Baked Mac and Cheese is the true definition of comfort food! Tender macaroni noodles smothered in a silky, rich, creamy sharp cheddar and gruyere sauce, then baked to golden perfection with a crunchy panko topping. What more could you ask for?
This tried-and-true recipe has been a staple in my cooking repertoire for as long as I can remember. My favourite food has always been pasta. I, honestly, used to live for boxed mac and cheese as a kid. I can’t deny that it doesn’t still have a special place in my heart, but I think I’ve levelled up quite a bit with this extravagantly cheesy baked mac.
Sharp cheddar is a must for any great mac and cheese, and I really do feel the same way about gruyere. It’s nutty, smooth, and bold all the same time; just downright delicious. I love my cheese sauces to be sharp and packed with big flavor. However, not everyone has the same cheesy preferences! Check out the “Ingredients” section below to see all the different types you can use.
Click “Jump to the Recipe” at the top of the page or keep on scrolling down to the recipe card for ingredient amounts and the full recipe instructions. Below you’ll find substitutes, tips, tricks, and answers to questions you might have!
- Macaroni – Or any type of small-shaped pasta you like best! Cavatappi, farfalle, shells, rotini, gemelli, orecchiette, penne, for example.
- Bay leaves – I highly, highly recommend including this step! It’s not completely necessary, but the bay leaves add such a wonderful flavor to the noodles as they cook. You can use fresh or dried bay leaves.
- Butter – I prefer to use unsalted butter to have full control over the salt, but you can use either type. Butter substitutes will work for this recipe.
- Flour – All-purpose works best for the roux we’re making.
- Milk – I prefer to use homogenized milk, 3.25%MF. You can use anything you have handy, all the way up to 10% half & half cream.
- Dijon – Smooth. You can use regular yellow mustard or even 1 tsp of mustard powder if that’s what you have handy.
- Onion powder – Use more or less to taste if you prefer.
- Cheddar – Sharp cheddar is best for baked mac! You can use medium cheddar, but I wouldn’t go for mild. Use white cheddar for a white-colored baked mac.
- Gruyere – My favorite type of cheese! This will give you a really gorgeous, deeply flavored sauce. Emmental, Beaufort, or Jarlsberg can be substituted. If you want something milder, try cutting the gruyere with some provolone.
- Salt & pepper – Season to taste.
- Panko – This Japanese-style breadcrumb has a larger surface area and will give you a crispier topping. You can use regular breadcrumbs instead if that’s what you have on hand.
- Parmesan – Freshly shredded to give the topping some sharp flavor.
How to make baked mac and cheese
- Cook pasta: Preheat your oven to 400F. Fill a pot with water and add the bay leaves. Bring it to a boil, salt it generously, then add the macaroni noodles and cook al dente according to package instructions. Drain and discard the bay leaves.
- Béchamel: Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Whisk in the flour until completely smooth and let it cook for about 1 minute. Add the milk in 1 cup batches, whisking until smooth before adding more.
- Cheese it up: Stir in the dijon mustard, onion powder, 2 1/2 cups of the cheddar, and the gruyere. Whisk until the cheeses have melted and the sauce is smooth. Taste the sauce and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Mix: Stir the macaroni noodles into the sauce to coat. Pour the macaroni into a 9×9″ baking dish and spread it evenly from edge-to-edge. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup of cheddar cheese over top of the macaroni.
- Top & bake: Mix the panko breadcrumbs with the parmesan cheese and sprinkle evenly over the shredded cheddar. Use a spoon to drizzle the melted butter over the panko topping, Transfer the baking dish to the oven and bake for 20-24 minutes, until the topping is golden brown.
The perfect baked mac is completely subjective! You can experiment with different types of cheese and simply add them up to 4 cups in total. For a milder flavor, mix in some provolone. You can use medium cheddar instead of sharp, as well. I don’t suggest using mozzarella as it can harden and get a bit clumpy soon after the baked mac comes out of the oven.
Feel free to leave them off! You can top your mac and cheese with shredded cheddar and parmesan. I still like to have something there to keep the noodles from drying out in the oven.
Some may say yes, but I definitely do not recommend making baked mac and cheese ahead. You can prep it ahead, but it’s best baked fresh. I haven’t ever met a baked-ahead-mac that remained nice and creamy. Pasta noodles are just so absorbent! The flavor will still be great, but the sauce will stiffen up quite a bit.
Tips for making the best baked mac and cheese
- Promise me this: never ever use pre-shredded cheese! There is a grainy coating on the outside of pre-shredded cheese to prevent everything from lumping together. This will equal graininess and an unpleasant cheese sauce.
- It’s important to make sure your noodles are cooked al dente, as in with bite. The noodles will cook further in the oven with all that sauce. If they are still a bit sturdy out of the water, they will come out perfect and not at all soggy from the oven.
- These noodles may look drowned in sauce before you pop it in the oven, but just trust me! As previously mentioned, they will soak up some of that sauce as they bake. It will come out perfect from the oven.
- Some recipes will be topped with breadcrumbs, some will be topped with cheese, but why is mine topped with both? I adore a golden, crispy panko topping, but I don’t like when it gets soggy. The layer of cheese will protect your breadcrumbs and keep them crispy.
How to store leftover baked mac and cheese
Like I said above, baked mac and cheese really is best enjoyed fresh. Your noodles will, inevitably, soak up some sauce as leftovers, but the flavor will still be great. Just less creaminess! Transfer leftovers to an airtight container and store in the fridge for 3-4 days. You can reheat in the microwave, or covered with foil in a 375F oven to maintain panko crisp.
If you want to keep leftovers in the freezer, they will last about 2 months. Keep in mind that pasta can soften quite a bit after being frozen and thawed. It’s best to let leftovers thaw fully before reheating.
Craving more comforting recipes like this one?
Baked Mac and Cheese
- 8 oz macaroni noodles dry, not cooked
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/4 cup butter unsalted
- 1/4 cup flour all purpose
- 3 cups whole milk aka homogenized, 3.25%
- 2 tsp dijon mustard
- 1/2 tsp onion powder
- 3 cups sharp cheddar shredded, divided
- 1 cup gruyere shredded
- 1/4 tsp salt or to taste
- 1/2 tsp pepper or to taste
- 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 1/4 cup parmesan cheese shredded
- 2 tbsp butter melted, unsalted
- Preheat your oven to 400F. Fill a pot with water and add the bay leaves. Bring it to a boil, salt it generously, then add the macaroni noodles and cook al dente according to package instructions. Drain and discard the bay leaves.
- Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Whisk in the flour until completely smooth and let it cook for about 1 minute. Add the milk in 1 cup batches, whisking until smooth before adding more.
- Stir in the dijon mustard, onion powder, 2 1/2 cups of the cheddar, and the gruyere. Whisk until the cheeses have melted and the sauce is smooth. Taste the sauce and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Stir the macaroni noodles into the sauce to coat. Pour the macaroni into a 9×9" baking dish and spread it evenly from edge-to-edge. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup of cheddar cheese over top of the macaroni.
- Mix the panko breadcrumbs with the parmesan cheese and sprinkle evenly over the shredded cheddar. Use a spoon to drizzle the melted butter over the panko topping, Transfer the baking dish to the oven and bake for 20-24 minutes, until the topping is golden brown.