesier. It's a completely worthwhile way to spend your time.

To begin, you still need to make a white sauce. A generous amount of butter is melted in a large saucepan, and then flour is stirred into it to make a loose paste. After the flour has cooked in the hot butter, hot milk is whisked in. The starch from the cooked flour expands in the milk, creating a thick, creamy sauce. The starch binds the sauce, so that when the cheese is stirred in, the result is creamy and smooth, not stringy and curdled.

It is important to use pungent cheeses, such as sharp cheddar, mixed with a little Gruyere or pecorino Romano for extra bite, since the white sauce and pasta will absorb a lot of flavor. The type of cheese used will also affect the sauce's texture: Sharp white cheddar produces the smoothest result; yellow and extra sharp cheddars can become grainy.

A good Italian brand of dried elbow macaroni will have the best consistency. Undercook your pasta so that it is the slightest bit crunchy (very al dente) in the center, then rinse it under cold water. This stops the cooking and washes off the excess starch. You might think that starch would be useful in further thickening the casserole, but it isn't; as it bakes, that extra starch merely expands and lends a mealy texture to your sauce.

The pasta will finish cooking as it bakes. The sauce will bubble, seeping into the hollows of your macaroni. When the smell of butter and browning cheese makes your stomach growl, you'll know the dish is ready to eat.

 

Perfect Macaroni and Cheese How-To

 

You can easily divide this recipe in half; use a 1 1/2-quart casserole dish if you do.

Serves 12
6 slices good-quality white bread, crusts removed, torn into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for dish
5 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 1/2 cups (about 18 ounces) grated sharp white cheddar
2 cups (about 8 ounces) grated Gruyere or 1 1/4 cups (about 5 ounces) grated pecorino Romano
1 pound elbow macaroni

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish; set aside. Place bread pieces in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Pour butter into the bowl with bread, and toss. Set the breadcrumbs aside. In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, heat milk. Melt remaining 6 tablespoons butter in a high-sided skillet over medium heat. When butter bubbles, add flour. Cook, stirring, 1 minute.

2. Slowly pour hot milk into flour-butter mixture while whisking. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick.

3. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, 3 cups cheddar, and 1 1/2 cups Gruyere or 1 cup pecorino Romano. Set cheese sauce aside.

4. Fill a large saucepan with water. Bring to a boil. Add macaroni; cook 2 to 3 fewer minutes than manufacturer's directions, until outside of pasta is cooked and inside is underdone. (Different brands of macaroni cook at different rates; be sure to read the instructions.) Transfer the macaroni to a colander, rinse under cold running water, and drain well. Stir macaroni into the reserved cheese sauce.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish. Sprinkle remaining 1 1/2 cups cheddar and 1/2 cup Gruyere or 1/4 cup pecorino Romano; scatter breadcrumbs over the top. Bake until browned on top, about 30 minutes. Transfer dish to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes; serve.

Comments (133)

  • Kzftxl 31 Jul, 2014

    I make this and freeze half before baking. It's still delicious.

  • the baker 21 Jul, 2014

    do you have to bake it in the end?? is it optional to be baked????

  • Justin Seeler 17 Jul, 2014

    This is the best macaroni and cheese recipe I have ever made. I now make this on a regular basis and I have also sometimes added jarlsberg cheese to the recipe and it tastes incredible!

  • Nicole Knutson 11 Jul, 2014

    Used applewood smoked Gruyere, 1/3 cup whipped cream cheese, and 2T of cayenne pepper - absolutely awesome.

  • SusanWellsArt 23 Jun, 2014

    This is freaking awesome. I added all the cheese to the roux to skip a step though.

  • asoutherner 19 Jun, 2014

    I have made this three times now and it is perfect. I usually make it for a Thanksgiving side dish and there is never any left. I will always continue to use your recipes and there are superb!

  • ktmarini3 19 Jun, 2014

    Can this be made ahead and frozen?

  • Iapcm 6 May, 2014

    Hoping to try this recipe on Saturday night, but wondered whether if I halved, even quartered the recipe it would come out just as delicious. I'm only making it for 2 people. Any advice?! Thanks

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  • NubieCook 28 Nov, 2013

    After trying a few different recipes for mac and cheese from the fancy to the most simple, I've finally found a recipe that works best. Just made this morning for Thanksgiving, and it turned out fabulous. The only thing is I left out the breadcrumbs as it would have been too much with my stuffing. I will definitely use this recipe again. THANK YOU Martha!

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    Could I prepare this ahead of time and then bake the next day? Do you think the consistency and everything would turn out normal?

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    I have made this recipe as written for my husband and children and they loved it. Thanks a lot Martha

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    I have made this mac and cheese before and it was great!!! I misplaced the recipe and am happy to find it at this site!!

  • Victoria Christina 6 Apr, 2013

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  • DaisyG82 5 Jan, 2013

    I followed this recipe perfectly and mine turned out a little grainy. I used good quality cheese so I don't think that was the problem. Could it be that I heated the milk, flour and butter too long? It was still very good but I have a feeling Martha Stewart didn't intend for it to have a grainy texture. Any advice would be approciated! Thanks!

  • mayborninfebruary 22 Dec, 2012

    To "tryin new recipes", unfortunately no. This recipe is great for leftovers heated in the microwave, but nothing beats it straight out of the oven with the breadcrumbs crisp and buttery. The breadcrumbs become soggy (but still delicious!) in the microwave. I recommend trying another recipe for your party and making this at home as soon as you can!

  • mayborninfebruary 22 Dec, 2012

    This dish has become a fixture at all events in my family for the past few years. I get requests to make it all the time! The breadcrumbs are to die for and the pasta is so rich, creamy and decadent, with just a hint of bite from the Gruyere or Pecorino Romano (I've made mine both ways, and I prefer the latter). To anyone making this for the first time, I recommend following the recipe to a T. Although other users' suggestions and substitutions sound amazing, the original recipe can't be beat.

  • missdawn76 9 Dec, 2012

    A flavourful mac & cheese! I cut the recipe in half, used whole wheat pasta & bread, and chose to use pecorino instead of Gruyere. I cut back on the amount of cheese sprinkled on top. Also, I didn't have cayenne (thought I did) so I used red pepper flakes instead. This is a very rich dish and, though the recipe was halved, is a lot of food. Definitely worth experimenting with and making again!

  • tryin new recipes 7 Dec, 2012

    I would like to make this in advance, and reheat at a work event in a microwave....will it still come out as nice? Thanks for your advice.

  • Polishedit 17 Nov, 2012

    I want to try this perfect Mac for thanksgiving, I have never been able to make a Mac and Cheese that I'd consider edible. I've made that box crap and its not good. Is there a version of this recipe for say 6 servings? I don't want to ruin it with the wrong measurements.

  • Sebrina Lee 23 Sep, 2012

    Delicious mac & cheese! I made a half batch as a side dish to some BBQ chicken (for 2) and we have lots left over. I omitted the nutmeg and instead I added about the same amount of ground mustard. I also used whole wheat elbow macaroni, but followed the rest of the recipe to a tee. Helpful hint: don't use regular table salt when a recipe calls for kosher, because you actually get a lot more salt in 1 tsp of table salt, compared to 1 tsp kosher. I thought the seasoning was spot on in this recipe.

  • ambermalone 1 Jun, 2012

    A different flare entirely but fun!

    I was in Las Vegas recently where the food is sinfully delicious and creative if you put yourself into a partying mindset. The very good mac and cheese I made a habit of eating there had crushed (very finely) Doritos on top instead of baked bread crumbs. Try it, you'll feel guilty but you'll love it and it is great for backyard bbqs!

  • KDsmom 27 May, 2012

    Love this recipe! I add 1/2 teaspoon of dry mustard, and go heavy on the cayenne. I prefer it with extra sharp yellow cheddar, and I use all three cheeses - cheddar, Gruyere, AND Romano (or parmesan or asagio). Can use 20 oz. of macaroni to make it go farther. Freezes very well! Always a big hit, even with little kids.

  • truecritic 21 Feb, 2012

    I had a lot of Kraft brand box of Mac and cheese, so I measured out a pound of the noodles only and used them for this recipe, it came out great! And no gruyere or Romano cheese, so I substituted with parmesan. Tasted creamy and mild, baked well. I also added 2 tablespoons of Grey Poupon Dijon mustard. I recommend using a very large high sided skillet for the sauce; I kept spilling mine onto stove. I also suggest using the white bread; I used wheat and could taste the sweetness in the crumb top

  • christop 28 Nov, 2011

    Fantastic recipe. I omitted 1 cup gruyere and replaced it with 3/4 cup emmentaler, 1/4 cup romano and just a touch of Roquefort to give it a little more tang. For the cheddar, Tillamook vintage white extra sharp cheddar (aged 2 years) worked great. All these cheeses are white which I think makes a nice looking dish. For the bread crumbs, I followed the recipe exactly and it worked perfectly- a nice golden brown slightly crunchy texture. I'm a fan of panko crumbs but this is even better.

  • Mosdefn8ly 24 Nov, 2011

    Crazy Rave Reviews from Thanksgiving Pot Luck in London Uk. Making it for the first time as well, recipe was easy to follow and magical flavours. Ulitimate Mac and Cheese. I added some white Truffle oil as well to the bread crumbs. Next time going over the top some more and adding Lobster! Thanks Martha!

  • Kat_375 13 Nov, 2011

    WOW. I subbed 1.5 cups of smoked sharp cream cheddar for the Vermont. I didn't have bread to make my own crumbs, but I melted butter and poured over Panko crumbs instead. Also added a couple of eggs and a couple of teaspoons of white truffle oil. This dish is DECADENT!!!

  • chefdeo 4 Feb, 2011

    This is my 'go to' macaroni and cheese. I use store bought bread crumbs and it turns out great. It tastes even better reheated the next day.

  • MissCaraMichelle 29 Jan, 2011

    Changes I made (all just for personal taste):
    Omit nutmeg
    Cut the salt by 1/2
    Doubled the black pepper
    Omit Cayenne
    Substituted a little bit of cream I had left over, but mostly used milk
    It was a great recipe--made a ton, tasted wonderful and was a total hit. Next time I think I won't use as much cheese on the top--it's rich enough without it. Also, served with peas--the sweetness was a nice balance to the salty mac.
    Will make again and again=)

  • SelfishMom 30 Dec, 2010

    OK, for some reason this is only showing the 1st few words of my comment...but the crux of it was, when I left off the breadcrumbs the 2nd time I made it the top was very oily. Going to try it again with regular store breadcrumbs (wasn't crazy about the recipe breadcrumbs, but the rest of the recipe was fabulous - used extra sharp cheddar and Gruy?ɬ

  • SelfishMom 30 Dec, 2010

    I just made this for Thanksgiving

  • SelfishMom 30 Dec, 2010

    I just made this for Thanksgiving

  • Duffman 22 Dec, 2010

    I agree with foodwhore. Adding the white truffle oil to the mix really makes this a special dish. I hadn't thought about adding the oil to the bread pieces--that's a brilliant idea. Keep in mind the cost of truffle oil is a little pricey but well worth that added touch. I don't make a mac n cheese without it.

  • Zarri 19 Dec, 2010

    Hi Suzzannetubbs....you can put the whole thing together the night before and bake it the next day. I thought the breadcrumbs actually came out better.

  • Sassy_Lou 12 Dec, 2010

    FAST and BASIC The most EXCELLENT Mac N Cheese!

    American Deli sliced white or yellow!!!
    Constitute with about 1/4 to 1/2 cup WATER with the cheese in pot.

    If it's too watery - just keep heating it till it thickens.
    If it's too thick - just add a touch more till you get the thickness you like.

    DO NOT USE MILK.

    The creaminess is in the cheese. To reheat ADDING MILK will dry it out and will not reconstitute as well. The creaminess is NOT from MILK it's in the cheese. It's a MYTH to add milk!

  • pkearins 12 Dec, 2010

    We made a double batch and cooked both. We didn't need the second one. Can it be frozen and reheated 2 weeks later without drying out? I'd love to use it at an upcoming party if it will be just as good.

  • suzannetubbs 21 Nov, 2010

    Do you think I could make this dish the night before and them warm it up?

  • sillysara 15 Nov, 2010

    this is one of my favorite mac and cheese dishes ever! i like the combination of the cheddar and pecorino romano for a tangy kick.

  • tara2010 31 Oct, 2010

    While I've already reviewed this recipe, I made it again last night and wanted to add that the quality of cheese really makes a huge difference (more than I thought was possible). The first time I bought high-quality imported cheese, and it was excellent. Last night I used yellow sharp cheddar and store-brand gruyere (what I had on hand), and it was not nearly as good. Maybe this is obvious to everyone else, but if you are making this for company I would really recommend good cheese.

  • irish01 27 Oct, 2010

    This is a really good mac and cheese, I used Romano. I beg of you to skip the salt because the butter and cheeses are enough, I added salt and it was too salty.

  • tara2010 22 Aug, 2010

    This was awesome! I used extra sharp cheddar (I missed the note about it making the dish grainy until too late) and gruyere. It was slightly grainy, but hardly noticeable. Also, I did not heat the milk ahead of time for the white sauce. It takes longer to thicken, but saves a pot to wash. In the end it doesn't seem to make any difference.

  • CraftClothier 25 Jul, 2010

    This was the absolute BEST recipe. I tried it and it turned out flawless. The only complaints came from those who expected "blue box." Sad. Everyone else loved it.

  • JennaSh 2 Jul, 2010

    This is by far one of my fav recipes - although I do add a twist. I think it is best to cook the whole dish the day before and then just reheat the next day before your guests arrive. Try to pull out and bring to room temp before reheating....it will go a lot faster.

  • DankaSchoen 26 Jun, 2010

    Do you think you can prepare it the day prior to a dinner party? Leaving it in the fridge until you are ready to bake and serve? Or would that change the texture and creamy nature of the dish? I love, love, love this recipe, but find the prep time leaves me wanting to have it ready to go with the dishes done before my guests arrive.

  • cellochick 9 Jun, 2010

    This is amazing. Just a warning, I know I am not the fastest cook but I think the prep time is on the speedy side. If you aren't the speediest allow some extra time!

  • britomart10 3 Mar, 2010

    I have made this recipe as written, with excellent results. I have also substituted different varieties of cheese depending on what I had on hand. This recipe turned out well either way. I also love the buttered bread crumbs on top.

  • WiddoMouse 16 Jun, 2009

    I made this recipe exactly as written and it was wonderful. Today I decided to kick it up a notch. I used applewood smoked gruyere cheese, Panko bread crumbs and added chunks of bacon. It's the best I have ever made. Thanks Martha.

  • keira930 23 Feb, 2009

    This was easy to make, and a huge success! I made it with the Martha Stewart "All American Meatloaf"... Got everything ready in the morning, and just popped it in the oven an hour before the dinner party. The only thing I did differently was in Step #5, I scattered half the breadcrumbs, then half the cheeses, then the second half the breadcrumbs and the remaining cheese.

  • knitterchris 22 Jan, 2009

    I'm with you photo-doc. Make a recipe as written the first time, then tweak it to my taste. BTW Jen, I should have added I don't find Gruyere cheese too salty, but probably a good idea to check out the other posts. As we all know, you can always add salt to the dish as you go along, but you can't take it out. ;)

  • knitterchris 22 Jan, 2009

    Gruyere is a variety of Swiss cheese. Excellent melting properties; had kind of a nutty flavor to it. I use it when I make Scalloped potatoes from scratch.

  • JenniferLuvsMarthasShow 22 Jan, 2009

    Oh I have another comment, I used shredded sharp chedder and grated romano and parm cheeses. My local store didn't have that Gruyere cheese. Is that type of cheese salty?

  • JenniferLuvsMarthasShow 22 Jan, 2009

    I just made this tonight and it was great. Not sure what happened with the ladies who thought it was too salty. Did you use table salt instead of kosher salt? The only change I would make is that I used potato chips instead of the butter bread cubes. I let it sit for more than 5 min so it wouldn't be soupy. I would make again.!!

  • Jabekenvous 22 Jan, 2009

    I just made it too cheesy an salty.Other than that it's good.Just cut n the salt.

  • mamalisa1969 22 Jan, 2009

    I can't wait to try this recipe. I have been playing around with my own concoctions. I am a novice to the mac n cheese.

  • joao_dasilva 12 Jan, 2009

    Whoa, waaaaaaay too much salt! I've made this twice and I totally agree with comments #9 and #15. It was fantastic the first time, but then got a bad batch due to inferior Gruyere from Giant.

  • jevanina 29 Nov, 2008

    This was soooooo cheesy! The breadcrumbs on the top are not needed. I used yellow cheddar, gruyere, parm, and munster. I also used whole wheat rigatoni. This makes enough for an army.

  • kjm205 11 Nov, 2008

    Can this be made and placed in refrigerator for a day before baking?

  • redcricket 7 Sep, 2008

    comfort food nirvana! this is hands down THE BEST mac and cheese recipe. insanely delicious! i used less butter too. it is rich enough! it's amazing with some fresh stewed tomatoes.

  • lilypie2 5 Sep, 2008

    I love the creamy cheese you make with this recipe! 'Also, I must note that you should really try the nutmeg in this recipe. I have learned that adding a few shakes or more of nutmeg to many dishes (not just baked goods) really give the dish that- "what did they add to this..its so good!!" Its the secret ingredient worth trying in anything!!!!!!

  • wednesdayaddamsd 18 Jul, 2008

    The best recipe I've ever tried for Mac N Cheese. I omitted the nutmeg and cayenne. Also didn't care for the buttered bread crumbs. They made it too rich and greasy. I made mine with Gruyere and Sharp White Cheddar cheeses only. I halved it, and it still made enough for an army. You will not be dissapointed if you love rich pasta and cheese dishes. Definitely a five star dish!

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  • photo-doc 25 Feb, 2008

    I like to follow recipe directions exactly for the first try, but would probably add bacon or ham the next time! Everything is better with bacon! I invited 2 other couples over to help us eat the 12 servings and everyone loved it. We decided to have good 'ol fish sticks with it. No one declined take-home servings either!

  • constancewalsh 5 Feb, 2008

    One of the best mac and cheese recipes out there. Reduce the final amounts of cheese in Step 5 by at least half or omit completely-- the cheese sauce is plenty cheesey enough -- no one will notice, and your arteries will thank you!

  • roacademy 4 Jan, 2008

    Used Fontina instead of Gruyere. Also used chipotle instead of cayene and 2 tsp lemon juice to punch it up. Now a family favorite. Great to split

  • foodwhore 26 Dec, 2007

    This is the best mac and cheese I've made yet. To push it over the top, use Gruyere (not Pecorino Romano), cut the amount of butter in the cheese sauce to 4 tbs, then add 2 tbs white truffle oil to the sauce upon removing from heat. Also, toss the bread pieces in half butter, half white truffle oil. My guests loved it.

  • laurafoodie 21 Nov, 2007

    I have made this many times for family gatherings

  • laurafoodie 21 Nov, 2007

    I have made this many times for family gatherings

  • megs20002003 11 Nov, 2007

    This is the only way to make Mac and Cheese, in my opinion. I make enough (half or a third) to feed the family for dinner and a bit for leftovers the next day. This is a once a month treat/comfort food for us and we all love it because ,of course, by changing the cheeses you will never get bored!

  • sspoor 6 Nov, 2007

    Personally, this is my go-to mac and cheese recipe. It's success hinges on the quality of the ingredients as it is a basic recipe that lets the flavor of the cheese come through.

    I agree with Norm though--it is expensive. However, it's a recipe for 12. Halve it!

  • Norm 5 Nov, 2007

    Many people love this recipe. i found it to be expensive, making great mess in the kitchen and not all that good. it made more than we could eat in a month and we ended up throwing almost all of it out.