This creamy baked mac and cheese is a crowd pleasing side dish to serve at your next holiday meal. Macaroni is coated in a rich, creamy cheese sauce and topped with a crunchy panko crust.
Creamy baked mac and cheese is the perfect side dish to serve to family and friends at your next holiday dinner. It pairs perfectly with Thanksgiving ham and turkey, and pleases even the pickiest eaters.
This mac and cheese stays extra creamy because it is cooked on the stove top, then baked for just a few minutes to toast the crunchy panko crust. It is the creamiest, richest, and most flavorful baked mac and cheese you'll ever try!
The secret ingredient that adds tons of flavor without the heat? Hot sauce! A small amount of hot sauce adds flavor to this creamy mac and cheese - without the spice or heat.
Ingredients and substitutions
- Butter - Unsalted butter can be substituted with salted butter if desired.
- Flour - All-purpose flour is necessary to mix with the listed butter to make a roux, which thickens the cream sauce.
- Macaroni - Can be substituted with 16 ounces of any medium sized pasta. Shells are a great alternative.
- Cheese - I like to use a combination of half gruyere cheese and half sharp cheddar cheese. Gruyere can be substituted with swiss cheese for a similar flavor. Monterey jack cheese is a great substitute for either cheese because it melts easily into a creamy, smooth sauce.
- Seasoning - Salt, pepper, and paprika add flavor to the mac and cheese.
- Panko bread crumbs - Can be substituted with traditional bread crumbs or crushed butter crackers (like Ritz brand). Panko gives this casserole a nice crunchy crust, but any of these options will work.
- Hot sauce - I use hot sauce to season my mac and cheese. It adds flavor and warmth without the heat (since we're using a small amount). If you have extremely sensitive taste buds in your home, you're welcome to omit it. I promise that the small amount of hot sauce does not make this mac and cheese hot or spicy - it is just enough to add flavor.
- Whole milk - Can be substituted with 2% milk if needed. I do not recommend using skim milk because the lower fat content can cause the cream sauce to break.
Tips and tricks
Use a whisk - When making your roux and incorporating the liquid, use a whisk to prevent lumps from forming.
Cook until the sauce thickens - Allow the sauce to cook until it thickly coats the back of a spoon. If you're doubling this recipe to make multiple casseroles, this step can take longer. Be patient - the sauce will thicken as it simmers.
Don't walk away while the broiler is on - Your broiler gets very hot very quickly. The panko crust can go from browned to burnt in a matter of seconds, so don't walk away from your oven during the broiling step.
Want a thick, casserole-style mac and cheese? - Follow the directions below for the "classic baked mac and cheese" variation. This allows the ingredients to congeal and thicken further in the oven.
Frequently asked questions
No. One tablespoon of hot sauce is used in this recipe. This is just enough to add flavor without the added heat or spice - the flavor is very mild. If you have extremely sensitive taste buds, you are welcome to omit the hot sauce from the recipe. Omitting the hot sauce will not affect the texture or consistency.
No, this macaroni and cheese is ready to enjoy straight from the stovetop if you prefer. You could also try my recipe for stovetop mac and cheese, which serves six.
If you don't have room in the oven, you can lightly brown your panko bread crumbs on the stove top. I've included these alternative directions in the recipe card notes below.
Leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days in a tightly sealed container.
I do not recommend freezing mac and cheese because the cheese sauce will separate when thawed.
To save time, the pasta could be boiled, drained, and stored (without sauce) a day ahead of time. The cheese sauce is is best served immediately for creamiest texture.
If made a day ahead and reheated, your mac and cheese will have the consistency of a traditional baked mac and cheese - more of a thick casserole than a creamy sauce.
Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese
- 16 ounces macaroni, uncooked
- ¼ cup unsalted butter
- ¼ cup all purpose flour
- 4 cups whole milk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- ½ teaspoon paprika
- 1 tablespoon hot sauce
- 8 ounces gruyere cheese, or swiss cheese, freshly shredded
- 8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, freshly shredded
- 1 cup panko bread crumbs
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- Cook macaroni according to package directions for al dente pasta. Drain, rinse, and set aside.
- In a stock pot over medium heat, melt butter. Add flour and stir to combine, creating a paste. Cook for one minute. Add milk, salt, pepper, paprika, and hot sauce, whisking to combine. Cook for about 3-4 minutes, whisking frequently, until mixture thickly coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat.
- Add shredded cheeses and stir until melted. Add cooked macaroni and stir to coat. Pour into a lightly greased 9x13 casserole dish and spread into an even layer. Set aside.
- In a small bowl, combine panko bread crumbs and melted butter for panko crust. Sprinkle over your casserole in an even layer.
- Place casserole in oven (no need to preheat) and turn on the broiler. Broil for about 2 minutes, or until bread crumbs have browned across the top. Keep an eye on your casserole and do not walk away - it will brown very quickly. Remove from oven and serve immediately.
Classic baked mac and cheese variation (for a thick casserole consistency)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Follow the directions above for cooking and assembly (skipping the last step of broiling). Bake uncovered for 20-25 minutes, or until hot and bubbly throughout.
- Remove from oven and serve immediately.
- I recommend only using freshly shredded cheese. Bagged, pre-shredded cheeses contain anti-clumping powders which make your sauce grainy when melted.
- To make panko crust without baking: Add butter to a skillet over medium heat and melt. Add bread crumbs and cook for 3-4 minutes, or until bread crumbs lightly brown. Sprinkle over your mac and cheese and serve.
- Make ahead/reheating: Your mac and cheese will be less creamy if made ahead and reheated, but will still taste great. Prepare mac and cheese as directed but before broiling, cover and refrigerate. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and remove casserole from refrigerator while oven preheats. Bake uncovered for 20-25 minutes, or until hot and bubbling throughout.
- Leftovers will keep for 3-4 days in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator.