1 hour 10 minutes
This baked mac and cheese recipe is our Platonic ideal of the comfort food classic: It is creamy and deeply cheesy, has a crunchy crust, and is impressive enough to serve at a dinner party. (Yes, macaroni and cheese is appropriate dinner party fare, and yes, this recipe can be doubled if you expect an extra-large crowd.) It’s also bound to make an annual appearance on your buffet of Thanksgiving side dishes.
Béchamel, a roux enriched with whole milk, keeps the sauce in our homemade mac and cheese creamy and shouldn’t be rushed. Allow a minute for the raw flour taste to cook off before adding the warm milk gradually. Don’t be alarmed if the sauce looks thin at first; it will continue to thicken as it bakes with the noodles. A word on those noodles: While elbow macaroni or any short pasta will work, we recommend something with ridges, such as cavatappi, which will grip nicely onto the sauce.
Deploying four different shredded cheeses may seem excessive, but each plays its part in the recipe: Gruyère gives the sauce a nutty richness, while sharp cheddar cheese brings tang, and fontina ensures it’s lush and creamy. Meanwhile, Parmesan cheese adds a salty, savory hit to the crispy panko topping. A touch of cayenne and English mustard powder adds kick to the whole affair (if you don’t have them, a few dashes of hot sauce and a squirt of Dijon will do).
Looking for Stovetop Mac ‘n’ Cheese made extra lush with a pour of heavy cream? We’ve got you. For our favorite baked macaroni and cheese recipe with add-ins, including cauliflower and cherry tomatoes, click here.
Preheat oven to 350°. Melt 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add ¾ cup panko and cook, stirring, until crumbs are golden brown, 6–8 minutes (make sure to get them toasty brown; they won’t darken much during baking). Transfer to a small bowl and toss with ¼ oz. Parmesan, finely grated (about ¼ cup), 2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves, and ¼ tsp. Diamond Crystal or Morton kosher salt.
Cook 8 oz. cavatappi or other short curly pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente (the noodles will continue to cook in the cheese sauce, so take them out a minute or two before you think they’re actually done). Drain pasta; let cool while you make the sauce.
Bring 2½ cups whole milk to a bare simmer in a small saucepan; keep warm over very low heat. Melt remaining 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high. Add ½ small onion, grated, and 1 garlic clove, finely grated, to the melted butter and cook, stirring, until onions are fragrant and beginning to soften, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour over and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture starts to stick to bottom of saucepan, about 1 minute. Add warm milk in a few additions, whisking to combine after each addition.
Bring béchamel sauce to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring, until sauce is thickened and doesn’t feel grainy when a little bit is rubbed between your fingers, 6–8 minutes (cooking the flour thoroughly at this stage ensures a creamy sauce). Add 4 oz. Fontina cheese, grated (about 1 cup), 4 oz. Gruyère, grated (about 1 cup), 4 oz. sharp white cheddar, grated (about 1 cup), ½ tsp. English mustard powder, pinch of cayenne pepper, and remaining ¾ tsp. Diamond Crystal or ¼ tsp. Morton kosher salt and stir until cheeses are melted and sauce is smooth. Remove from heat and mix in pasta; transfer to a 2-qt. baking dish.
Bake 10 minutes. Top with Parmesan breadcrumbs and bake until sauce is bubbling around the edges, 8–10 minutes longer. Let cool in pan 15 minutes before serving.
Editor's note: This recipe was first printed in December 2014 as BA’s Best Macaroni and Cheese as part of BA's Best, a collection of our essential recipes. Head this way for more of our favorite casserole recipes →
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Really brilliant! Béchamel sauce was just perfect. Did not have thyme so subbed chicken fry seasoning in the crumb topping. Worked a charm. Thank you BA!
Los Angeles, CA
I make this all the time. Hands down my favorite mac and cheese. I always double the recipe.
First off, I tripled this recipe, but followed it c⁸ompletely as I have never made a bechamel before. My family enjoyed it very much but I found that the texture of the sauce was not as smooth as I wanted it to be. I think there was some texture from the grated onion, but maybe some weird interaction between the milk and cheese. Overall, very tasty and I'd love to make it again for a smaller crowd.
Loved this recipe. My note to those making it, make sure your flour is completely incorporated before adding anything else. Add the cheese one type at a time and make sure it is incorporated completely before adding more. I used Cream instead of whole milk because it has less of a chance of breaking if you do. The first time I made it and it did break, to solve it I brought it up to a simmer, added a flour water slurry 1/2 cup at a time until is came back together. This is a great mac and cheese recipe and once you get down making the Bechamel it is very easy. Others said to make it a day ahead, I would not do that personally. The second time I did and spent FOREVER rehydrating the sauce with cream. My go to mac and cheese recipe once I got it down!
Loved this Mac and Cheese. Superb! Perfect creaminess and outstanding cheese flavor just enhanced with the touch of mustard and cayenne. The panko topping, pre toasted, with a hint of thyme. Delicious for palettes young and old. Took another’s advice to use the same pan as the pasta, to make the sauce, and warming the milk in the microwave, saved a lot of pot clean up. Reheats so well, I wouldn’t hesitate to make this dish a day ahead if needed. ❤️
Pleasant Tree Cove
As delicious as mac and cheese can get, I think! I made this the day before Thanksgiving, topped it with the breadcrumb mixture day of straight from the fridge, and baked it for the same time and temp recommended. It was perfect! Be careful not to boil the milk, your sauce will probably split like mine did (I remade it).
This is now my family’s favourite mac & cheese recipe! So delicious!
St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador
To the person asking about quantity of milk. Yeah, they mis-typed in the recipe - It should be 2 1/2 (as in 2.5) cups of milk. Otherwise with 2 tbsp of flour, the bechamel would taste way too floury.
San Antonio, TX
Our favorite recipe, hands down! I use smoked grueyer and we top it with my husbands pulled pork. Amazing!!
Please clarify the milk amount. It says 2 1/2 cups. Was that a typo and it's just 2 cups milk, or 2 half cups so 1 cup total?
Los Angeles, California
Perfect recipe. I just add 1/4 tsp. ground cloves with the other spices. And I use a LARGE saucepan (instead of the medium one recommended) or there is no room to stir in the cooked pasta.
Manotick (Ottawa), Ontario
Absolute PERFECT mac and cheese. So rich and flavorful with a great texture combination. It's so rich it's almost impossible to eat a whole bowl full. I'm planning on making it as a side (emphasis on side) for next christmas family gathering!
This mac and cheese is delish! Thanks to the reviews I doubled the pasta amount in the recipe and it made for perfect portion sizes. The panko on the top gives each bite a nice crunch. Definitely try this one!
Beware! This is delicious but the proportions of sauce to noodles is WAY off. Double the amount of pasta for the best results.
So what is the point of putting the flour into the milk-butter mixture, rather than starting with a roux, and adding milk to get a béchamel? When I make mac-and-cheese, it's very similar to this recipe except the order of creating the béchamel. What do you gain from adding the flour later? Thanks BA, you guys make great grub!