This easy, creamy baked mac and cheese has a hint of spice and plenty of sharp cheddar cheese! Ready in under an hour and easy to customize.
One thing that should be in every home cook's back pocket: a really, really good homemade mac and cheese.
This quick recipe is our go-to when we're craving a bit of comfort food. Serve it as a side dish (it's easy to make ahead - perfect for potlucks or holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving!) or add some veggies and protein to make it a full meal.
We're baking this mac and cheese for a casserole style dish, but it's also great straight from the stovetop if you want a no bake version. The sauce is cheesy, creamy, and with just a hint of spice (if you're looking for a more in-your-face spicy mac, try our jalapeño popper mac and cheese!)
Our mac and cheese ingredients
- Your favorite pasta (we used elbow macaroni, but check out Mac and Cheese 101 for a comparison of the best pasta shapes for mac and cheese!))
- Unsalted butter and flour, which you'll use to form the roux that thickens our sauce
- Milk. Any kind is fine! We typically use 1% or 2% but this recipe also works with skim milk.
- Shredded sharp cheddar cheese. We always recommend shredding your own cheese for sauces: Store-bought shredded cheeses are often coated with preservatives that keep them from melting smoothly.
- A few spices: mustard powder, cayenne pepper, and paprika (plus salt and plenty of fresh cracked black pepper!)
The basic order of operations
Cook the pasta in very salty water until it's a few minutes less than al dente (it will continue cooking in the oven!)
While the pasta cooks, make the sauce! Whisk your flour and butter together to form a roux, then slowly whisk in the milk. Bring it to a simmer and let it thicken a bit, then whisk in your spices.
Turn off the heat and stir in most of the cheddar cheese (save a handful of cheese for topping!)
Drain the pasta, toss it with the sauce, and transfer it to a baking dish. Top with the rest of the cheese and bake!
A quick mac and cheese primer
There are two main styles of macaroni and cheese: The French-leaning version builds a creamy sauce using a basic stovetop béchamel sauce (a flour-and-butter base - called a roux - with lots of milk). Southern mac and cheese is typically baked and sometimes features eggs or evaporated milk in addition to a blend of cheeses and seasonings.
The "right" way to make mac and cheese is different for everyone. Our mac and cheese recipes have plenty of riffs and mix-ins, and they lean towards the French style: excellent right off the stovetop or baked with breadcrumbs or extra cheese on top.
Riffs and Substitutions
This mac and cheese recipe is very forgiving: Mix it up with whatever you have on hand! Some of our favorite swaps:
- Add some protein. Stir fully cooked chicken, chorizo, andouille sausage, or diced ham into the cheese sauce along with the cooked pasta, or top this mac with some crispy bacon pieces!
- Dial up the spice by increasing cayenne pepper and paprika here, or add diced jalapeño to the sauce for even more kick (you can use our jalapeño popper mac and cheese recipe as a guide!) You can also swap shredded pepper jack cheese for some or all of the cheddar.
- Add some veggies. Broccoli, diced tomatoes, caramelized onion, roasted garlic, spinach, and kale all taste great in this mac and cheese!
- Add bread crumbs to the topping for extra texture. We like to mix a handful of panko bread crumbs in with the cheese before spreading it on top of the mac. If you have the time, you can also toast the bread crumbs in a bit of butter before topping for some extra flavor and crispiness.
- Switch up the cheeses. Use a combination of cheeses for extra depth and flavor. Swap some of the sharp cheddar cheese for gruyere, smoked gouda, goat cheese, parmesan, or pepper jack. Remember to shred any cheese yourself to ensure it melts smoothly!
You can reheat leftover mac and cheese in the microwave or in the oven! We prefer the oven method: Scoop leftover mac and cheese into a clean, oven-safe dish and bake at 325° Fahrenheit until heated through (the exact baking time will depend on how much you're heating up: usually 10-20 minutes is plenty for a serving or two).
Yes - this recipe is easy to prep in advance! Make the sauce and pasta as directed, transfer to an oven-safe baking dish, and let it cool completely. Cover with an airtight lid and store in the fridge (2-3 days) or freezer (2-3 months). When you're ready to bake, remove any lids or wrapping, top with cheese, then place baking dish in a COLD oven and heat it with the mac and cheese inside. You may need to extend the baking time, so keep an eye on it. Never place a cold baking pan - especially if it's glass or ceramic - into a hot oven, as it can shatter.
Because we're using a flour-and-butter roux to thicken our cheese sauce on the stovetop, this recipe leans more French than southern. For a true southern, soul-food style baked mac and cheese, check out Sweet Tea & Thyme's southern baked mac!
Video: How to make spicy mac and cheese
This easy, creamy mac and cheese recipe has a hint of spice for a fun twist!
- ¾ pound pasta (we used elbow macaroni)
- 3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 Tablespoons flour
- 2 cups milk
- 3 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese, divided (reserve ½ cup for topping the pasta before baking)
- ½ teaspoon ground mustard powder
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ¼ teaspoon paprika
- salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste
- Fresh chopped parsley (optional), for topping
Heat the oven and cook the pasta
- Heat oven to 350° Fahrenheit.
- Cook pasta in very salty water until it’s a few minutes less than al dente. (The pasta will continue to cook in the oven, so undercooking it during the boiling phase helps it hold up once baked!) Drain and set aside.
Make the sauce
- Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in flour to form a roux and cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until fragrant.
- Whisk the milk into the roux a little at a time, making sure to work out all the clumps so you have a smooth sauce. Cook over medium heat, whisking occasionally, until milk has thickened, about 5 minutes.
- Whisk mustard powder, cayenne, paprika, salt, and black pepper into sauce.
- Turn off the heat. Add most of the cheddar cheese (reserve ½ cup for topping the mac later) and stir until melted.
- Stir cooked pasta into sauce.
- Pour pasta into an oven-safe baking dish (we used a cast iron skillet). Top with remaining cheese.
- Bake at 350° F for 15-25 minutes, or until cheese has melted and edges are crispy.
- Top with fresh chopped parsley and another pinch of spices (optional) and serve immediately.
Additions and Substitutions. Add protein (chicken, chorizo, andouille sausage, diced ham, bacon) or veggies (broccoli, tomatoes, spinach) to this mac and cheese to make it a bit heartier. Use bread crumbs in place of or in addition to the cheddar cheese topping when you’re ready to bake.
What kind of cheese should I use? We like using sharp cheddar or white cheddar cheese here. For extra depth and flavor, use a combination of cheeses: we like gruyere, smoked gouda, goat cheese, parmesan, and pepper jack in this recipe.
For best results, always shred your cheese yourself! Store-bought cheeses are often coated with preservatives that keep them from melting smoothly.
Dial up the spice by increasing cayenne pepper and paprika here, or add diced jalapeño or poblano peppers to the sauce for even more kick (you can use our jalapeño popper mac and cheese recipe as a guide!)
Keywords: comfort food, winter, thanksgiving
The photos for this recipe were taken by Casey at The Mindful Hapa!