Homemade Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese

Like I said last week, Sara and I have almost been doing this for 10 years. In those 10 years, there have been countless times when we’ve nearly posted the same recipe the same week or when we’ve posted something and then one of us has texted the other something like, “So remember when I posted almost exactly that same thing 2 years ago?” At the same time, there are some glaring absences in our recipe index. Most noticeably, these absences have been macaroni and cheese and red velvet cake recipes. This is not a red velvet cake recipe. (That’s a whole other post, like, Red Velvet Cake, what are you and what are you trying to be?? Are you chocolate? Are you just red dye? Can I just eat the cream cheese frosting??) This is a recipe for Homemade Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese and we’ve been seeing a lot of each other lately…I guess you could say we’re pretty serious.

Our biggest hesitation with posting a macaroni and cheese recipe is that we just did not have one that we liked; both of us had incredibly high standards for what a homemade mac and cheese recipe should be and while I don’t know exactly what Sara’s list of standards looked like, I know hers is similar to mine, which included: doesn’t use processed or American cheese, is smooth and creamy, has actual cheese flavor (if I’m eating a week’s worth of calories all at once, it had better taste like cheese), isn’t gritty, and isn’t baked.

I know the baked mac and cheese thing (and the subsequent accompanying bread crumb topping), like hating red velvet cake, is an abomination in the South…I’ll turn in my honorary Southern girl immediately. But my thing with baked mac and cheese is that it contributes to a lot of the issues that I tend to have with homemade mac and cheese–grittiness, rubbery-ness, and lack of cheese flavor. This is usually remedied by using American or processed cheese, which is in violation of another of my rules. Do you see why this took me ten years? Do you feel like it’s taking you ten years for me to get to the recipe? Like in this video? (Disclaimer: there’s a little PG language at the very end, so if you’re concerned or have littles around, you might want to hit mute during the last 3 seconds or so). 

I’m almost there. I promise. Here, look at this picture. It will keep us all going on this journey together.

final stovetop macaroni and cheese

One tip I unknowingly stumbled into was using the starchy pasta water to thin out the sauce instead of using milk. I know. Your reaction to this information is similar to his. But I started researching it and apparently it is a thing–it helps give homemade mac and cheese that silky, smooth, luxurious texture while milk sometimes makes it gritty and unpredictable. Don’t run. It’s going to be okay. We’re going to get through this together and we get to have homemade macaroni and cheese when we’re done.

You’ll need 12 ounces of pasta (I love Cavatappi, but elbows would work; look for slightly larger, “meatier” elbows like Barilla if you decide to use elbows),

dry cavatappi

medium or sharp cheddar, fontina, and Parmesan (optional; it adds some dimension to the flavor of the mac & cheese, but it is a little strong and it’s gritty texture may impact the overall texture of the finished dish.) Whatever you use, be sure the cheese is freshly grated.

grated cheese

Pre-grated cheese is coated in a powder to prevent the shreds from sticking to each other and does not always melt very well. 

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When it’s boiling, add the pasta and cook al dente. When it’s almost done cooking, carefully ladle 1 cup of the pasta water into a heat-safe bowl, mug, or measuring cup and set aside.

Drain the cooked pasta,

drained cooked pasta

return pan to stove, and turn heat to low. Place the butter in the pan and melt, then add the onion and cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the pasta and stir to coat the pasta with the butter. Drop the cream cheese into the pot and stir until it starts to melt, then add the cheeses and stir until the cheese is melted. Drizzle the pasta water, a little at a time, until a desired consistency is reached (you may not use all the pasta water). Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately (with additional shredded cheese on top if desired.) Serve as a main dish with a big green salad on the side or as a side dish to grilled chicken, pork, or rotisserie chicken f0r a quick weeknight dinner.

the best stovetop macaroni and cheese

Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese

Prep Time 10 mins Cook Time 20 mins Total Time 30 mins
Serves 6     adjust servings

 

Ingredients

  • 12 ounces bite-sized pasta (I like Cavatappi, but elbows will work)
  • 6 ounces medium or sharp cheddar, freshly grated*
  • 2 ounces fontina cheese, freshly grated*
  • 1 ounce Parmesan cheese, freshly grated (optional; see note)
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated onion
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Up to 1 cup reserved pasta water
  • 4 ounces cream cheese
  • 2 tablespoons butter

Instructions

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When it's boiling, add the pasta and cook al dente. When it's almost done cooking, carefully ladle 1 cup of the pasta water into a heat-safe bowl, mug, or measuring cup and set aside.

Drain the cooked pasta, return pan to stove, and turn heat to low. Place the butter in the pan and melt. Add the onion and cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the pasta and stir to coat the pasta with the butter. Add the cheeses (including the cream cheese) and stir until the cheese is melted. Add the pasta water, a little at a time, until a desired consistency is reached (you may not use all the pasta water). Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately (with additional shredded cheese on top if desired.) Serve as a main dish with a big green salad on the side or as a side dish (alongside rotisserie chicken makes a quick weeknight meal!)

by

Recipe Notes

*It is important to use freshly grated cheese; pre-grated cheese is coated in a powder to prevent the shreds from sticking to each other and does not always melt very well. 

**Parmesan is optional; it adds some dimension to the flavor of the mac & cheese, but it is a little strong and may impact the overall texture of the finished dish.

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48 comments

    1. If you can’t find it, try mozzarella or unsmoked Gouda. You probably won’t find it with the regular cheese, but try checking the deli or near where specialty cheeses are sold.

  1. My mac and cheese always comes out gritty. I always start with a roux though and use milk to make the sauce. I’m excited about this pasta water idea. Looking forward to my next batch! Thanks!

    1. I like it with a roux, but you have to be Super careful and diligent to keep it from being gritty. Same goes for melting the cheeses, slow and steady will get it there.

  2. Can I just thank you right now for a few things? #1 – that video….the fact that I was reading this on my lunch break at work was the only thing that kept me from going down a Youtube rabbit hole for a good hour or so. #2 – A mac and cheese recipe without flour – my hubby always complains that he can taste the flour in a dish with a roux no matter how long I cook it before adding the liquid. #3 – you gave the cheese measurements in WEIGHTS….hallelujah! None of this guessing about what a cup of cheese actually is. #4 – Your musings on red velvet cake, which I echo completely – some people make a “natural” version using beets to dye it – WHY BOTHER? WHY DOES THE CAKE EVEN HAVE TO BE RED?!?

    Anyway – I’ll try the recipe and report back to tell you how awesome it is.

  3. This looks good! I also make a non-baked one where I add a little bacon and some garlic when I cook the onion. Just saying some additions are yummy too. I once had 3 16-year-olds eat the whole bowl and ask if there was anymore, so I figure its good enough.

    1. Yes…if you’re using a microplane, the flavor will be surprisingly strong. I didn’t really want a strong onion flavor in there, but something to round out the flavors. If you’re using a regular cheese grater, it will be less pulp-like, so you could probably use a whole teaspoon or two.

  4. Does this reheat well? Trying to decide if I should half the recipe or make it all and have leftovers. Thanks! Looks so delicious

  5. Thank you!! My mac and cheese requirements are the same as yours. So far I’ve had the most luck with the evaporated milk and eggs style of stovetop mac, but it’s kind of fussy and it never seemed right having the eggs in there. Love the simplicity of this method and will definitely try it soon!

  6. Thank you. I knew when you posted a mac and cheese recipe, it had to be a good one because I remember that you hadn’t yet found a good one. I will be trying this sometime soon!

  7. Seriously saved my life! I just got on to your website for a Mac and cheese recipe! Thank goodness I didn’t look years ago! 😉

  8. Onion in mac and cheese…goodness no! I make oven baked and live in LA (lower Alabama, that is), where we never ever put any kind of topping other than cheese on our mac n cheese. Funny how even within the South there are regional preferences.

  9. I don’t know if I’m more intrigued or disturbed. This recipe goes against so many of my mac and cheese rules (onion has no place in mac and cheese, cream cheese in mac and cheese is a cop out, and pasta water makes gives me the heebies) and yet you’ve never steered me wrong. I guess I ought to at least try it before I condemn it!

  10. All of the other Mac n cheese recipes I have made once and thrown the recipe away so I am super excited to try this!! All of your recipes are so delish, I’m a little curious about the onion in there.

    1. I’ve done it both ways and they’re both good, just a little different. If you have more mature tastebuds at the table, try going for it. You could also sprinkle it on top if you’d like! 🙂

  11. I made this last night and I must have done something wrong. It tasted great, but the cheese and pasta water never really melded together to form a sauce and the cheese kind of slid off the pasta. The consistency of the cheese after I had stirred the pasta water in reminded me of the marshmallows in rice crispy treats when they’re melting and super stringy. I’ll have to try it again, though, because my kids and husband loved the flavor of it.

    1. Oh, no!!! That’s always so disappointing. Cheese is always tricky and a little scary, haha. Next time (and you may have done these things already, just troubleshooting), make sure the pot isn’t too hot, add the water very slowly (like 1-2 tablespoons at a time) and stir until smooth, then add a little more. Also, make sure the cheese isn’t pre-grated and it might be worth it to spend a little more for name brands (if you used store/cheaper brands). Hope that helps!!

  12. How do you get a 1/2 tsp of grated onion? That is such a small amount! Do you use a microplane or very small holed grater?

  13. I made this! I could not find Fontina at the store, so I Googled for
    a substitute and used Gouda! It’s yummy! Has a smoky kick to it. I used the entire cup of pasta water, and as suggested, used it slowly. I also didn’t add any more salt since the pasta was salty from the salted water, and the cheese and butter are salty. Creamy and delicious!!

  14. This is similar to my fave mac & cheese except I add a spoonful of brown mustard (try it!), use milk instead of pasta water (no grit here but ok ok, I’ll try your way since you’ve never steered me wrong before. Has it been 10 years already? Oh my…) and exclude the onion. The original recipe says to add bread crumbs and bake but I (gasp) agree with you and omit that part too. Glad I’m not the only one that thinks that ruins perfectly creamy mac & cheese. I like to use spiral pasta which holds onto all that cheesy gooeyness.

  15. I haveneen told by my kids to NEVER put onions in mac and cheese. I agree snd i make great stovetop mac and cheese

  16. I personally love the cheese onion combo and add onion powder to Mac and cheese always, also to grilled cheese. Haters gonna hate but I think it’s great! Thanks for the many great recipes! Whenever I have a recipe someone loves it’s one of yours!!

  17. I LOVED this! My husband thought there was a strong almost bitter taste 🤷‍♀️ Any ideas on what cheese that might be coming from so I can tone it down for him in the future?

  18. Just made this tonight, with your stovetop mac n cheese recipe. Added a bag of seeds of change brown rice too! I’d post a picture if I could. It’s all so amazing

  19. I made this for my husband and I a few nights ago. I was excited to try something new. I was pleased how it came together overall, but the onion flavor was very overpowering for both of us. I couldn’t taste the cheese, just onion. Maybe I should have let it cook longer, but it was in there at least a minute or more. We would both like to try it again though, without the onion.

  20. I made this last night for my family and we all loved it! It’s so creamy and the flavors are perfect. Thanks, Kate!

  21. This is SOOOO good! I think I’ve made it four times over the past 6 weeks! Another great 5 star recipe – thank you!
    P.S. The Kalen video is hilarious. Thanks for the laugh!

  22. This stuff is seriously amazing! Used whole wheat noodles to make it clean eating and added just a dash of garlic powder (4yo LOVES garlic). My family devoured it! Even hubby who doesn’t like noodles. Thank you, thank you, thank you for helping me find a way to get the 4yo away from the blue box (that he wants for every meal)!! In his words, “This is am-boy good. Delicious!”

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