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 please a crowd. This recipe serves twelve, making it the perfect side dish for your next holiday meal, like Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter.
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!
If you prefer a traditional baked mac and cheese, I've included alternate directions in the recipe card as well.
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
Macaroni can be substituted with 16 ounces of any medium sized pasta. Shells are a great alternative.
I like to use a combination of half gruyere cheese and half sharp cheddar cheese (the sharp cheddar is hiding under the gruyere in the photo above!), but you can use all of one cheese if you prefer.
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.
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.
I use hot sauce to season my mac and cheese, but 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. I do not recommend using skim milk.
Does the hot sauce make it spicy?
No - the small amount of hot sauce added to this much macaroni and cheese will not make your dish spicy or hot.
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 will be very mild.
You will be able to taste the hot sauce, but it will not have a lingering heat or "hot" flavor like you'd expect from hot chicken wings, for example.
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.
Do I have to bake my mac and cheese?
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 and become a thick, gloppy mess when thawed.
Can I make this ahead of time?
This creamy mac and cheese is best served immediately for the creamiest texture.
As your mac and cheese sits, the pasta will continue to soak up the moisture in the sauce, making it less creamy over time.
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.
I have included reheating instructions in the recipe card if you need to make your mac and cheese ahead of time.
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
Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese
- 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 3-4 minutes, whisking frequently, until mixture thickens slightly. 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 2-3 minutes, or until bread crumbs have browned across the top. Keep an eye on your casserole and do not walk away. Remove from oven and serve immediately.
Classic Baked Mac and Cheese
- Using this method will give your mac and cheese a thicker casserole consistency.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Follow the directions above for cooking and assembly. Once assembled, 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.