If you know me IRL you know that when it comes to comfort food macaroni and cheese ranks pretty high on my list. And I have been on a quest to develop a perfectly creamy homemade mac and cheese recipe and I finally did it! It is full of cheesy goodness and can be made as a main dish or as a side dish. No matter how you decide to serve this classic recipe, it will definitely become a family favorite served on all occasions! Full recipe card below.
Creamy Stovetop Mac and Cheese
Many homemade mac and cheese recipes call for baking the cooked pasta and cheese in a casserole dish with panko breadcrumbs or ritz crackers at the end. And while I have had my share of baked macaroni and cheese recipes, nothing beats creamy shells and cheese on the stovetop in my opinion. Baking macaroni and cheese often leads to dry pasta which isn’t for me. So if you are looking for a creamy sauce, you are in the right place!
What’s the best cheese for homemade mac?
This is a very common question! Different cheeses not only have different flavors but they also have different melting consistencies and to have a creamy and flavorful cheese sauce you really need to consider both. I usually use a variety of cheese for this reason. I have experimented with all the usual suspects like cheddar, Colby jack, Monterey jack, and gruyere cheese to name a few. I have found the aged cheeses are best for adding flavor. These are typically your harder cheeses like parmesan, white cheddar, gruyere, gouda, and pecorino romano.
Young cheese tends to be softer since cheese looses moisture as it ages. Softer cheese is better for melting and creating a gooey base for macaroni and cheese. I found a blend of about 60% aged cheese to 40% young cheese is the way to go.
What type of pasta noodles to use?
Just like with boxed mac, when making macaroni and cheese it’s most common to use shell pasta. The reason is because the pasta shells trap the cheese sauce in the noodle giving each bite more of that cheesy sauce. You can also use other shapes, but in general any shape that allows the sauce to collect inside the noodle is best. Other common pasta noodles that catch more of the cheese are cavatappi, penne, corkscrew, or campanelle. I would avoid simple pasta noodles like spaghetti, linguine, and fettuccini that do not hold any of the sauce.
What is a roux?
When making macaroni and cheese it is very common to make it starting with a roux but what does that mean? A roux is a fancy way of saying to thicken a sauce. It is generally equal parts fat and flour in which the fat is usually butter or oil. To successfully make a roux you start by melting your butter over medium-low heat in a sauce pan and slowing stirring in the flour to form a creamy base. This is your roux and will be used as the base of the rest of sauce.
Basic Macaroni and Cheese Ingredients
Most macaroni and cheese recipes have a few basic ingredients that are consistent across the board. I will break down what I use and why and what ingredients will give you the best results.
Pasta Noodles – Like I said above, it is best to use a pasta noodle that has a reservoir so to speak, for the homemade cheese sauce to collect in. I like using shells for this so each bite has a higher cheese to noodle ratio because let’s be honest, mac and cheese is all about the cheese and the noodles are simply a vessel.
Butter – The first part of the roux is butter and very important to the process. While I have margarine in my fridge for things like toast, when it comes to cooking from scratch, I always use real butter. Margarine is very processed and doesn’t have the well rounded flavor that real butter has. Substitute at your own risk.
Flour – For this recipe all purpose flour is going to be the second step in the roux and the thickener of the sauce. You can also use cornstarch if you are gluten free, just use 1/4 cup instead of 1/2.
Cheese – When it comes to flavor, sharp cheddar cheese cannot be beat! I specifically prefer the Cabot sharp white cheddar because in my opinion it has the best taste. And I shred cheese every week for pizza night. Trust me when I say I have tried all the cheddars. For a little bit of extra flavor I also use parmesan. This covers my aged flavor cheeses.
For the young melting cheese I use Havarti. It is a semi soft cheese with a great melting consistency and a buttery flavor. If you don’t have Havarti, Colby Jack is similar but in my opinion has a lot less flavor.
For best results, I shred my own real cheese from the block. Pre-shredded cheese has a different melting point than blocks of cheese because they coat it in cornstarch during packaging. If you have a stand mixer you can use this cheese grater attachment to shred your cheese in seconds! You can use whatever type of cheese you want, but the consistency of the sauce may not come out correctly if you use choose bagged cheese.
Cream Cheese – For a little extra creaminess I also add a little cream cheese to the mix. I think this helps smooth out the consistency without altering the flavor much.
Milk – I always use 2% milk for cooking but you can use whole milk here too. I do not recommend skim milk because it doesn’t have any fat. On the reverse, heavy cream will make the sauce too thick but you could use half and half for similar results.
Onion – Adding fresh onion to mac and cheese is very common and adds extra flavor to roux. I normally use a white onion diced small. To speed up the chopping process, I use this slicer. It is truly a game changer when it comes to prep work and it can shred cheese too!
Dry Mustard – While common to most home chefs, dry mustard is not a spice that everyone stocks. But if you do, you likely know a small amount goes a long way and it lasts longer than the condiment version. It tastes very similar to Dijon mustard and gives mac and cheese an extra bite of flavor. If you do not have dry mustard, you can substitute 1 teaspoon of dry mustard for 1 tablespoon of wet mustard.
Garlic – I always use real garlic from the jar because it’s convenient and has a softer flavor than garlic powder. If you choose to use garlic powder you will not need as much. Substitute 1/8 tsp of garlic powder for 1 tsp of fresh.
Worcestershire Sauce – The ingredient no one can pronounce correctly, haha! This potent sauce will add quite a bit of umami flavor with sweet, salty, and sour all at once.
Other seasonings – Salt, pepper, paprika, and cayenne all add the seasoning this dish needs. You can skip the cayenne and paprika if you really dislike them, but definitely do not skip the salt and pepper!Print
This recipe makes a lot of mac and cheese so you will likely have leftovers. Store it in the fridge in an airtight container for up to 4 days. I have not tried to freeze this so do so at your own risk.
How to reheat mac and cheese
Recreating the perfectly creamy consistency of the original mac and cheese is always a challenge. The best way to reheat stovetop mac is to add a splash of milk and reheat the same way you cooked it, on the stovetop. You can also add a little bit of butter which will result in a creamier mac but it does take longer than the microwave. If you choose to microwave it, spread it out on a plate and add a little milk and butter and microwave in increments of 30 seconds stirring in between until it is warmed all the way through.
When to make homemade mac and cheese
This creamy stovetop macaroni and cheese is the perfect dish for the holidays! I make it for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and even Easter! I also love making this with BBQ ribs. Comfort food at it’s finest! While it is great for side dishes it also makes an excellent dinner for the whole family since it makes a lot. You can even make it for your next potluck! No matter when you decide to make it, I am confident you will love it!
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