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!
Mac and cheese FAQs
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
Spicy Mac and Cheese
- Prep Time: 5 minutes
- Cook Time: 35 minutes
- Total Time: 40 minutes
- Yield: Serves 4-6 1x
- Category: Pasta
- Cuisine: American
- Diet: Vegetarian
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!)
- Serving Size:
- Calories: 540
- Sugar: 6.1 g
- Sodium: 409.1 mg
- Fat: 26.4 g
- Carbohydrates: 51.3 g
- Protein: 23.6 g
- Cholesterol: 75.3 mg
Keywords: comfort food, winter, thanksgiving
The photos for this recipe were taken by Casey at The Mindful Hapa!
About how much time does this recipe take?
Team Life As A Strawberry
Hi, Riya! This recipe will take 40-50 minutes including the time to cook your pasta and to bake the mac and cheese. Enjoy!
I made this recipe tonight for my family and it was an absolute..... ABSOLUTE hit! Thank you for sharing it.
Wahoo! I'm so happy you liked it, MaeAnn - thanks for letting me know how it turned out!
This recipe looks great! How well does it do if you make it the day before a party? Or any suggestions if I would like to make it before. Thanks!
It holds up great when you make it in advance! I just assemble everything, cover it with an airtight lid or tinfoil, and put it in the fridge until ready to bake. I find it works best when I take the cold dish out of the fridge and put it into a COLD oven, then preheat the oven with the dish inside. By the time the oven is heated up, the mac and cheese is warmed through and only needs a few more minutes to get nice and crispy on top. Hope that helps!
Hi Jessie, I tried your spicy mac and cheese recipe tonight. It tops any other mac and cheese recipe I have tried. The cheese sauce was perfectly creamy !! I do not understand why Jill, who replied on August 28, 2013, did not have favourable results. I can assure you it was not your recipe but clearly an error she made in following your very easy and detailed instrustions. Please continue to have fun in the kitchen and share your
recipes with others on line. THIS RECIPE IS MY NEW FAVORITE FOR MAC AND CHEESE, all my others get
tosssed in the bin !!
I'm so glad you liked the mac and cheese - thanks for letting me know how it turned out!
I'd love the macaroni 'n cheese recipes sent to my email address above. Thx!!!
Anyone who knows me, knows I can't cook. I stumbled upon this page and the pics along with your detailed instructions tempted me to try it. I made it and I couldn't believe that I made delicious mac and cheese! My husband was even surprised that it yummy! Thanks for your recipe!!!
I'm so happy to hear that! Thanks for letting me know how it turned out!
Made this tonight, my kids loved it. Though a big part of me wishes I made mommy a special white pasta batch and been even naughtier. Delish.
I'm glad you liked it! This is my most-requested recipe at potlucks. Thanks for letting me know how it turned out!
I made this tonight and am sorry to say, I was very disappointed. It was dry; the ratio of pasta to cheese sauce was way too high. 1/2 lb. of elbow macaroni would've made it perfect. 1 lb was way too much. Was that a typo by chance? Also, 1 lb. makes enough to feed an army--a lot more than four servings. I filled an entire 9x13 pan with mac and cheese. It's easily 8 very generous servings, not 4.
I'm so sorry to hear that this recipe didn't work for you! There were no typos, though - this is the recipe I use on a regular basis, and it has always been well received. Personally, I don't love it when pasta is swimming in sauce, so my recipes are never meant to drench the pasta. I know many people who do like a pool of sauce in their pasta dish, though, so if that is the case I recommend adding 2/3 cup or so more milk to the sauce and an extra handful of cheese.
Since I'm not in the kitchen with you, it's hard to say why your mac and cheese turned out differently than mine does from the same recipe. But what I can do is help you troubleshoot to figure out what may have happened! In my experience, there are a few different things that could cause this recipe as-written to be dry. If I heat the milk for too long, the sauce will thicken too much and I won't have enough to coat the pasta, which causes some dryness. If I add too much cheese to the sauce, that will also result in a too-thick sauce that will yield the same effect. In this recipe, it's important to reserve the designated portion of cheese to top the pasta, rather than adding all of the cheese called for to the sauce (I have a note about this in the recipe directions). The other thing that can cause a dry mac and cheese is overbaking. If I leave it in the oven too long it will dry out. This can especially be a problem when I make the pasta in advance and refrigerate it until I'm ready to bake - I counteract this problem by adding an extra 1/2 cup or so of milk to the sauce to account for the amount of sauce the noodles will soak up as it sits. Did you find the pasta too dry before or after you baked it? If the sauce ratio was fine before baking (which in my experience, it always has been) then I might suggest a shorter baking time or that you bake it in a deep dish with less surface area. I rarely bake this pasta in a 9x13 pan because I find that the thinner layer of pasta is easily overcooked, especially if I'm not paying close attention to the oven. But that's just me. With regards to the serving sizes, I apologize if my recommendation was misleading. In my family, I make a pound of pasta and it's perfect for four of us. However, when we have mac and cheese (or any pasta dish, really) it's usually the only thing we eat. No side dishes or salads or anything. If you served this pasta alongside other dishes, then your per-person serving of pasta would of course be smaller. For us, we each have a large bowl for dinner and usually end up with few or no leftovers. But every family is different! I hope that this helps and that you will come back and try a few more recipes!
Hi Jessie, Thanks for your detailed reply. It was dry before I put it in the pan for the oven, while I was mixing the pasta into the sauce. I did reserve the cheese for the top; in fact I added more cheese to the top because it was too sparse to cover the 9x13 pan. I used a 9x13 pan because I didn't have anything else that could hold all that pasta. You must have a large 12-14 inch cast iron skillet. 😉 I baked it for 15 min and my oven thermometer registered 350, so the oven wasn't too hot. Anyway, my guess is we just have different preferences on the ratio of sauce to pasta. I plan to try it another time and just halve the amount of pasta. The sauce had good flavor when I tasted it before adding the pasta. But it became a very thin layer when spread across all that pasta so it didn't have the ooey-gooey goodness I love about mac and cheese. I did serve it as a side with rotisserie chicken and spinach. It would still be a very large serving in my opinion as an entree, but everyone is different. Thanks for the reply. I'll try it again sometime with less pasta.
I do believe you when you say you make the best mac and cheese! Love the spicy kick =)
Looks perfect. And I love that it's spicy and kinda healthy... carbs -- I'm coming for you.
Gorgeous! I could eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner! And I'm so excited about mac and cheese week! 🙂
Mac and cheese for 5 days straight? SUCH an amazing idea! 🙂 Although, I'd be a bit frightened by how much my hips would expand by the end of the week 😀 That's what happened to me after I started my cookie project! But so worth it! 🙂 Also, congrats on your page views!
Amazing recipe, but I'm not sure where to get a cast iron skillet. I know it's not needed, but I've seen loads of people lately using these in their recipes and was curious as to how I could get my own!
May I know where/how you got yours from?
I actually got mine as a hand-me-down, but I see them on special at Sur La Table, Bed Bath and Beyond, or Crate and Barrel pretty frequently. Thrift stores will also have good cast-iron skillets pretty often - they look a little beaten up, but this is a great tutorial on how to restore and reseason an old cast iron pan: http://snarkyvegan.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/how-to-restore-an-old-and-grody-cast-iron-skillet/ . Hope this helps!
Rachel @ Bakerita
Need. This. Now.
It looks phenomenal (especially considering mac and cheese is arguably my favorite food. No shame.)
ugh! you've convinced me! I must make this TONIGHT! (and congrats on all your views!)
Jessie this looks great! I'm going to try it out tomorrow!
Looks yummylicious gonna try it out tomorrow | |