How to Make Stovetop Mac & Cheese

When it comes to comfort food, Mac & Cheese is my ultimate.

It's my lazy day food. It's my sad day food. It's my "damn it! nothing is going right today-food." It's what I want more than anything else on the days I'm feeling a bit low or exhausted, and it's usually the most reliable way to know that I'm coming down with something.

Forget the sniffles; it's the mac & cheese cravings that give it away!

Growing up, I was always a fan of the Velveeta kind. I was probably about 8 or so when I started making it myself, and can remember standing just barely over the stove, pouring in the box of shells, letting them clatter loudly into the pot of boiling water.  The sauce came in a foil packet, and would have to be squeezed out like toothpaste, falling over the pile of drained pasta in a thick, cheesy coil that would melt into a salty, creamy sauce when stirred.

When I was about 14 or 15, my friend and I were occasionally asked to babysit our pastor's younger sons, Nicky and Joseph, along with a few other kids from the church. Their mom left us boxes of Kraft Easy Mac to make them, my first experience with the "blue box."

I'd let the boys help stirring in the butter and milk and neon orange cheese powder. I didn't like the bland, chemical-y way that kind tasted, but they gobbled it up, along with the Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies we baked for dessert.

Those boys grew up to become international super stars, so now I can add "cooking mac & cheese for the Jonas Brothers" to my resume.  (I've bathed and dressed them, too, but that's a totally different story.)

These days, I much prefer the homemade kind of mac & cheese--still creamy and pretty much just as quick, but oh. so. much. better.

A few days ago, a friend and I entered into a bit of a wager...and I lost. As his prize, he requested a recipe for "really good homemade mac & cheese." He also confessed that his microwave is his "#1 cooking implement" and that he's scared of the stove. A challenge if I've ever heard one!

Homemade mac & cheese basically consists of four elements:

Pasta + Seasonings + Cheese + White Sauce = Mac & Cheese!

Let's break it down.

Step 1. Pasta!
The pasta part is super easy. You can use any kind of boxed pasta that you like, from dried shells or elbow to large penne. My favorite is gemelli--little twisty pasta that just feels really fun to eat, and is what you see pictured here. But really, it's up to you.

Pick your favorite, cook the entire 16oz box according to the directions on the box in lots of salted water (typically about 8 minutes), drain it (don't rinse it!), and set it aside while you make the sauce.

Want a cool tip? People never really know how much to salt their pasta water, and usually don't add enough. The best way to remember is that pasta water should be salty like the ocean. Remember the last time you went to the beach and got hit in the face with a mouthful of saltwater? That's what you want in order to get the best tasting pasta (same goes for boiling potatoes, vegetables, etc.)

Step 2. Cheese!
The cheese is also super easy. You can really pick any kind you'd like or even mix a few kinds. My go-to is using half a pound of extra sharp yellow cheddar cheese and half a pound of a slightly milder white cheddar. I then stir in a cup of grated Parmesan for a tangy kick. You can do all cheddar or even something like Gruyere or fontina, for a stinkier more "adult" version.

One thing I do recommend is buying the kind of cheese that comes in a block and grating it yourself; it'll melt better and give you a creamier sauce. The cheese that comes pre-grated has fillers added to it to keep it from melting in the bag so it won't melt as smoothly and you'll get a grittier texture.

(If it's all you can find, though, go ahead and use it. It'll still be delicious!)

Step 3. Seasonings
Seasonings for mac & cheese are very personal and completely customizable based on what you have and what your personal tastes are. I like to use the combo of seasonings above: dry mustard, paprika, black pepper, salt, and a bit of cayenne for spice.

You can use all of these or just some.
  • Salt and pepper are definitely necessary. Do NOT skip these.
  • I like the tang that the dry mustard powder adds (I use Colman's), but you could also replace it with regular (wet) yellow mustard or just skip it completely
  • Paprika is pretty much just there for color, although sometimes I use smoked paprika for a smokey final dish. 
  • You can use cayenne or replace it with Tabasco. If you prefer milder foods, just skip it. (I, personally, like the bit of heat it adds)
Just make sure to have everything measured out and ready to go before you start your white sauce!

Step 4. White Sauce
I think this is part that freaks most people out about homemade mac & cheese, but I assure you it's simple. And once you learn how to make it, you'll be able to make SO MANY AWESOME DISHES. White sauce is another name for "bechamel," which sounds terribly fancy and complicated, but is really just milk thickened with flour and butter.

You start off by melting half a stick of butter (4 tablespoons) into a pot set over medium-high heat, letting it melt completely and get foamy.

Then you dump in 1/3 cup of all purpose flour (you can also use whole wheat flour for a "healthier" version, but let's not kid anybody here).

Immediately stir that flour into the butter and let it cook for about a minute, stirring the entire time. It'll start to smell a little bit nutty and get just the tiniest bit golden.

You then pour in four cups of milk and stir into the flour mixture quickly. I like to switch to a whisk here for a smoother sauce, but don't worry if you don't have one. Just use what you have. I once made this using a pancake spatula because my friend didn't have anything else.

Don't stop stirring it! This part will take about 3 or 4 minutes, and you have to keep stirring it pretty much the entire time until it thickens. (You can take a few breaks, but don't walk away.) It's a good arm workout!

You're looking for the sauce to get thick and start to coat the sides of the pot and the back of the spoon.

When the sauce is coating the spoon, you can pass your finger through the back of it and see if it makes a line (like the photo). If it does, you can stop. It's perfect! Next, lower the heat to the lowest setting, leaving the pot there.

Tip: Did it get too thick, too quickly? No worries! Just add another 1/2 cup of milk and stir it in until it's perfect. 

Now it's fun time!
Add your spices, and stir them in until completely incorporated.

Add all your cheeses! Stir those in really well, too. You want them to melt completely into the sauce (about 30 seconds to 1 minute).

Now add that cooked pasta you already made and stir it into the cheese sauce until it's all coated.

Taste it! Is it good? Does it need more salt? Maybe more pepper? Maybe a little bit more spiciness? Go ahead and add it.

Now serve yourself a big bowl, and enjoy!

By the way...this recipe makes a lot because this keeps and reheats really well. I like to divide it into containers and put some in the fridge and some in the freezer for future mac & cheese eating. To reheat, just put it in a pot with about a 1/4 cup or so of milk and stir it for a minute or so until it's heated through and creamy again.

(And yeah, you can use the microwave if you prefer, too.)

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Thanks for reading & sharing!    

Easy Homemade Stovetop Mac & Cheese Recipe
This comes together really quickly, so make sure you have all your ingredients measured out and ready to go when you start making the sauce. You'll have homemade mac & cheese in less than 30 minutes!

1 pound (16oz) box of small dry pasta (such as elbow macaroni, penne, gemelli, or shells)
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/3 cup all purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or Tabasco sauce (optional)
1 teaspoon paprika (optional, used smoked paprika for a smokey taste)
1 teaspoon dry mustard powder or wet yellow mustard (optional)
1 pound (16oz) extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated (or use an equivalent mix of cheeses)
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (the fresh kind, not the dry powdery stuff!)

Bring a large pot of water to boil, salt generously, and cook pasta according to box directions until "al dente." Drain pasta and set aside.

Make the white sauce. Before starting, make sure you have measured out and prepared all your spices, the flour, the milk, and the cheese you will be using in the sauce.

Place a large pot over medium-high heat and melt the butter until foamy. Add the flour and stir in for one minute until fully incorporated with the butter. Slowly pour in the four cups of milk and stir continuously until the sauce thickens and coats the back of the spoon.

Add the spices, and stir in. Add the cheeses and stir in until completely melted and incorporated. If the sauce seems a bit thick, add in a 1/2 cup or so of milk and stir in completely to thin. Add the cooked pasta and stir in until completely coated.

Serve immediately. Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to one week or frozen for up to six months. Reheat on the stove with additional milk to thin the sauce, or in the microwave.

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