Baked Mac and Cheese

By Jeri Mobley-Arias
September 1, 2023 | Updated on May 22, 2024

This homemade mac and cheese recipe is made with a variety of quality cheeses and is baked to bubbly, golden brown perfection. The classic southern side and staple soul food takes just 1 hour to make and is a family favorite throughout the year, from the holidays to summer cookouts.

For more mac and cheese recipes, try this Stovetop Gouda Mac and Cheese.

For more cheesy recipes, try Baked Cannelloni with Béchamel Sauce, Potatoes Au Gratin Gruyere, and Queso Dip with Chipotle.

close up view of homemade mac and cheese

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Creamy baked mac and cheese is a deliciously layered side dish full of rich, cheesy flavors. Of course, the internet has many mac and cheese recipes.

So what makes this one better than all the rest? It’s not a roux, eggs, cream cheese, or even Velveeta. The key to the best baked mac and cheese is sodium citrate, an organic acid that ensures silky smooth cheese sauce every time. Let’s dig in!

close up view of creamy baked mac and cheese

Why This Recipe Works

  • Easy Prep – This recipe is made with simple ingredients and bakes in just 20 minutes. It’s also easy to make ahead because it stores and reheats well.
  • Classic Comfort Food – Served fresh out of the oven, baked macaroni and cheese is a hot, cheesy, creamy side dish that no one can resist. Whether you’re making a casual weeknight meal or preparing a Thanksgiving feast, this dish is a must-have.
  • Super Cheesy – If you are a cheese lover then you’ll appreciate how decadent this baked mac and cheese recipe is. The cheese sauce is made with 5 cheeses and the assembled dish is topped with even more!
close up view of baked mac and cheese crust

Tools You’ll Need

What kind of cheese is good in baked mac and cheese?

Sharp cheddar cheese is the classic choice for classic mac and cheese but a variety of cheese can be used. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s a cheese that melts well. Popular options include gruyere, gouda, fontina, and mozzarella.

But I love to add parmigiano reggiano because it adds a savory, nutty, salty, complex flavor that gives the dish more dimension. This hard cheese doesn’t melt as well as some other cheeses, hence the sodium citrate used in this recipe. It can transform any cheese into a luscious, gooey mixture.

assorted shredded cheeses on a plate for homemade mac and cheese

Ingredients You Will Need for Baked Mac and Cheese

This simple mac and cheese recipe without flour still has a thick, luscious sauce thanks to one key ingredient.

  • Elbow macaroni – Instead of following package instructions, cook just until al dente because it will continue to cook in the oven.
  • Milk – heavy cream and whole milk
  • Unsalted butter – Control the sodium by using unsalted butter and adding your desired amount of salt.
  • Cheese – I use a mix of freshly grated sharp cheddar, colby jack, monterey jack, gouda, and parmigiano reggiano.
  • Seasoning – garlic powder, mustard powder, freshly cracked pepper, smoked paprika, onion powder, cayenne pepper, kosher salt, and nutmeg (preferably freshly grated)
  • Sodium citrate – Sodium citrate is often added to mac and cheese recipes to improve the texture and consistency of the cheese sauce. It is not a foreign additive but is a common ingredient that’s in American cheese and Velveeta cheese. If you have ever had gritty cheese sauce, adding sodium citrate is a common solution to achieving a velvety smooth cheese sauce.
  • Crystal hot sauce – Don’t worry; this doesn’t make the mac and cheese spicy; it just enhances the overall flavor.
a plate of the seasonings for homemade mac and cheese

How To Make Baked Mac and Cheese

Baked mac and cheese takes just 15 minutes to prepare.

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare a baking pan with butter. Keep 2½ cups sharp cheddar and 2 cups of colby jack cheese to the side.
  2. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al-dente.
  3. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the garlic powder, mustard powder, smoked paprika, onion powder, cayenne, and nutmeg. Stir to combine and toast spices until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add pepper and stir.
  4. Slowly whisk in milk and heavy cream and keep a continuous whisk until the mixture bubbles, about 4 minutes.
seasoned milk mixture for baked mac and cheese

5. Remove the pot from the heat and add the cheese in batches (reserving ⅓ of the cheese batch) whisking until melted. Make sure the cheese is fully melted before adding more grated cheese. Once all the cheese is added, stir in the sodium citrate. Keep a continuous stir and you will notice the cheese sauce turn slightly velvety (this is the sodium citrate doing its thing!). Add the hot sauce then taste the sauce for salt levels then add 1¼ teaspoons of kosher salt or to taste and stir to combine.

cheese sauce for homemade mac and cheese

6. Add the well-drained noodles to the cheese mixture, mixing until noodles are completely covered. Transfer noodles to a prepared 13×9 baking dish. Add remaining ⅓ reserved cheese mixture and stir to combine. Even the mixture with a spatula then top with the 4½ cups of mixed sharp and colby cheese. Bake uncovered for 15 minutes, until cheese completely melts. To get the signature brown top, broil for 1-2 minutes, keeping a close eye.

cooked macaroni in a baking dish
macaroni noodles and pasta sauce in a casserole dish
an assembled mac and cheese prior to be baking baked in the oven

7. Remove from the oven and leave for 5 minutes to slightly cool. Serve and enjoy!

Tips and Tricks

  • Do not use pre-shredded cheese. I know it’s tempting because it’s quick and easy but pre-shredded cheese is coated with an anti-clumping powder that makes the cheese grainy once melted. This is especially important when using parmesan cheese. Although it is a hard cheese, parmigiano reggiano is much easier to melt when fresh.
  • Taste the cheese sauce before adding salt. As the sodium citrate adds a good amount of seasoning to the cheese mixture.
  • Do not overcook the macaroni. Avoid soggy macaroni by cooking the pasta just to al dente.
  • Use room temperature ingredients. Room temperature milk and cheese will lend to making you cheese sauce quicker. Since we are timing the noodles with making the cheese sauce, you want to be efficient.
  • Store leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days. Reheat it in the microwave.
baked mac and cheese in a dish

Variations

  • Baked Mac and Cheese with Breadcrumbs – After assembling the macaroni and cheese, sprinkle the top with a breadcrumb topping of panko or Ritz crackers just before adding the dish to the oven.
  • Stovetop Mac and Cheese – Technically, the macaroni and cheese can be eaten without baking. If you prefer a very creamy version, just add the cooked macaroni to the pot with the cheese sauce, toss to coat, and then serve.
  • Protein – Add diced chicken, ham, or bacon to the cheese sauce if you want to add meat to the dish.
close up view of baked mac and cheese with a spoon inserted

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it better to bake mac and cheese covered or uncovered?

Bake mac and cheese uncovered so you can get that delicious brown crust at the very end.

Can you freeze homemade mac and cheese?

Yes. For make ahead mac and cheese, assemble the dish (but don’t bake it) and allow the cheese to cool completely before double-wrapping the baking dish with aluminum foil and freezing it. It will last up to 3 months. You can bake it from frozen by placing it in a preheated 350°F oven for about 35 minutes.

How do you keep homemade mac and cheese creamy?

There are a few steps you can take to ensure that your mac and cheese remains creamy and doesn’t dry out while baking. Use a mixture of heavy cream and whole milk to enrich the cheese sauce. Also, layer noodles and cheese in order to ensure the pasta is completely coated. Finally, don’t overbake it.

close up view of baked mac and cheese with a spoon inserted

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close up view of homemade mac and cheese

Baked Mac and Cheese

5 from 3 votes
This homemade mac and cheese recipe is made with a variety of quality cheeses and is baked to bubbly, golden brown perfection. The classic southern side and staple soul food takes just 1 hour to make and is a family favorite throughout the year, from the holidays to summer cookouts.
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Total Time 1 hour
Servings 8 people
Author Jeri Mobley-Arias
Course Side Dish
Cuisine American

Equipment

  • cheese grater
  • 13 x 9 Baking Pan
  • 2 Dutch Ovens

Ingredients

  • 1 pound elbow macaroni
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for baking dish
  • 12 ounces sharp cheddar, freshly grated, divided, see instructions
  • 12 ounces colby jack, freshly grated, divided, see instructions
  • 4 ounces monterey jack, freshly grated
  • 6 ounces gouda, freshly grated
  • 2 ounces parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
  • teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon mustard powder
  • 1 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper
  • ¾ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
  • teaspoons sodium citrate
  • teaspoons Crystal hot sauce
  • 1¼ – 1½ teaspoons Kosher salt, Diamond Crystal, or to taste

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare a baking pan with butter. Keep 2½ cups sharp cheddar and 2 cups of colby jack cheese to the side.
  • Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil, Add the pasta and cook until al-dente. You want the noodles to have a slight bite as it will continue to cook while it bakes.
  • Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Next, add the garlic powder, mustard powder, smoked paprika, onion powder, cayenne, and nutmeg. Stir to combine and toast spices until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the pepper and stir.
  • Slowly whisk in the milk and heavy cream and keep a continuous whisk until the mixture bubbles, about 4 minutes.
  • Remove the pot from the heat and add the cheese in batches (reserving ⅓ of the cheese batch) whisking until melted. Make sure the cheese is fully melted before adding more grated cheese. Once all the cheese is added, stir in the sodium citrate. Keep a continuous stir and you will notice the cheese sauce turn slightly velvety (this is the sodium citrate doing its thing!). Add the hot sauce then taste the sauce for salt levels before adding salt as the sodium citrate adds a good amount of seasoning. Add 1¼ teaspoons of kosher salt or to taste and stir to combine.
  • Add the well-drained noodles to the cheese mixture, mixing until noodles are completely covered. Transfer noodles to a prepared 13×9 baking dish. Add remaining ⅓ reserved cheese mixture and stir to combine. Even the mixture with a spatula then top with the 4½ cups of mixed sharp and colby cheese. Bake uncovered for 15 minutes, until cheese completely melts. To get the signature brown top, broil for 1-2 minutes, keeping a close eye.
  • Remove from the oven and leave for 5 minutes to slightly cool. Serve and enjoy!

NOTES

Notes on using sodium citrate: If you are not using this ingredient, you will need to increase the amount of kosher salt. Use 2 teaspoons of Diamond Crystal kosher salt, or to taste. 
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close up view of homemade mac and cheese

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6 Comments

  1. Gary Fahle says...

    5 stars
    This is the BEST mac and cheese recipe I have ever made! I’ll never use another recipe. With a total of 2.25 lbs cheese, heavy cream, and sodium citrate and not using a white sauce, I was a bit hesitant to make this. But I followed the recipe exactly as written (except I only added a pinch of salt instead of 1.25 tsp – be sure to taste *before* adding salt. The sodium citrate adds a lot of seasoning) and the mac and cheese was PERFECTION. So much flavor, super cheesy and gooey and NO broken, greasy, clumpy sauce! Thank you for this!!

  2. Maddy says...

    5 stars
    This was the best baked macaroni and cheese I have ever had. The flavors were perfect. I brought this for easter brunch, and one of the guests whom I have never met before was asking who made the macaroni and cheese. This man went to school for culinary arts if that tells you anything. Thank you for this recipe!

  3. Joe says...

    5 stars
    I’ve made this as part of my thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter spreads and it is absolutely delicious. Great balance of flavors and perfect amount of cheese. Never thought to add sodium citrate until I made this and will always do it from here in out. The mouthfeel of the texture is different and so much better with it.

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jeri-mobley

Hey, I'm Jeri!

At Whisper of Yum, we explore ALL cuisines - comfort foods, classics, elevated originals. If you love food like me, I invite you to settle in to this place, where swoon-worthy food is attainable + inspo for your next meal awaits.

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