Meet my all-time favorite mac and cheese recipe! This recipe has been in the works for over one year, no exaggeration. It has taken me that long to find my go-to mac and cheese method.
I wanted a classic stovetop recipe, like the blue box mac and cheese I grew up enjoying. But, I wanted to make my stovetop mac and cheese with real ingredients. I wanted it to be creamy and deliciously cheesy—but not oozing with so much cheese that I had to take a nap afterward.
Here is my ultimate mac and cheese recipe, which meets all of the above requirements. I purposefully used yellow cheddar and noodles that remind me of the boxed variety. It’s made simply with cheddar cheese and cream, and a few subtle dried spices to ramp up the flavor.
The best part? This mac and cheese could not be easier to make. Homemade mac and cheese for the win!
The Best Stovetop Mac and Cheese
Four reasons to love this mac and cheese recipe:
- It offers all the rich cheesy flavor and creamy texture you crave.
- You won’t need butter or flour for this recipe, and I promise you won’t miss either of them.
- Without the flour, the glorious sharp cheddar flavor really shines through.
- It’s really easy to make this mac gluten free. Just use gluten-free pasta!
I owe Melissa Clark credit for this technique. I stumbled across her stovetop mac and cheese recipe in her new book, Dinner: Changing the Game. It’s also available online at Food52.
My changes? Her recipe calls for freshly grated nutmeg, but I found that mac and cheese needs a few other spices to be utterly irresistible: mustard powder, garlic powder and onion powder, and the tiniest pinch of cayenne pepper. That combination is subtle but makes a world of difference. Trust me.
I also adjusted the method, since it was a little unreliable for me. This mac and cheese turns out perfectly every time as written below.
NOTES ON OTHER METHODS
Before I stumbled on this technique, I tried mac and cheese recipes with béchamel sauce, both stovetop versions and baked. No matter the recipe, the béchamel versions turned out somewhat grainy and floury-tasting.
I also tried mac and cheese with evaporated milk, which seemed more like Velveeta than real cheese and left me with a stomachache. I tried mac and cheese with Monterey Jack, too, which offers less flavor than cheddar and produces an excessively gooey texture (that’s right—I didn’t want gloppy mac!).
I tried some totally unconventional methods, too. I tried to get away with using pasta-cooking water instead of cream, and that left me with a stringy mess. I even tried mac and cheese recipes with cauliflower purée or yogurt, and those were not mac and cheese. My simple cheddar-and-cream version is by far the best!
Stovetop Mac and Cheese Tips
Use quality cheddar cheese. The cheese is the predominant flavor here (and rightly so). I prefer sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese for maximum cheddar flavor.
Grate the cheese by hand. Pre-shredded cheese is coated with starch or cellulose to prevent the shreds from sticking together. Those unnecessary ingredients can prevent you from obtaining a perfectly creamy melted cheese sauce.
Better pasta makes better mac and cheese. I love Montebello’s organic strozzapretti noodles (affiliate link/those are the noodles you see in these photos). I buy them at Natural Grocers or my local health food store.
Make sure your ingredients are measured and ready. This recipe comes together so quickly. You won’t have time to measure the ingredients before it’s time to add the next one!
Don’t overcook the cream. Letting the cream boil too long reduces the moisture content to the point that the cheese sauce ends up stringy. Start the one-minute timer once it starts boiling (which might be the second the cream hits the pan) and you will end up with perfect sauce.
Want to lighten up this mac and cheese?
This mac and cheese is made with real cheese and real cream. It’s insanely delicious and worth it. That said, here are a few ideas on how to make it more nutritionally redeeming:
Substitute half and half for the heavy cream. Half and half is equal parts heavy cream and whole milk. Your mac and cheese won’t be quite as creamy or rich, but it’s still very good.
Add veggies! Reduce the amount of pasta to 6 ounces. Add 1 1/2 to 2 cups chopped broccoli florets (from 1 head of broccoli) or 1 cup fresh or frozen peas to the pasta pot when just 2 to 3 minutes of pasta cooking time remain. Drain and stir into the cheese sauce as directed. Or, stir 1 to 2 cups roasted or cooked vegetables in at the end. Roasted Brussels sprouts are great.
Use high-quality ingredients. Grass-fed dairy tends to be higher in healthy Omega-3s. Buy organic cheese and cream to avoid added growth hormones.
Use whole grain pasta. This won’t reduce the calories or fat, but it will add whole grains and increase the fiber content. That will make the mac and cheese more filling. My favorite brands of whole wheat pasta are DeLallo and Bionaturae.
Use a more voluminous noodle shape. (Such as rotini, fusilli or chiocciole.) This won’t reduce the calories or fat, either, but it makes it seem like you’re eating more pasta because it fills more of your bowl. If you swap other noodle shapes for the macaroni, measure them in ounces (8 ounces is usually half of the box) instead of cups (you’ll need more than 2 cups; the exact number depends on the shape).
Looking for a plant-based mac and cheese recipe? This recipe is not a good candidate for making vegan, but I highly recommend my vegan mac and cheese recipe—it’s a creamy stovetop mac and cheese like this one.
Looking for lighter, veggie-packed pasta dishes? I have lots of pasta recipes for you!
This mac and cheese has become a staple recipe in my kitchen and I hope it becomes your go-to mac and cheese, too.
Please let me know how you like this mac and cheese in the comments! Your star ratings with your comment are tremendously helpful, too.
Watch How to Make Mac and Cheese
Real Stovetop Mac and Cheese
- Prep Time: 10 minutes
- Cook Time: 10 minutes
- Total Time: 20 minutes
- Yield: 3 servings 1x
- Category: Entree
- Method: Stovetop
- Cuisine: American
The best stovetop mac and cheese! This recipe is like blue box mac and cheese, but made with real cheddar cheese. It’s creamy, delicious and so easy to make! Recipe yields 3 modest or 2 generous servings; multiply and use a larger pot as necessary.
- 8 ounces (2 cups) regular or whole-wheat macaroni noodles
- 2 teaspoons salt, for the pasta cooking water
- ⅓ cup heavy cream
- 1 ⅓ packed cups (5 ounces) grated sharp cheddar cheese
- ½ teaspoon mustard powder
- ⅛ teaspoon garlic powder
- ⅛ teaspoon onion powder
- Tiny pinch of cayenne pepper, or a dash of your favorite hot sauce
- Bring a medium pot of water to boil. Add the noodles and salt. Cook until the pasta is al dente, according to package directions. In the meantime, make sure all of your ingredients are measured and ready (I combine the dry spices in a small bowl).
- Drain the pasta and leave it in the colander for now. Return the empty pot to medium heat. Immediately add the cream and let the mixture come to a boil. Once boiling, set a timer for 1 minute.
- Once the minute is up, add all of the cheese and spices. Stir until the cheese has fully melted to produce a creamy sauce. Add the pasta, stir until the pasta is evenly coated in cheese sauce, and remove the pot from the heat.
- Taste and season with salt, if necessary. Serve immediately.
Make it gluten free: Substitute your favorite sturdy gluten-free noodles, such as a corn and quinoa blend.
Change it up: To make this mac and cheese a little more sophisticate, sprinkle your bowls with some finely grated Parmesan cheese and toasted bread crumbs. See my note above in the “lighten-up” section on how to incorporate broccoli or other veggies.
How to reheat: This mac and cheese is best enjoyed fresh, but you can gently reheat it in the microwave or on the stove. Don’t overdo it; the ingredients are more likely to separate if they are overheated.
So disappointed. I followed this recipe exactly. My sauce was terrible. The cheese did not melt and mix well. It was strongly and dry. Nothing like creamy Mac n cheese. I called this recipe a failure
Hi Jody, I’m sorry to hear you were disappointed. Are you sure you followed the boiling step? That can make all the difference.
If the heat is too high when melting the cheese in the cream it will get stringy and clumpy. Removing the pot from the burner when adding the cheese or using low heat if needed should help. :)
This was delicious! Quick and easy alternative to traditional baked mac n cheese. Thanks!
You’re welcome, Tanja. Thank you for your review!
Sorry I’m not sure about your measurements
You wrote 8 ounces is equal to 2 cups but it’s actually 1 cup
5 ounces is equal to 1 1/4 but it’s actually 150 mls so how am I meant to read your measurements because I really want to try your recipe
Hi Mona, yes this is correct. Dry and liquid measure slightly different and you don’t want to pack down the cheese to measure. Follow as written and it will be delicious!
This is my go-to lazy Sunday lunch for my 2-year-old son and me. Mac and cheese is such a guilty pleasure! I’m very glad to have a recipe to share with my son that doesn’t involve cheese powder. Thanks!
You’re welcome, Ariel! I appreciate your feedback.
This was a complete failure for me. I followed the recipe exactly and the sauce was terrible. It had an awful texture and tasted really bad. Nothing like mac n cheese. I’m just shocked at how awful this recipe was.
I’m sorry you didn’t love this, Aaron.
Still stringy (like all my attempts). I did put the timer on; maybe my boil was too vigorous, pan too wide? Perhaps the cheese took too long to melt (perhaps bring the cheese to room temperature first?) I did use half & half.
This is one of my favorite recipe sites, regardless of my not nailing creamy mac & cheese.
(BTW, my vegetarian dog, who eats what we eat, really liked the leftovers.)
Hi, I’m sorry to hear that. The timing needs to be precise and to grate the cheese. Not use pre grated. I hope you try it again!
This didn’t work out for me – I followed the instructions exactly (shredded cheese, boiling the cream, etc), using whole wheat macaroni. It was extremely dry and not creamy at all – it almost looks now like the sauce curdled when I added the pasta? I’m sorry, I love your website and the majority of recipes, but this didn’t work out. Perhaps two cups of pasta is too much?
Hi Laura, I’m sorry to hear that. Did you use freshly shredded or packaged shredded cheese? It sounds like the sauce was too hot.
YUM!! Tastes just like the “real” thing!! Just a question, in step 2 it says “…and let the mixture come to a boil.” But it’s just the cream, right? Or did I miss something?
Hi! Yes, the the cream. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
We tried this today, with pre shredded cheese and it turned out delicious. So easy and tasty.thanks
You’re welcome, Cheryl!
I followed the cream boil step and used freshly grated cheese but my cheese sauce was so grainy! Sadly did not enjoy this recipe, it was missing the creaminess of box Mac and cheese. I found the oil also separated a bit from the cheese in the sauce making the whole dish seem much oilier than it should have been
Hi Nisha, I’m sorry to hear that. I wonder if it got too hot.
This was a disaster. I followed the recipe to the letter, used hand grated cheese, etc, and it was a lumpy nasty mess. I think it needs to start out more like a bechamel sauce (make a roux of flour and fat, then stir in milk, then melt cheese) that you incorporate cheese into, much like a cheese/cream soup. Adding cheese to boiling hot cream is a recipe (literally) for a stringy mess. Given the number of commenters that have had issues with this, you should really pull this recipe and tweak it more.
Hi Becca, I’m sorry to hear that was your experience. It sounds like either you had too much cheese or the mixture wasn’t to the right temperature. I tested this several times and have made it since without an issue. I appreciate your feedback.
My sister recommended this recipe and we love all your stuff, so thought I would give it a go. I haven’t eaten mac and cheese in years and this was delicious! Super easy to make and extremely satisfying. I definitely will come back to this again for a treat!
Hooray! I’m glad you tried it and enjoyed it, Charlene.
i dont know why it didn’t work well for so many others, but this works out very well for me every time! i use preshredded cheese too. lately i’ve done 1/2cup of heavy cream, and more like 1.5-2 cups of cheese for a thicker and more flavourful sauce, and it still works very well. it’s way better than any storebought mac and cheese!
That’s great, Amelia! I appreciate your review.
Mmmmm. I made this today for our Thanksgiving meal and it came out perfectly. I hand grated a block of Whole Foods vegetarian sharp cheddar using the large holes, and used heavy whipping cream for the liquid base. Not stringy nor grainy but perfection! Thank you!
You’re welcome, Elizabeth!
Have made this countless time over the last few years, usually served up with some green veg. My two young kids love it, as do I! So tasty and comforting.
I love to hear that, Helen!
Unfortunately this didn’t work for me. Similar to others, my sauce was very stringy. I used pre shredded cheese, which is probably why it didn’t turn out.
I think it would Be helpful to specify in the ingredients list that it needs to be FRESHLY grated cheese :) I will try that next time and see how it goes.
Hi Sarah, Shredding your cheese vs using pre-shredded will impact your results.
I made this tonight for Christmas dinner and it turned out great! I followed the cream heating step exactly and used freshly grated cheese. I never have flour in the house as I’m not a big baker, so I love that this Mac and cheese doesn’t call for a roux. Thanks and happy holidays!
Happy holidays, Caitlin! I’m glad it was a hit.
This recipe turned out great and everyone in the house gobbled up their meal!
I used the instant pot: cooked my whole wheat elbow noodles for 3 minutes and used the saute function to cook up the sauce while the noodles cooled in a colander. We have a toddler, so I didn’t add any salt to the water or pasta, but a sprinkling of salt on the adults’ plates made it taste like a delightfully creamy mac n’ cheese!
Thank you for sharing how you made this, Ashely.