A simple mac and cheese may be the ultimate comfort food, but sometimes it’s fun to change things up or go beyond the kind that comes in a box, if that’s your reliable standby. Whether you only want to add your favorite cheese or instead feel like adventuring into “you fancy!” territory, mac and cheese can accommodate whatever level of creativity you’re up for. Scour your pantry and fridge, or the local gourmet market, for pastas, cheeses, meats, vegetables and condiments that can easily dress up an already irresistible dish. Start with our Classic Macaroni and Cheese recipe, then play around with these variations or invent your own. Of course, this guide doesn’t include every possible mac-and-cheese ingredient, but it’s a great starting point to help you spread your wings beyond the basics.
Classic Macaroni and Cheese
Servings: 10-12 side-dish servings or 8 to 10 main-course
Not the richest, not the spiciest, not the sharpest, not the most outrageous: This is just-plain-delicious, no-frills macaroni and cheese, great on its own but also happy to welcome additions.
The recipe can be halved and baked in an 8- or 9-inch square casserole dish. You can also bake the full recipe in two smaller dishes with different add-ins in each one.
MAKE AHEAD: The topping can be made a day in advance. The casserole can be assembled a day in advance, brought to room temperature and baked; don’t add the topping until just before baking.
Adapted from the May-June 2004 issue of Cook’s Illustrated.
For the topping
• 5 slices good-quality white sandwich bread (about 5 ounces total), torn into rough pieces (about 4 1/2 cups)
• 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 equal pieces
For the pasta and cheese
• 1 pound dried elbow macaroni or other small, shaped pasta
• 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
• 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 6 tablespoons flour
• 1 1/2 teaspoons powdered mustard
• 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
• 5 cups whole, low-fat or nonfat milk, warmed or at room temperature
• 8 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (2 cups)
• 8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, such as Cabot Smooth Sharp, shredded (2 cups)
For the topping: Combine the bread and butter in a food processor; pulse 10 to 15 times to yield a coarse crumb mixture.
For the pasta and cheese: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have a 9-by-13-inch glass or ceramic baking dish at hand.
Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Add the macaroni and 1 tablespoon of the salt; cook, following the package directions, and pour into a colander to drain.
Heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat until it foams. Add the flour, powdered mustard and cayenne pepper, if using; stir well to combine, continuing until the mixture becomes fragrant and deepens in color, about 1 minute, then gradually stir in the milk. Bring to a boil, constantly scraping the bottom of the pan to prevent scorching; this step will take 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the temperature of the milk. (The mixture must reach a full boil to fully thicken.)
Reduce the heat to medium or medium-low so that the mixture is barely bubbling around the edges; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it has thickened to the consistency of heavy cream.
Remove from the heat. Add the cheeses and the remaining teaspoon of salt, stirring until the cheeses are completely melted. Add the cooked pasta, stirring to incorporate.
Transfer the mixture to the baking dish, spreading it in an even layer. Sprinkle evenly with topping. Bake until the mixture is bubbling and the crumbs are golden brown, about 20 minutes. (If the topping appears to be browning too quickly, cover loosely with aluminum foil.)
Cool for about 5 minutes before serving.
Step 1: Pick your pasta
Orecchiette – Cavatappi – Cavatelli – Cellentani – Ditalini – Farfalle – Macaroni – Penne – Pennette – Radiatore – Rigatoni – Rotini – Shells (small and medium)
Use 1 pound of any of these shapes, which excel at holding onto a cheesy sauce. Feel free to mix and match if you have a few ounces of several different shapes leftover; just make sure they cook for about the same amount of time.
Tip: Don’t put oil in the water used for boiling the pasta. The cheese won’t cling to the pasta as nicely.
Step 2: Choose your cheese (or cheeses!)
Asiago – Blue (sparingly) – Brie – Cheddar – Chevre (goat) – Feta – Gorgonzola – Gouda – Gruyere – Havarti – Mascarpone – Muenster – Neufchatel – Parmesan – Ricotta
Change up the base cheddar-and-Jack mixture by substituting any of these to equal 1 pound. You can also use smoked or herb-enhanced versions.
Tip: Packaged, pre-grated cheese is coated in potato starch and powdered cellulose to prevent clumping. Better to grate your own. Most cheeses are fine to use, but a strong blue should be used sparingly, and a large quantity of mozzarella isn’t optimal unless you like your mac and cheese stringy.
Step 3: Get saucy
Barbecue sauce or wing sauce – Butternut squash puree – Hot sauce, to taste – Pesto – Pumpkin puree – Salsa – Beer, added with the milk – White wine, added with the milk
Enhancing the sauce can add both color and flavor. With more potent ingredients – boozy or spicy, in particular – start small and gradually work your way up, tasting along the way. With these add-ins, use 1/4 to 1/2 cup, or to taste, added with the cheese unless noted.
Tip: It’s best to begin with a bechamel sauce base, which includes milk and flour. If you just try combining cheese and pasta, the cheese is likely to separate when it heats.
Step 4: Add your aromatics
Garlic (1-3 cloves, minced or sliced) – Leeks, 1 cup – Onion, 1 medium or 1 cup caramelized onions – Scallions, 1 cup
Saute any of these in the butter that forms the basis for the sauce’s thickening paste (known as the roux), until softened, then add the flour and proceed with making the bechamel sauce.
Step 5: Throw in fruit and/or vegetables
Artichoke hearts (jarred or canned) – Avocado – Bell peppers (any color) – Broccoli – Brussel sprouts – Chile peppers, mild or hot (if hot, add 1 to 3 tablespoons, or to taste) – Figs (dried or fresh) – Kale – Mushrooms, sliced (button, cremini, portobello, shiitake, etc.) – Nuts (pistachios, walnuts) – Olives – Peas – Spinach – Tomatoes, fresh, canned (drained) or sun-dried – Squash (summer or winter)
You can roast, saute or steam any of these before adding unless noted. Use 1 pound (or to taste) if the main ingredient, 1 cup (or to taste) if not.
Step 6: Pack in the protein
Bacon or pancetta (8 ounces) – Beef, ground, or shaved steak – Chicken – Crabmeat, lump – Duck confit – Fish: Salmon or tuna, fresh or smoked – Ham (any kind) – Lamb, ground – Lobster – Pork, pulled – Sausage (andouille, chorizo, Italian) – Shrimp
Cook before adding: use 1 pound (or to taste) if the main ingredient, 1 cup (or to taste) if not, unless noted.
Step 7: Top it off
Caramelized onions – Cheese, grated or crumbled – Chicharrones (fried pork rind), chopped – Nuts, chopped – Onion or shallots, battered and fried
This is a great place to add a little crunch or something that will make the top of your mac and cheese look even more toasty and appealing.
Step 8: Sprinkle on some seasoning
You can use just about anything in your herb, spice or condiment cabinets that’s compatible with cheese and the other ingredients in your recipe. Add to taste.
Tip: When flavoring with woody herbs such as rosemary, place the milk for the recipe in a medium saucepan, then add the herb sprigs and heat the milk; when the steam rises, turn off the heat and let steep for 10 minutes. Strain before adding the milk to the roux.
Tried and true recipes
Need some inspiration? Here are a few reliable combinations to get you started.
• Cheddar + Havarti + 8 ounces cooked chopped pancetta + 1 cup cooked peas
• Monterey Jack + Gruyere + 8 ounces cooked chopped bacon + 1 cup caramelized onions
• Cheddar + blue cheese + 1 1/2 cups chopped dried figs + 1 cup chopped toasted walnuts
• Asiago + fontina + 1 pound cooked Italian sausage + 1 cup roasted red bell pepper
• Cheddar + Monterey Jack + 4 roasted poblano chiles + 1 cup fresh salsa