This incredible baked macaroni and cheese recipe will make you want to step away from the boxed stuff. That powdery cheese has no place on our Southern tables, after all.

But what if we told you that this famous and delicious dish—loved and requested by both kids and adults alike—can come together in under one hour and in three easy-to-follow steps? Sounds almost too good to be true.

How To Make Baked Mac and Cheese

The secret to this comfort food is selecting the key ingredients. Let’s start with the sauce, which gets its smoothness and creaminess from butterflour, and two cups of milk.

Then it’s time to bring together the seasoning, a just-right sprinkling of saltred pepper, and black pepper. (Add spice with caution.)

The superstar ingredient is the cheese, and after the Southern Living Test Kitchen tasted, tested, and retested, we found our winner: Cracker Barrel’s Extra-Sharp Cheddar Cheese. We’re sure you know it well.

The final step in mastering—or messing up—this recipe is the pasta. In fact, one of the easiest mistakes when making macaroni and cheese is using the wrong kind of pasta. We suggest steering clear of long, thin, perfect-for-twirling varieties like spaghetti, fettuccini, and linguini. Choose pasta with a good shape and plenty of nooks to capture cheese pockets like shells, cavatappi, or our no-fail elbow macaroni.

What Is the Best Cheese for Mac and Cheese?

Cheddar is a classic choice for baked mac and cheese, and this recipe adds a bit of zing with an extra-sharp version.

Some other excellent cheeses include cream cheese, Parmesan, and Swiss, as the mild, buttery flavor and ideal melt make them great for this pasta dish.

Gruyere is a standout favorite for its creamy, nutty, and earthy flavor. Try half Gruyere and half Cheddar the next time you’re feeling like switching up your baked mac and cheese recipe.

Tips for the Best Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Grate your own cheese. Yes, it’s worth the extra time to take a block of cheese and grate your own. Shredded cheese is handy, but it’s often coated with a very fine powder to keep the shreds from sticking together in the bag. That powder coating also happens to keep the cheese from melting as well as it could. But freshly grated cheese will melt like a dream.

Cook the pasta to al denteSince the mac and cheese has to bake for a bit longer in the oven, you don’t want to risk the pasta turning to mush. Cook the pasta to al dente so that it finishes cooking to the perfect texture while the mac and cheese bakes.

Warm the milk. Don’t skip the step of warming milk before you add it to the flour and butter mixture. Cold milk with make the flour mixture seize and turn clumpy. It will be difficult to get it smooth again before the next step.

Editorial contributions by Alexandra Emanuelli.


  • ½ (16-oz.) package elbow macaroni, cooked
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 (10-oz.) block extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
  • ¼ teaspoon ground red pepper (optional)
  • Vegetable cooking spray


  1. Prepare oven and pan: Preheat oven to 400°F. Prepare pasta according to package directions. Grease a 2-qt. baking dish with cooking spray.Southern Living Classic Baked Macaroni and Cheese ingredientsFRED HARDY II; FOOD STYLIST: EMILY NABORS HALL; PROP STYLIST: CHRISTINA BROCKMAN
  2. Make roux: Microwave milk at HIGH for 1 ½ minutes. Melt butter in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium-low heat; whisk in flour until smooth. Cook, whisking constantly, 1 minute.Southern Living Classic Baked Macaroni and Cheese cooking the roux mixtureFRED HARDY II; FOOD STYLIST: EMILY NABORS HALL; PROP STYLIST: CHRISTINA BROCKMAN
  3. Gradually whisk in warm milk, and cook, whisking constantly, 5 minutes or until thickened.Southern Living Classic Baked Macaroni and Cheese adding the milk and cooking until thickenedFRED HARDY II; FOOD STYLIST: EMILY NABORS HALL; PROP STYLIST: CHRISTINA BROCKMAN
  4. Add cheese and pasta, then bake: Whisk in salt, black pepper, 1 cup shredded cheese, and, if desired, red pepper until smooth.Southern Living Classic Baked Macaroni and Cheese after adding the cheese to the milk mixtureFRED HARDY II; FOOD STYLIST: EMILY NABORS HALL; PROP STYLIST: CHRISTINA BROCKMAN
  5. Stir in hot-cooked pasta.Southern Living Classic Baked Macaroni and Cheese stirring in the cooked pastaFRED HARDY II; FOOD STYLIST: EMILY NABORS HALL; PROP STYLIST: CHRISTINA BROCKMAN
  6. Spoon pasta mixture into prepared dish; top with remaining cheese. Bake at 400°F for 20 minutes or until golden and bubbly.Southern Living Classic Baked Macaroni and Cheese after baking and ready to serveFred Hardy II; Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall; Prop Stylist: Christina Brockman.

Test Kitchen Tip

We tested with Cracker Barrel Extra-Sharp Cheddar.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Should you give your baked macaroni and cheese a topping?
    You can certainly top mac and cheese with some crushed crackers stirred in melted butter, or you can leave it ungarnished. But if you’re going to top mac and cheese, it’s best to leave the dish without a topping in the oven to allow a crispy crust of cheese to form first, and then add the topping a few minutes before it’s done baking.
  • Should you add eggs to macaroni and cheese?
    This recipe does not include eggs. The addition of eggs can add a creaminess to the baked macaroni and cheese and bind the pasta together, but a good roux will do this, too.
  • Can you make baked mac and cheese ahead of time?Yes, you could make this macaroni and cheese recipe a day or two before you plan to serve it, but the pasta may seem dry once it’s reheated. We recommend making it and serving it fresh from the oven. If you have leftovers, you can reheat them on the stovetop with a little cream or butter to add back that lusciousness.
  • Can you freeze baked macaroni and cheese?
    If you want to get ahead for a busy weeknight, you can make a dish of this mac and cheese in advance. But don’t bake it. Instead, follow all the steps, assemble it, and cool it completely. Then cover it with aluminum foil, and put it in the freezer.When you’re ready to bake it, thaw it in the fridge for 24 hours, then bake it. You may need to add 5 to 10 minutes of cook time for the casserole to be completely done. Monitor it for a bubbly, browning top. That’ll be your cue it’s ready to come out of the oven.

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