If you’ve never made homemade mac and cheese, then you’ve been missing out. There ain’t nothing wrong with grabbing one of those boxes every once in a while—go knows we’ve all done that—but the difference between homemade mac and cheese and packaged is night and day.
The Basics of Macaroni and Cheese:
Cook the Pasta
The basic premise is simple. You cook some pasta (short chunky shapes work best; elbows are the classic choice) in salted water, and take it out just before it’s altogether cooked, as it will finish cooking in the sauce.
Make a Roux (Mix of Flour and Butter)
Meanwhile you toast a bit of flour in some butter in a pan, to take the “raw” taste out of the flour, which will then help thicken the sauce. This is called a “roux.”
Add the Milk
Then you add some milk or other dairy to the mixture, and stir or whisk until it is hot and smooth and a bit thickened.
Add the Cheese
Then you slowly add the cheese until it is melted and all incorporated—adding the cheese slowly prevents the cheese sauce from becoming grainy or oily. Add whatever seasonings you like plus salt and pepper to taste (I love the combo of Dijon mustard and something spicy, to keep the whole thing from being too one note, and give it all a bit of zing). Also add a bit of the water you used to cook the pasta, which has some of the starch from the pasta in it, which will further emulsify, or pull together, the sauce.
Add the Cooked Pasta
Drain the pasta and add that to the sauce and stir until everything is combined and creamy.
And there you have it. You can play with this all you want, adding anything from other seasoning to cubes of cooked chicken to crumbled bacon to small pieces of cooked broccoli, and so on and so on. Use all kinds of cheeses, from cheddar to provolone to gruyere to Emmental to gouda, and add a bit of some harder grated cheese at the end for piquant flavor, such as Parmesan.
Once you make it once or twice you’ll have it down. Since you can make the sauce while you boil the pasta, you are not looking at a whole lot of time here and if you have grated cheese ready to go, the whole thing can come together in 20 minutes or so…not a whole lot longer than it takes to make it from a box.
For a Baked Macaroni and Cheese with a Panko Crust, click here!
Other Mac and Cheese Recipes:
- Stovetop Macaroni and Four Cheeses
- Sheetpan Macaroni and Cheese Squares
- Creamy Four Cheese Pasta
- Pasta Shells with Pumpkin in a Creamy Cheesy Sauce
Basic Mac and Cheese
- 4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 3 cups whole milk
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 3 cups coarsely grated flavorful melting cheeses such as a mix of cheddar, provolone and Gruyere
- ½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt or to taste
- 1 Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 pound dried pasta a short shape like cavatappi, penne, ziti, large elbows preferably with ridges
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it generously, and let the water return to a boil.
- Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring, until the flour mixture is blond in color, about 4 minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk. Increase the heat to medium-high and let come to a simmer, whisking frequently. Reduce the heat to medium-low and let the sauce simmer until it starts to thicken, about 3 minutes. Add the cream, grated cheese, Parmesan, mustard, salt, and black pepper, stirring until everything is smooth. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and/or black pepper as necessary.
- Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook it until barely al dente (follow the package directions but stop a minute before the pasta is completely tender). Set aside 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta.
- Whisk the reserved pasta cooking water into the cheese sauce, combining it thoroughly. Add the pasta to the cheese sauce and stir to combine. Stir for another minute or two until the pasta is tender and everything is well incorporated. Serve hot.
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