What’s better than pasta coated in a creamy, silky, cheesy sauce? There’s a reason why mac and cheese is beloved by children and adults alike. And while I could continue to wax poetic about everything that makes mac and cheese so incredible, I’ll tell you what stops me from making mac and cheese more often—a roux.
I love classic mac and cheese that starts by boiling pasta in one pot and making a roux in another, but, if I’m being honest, I often don’t want to do all that work. I also don’t always love the thickness and heaviness of a roux-based sauce. There’s something to be said about the thinner coating you get from the boxed stuff.
This recipe is my ideal hybrid of both. You get all the nuanced flavor that comes from making homemade mac and cheese but with less effort (goodbye endless whisking) and less cleanup. The result is a silky smooth sauce with big flavor that perfectly clings to macaroni.
Tips and Tricks
I love this recipe for how quickly and effortlessly it comes together, but it does require a little kitchen intuition. Here are my best tips and tricks to ensure you make the creamiest, cheesiest mac and cheese every time:
- If possible, buy blocks of cheese and shred them yourself. Cheese shredded from a block melts much better into the sauce than pre-shredded.
- The key to this recipe is reducing the liquid to just the right amount. You want to make sure that, once the pasta is added, the liquid is at a healthy rolling boil the entire time—not a gentle simmer and not so aggressive that it’s on the verge of boiling over.
- Once the cheese is added, the consistency of the sauce should be similar to that of a boxed version with a little more body (think melted ice cream). If you find the sauce to be too stiff or thick, feel free to add a splash of water, a tablespoon at a time, until loosened.
- Be sure to taste the mac and cheese before seasoning. The saltiness of different cheeses varies.
Easy Recipe Variations
Mac and cheese is a perfect dish to riff on. You can swap pasta shapes, use your favorite cheeses, and the topping possibilities are pretty endless.
- Because the pasta cooks right in the sauce base, you need to be methodical in swapping shapes. Rather than choosing a shape similar in size to macaroni, choose a shape that has a cook time that fits in a 6 to 9-minute window, like large elbows or mini farfalle.
- This recipe uses a combination of three cheeses. I love this combo because cheddar provides a lot of flavor, Monterey Jack is an amazing melting cheese that makes the sauce smooth, and cream cheese makes the sauce extra creamy and silky. When swapping cheeses in this recipe, don’t replace the cream cheese, but you can play around with the other two. Ensure the cheese(s) you choose are nice and melty.
- Don’t have Ritz crackers on hand for the topping? No worries! You can swap them for another flaky cracker like Club or Town House, or even saltines or oyster crackers. Consider Cheez-Its or Goldfish crackers for an extra cheesy punch.
Don’t Skip the Topping
The topping on this mac and cheese might be my favorite part. It’s buttery and a little peppery and the Ritz crackers provide the most wonderful contrast in flavor and texture with the creaminess of the mac and cheese. Not to mention that you can make the topping right in the same pot!
How to Serve One-Pot Mac and Cheese
This one-pot gem is the most delicious side at dinner, just as satisfying for lunch, and will have everyone scraping their bowls to get every last bite.
Like most mac and cheese, this one is best enjoyed right away while still hot, so you’ll want to do a little planning if making it for a party. Luckily, it comes together quickly and easily so making it for a crowd isn’t stressful. You can even make the topping a day ahead to save some time.
You can bulk up one-pot mac and cheese with veggies like cooked broccoli, cauliflower, or butternut squash. It’d be great as a side for grilled chicken or steak, but honestly tastes delicious alongside practically anything.
One-Pot Meals for the Win
- One-Pot Taco Pasta
- Class Chicken Provencal
- Sillet Eggplant Parmesan
- Pork Asado de Carajay
- Tuscan Chicken Pasta Skillet
Prepare the topping (optional):
Melt the butter in a 10-inch Dutch oven or other heavy, deep pot over medium heat. Add the crushed crackers, black pepper, and kosher salt and stir to coat with the melted butter. Continue to toast over medium heat, stirring often, until golden brown, 2 to 4 minutes.
Transfer the toasted cracker crumbs to a plate to cool and wipe the pot clean of any tiny crumbs.
Begin preparing the mac and cheese:
In the same pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Once melted, add the ground mustard, pepper, and cayenne (if using). Stir to combine with the butter and lightly toast until fragrant, 15 to 30 seconds. Take care to not let the spices or butter begin to brown.
Add the water, half and half, and kosher salt to the butter mixture and stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, uncovered.
Cook the pasta:
Once boiling, stir in the elbow macaroni, adjusting the heat as needed to maintain a rolling boil (but not boil over). Continue to cook uncovered, stirring every minute or so, until the pasta is tender and the liquid is reduced enough to reveal the top layer of elbows, 6 to 9 minutes. The liquid mixture should just be visible around the edges of the pot, but still with enough to pool when you drag a spatula through the pasta. Remove from the heat.
Add the cheeses:
Add the cream cheese to the pasta mixture and stir until almost completely melted. Add the shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack and stir until the cheeses are completely melted and saucy.
Season and serve:
Taste the mac and cheese. Season with more salt and pepper as needed. Serve immediately topped with the toasted Ritz topping, if using.
Leftover mac and cheese can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
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