Skip the boxed varieties and whip up a delicious batch of mac and cheese. If you follow our advice, you'll enjoy a perfect one-pot meal that doesn't take a ton of time to prepare.
perfect macaroni and cheese
Credit: Bryan Gardner

Put aside those boxes and frozen trays! The best macaroni and cheese is homemade, hands down. Like the store-bought varieties, homemade mac and cheese is a one-pot meal that doesn't take a lot of time to prepare. It starts with an ooey gooey cheese sauce that is both silky in texture and assertive in flavor; it's finished by tossing that sauce with the right noodles. While you could certainly stop here can eat it as stovetop mac, we think that putting it in a baking dish, topping it with something crunchy like panko or breadcrumbs, and baking until bubbly is the way to go. Curious how to achieve this sublime dish? Start with our checklist for irresistible mac and cheese.

Cook Smart (and Optimize Cleanup)

Minimize cleanup by using the same pot (medium or large work well here) to cook both the pasta and the sauce. Prepare the ingredients for the cheese sauce while the pasta boils, then drain the pasta and return the pot to the stovetop to make a sauce. If you're not concerned about cleanup, feel free to opt for two pots and boil the pasta while you make the cheese sauce, cutting down on time overall.

Grate the Cheese by Hand

Pre-packaged cheese lacks the flavor of the real thing and often has stabilizers and additives. For the easiest grating, put the blocks of cheese in the freezer for five to ten minutes first and then grate on the large holes of a box grater.

Mix and Match Cheeses

While one cheese can make a delicious mac and cheese, the best recipes mix and matches cheeses. Different selections play a role in the final mac's flavor and texture, some cheeses are mild but lend a creaminess that can't be beat, while others bring a more assertive note but perhaps aren't the best melting cheese alone. Our Test Kitchen's Favorite Mac and Cheese relies on a trio of cheeses that hit all those notes: American, sharp cheddar, and Parmesan.

Use a Roux

Start the cheese sauce with a béchamel sauce, a rich, creamy white base that ensures a smooth texture and stretches the cheese into a silky sauce. The first step to making béchamel is making a roux, toasting flour in melted butter. Don't skip toasting the flour as this removes any raw flavors.

Keep It Smooth

Once the roux is prepared, pour in milk while whisking to ensure the roux is smoothly incorporated into the béchamel sauce. Warming the milk in a saucepan or microwave before adding it to the roux helps prevent lumps. Then simmer the sauce while stirring (to ensure it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan) until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Let This Ratio Be Your Guide

The standard ratio for béchamel-based cheese sauce is for every 1 tablespoon butter use 1 tablespoon of all-purpose flour, 1 cup of whole milk, and 1 cup of shredded cheese, although ratios can vary slightly depending on the desired sauce consistency, how saucy you like it, and the type of cheese used. This 1:1 ratio is perfect for about ¼ pound of pasta, so if you plan to prepare a full pound of pasta, multiply it by four.

Melt the Cheese Slowly, in Batches

Once the sauce is thick, it's time to add the cheese. To avoid graininess, reduce the heat to low and add the hand grated cheese in small batches, whisking or stirring to fully combine after adding each cheese.

Choose the Right Noodle

While cheese sauce can coat any noodle, the best pasta is small macaroni-like shapes. Select one with ridges or curves that the cheese sauce can cling to like macaroni, elbow rigate, shells, or pipette rigate. A bit larger in size, but also a popular choice for macaroni and cheese is cavatappi.

Stir in Pasta and Adjust

Don't forget to season the mac and cheese. Salt and pepper are crucial, but they are not the only ingredients that can accentuate the cheesy notes. A touch of ground mustard, Dijon mustard, or hot sauce are popular additions that add that je ne sais quoi, making the mac and cheese just a bit more irresistible.

The Magic of Pasta Water

Before draining the noodles, reserve a cup or two of the pasta water to loosen the cheese sauce at the end if necessary or if reheating and increase creaminess. If you forgot to reserve any pasta water, use a little extra milk instead.


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