A simple dish like baked macaroni and cheese seems impossible to mess up, but I’ve run across my fair share of dry, clumpy, bland, and mushy versions of it. Here we make sure to undercook the pasta (so it doesn’t get soft in the oven), rinse off the extra starch that contributes to a gluey dish, and mix it with plenty of cheesy sauce. Then we top it with buttery panko breadcrumbs and bake until it’s oozy, golden on top, and perfectly cooked. Check out this recipe if you prefer a stovetop version of mac ‘n’ cheese.
Watch the CHOW Test Kitchen’s Amy Wisniewski make this simple baked macaroni and cheese in an episode of our Easiest Way video series.
- 1Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat. Heat the oven to 400°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Meanwhile, melt the butter over medium heat in a large saucepan or Dutch oven, then turn off the heat. Transfer 2 tablespoons of the melted butter to a medium bowl, add the panko, season with salt and pepper, and mix with your fingers until evenly combined. Set aside.
- 2Return the saucepan to medium heat, add the onion and measured salt and pepper, and cook until softened but not browned, about 6 minutes.
- 3Add the flour and whisk frequently until the mixture turns light brown in color, about 5 to 6 minutes.
- 4While whisking, slowly add the milk to the flour mixture until evenly combined and smooth, stopping to whisk any clumps as needed. (It will get very thick when you first add the milk.)
- 5Continue cooking, whisking occasionally, until the sauce thickens and coats the back of a spoon, about 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside. Meanwhile, add the pasta to the boiling pot of water and cook until still chewy and underdone, usually a few minutes less than the package directions suggest (the pasta will finish cooking in the oven). Drain and rinse with cold water until no longer steaming; set aside.
- 6Return the milk mixture to medium heat and stir in the cheeses until melted and smooth. Add the rinsed pasta and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is heated through and steaming, about 4 to 5 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper if needed.
- 7Transfer to a 5-quart baking dish, sprinkle with the reserved panko mixture, and bake until bubbling and lightly browned on top, about 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes before serving.