Easy Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Easy baked macaroni and cheese with the creamiest, most flavorful cheesy sauce! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com

And for this month’s savory recipe: baked mac & cheese! Or should I really call it shells & cheese? (Yuuuuum.)

Dinner ruts. You know what I’m talking about. Tired and hungry, when clock hits 6pm, you end up making the same chicken dish you’ve made 396 times before. Your usual dinner rotation is safe because the family loves it, but it’s also losing its appeal… quickly. Getting out of the rut feels like climbing a mountain because you’re busy, lacking inspiration, and/or you don’t have the right ingredients to try something new. I know it! I’m there with you.

Easy baked macaroni and cheese with the creamiest, most flavorful cheesy sauce! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com

So here’s what I’m doing this year and feel free to borrow it. My goal is to make a new-to-us dinner recipe each week. That’s not a huge commitment because it’s only 1 night a week, but the slight variation makes our “regulars” taste a little less mundane. The latest and greatest in my kitchen? This straight-up comfort food in a skillet. It’s nothing crazy or unique, but it’s not something I usually make either. I honestly can’t remember the last time I had homemade macaroni and cheese, which is the reason I chose it. Also: cheeeeeeeeese.

PS: for this week, I’m aiming for a chicken coconut curry dish OR homemade pad thai. Could go either way– I’m craving both and Kevin likes either. Do you have any recipe suggestions?

But right now, let me show you how to make this easy baked macaroni and cheese. And I promise, it really IS easy!

How to make easy baked macaroni and cheese on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Four Steps to Baked Mac & Cheese

  1. Make the noodles. You can use any shape you’d like; I went for shells because how irresistible are shells & cheese? My second pick would be elbow macaroni. Add a little butter so the noodles don’t stick. ↑ ↑
  2. Make the sauce. Let’s get to those step pictures in a second.
  3. Combine the buttered noodles and sauce.
  4. Bake.

How to make easy baked macaroni and cheese on sallysbakingaddiction.com

How to make easy baked macaroni and cheese on sallysbakingaddiction.com

The sauce is prepared in the same skillet in which you’ll bake the mac & cheese. You’ll start by making a béchamel sauce. Don’t get nervous, it’s just how you begin the cheese sauce. Basically you’ll melt down some butter, add flour and milk, then stir in cheddar cheese, salt, and spices. And a dash of hot sauce for kick! Let it all simmer and melt for a few minutes. Soon you’ll have the creamiest, most flavorful cheese sauce. For the best results, I recommend an extra sharp cheddar. You can use mostly cheddar plus another cheese for more flavor. I’ll add that to the notes below. And for optimal flavor, shred the cheese yourself– don’t buy the pre-shredded cheddar. The pre-shredded bagged cheese typically has stabilizers and a drier texture. You want it off the block!

Here are the spices: garlic powder, smoked paprika, and mustard powder. I highly recommend the mustard powder for a sharp kick and added depth of flavor. Same reason I rave about it in this ham & cheese strata!

My secret ingredient though? I add 2 ounces of cream cheese when it’s time to mix the noodles + sauce together. This just adds another level of creamy + dreamy + indulgent + rich.

Combine it all together, then add a crunchy topping.

Easy baked macaroni and cheese with the creamiest, most flavorful cheesy sauce! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com

How to make easy baked macaroni and cheese on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Why Bake Macaroni & Cheese?

Doesn’t that just add another step? Yes, it does. But baking macaroni and cheese adds texture! Cheesy creamy underneath a crunchy, toasty, crisp topping. The topping is simply Panko breadcrumbs mixed with some melted butter. I used pre-seasoned Panko for extra flavor. If you use regular breakcrumbs or Panko, add some flavor with parmesan and garlic powder.

And while the oven does some work, you can prepare a healthy salad to balance out your plate. 🙂

Easy baked macaroni and cheese with the creamiest, most flavorful cheesy sauce! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com

“Get out of the dinner rut” recipes: breakfast for dinner, strawberry bacon salad (add some chicken!), coconut chicken, pizza night, peanut chicken zucchini noodles, and this citrus avocado kale salad is SO GOOD with salmon!

Easy Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound (450g) elbow macaroni (or shells!)
  • 6 Tablespoons (86g) unsalted butter, divided
  • 3 Tablespoons (24g) all-purpose flour
  • 2 and 1/2 cups (600ml) whole milk1
  • 3 and 1/2 cups (14 ounces) shredded cheddar cheese2
  • 1/2 teaspoon each: salt, ground mustard, smoked paprika, and garlic powder
  • optional: dash of hot sauce
  • 2 ounces (55g) brick-style cream cheese
  • 1 cup (90g) Panko breadcrumbs3
  • optional for serving: finely chopped fresh parsley

Special Equipment

  • 12-inch oven-safe skillet or 9x13 baking pan

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F (204°C).
  2. In a large pot of boiling water, add a pinch of salt and the pasta. Cook the pasta until al dente, about 1-2 minutes less than the package cook time. Drain the cooked pasta, pour into a large bowl and stir in 2 Tablespoons of butter. Set pasta aside.
  3. In a large saucepan or 12-inch oven-safe skillet, melt 2 Tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat. Once melted, whisk in the flour to form a thick paste. Cook and whisk the paste for 1 minute, then slowly whisk in the milk, a little at a time. Once all of the milk is added, continue to whisk. The sauce will begin to simmer. Slowly whisk in the cheddar cheese, a little at a time. Once all of the cheese is added, continue to whisk as the cheese melts down and the sauce becomes smooth and thick. Whisk in the salt, ground mustard, smoked paprika, garlic powder, and hot sauce (if using).
  4. Pour the sauce over the buttered pasta. Add the cream cheese and stir everything together until the pasta is completely coated and cream cheese is melted. Scoop pasta back into skillet or a 9x13 pan.
  5. Melt the remaining 2 Tablespoons of butter and mix with the Panko. Sprinkle over pasta.
  6. Bake pasta for 30-35 minutes or until it is lightly browned on top and the sides are bubbling. I suggest covering the pasta halfway through bake time to prevent the top from burning.
  7. All to sit for 5 minutes before serving with a little fresh parsley. Careful, it's hot!

Make ahead tip/freezing: To make ahead of time, simply prepare the dish through step 5. Cover tightly and refrigerate for up to 2 days before continuing with step 6. You can also freeze the macaroni and cheese after step 5 for up to 3 months. Allow to thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then continue with step 6. Add about 5 minutes to bake time. You can also freeze the fully baked macaroni and cheese for up to 3 months. Allow to thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then bake at 400°F (204°C) for 40 minutes.

Recipe Notes:

  1. Whole milk is strongly recommended for richest tasting sauce. If needed, you can use a lower fat or nondairy milk. Keep in mind that the sauce won't be as rich.
  2. For best flavor, I recommend a sharp cheddar and to buy a block or two and grate yourself. It's freshest that way. The pre-shredded bagged cheese typically has stabilizers and a drier texture. You can also use a mix of cheddar and other favorite cheese such as Gruyere, fontina, or gouda.
  3. I used seasoned Panko, which you can find in the breadcrumb aisle at the store. You can use plain. If you use plain, feel free to add a little dried parsley, grated parmesan cheese, and some garlic powder. This is just for extra yummy flavor.

Adapted from Alton Brown

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© Sally’s Baking Addiction. All images & content are copyright protected. Please do not use my images without prior permission. If you want to republish this recipe, please re-write the recipe in your own words, or link back to this post for the recipe.

Easy baked macaroni and cheese with the creamiest, most flavorful cheesy sauce! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Easy baked macaroni and cheese with the creamiest, most flavorful cheesy sauce! Recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com

77 comments

  1. OH MY GOSH. OH. MY. GOSH. :0 (!!!!!) As soon as I saw the picture, I instantly bookmarked it and slowly scrolled down with wide eyes. I AM SO HAPPY!!! My sister and I LOOVVVEEE <3 <3 macaroni and cheese (shells and cheese?) and I've been longing for a recipe. Thank you sososo much! It looks LEGIT DROOL-WORTHY it makes my stomach grumble. I always love it when you post savory recipes. Again, thank you SOOOOOOOOOOO MUCH!

  2. This baked mac and cheese looks soo delicious! Especially with the crispy panko bread crumbs on top! I’ll definitely have to try this version the next time I make mac and cheese. Plus, I love that you can freeze these for up to three months. Perfect for a quick weeknight dinner.

  3. You also put cream cheese in your mac and cheese? I thought I was the only one! (I use low fat, though, so probably not quite as creamy.) https://israelisalad.wordpress.com/2017/01/24/healthier-mac-and-cheese-2-methods/
    My two-year-old wants this every day, and I’m starting to get tired of it. I’ll try out your recipe spiced with mustard powder and pakrika for variety.
    Thanks, Sally!

  4. definitely a winner of a recipe, thank you xoxo

  5. Oh, macaroni and cheese…never met one I didn’t like 😉 I even have room for the boxed or canned stuff. And I don’t even like cheese that much! But this looks so amazing 🙂 🙂 The shells are so cute in your photographs!

  6. Hey Sally, any recommendations on skillets for the oven? I am sorely lacking and would rather invest money in a good one I can rely on and be versatile in recipes with.

    • Can’t go wrong with a cast iron skillet! They take a little work to keep them in good shape, but they last practically forever! It looks like Sally is using one in her recipe.

      • Ditto on the cast iron.  LODGE.  Made in USA.  Doesn’t get better than that. Decent prices.  The 12″ is nice and versatile for most recipes.
        LOL mine is well seasoned in bacon grease.!!  Which come to think of it will be an awesome base for today’s Mac and cheese !

    • Sarah, I agree with these gals. Lodge is my favorite. It’s a great price for the spectacular quality. I own the 10 inch and 12 inch: https://www.amazon.com/Lodge-L8SK3-Skillet-Pre-Seasoned-10-25-inch/dp/B00006JSUB?th=1

      Like Brenda said, keep it seasoned. After I wash it, I immediately dry it to prevent it from rusting. Then use a paper towel to coat it lightly with oil. That’s how to keep it seasoned and long-lasting!

      • PS.  Just had another tip to add……
        I dry mine by putting it on a stovetop burner…med./low and let it dry out real good after it’s had a good rinsing.  I do set my timer for 5-8 min. because one day I forgot I was drying it over an open flame on my stove.  AGH.!  And then while it’s smoking hot, and burner turned OFF.. I spray canola oil into the pan and wipe the entire inside with a paper towel and let cool down on its own.  
        I like this method because you know there is absolutely no water or moisture left on the cast iron before sealing with oil.  

  7. LOVE the new dinner recipe per week Sally! I know exactly what you mean about that dinner rut. I live in it! 😉 This looks soooooo good.

  8. Yum! Of course, we also get into ruts, but homemade mac and cheese is one of the things that we have all the time. And it’s just so delicious, how could we not?? I also love a good pad thai, so I hope yours turns out well.

  9. Looking forward to getting out of the dinner rut once a week. What a great idea to change things up a bit.
    I’ve got at least a pound of block cheddars left over from Superbowl. Perfect timing for mac and cheese Sally’s way. 😉

  10. Whatever you call it…mac n cheese or shells n cheese, it looks delicious ! Plus, I just love anything in a skillet! Such a great idea, too, making a new recipe once a week! Great way to mix things up 🙂

  11. I make mac and cheese every time I go home to visit my mom and nephews. 🙂 My version is pretty similar (sans the mustard powder) but I love adding broccoli to mine. Yum!

    We are in such a dinner rut too. I contemplated trying something new last night but I can’t even work up the energy for it! (and this was a day off!) Maybe I should try your one new meal per week goal too. 🙂

  12. I LOVE a good homemade mac-n-cheese recipe! There’s nothing better…can’t wait to try yours!!

  13. ANYTHING Mac & Cheese is Drool-worthy! Ahhhhh the comfort it brings….yummo! Because it’s so simple I’ll add grilled chicken to any Baked Mac & Cheese. My BF is a meat and potatoes guy so it’s even hardier by adding either diced ham or grilled chicken! LOVE this dish! Thanks, Sally!

  14. Sally, do you have any suggestions of what kind of cheese to use other than Cheddar? We are not big cheddar fans in my house! Thank you!

    • That’s a great question. I suggest monterey jack or gruyere. Both easy to find, melt well, and will lend incredible flavor!

  15. Must say this isn’t quite the recipe I expected to see when I clicked on your website this morning, but I’m definitely not unhappy about that! Macaroni & cheese is my all-time favourite pasta dish. When I make it at home, I top it with crushed goldfish crackers (!!!) instead of breadcrumbs. Horribly indulgent but amazing, especially for a weeknight dinner (I feel you about those dinner ruts). BTW I love this chicken coconut curry from Skinnytaste http://www.skinnytaste.com/chicken-curry-with-coconut-milk-43-pts/
    I’m trying to expand my dinner horizon too; I think I’m going to make mac & cheese this week because it’s been a LONG time since I’ve had it too! 🙂

  16. Can’t wait to try this one! I love the spice combo and baking it in the cast iron skillet!! Great ideas! We don’t have really good Thai in our town, so I seek it out when I’m traveling. Making Pad Thai at home has been one of my foodie goals for awhile, so if you take the plunge I’m there with you!

  17. Suggestion: add crab meat after blending the cheese and pasta, and add 1 tsp Old Bay spice mix to the panko crumbs for crab-cake mac and cheese.

    For lower carb, use diced extra firm tofu instead of noodles.

  18. hey girl- this is right up my alley! Yummy! I love cheese!

  19. Hey Sal! Have you ever checked out Closet Cooking’s blog? He’s really into pad thai dishes and they look relatively simple. Definitely let us know if you make one, it’s on my bucket list as well! And darn you for posting this indulgent recipe- my post Super Bowl waist line does not need it. But on a side note, the strawberry cheesecake truffles were a hit last night <3 even by the guys who at first turned their noses up at their pink cheerfulness!

    • PINK is the way to celebrate the Super Bowl, I swear. I’ve seen his blog before but will check it out for the pad thai-type recipes, thank you!

  20. Ohhhh I love a good mac n cheese recipe! And the cast iron always jazzes it up too 🙂

    On my favorite versions this winter season has been butternut squash mac and cheese. I used the following three recipes for inspiration and kind of created my own mash-up. It’s super delicious, and most people who’ve tried it have no idea squash is the #1 ingredient. 

    http://cookieandkate.com/2014/creamy-vegan-butternut-squash-linguine-with-fried-sage/
    http://therecipecritic.com/2015/11/cheesy-butternut-squash-pasta/
    http://www.howsweeteats.com/2012/10/easy-butternut-skillet-shells/

  21. MmmmAC & Cheese! Yum. I haven’t made homemade mac and cheese in what seems like forever. When I’ve made it in the past, I always had dibs on the corner pieces for the wonderful texture ..being all crispy. I still claim the corners to this day on every baked dish! Esp brownies! I’m already tasting the corner section of this ridiculously creamy mac in cheese! I prefer the Panko crumbs to regular breadcrumbs as they add that extra level of crunch! Great recipe 🙂

  22. That mac and cheese looks wonderful, nothing like cream cheese for extra creaminess.

    This coconut chicken is awesome, and made in the slow cooker
     
    http://www.simplebites.net/coconut-ginger-chicken-vegetables-slow-cooker/#more-15921

  23. Oh my goodness – this looks delicious! I’ve been cutting out pasta from my diet since the new year, but this is definitely worth the extra calories. If you’re looking for a good, super quick Pad Thai recipe – the one from Closet Cooking is definitely my favourite! http://www.closetcooking.com/2008/11/pad-thai.html

  24. Oh my gosh, this looks SO GOOD! And something the husband would flip over!

    I really like the idea of doing one new recipe a week to mix things up! We have been good so far this year about trying new recipes and I hope we keep it up!

    Also! Here is a coconut chickpea curry recipe that we make a lot and LOVE! It’s mostly done in the crockpot, so super easy! we always add an additional cup of vegetable broth and another can of reduced fat coconut milk because my husband likes it saucier! We top it with either  chicken or beef or pork or shrimp! And the leftovers keep really well!

  25. You might also try slow cooker Indian Butter chicken.

  26. Yes please!! This is just the dinner I need – love that golden Panko topping!

  27. This is the only way I make mac n cheese. Didn’t know the sauce had such a fancy dancy name. Lol I add fresh choped garlic instead of garlic powder… I melt the butter, then add in the garlic and let it cook, then add in the part kf the milk, in another bowl I have the rest of the milk, flour, basil, oregano, paprika, cayenne, s&p. Whisk it all up and add it to the steaming milk, whisk till it thickens, then add extra sharp cheddar. Mmmmmmmm

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