Serving mac ‘n’ cheese made from a box is convenient, but it doesn’t deliver the creamy, cheesy goods like the from-scratch stuff can. Luckily, we have tips on how to make the best homemade mac and cheese ever. (July 14 is National Mac and Cheese Day, so there’s no better time to know!)
These expert guidelines for perfectly creamy, cheesy mac come from Erin Wade and Allison Arevalo, former co-owners of Homeroom in Oakland, California. It’s a restaurant entirely dedicated to the art of macaroni and cheese, so you’re in good hands. (Erin is still at Homeroom, and while Allison has since moved on, she’s still passionate about pasta.)
1. Don’t Overcook the Pasta
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to cook your pasta all the way, even to the usually perfect al dente stage. If you do this, the hot cheese sauce will continue to cook it and you’ll end up with mushy slop. Cook the pasta for one or two minutes shy of the recommended “al dente” timing on your package (different pasta shapes have different cooking times, so always check), then immediately drain and rinse it under cold water to stop the cooking.
Bonus tip: While you can use any pasta shape you like, all variety of tubes and shells, and anything else with plenty of nooks and crannies will best hold the sauce. One caveat: Those tiny, miniature shells and other really small shapes will get lost in the sauce, so leave those for soup. Skip the long noodles like linguine and spaghetti too.
Bialetti Pasta Pot with Strainer Lid, $34.99 on Amazon
A pot with a built-in strainer makes draining your pasta easy.
2. Don’t Screw Up the Roux
The roux is the base of your bechamel (which is the creamy white sauce to which you eventually add your cheese). A simple mix of fat—usually butter—and flour, the roux should be whisked continually and cooked just until lightly browned and nutty smelling for this dish. If it gets too dark, it will lend a burned flavor to the whole pot, so if you do mess it up, start over. See our guide on how to make roux for more.
3. Don’t Botch the Bechamel
Once the roux is at the right stage, you’ll whisk in warm milk to make the bechamel. Warm is the key word here—cold milk will make the roux seize and the sauce lumpy. Start warming your milk before you even begin the roux, and bring it just to a simmer.
Then, when the roux is ready, whisk in the warm milk fairly fast—going too slow also promotes lumps—but not all of it at once. Pour in a slow stream to start, whisking in a small amount of milk at a time so it’s easy to incorporate, and when you have a smooth, velvety sauce, you can add the rest all at once. Keep whisking (or stirring with a wooden spoon) until it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
4. Don’t Use the Wrong Cheese
For a properly creamy and gooey mac, you want to pick a good melting cheese; cheddar is never a bad choice, but Jack and swiss also work well. A blend of any of the above is even better. And be sure to pick a more mature version of whichever cheese you choose; that will give you the best flavor.
Stronger cheeses like feta, pecorino, parmesan, and blue cheese can also come into play, but are best mixed into a base of a mellower cheese (something neutral and subtle like Jack) so the flavor doesn’t get overwhelming and the texture stays silky.
5. Don’t Throw Off the Ratio
At Homeroom, the golden ratio is 2 cups of bechamel and 2 cups of cheese to 1/2 pound dry pasta. Scale up or down as needed, and don’t be tempted to go easy! If you want creamy, cheesy mac, you can’t cut back on the dairy. For the smoothest result, be sure to stir the bechamel and cheese together over medium heat until completely melted and smooth before mixing in the cooked pasta.
Related Reading: How to Make Healthier Mac and Cheese (If You Must)
6. Don’t Skimp on the Salt
Cheese is already salty, sure, but you should still salt the finished dish to taste. That extra sprinkle helps bring out the full umami depth and cheesy savor of the sauce. Add a little at a time, stir and taste, and then adjust as needed until it’s just right.
7. Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment
As you follow the above formula, you can still play around with extra spices, add-ins, and toppings as you like. If you want to bake your mac and cheese, put it in a dish, add a little extra sauce, and top with breadcrumbs before crisping under the broiler. Here are just a few more ideas for making the mac your own…
Toppings: Crushed potato chips or tortilla chips; crushed Cheez-Its (or any other crackers); pork rinds; Flamin’ Hot Cheetos; panko; fried onions
The Mac + Cheese Cookbook: 50 Simple Recipes from Homeroom, America's Favorite Mac and Cheese Restaurant, $11.59 from Amazon
Check out Erin and Allison's cookbook for even more pastabilities.
See some of our favorite mac and cheese recipes for more ideas—and be sure to put your newfound knowledge to work for the creamiest, cheesiest, most delicious plate of pasta ever!
The original version of this story was posted by Blake Smith and Roxanne Webber in 2012.