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The BEST Baked Mac and Cheese

This simple baked mac and cheese recipe features a dreamy combination of creamy gouda and Havarti cheese for a silky, cheesy homemade mac and cheese sauce that tastes SO MUCH BETTER than the boxed kind.

The Best Homemade Mac and Cheese

There are several basic, classic, everyone-loves-them-because-even-when-we-shouldn’t-we-still-crave-them recipes I am driven to master. The best steak. Check. The juiciest roasted chicken. Got it. The best potato salad. Double check and thank you, mom. The best homemade fudge. Ever. End of story. Period.

There are several mac and cheese recipes on the giant abyss that is the Internet. And over the years, I’ve made many versions for my blog, including this Instant Pot mac and cheese, this one with lobster, another with gobs of cheese and bacon, and yet another loaded with veggies and such, and I’ve deemed each of them a wonder in their own right. But I was missing that basic, homey, comfort food classic of a good old-fashioned baked mac and cheese. Not anymore.

Let me first say this is a recipe borrowed from a friend. And that friend would be Arla Dofino, the Wisconsin cheese company that makes the best gouda and Havarti I’ve had. Both are super creamy, and thus, perfect for mac and cheese. This easy baked mac and cheese recipe, is affirmed by all of the “mmm-this-is-so-unbelievable,” “can-I-have-more-please” comments. This recipe for baked mac and cheese, with its incredibly silky, cheesy sauce, is the best classic yet. And it’s my go-to anytime I get that cheesy, carby craving.

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creamy baked mac and cheese ingredients

What’s in This Baked Mac and Cheese

The ingredients for this baked mac and cheese features the usual suspects, plus two that you don’t always see in mac and cheese—dry mustard and dried breadcrumbs. Just don’t skip any of these ingredients, because this creamy baked mac and cheese needs all of them to turn out perfectly. 

Here’s what you need to make this baked mac and cheese:

  • butter
  • dry mustard—this delivers just the right amount of heat to this sauce
  • flour
  • whole milk—If you don’t have whole milk on hand, you can get away with using 2% instead. I wouldn’t choose milk with less fat than that though since the milk fat adds lots of flavor and moisture to the homemade mac and cheese. I don’t recommend using cream here.
  • Havarti cheese
  • gouda cheese
  • elbow macaroni—any short, sturdy pasta will work. Avoid using long, thin pasta like spaghetti since they can’t hold up to the creamy cheese sauce
  • kosher salt
  • white pepper—I prefer ground white pepper instead of traditional black pepper in this dish to avoid the dark flakes but still get that peppery flavor
  • breadcrumbs
  • parsley (optional)

Feel free to load up your homemade mac and cheese as much as you’d like. Diced ham, peas, and carrots would all be good additions. As would a dash or two of hot sauce. Just keep in mind that you don’t want to add too many mix-ins, otherwise, your mac and cheese will bubble over in the oven.

bags of elbow pasta meant for easy baked mac and cheese

Two Tips for Making The Best Mac and Cheese

There are two key elements that make a really GREAT mac and cheese:

1. Choose the right cheese for a creamy, velvety sauce. I’ve used sharp cheddar, gruyere, Parmesan, and other hard cheeses in my mac and cheese recipes, but this one, with soft and flavorful gouda, delivers just the right mild cheese flavor and the ultra creamy havarti makes for an incredibly silky sauce.

2. You need great pasta. My favorite is from another partner of mine, DeLallo Foods. Their premium elbow noodles are made in Italy with semolina flour so they have a perfectly toothsome bite. Perfect for cheese sauce to drape and snuggle in each pasta crevice.

cheese sauce in large Dutch oven

How to Make Baked Mac and Cheese

I doubled this homemade mac and cheese recipe because I was making it for a party. Some recipes caution against doubling recipes all at once, but this one worked just fine.

Make your roux. This will be the base of your cheesy sauce. Cook the butter and flour together whisking constantly until it begins to smell nutty. This is my favorite whisk for making anything with a roux because it really gets into the edges of the pan and doesn’t scratch it while whisking.

Tip: As long as your milk is cold, you can dump it all in at once and you won’t have any clumping. Cook, whisking often until it thickens enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon.

Boil your pasta in a large pot just until just al dente. Drain the water and pour the cooked pasta into the pot with the cheese sauce.

Transfer to a baking dish or casserole dish. It may feel like you have a lot of extra sauce, but trust (you’ll want all of it). The sauce bakes into the noodles, and again, the best part of this dish is the creamy sauce, even after it’s been baked.

Top the mac and cheese with breadcrumbs. Then cover your dish with aluminum foil and it in a 350°F oven for about 15 minutes. Take off the foil and return to the oven so the top can get toasty and golden brown. 

creamy baked mac and cheese in baking dish

Can I Prep Mac and Cheese Advance?

I’ve found mac and cheese tastes best when it is baked fresh rather than baked and reheated so the cheese doesn’t break and get greasy. If you want to make this baked mac and cheese ahead of time, assemble it all but DO NOT BAKE, then cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days. You can also freeze it (wrapped well!) for up to 1 month. Then, pull out of the refrigerator or freezer and bake. Allow extra baking time if it’s coming straight from the fridge or freezer.

Should You Cover Your Mac and Cheese When Baking?

I like to cover my mac and cheese with foil for the first 15 minutes of baking, and then remove it and continue baking uncovered for 10-15 minutes, or until the top is bubbling and golden brown. This combo of baking covered and then uncovered delivers the best texture.

homemade baked mac and cheese

How to Reheat Mac and Cheese

If you wind up with leftover baked mac and cheese, I recommend reheating it, covered, in the oven. You can also reheat mac and cheese on the stove with a little milk to prevent it from drying out. You’ll want to use a heavy-bottomed saucepan for this and should reheat the homemade mac and cheese over low heat.

How to Freeze Mac and Cheese

You can either freeze it after it’s baked and reheat it when it’s time to eat or prepare your mac and cheese and freeze it before baking which will come out creamier and less grainy after cooking since it hasn’t been heated twice.

How to cook frozen macaroni and cheese: Do not thaw the frozen macaroni and cheese before baking. Cover the frozen macaroni and cheese with aluminum foil and bake in a 375°F oven for 60-75 minutes. Remove the foil and cook for an additional 15 minutes or until bubbly.

homemade mac and cheese

Make it a Party with a Mac and Cheese Bar

I recently served the same setup for a holiday party and it was a total success. Here are a few mac and cheese bar topping ideas for you to try or come up with a few of your own. Word to the wise: If you’re serving the shrimp, double the amount! It was everyone’s fave.

  • Chopped ham
  • Diced chicken breast
  • Garlic buttered shrimp
  • Cooked lobster chunks or crab
  • Chopped bacon or pancetta
  • Chopped broccoli
  • Peas, carrots, or sweet corn
  • Sun-dried or diced tomato
  • Sautéed spinach or kale with garlic
  • Garlicky buttered breadcrumbs
  • Chopped scallions or braised onions
  • Sautéed mushrooms
  • Chopped herbs such as thyme or sage

serving homemade mac and cheese with wooden spoon

Tips for Making the Best Mac and Cheese

When cooking your pasta, be sure to cook it just until al denté. When it’s baked in the oven, the macaroni will continue to cook and you don’t want to end up with mush.

Be sure to flavor your pasta water generously with salt. This is what will flavor your pasta from the inside out.

For an extra bit of flavor, add a dash of nutmeg to the cheese sauce before mixing it in with the pasta. You won’t taste the nutmeg, but it’ll add a little something to the sauce.

Lastly, for the best flavor, you should buy a block of cheese and shred it yourself. The pre-shredded cheese that comes in bags is often coated in cornstarch to prevent the cheese from sticking to itself. That added cornstarch can make the cheese sauce grainy, which you definitely don’t want.

bowl of macaroni and cheese

How to Make Instant Pot Mac and Cheese

I don’t recommend using these exact ingredients in the Instant Pot version of mac and cheese where the roux-based cheese sauce may not turn out. Instead, use my favorite tried and true Instant Pot Macaroni and Cheese recipe for quick and creamy success every time.

What to Serve With Your Mac and Cheese

If you make this recipe, please let me know! Leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ rating on this recipe below and leave a comment, take a photo and tag me on Instagram with #foodiecrusheats.

The Best Homemade Mac and Cheese