When the occasion calls for comfort food, it’s hard to go wrong with rich and creamy baked macaroni and cheese. For the best results in making this easy classic dish, use pasta prepared al dente, and shred your own cheese. You can use velvety cheddar or a combination of different cheeses and bake it with or without a crunchy breadcrumb topping.

The Basics

For classic baked macaroni and cheese, you will need elbow macaroni, cheddar cheese, butter, milk, cream, flour and seasonings.

Epicurious magazine recommends shredding your own cheese, noting that, “That bagged stuff at the grocery store usually has stabilizers, a drier texture, and less flavor than a hunk of cheddar does.”

Slightly undercook your noodles by 2 minutes before mixing them with your sauce. This ensures the noodles will remain firm as they soak up the cheese while baking. Add kosher salt to the cooking water for additional flavor.

Use 1 pound of macaroni to roughly 16 ounces of cheese and 4 cups of liquid. For creamier mac and cheese, use 3 parts milk and 1 part heavy cream.

It’s All About the Sauce

To make the cheese sauce, start by melting butter in a large skillet. Mix in the flour to create a roux that will act as a thickener. Slowly whisk in the milk and cream, making sure to fully incorporate the flour so that the sauce is ultra smooth.

Bring the sauce to a boil and then lower the heat. Simmer the sauce until it’s thickened, about 3 minutes. Then add in the seasonings.

There are a variety of spices that can be added to enhance the flavor of your dish. Ground mustard powder complements the flavor of sharp cheddar. Ground red pepper will add a bit of heat to the sauce. And nutmeg will add a hint of nuttiness to white cheese sauces. Regardless of what cheese you use, season your sauce with salt and pepper.

Next, gradually whisk in the cheese to ensure that it is fully melted into the sauce and will not clump.

Remove the skillet from the heat. Stir in the drained macaroni and mix well. Pour the mixture into a greased baking dish and place it in the oven. Bake the macaroni and cheese on the middle rack in a preheated 400-degree Fahrenheit oven for 20 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbling and the top is golden brown.

Variations on a Classic

For a crispy crust on your mac and cheese, using Japanese panko breadcrumbs will yield a lighter and crunchier topping, according to Epicurious. For additional flavor, mix Parmesan cheese and minced garlic with the panko. Add the topping to the casserole before placing it in the oven.

Other cheeses can be used to create different flavor profiles. Parmesan will add nuttiness to sharp or mild cheddar, while using fontina and Gruyere will add a sophisticated taste to this classic dish. The fontina melts easily and the Gruyere adds a rich, deep flavor. These cheeses also combine well with the flavor and texture of white cheddar.

Although classic macaroni and cheese is made with elbow macaroni, other small pasta will work just as well. Use pasta such as mini shells or orecchiette to provide a hollow medium to carry the most sauce.

“Southern Style” macaroni and cheese uses eggs in the sauce, yielding a denser though still cheesy dish.

The Cheesiest Results

There is nothing that can ruin delicious mac and cheese more than the cheese separating during baking. Using a roux as the base of your sauce and incorporating whole milk and cream, as well as fully combining the grated cheese, will help to ensure that the sauce does not separate.

Fine Living magazine warns of another cause of cheese separation: “When cheese is overheated, the protein solids and the fat separate, and it gets stringy and rubbery.” To ensure that your dish is not overcooked, the sides should be slightly firm while the center is still gooey.