Magic Mac and Cheese is a no-boil, no-roux, and no-nonsense recipe for the richest and most flavorful baked mac of your life. While its flavor is deliciously complex, its foolproof method is (truly) simple to cook and customize.
Consider this my Mac N Cheese Manifesto.
This spring I set out to create the easiest, cheesiest, most satisfying macaroni and cheese recipe of all time. Should I have started the project in the fall? Probably. Because while everyone else was doing #hotgirlsummer, I was huddled over my sink shoveling batch after batch of mac and cheese into my mouth.
…The things I do for you guys.
Anyway, I had high hopes of unveiling “the perfect mac n cheese recipe” in time for Memorial Day Weekend. But anyone who has read my cookie rants knows what a perfectionist I am… and so here we are.
By the Fourth of July, I’d nailed down a version that featured a velvety cheese sauce, a beautifully browned panko topping, and a blend of cheeses balanced for ample flavor and melting power. I served it at a family reunion to rave reviews and its own “yummy dance”, invented by my 6-year-old cousin. But just when I was satisfied the dish was perfect, I stumbled across a NY Times’ Mac N Cheese variation that didn’t require you to make a roux OR boil your pasta, and I was intrigued.
While their version was easier than my original, it didn’t deliver the same down-home flavor or satisfying texture. I spent the rest of the summer reimagining it until I reached peak cheese flavor, control over the level of creaminess, and a ridiculously easy-to-make recipe. Four months later, I’m here to finally deliver on that promise.
THE GREAT MAC AND CHEESE DEBATE(S)
To get to the bottom of “what makes Macaroni and Cheese great?”, there are a TON of questions with just as many passionate responses. Like the great cornbread debate, it turns out that our mac and cheese tastes (or at least our opinion on what makes a “classic” mac) has a lot to do with our cultural background.
I know this because like I said, I had a lot of questions and set out to answer every. single. one. For instance, should the best mac and cheese recipe be roux-based or custard-based? Should the cheeses be deeply flavorful or mild enough to please picky eaters? Should it have a breadcrumb topping or just bubbly, browned cheese? I could go on all day.
After testing every variable I could think of, these five factors stood out as the most important. So let’s dig in:
- What shape pasta is best? Elbow macaroni. I love crazy shapes as much as the next girl, and I’ll admit that shells are great for catching cheese sauce. But is it truly macaroni and cheese if you don’t use macaroni? That’s for you to decide, but personally, I’m sticking with the classic.
- How many cheeses is too many? I’d love to give you a magic number – this is Magic Mac and Cheese after all! But despite exhaustive testing, I found that there really wasn’t an optimum number of cheeses. Instead, it had more to do with the types of cheeses. (More on that in a minute.) Generally, using more kinds of cheese will increase the depth of flavor in your finished product; however, too many strong, aged, or oily cheeses can overpower your mac regardless of how many varieties you use.
- Bechamel or custard? In this case, neither! Traditionally, Southern Macaroni and Cheese features an eggy custard base while the rest of the country leans towards a bechamel sauce of flour, butter, cream, and cheese. What’s better depends on your tastebuds, but what’s best (IMHO) turned out to be neither. The flour in bechamel can make mac n cheese overly starchy while diluting the flavor. On the other hand, custard can leave you with a dry and grainy final product. That’s why – as you’ll see – I went rogue.
- Creamy or casserole-y? Some people like their mac n cheese incredibly creamy and gooey, while others like it dense and sliceable. My preferences lie somewhere in-between, but the cool thing about this recipe is that you can make it any way you want. A brief visit to the oven to toast the topping results in a creamier final product while longer stay (up to 30 minutes) will result in a denser, more casserole-like mac.
- So what cheeses are the best to use? This one’s the powder keg, so I saved the best for last. But before you start wagging that finger, let me remind you that I sacrificed the ENTIRE bikini-wearing season to bring you these answers. So at least hear me out!
- The Base: Sharp, Orange Cheddar is the building block of any good mac n cheese, with its perfect combination of flavor, creaminess, meltability, color, and nostalgia. That said, there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing”. Extra sharp cheddar isn’t all that meltable, so unless you enjoy an oily, separated sauce, steer clear of it.
- For Depth: Smoked Gouda has juuuust enough smoky flavor to add depth and variation to your dish without overpowering it. Bonus: its fudgy consistency is absolutely divine when you melt it.
- For Texture: Love cheese pulls? Reach for the Mozzarella. It’s responsible for your favorite food bloggers’ drool-worthy shots and while you still get a creamy sauce, it winds up less soupy. Another great choice for a formidable mac n cheese is Muenster. While it may be a little bland, muenster has its merits – aka superb melting properties that consistently result in a smooth sauce. If you’re thinking of switching up any of these cheeses, muenster is the easiest to replace. Just be sure to pick an equally meltable cheese like pepper jack!
- The Secret Ingredient: You know what makes for a really cheesy mac n cheese? Doubling down by replacing the heavy cream with a creamy cheese. In this case, Cottage cheese is the secret ingredient. It may sound strange, but keep reading for the method behind the madness!
HOW TO MAKE “MAGIC” NO-BOIL, NO-ROUX MAC AND CHEESE
You won’t find a roux or a pot of boiling water anywhere in this recipe. So how does its velvety voodoo work? Luckily this magician is happy to reveal the secret.
- Magic Mac and Cheese works without parboiling because it uses extra liquid ingredients that absorb into the macaroni as it bakes. As the pasta cooks, the starches leach into the liquid, which helps to thicken the final sauce.
- The second texture hack is replacing heavy cream with cottage cheese. Why? It helps to thicken the sauce without diluting the cheese flavor.
- Thirdly (despite forgoing a custard base) we add an egg. Not only is this a thickener, but it encourages the sauce to cling to the noodles.
- Lastly, don’t underestimate the importance of stirring after 30 minutes. This ensures that all of the melted cheese is evenly distributed and not just sitting in globs.
Alright, so it’s not really magic, per say, but I think it’s pretty close.
MAKE MAGIC MAC AND CHEESE AHEAD OF TIME
Like with homemade pita, there are a few ways to make this recipe in advance. It depends mainly how far in advance you need it!
- Option 1: Fully bake and refrigerate your mac n cheese. It will keep and still reheat nicely for up to two days.
- Option 2: Fully bake your mac and then freeze it. If properly stored, your portions can last several months.
- Option 3: Bake for 30 minutes, top with breadcrumbs, and refrigerate before finishing.
There are, however, two big no-nos:
- Avoid assembling and refrigerating your mac n cheese before baking. Because the pasta is not cooked, it will absorb all of that liquid before baking. By the time you’re ready to make it, it’s almost guaranteed to overcook!
- Do I even have to say it? Just because you can microwave something doesn’t mean that you should. Let your panko live its best life by popping that baby in the oven.
MACARONI AND CHEESE ADD-INS AND SUBSTITUTIONS
I set out to make the perfect classic mac n cheese. It’s a perfect base for you to customize how you’d like with meats, sauces, veggies, or more powerful cheeses:
- A cheese with flair: Want to take your mac from classic to specialty? Add a little personality with a distinctive cheese like blue or pepper jack.
- A spicy kick: Go bolder with a hot sauce, diced jalapenos, or cayenne.
- Make it Meaty: We all know that mac n cheese is a star, not a side. Make your mac a meal by adding a protein like bacon, crawfish, or ground beef.
- Get saucy: Pizza mac? Creamy garlic perhaps? The sky’s the limit. Just be mindful of how much liquid you’re adding to avoid a soupy mess.
- Adjust your timer: Cooking for less time will give you ultra-creamy mac n cheese, while more time will yield a more substantial and casserole-like result.
MORE CHEESY RECIPES
- Pesto Chicken Cheesy Tarte Soleil (Puff Pastry Sun Tart)
- Sheet Pan Cheesesteak Nachos
- Cheesy Crab and Artichoke Dip
- 5 Ingredient Crispy Smoked Gouda Cheese Balls
- Obatzda Bavarian Beer Cheese Dip
- Cheesy Asparagus and Ham Cannelloni
THE MAGIC MAC AND CHEESE VIDEO
Adapted from NY Times’ Mac N Cheese
- 1 cup cottage cheese, small curd, not fat-free
- 1/4 cup sour cream
- 1 large egg
- 2 cups milk (2% or whole milk)
- 1 tablespoon dried onion flakes
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground mustard
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 tablespoons butter, divided
- 8 ounces uncooked (dry) large elbow macaroni
- 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, plus more to top
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese, plus more to top
- 1 cup shredded smoked gouda cheese, plus more to top
- 1 cup shredded muenster cheese, plus more to top
- 1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs
- Paprika or smoked paprika, as desired
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- In the bowl of a blender or food processor, combine the cottage cheese, sour cream, egg, milk, and seasonings and process until well-combined. If your food processor or blender are small, process the cottage cheese, sour cream, and egg first, then whisk in the other ingredients in a large bowl. Set aside and allow for any foam to settle.
- Butter a small baking dish all over. Spread the uncooked macaroni in the dish. Pour the milk mixture over the macaroni and sprinkle the cheese on top. Mix well, cover with foil, and bake for 30 minutes.
- Uncover the baking dish and stir until the melted cheese is well-incorporated. Melt the remaining butter and mix with the panko breadcrumbs.
- Sprinkle the remaining cheese and the buttered breadcrumbs over the macaroni and cheese. Top with paprika. Continue to bake, uncovered, until browned on top, about 10-30 more minutes. For creamier macaroni, stick with a shorter baking time. For a denser, more casserole-like texture, bake up to 30 minutes more.
- Let sit for at least 5 minutes before serving.