We have been lead to think macaroni and cheese is a tough dish to make. I mean, there’s Kraft in a box and Velveeta boxed versions. There are frozen mac and cheese varieties and the old standby in my house growing up of using a block of Velveeta cheese to make our “homemade” version. Even America’s Test Kitchen, powered by the wise folks at Cook’s Illustrated, seems to think a basic mac and cheese from scratch is hard and suggests we use condensed milk to get around the challenge of making a bechamel sauce.
Let’s take a second look at this theory though.
Basic macaroni and cheese consists of a bechamel sauce base, a whole bunch of shredded or crumbled cheese, noodles, and a little salt.
Really. That’s it.
So let’s break this down into the a couple of easy to remember steps:
Macaroni and Cheese
3 tbs butter
3 tbs flour
2 cups whole milk
2 cups cheese
1/2 tsp salt (or more to taste)
Make a bechamel sauce.
- Melt 3 tbs butter in a saucepan over medium heat.
- As it melts, add 3 tbs flour and stir to combine. (You’ll end up with a roux, which is basically a butter paste.)
- Let the roux cook for a minute or two without letting it brown or burn.
- Slowly start to whisk in 2 cups of milk. It’s best to start with a tiny amount of milk and as it incorporates keep adding small amounts. After you’ve mixed in the first half, you can pour in more at a time without worrying about lumps because the roux will already have dissolved into the milk by that point.
- Add about a half tsp of salt or so to taste.
- Lower the temperature to medium low and let it thicken for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stay close by to make sure it doesn’t boil over – you don’t want scalded milk in your sauce!
To turn this delicious bechamel into macaroni and cheese…
- Dump about 1-2 cups of shredded or crumbled cheese into the saucepan with the bechamel and stir to melt the cheese.
- Stir the cheesy sauce into a casserole dish containing a pound of al dente (cooked but not limp) noodles.
- Bake the mac and cheese for about 20 minutes at 350° – I like to put the broiler on for the last five minutes or so to get a nice brown top.
And that’s really it.
It’s likely that you already have all of the ingredients you need for macaroni and cheese stocked in your kitchen. *
And speaking of ingredients, I have some suggestions…
Milk – Use whole milk for the best texture
Cheese – You really can put just about any kind of cheese in this dish. I usually stick with a really good quality extra sharp cheddar, but if you want to get fancy, I’ve heard of people using gouda, goat cheese, and even blue cheese. Just like with the milk, using a full-fat cheese will ensure that the texture of the finished product is smooth and creamy. Using low-fat or skim dairy products in this decadent dish will likely result in a grainy or weirdly-separated finished dish. Ew.
Beth’s secret ingredients – I add a few spices to my Mac and cheese that aren’t part of the basic recipe. Because this part is all experimentation and based on my mood, I really don’t measure these spices. The flavor of a basic cheddar mac and cheese is super mild so I try not to go completely overboard. A dash or two of each of these should suffice, but of course, taste and adjust as you like.
Dried mustard powder – this is often added to bechamel for a more complex flavor
Cayenne pepper – just a tiny bit needed to give the dish a nice kick
Turmeric – this spice shows up all of the time in Indian food and has a vibrant yellow hue. I add a dash or two to enliven the color of the dish as homemade Macaroni and Cheese will otherwise likely just be a white color.
Two more quick things…
1. The winner from Friday’s drawing is Jackie! She will be receiving a set of 4 vanilla bean pods to make her own vanilla extract! Congratulations!
*2. Did you read this post and think to yourself, “I don’t have all of those ingredients all of the time to make mac and cheese”? I bet my cooking guide, Easy Whole Food Cooking for One (or Two), will be super useful in introducing you to the art of keeping a simply-stocked kitchen for more carefree cooking like this. The guide goes on sale February 7th. Stay tuned!