How to Make the Best Mac and Cheese
The Best Macaroni and Cheese Recipe
If I were in charge of the food pyramid, cheese would have its own building block. I love cheese and always have. One of my favorite dishes, both as a kid and today, is macaroni and cheese. Whenever I'd visit my grandmother, she would always have it ready for me (along with her amazing banana pudding) the night I arrived. As an adult, I've experimented with different ingredients, types of cheese, and even toppings to create what I think is the best macaroni and cheese ever.
This recipe makes a full-sized, 9"x13", casserole dish of macaroni and cheese, so it's a great way to feed a crowd. Perfect for potluck dinners, nights in with the family, or a couple who wants delicious leftovers, this slightly unconventional recipe is sure to change your opinion of macaroni and cheese. Move over, instant mac n cheese in a box! There's a new favorite in town.
- 1 pound noodles, I prefer penne to traditional elbows, but the choice is yours
- 1 tablespoon salt, additional salt, to taste
- 5 tablespoons butter, for sauce
- 6 tablespoons flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons mustard powder, Trust me on this one!
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional, but really good
- 8 ounces (2 cups) Monterey Jack, shredded, but buy the block and shred it yourself
- 8 ounces (2 cups) sharp cheddar cheese, buy the block and shred it yourself
- 5 cups milk, whole, skim, or anything else—it doesn't matter
- 1 roll Ritz crackers, crushed
- 3 tablespoons butter, for Ritz topping
- 1/2 onion, chopped small
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
How to Grate Cheese
Anyone who's ever grated cheese knows it tries to stick to the grater and create a mess. To avoid sticky cheese and a messy grater, give the grater a light coating of cooking spray before grating. If the cheese starts to stick, reapply the cooking spray. This simple tip works amazingly well!
How to Prep the Macaroni and Cheese
- Before turning on the stove or oven, use the large holes on a box grater to grate 2 cups each of Monterey Jack and sharp cheddar cheeses. My favorite is Cabot Extra Sharp. I know it is a little extra work, but buying the block and grating it is well worth the effort. Packaged, pre-shredded cheeses contain anti-caking agents that also make them melt strangely and give them an undesirable texture. Plus, blocks of cheese usually have more flavor. (Note: If you have older children, they can help cook the meal by shredding the cheese. Growing up, shredding the cheese was frequently my sweat equity for my favorite meal!)
- The onion is optional—I know many folks do not like onion. However, it is worth a try, if you've never had onion in macaroni and cheese before. Cut about half an onion into small pieces and heat a small pan over medium with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. After it is warm and shimmering, add the onions and sauté, stirring frequently, until onions are limp and translucent. Remove from heat and set aside.
To Make the Topping
It is best to make the topping before preparing the noodles and cheese.
- First, place 3 tablespoons butter in a large skillet and heat over medium heat.
- While the skillet is heating, crush a roll of Ritz Crackers by emptying the sleeve into a large zip-lock bag and applying pressure with a rolling pin, heavy skillet, or even a rubber mallet. This is a fun way to get kids involved, too, especially children who enjoy banging on things! Do not reduce the crackers to a pulverized dust. Instead, try to break them into large, mealy chunks. Crushing Ritz is very easy.
- After the butter is melted and the Ritz are ready, toss the cracker crumbs in the hot butter and flip them with a spatula to ensure they are evenly coated with butter.
- Then, allow them to brown, stirring occasionally, until ready. Remove from heat and set aside.
To Make Pasta and Cheese Sauce
- First, place your oven rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 450 F. Next, boil about four quarts of water in a Dutch oven (or other large pot) and add the pasta and 1 tablespoon of salt. I do not like adding salt to food, but salt alters the boiling point of water. Adding salt helps you achieve the perfect noodle temperature. Boil the noodles according to the box's directions, but make sure to cook them until tender—about 1 minute past al dente. This is crucial! Drain pasta in a colander and set aside, but do not run the pot under water. It needs to remain hot.
- Return the Dutch oven to medium-high heat and melt the 5 tablespoons of butter until it foams. Once the butter is foamy, add the flour, mustard, and cayenne and whisk well. The cayenne is a fantastic addition and, with so little, does not make the dish spicy, even for most children. If you want spicy macaroni and cheese, add an extra 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne.
- Continue whisking over medium-high heat until mixture becomes fragrant and deepens in color, about 1 minute. Gradually whisk in milk. This is another great place to get kids involved. You can have a child pour the milk while you whisk, or vice versa. Having assistance at this step makes thin considerably easier!
- Bring this mixture to boil, whisking constantly. Yes, it takes a few minutes to boil something if you whisk constantly, but if you don't whisk constantly it will burn, and if it doesn't boil, it will not thicken. After it reaches a full boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer, whisking occasionally, until it has thickened considerably and resembles heavy cream. This usually takes about 5 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and reduce heat to medium-low.
- Off heat, whisk in cheeses and salt to taste (about 1 teaspoon should be fine). Whisk until the cheeses are fully melted. Then, add the pasta and onion and return the pot to the burner. Cook the whole noodle and sauce combination, stirring constantly, until mixture is steaming and heated through. This took only 5 minutes for me the most recent time, but it may need a little more or less time.
Finishing the Macaroni and Cheese
- After the noodle/sauce mixture is steamy and heated, transfer it to a broiler-safe 9x13-inch baking dish. You may need to use a spoon to spread it evenly across the pan.
- Sprinkle the Ritz topping liberally, but uniformly, across the dish's surface.
- Place the pan in the oven and cook until the Ritz crumbs are deep brown and the cheese is boiling up around the outsides of the pan, as shown above. If your oven has uneven heat, rotate the pan after 3–5 minutes in the oven.
Serve and Enjoy!
Fresh, hot macaroni and cheese is a delicious center piece for a family meal. If you can stand the wait, let it sit for up to an hour after taking it out of the oven. The glass dish and large volume of hot food ensure it doesn't become instantly room temperature, but the wait helps the flavors meld, lets it cool enough that you won't burn your mouth, and makes it even more delicious. Some people like topping it with Tabasco sauce or ketchup, but I like it just the way it is.
Leftovers are easy to store. You can simply cover the casserole dish with cling wrap, foil, or a lid. For smaller amounts of leftovers, transfer to reusable glass or plastic containers. While you can reheat leftovers in the microwave, I love eating the cold macaroni and cheese the next day. Maybe it's my imagination, but it almost seems better the second time!
Casserole dishes are easy to cook ahead of time and freeze for use at a later date. If you want to freeze the macaroni and cheese, wait for it to cool completely, wrap it tightly with aluminum foil, and place it in the freezer. By waiting for it to cool, you remove the risk of a fuzzy layer of frozen steam. Additionally, putting hot items in the freezer can cause nearby items to partially thaw, potentially ruining these other foods. For best results, let the macaroni and cheese rest at room temperature for two hours before wrapping and freezing.
Make Your own Family
In college, my friends and I got together on Sundays to cook "family dinner." For this meal, I invited a couple of hungry-looking musicians over (okay, so one of them actually is family . . . ). In short, you don't have to be with your family to have a home-cooked meal with comradery. Invite some friends over and get cooking!
The Best Macaroni Ever?
I know some of the ingredients in this macaroni and cheese seem unorthodox, but they are delicious. Are you familiar with any of these less common ingredients (onion, mustard, cayenne)? Or are they new to you?
Making less macaroni and cheese is easy—simply halve all of the ingredients and use a 9"x9" pan.
If you try this recipe, please let me know what you think! I'd love to receive your feedback.