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How to Make Restaurant Quality Mac and Cheese in 10 Minutes

 How to Make Restaurant Quality Mac and Cheese in 10 Minutes


Perhaps, like me, you were chagrined to learn during your early forays into cooking that making homemade macaroni and cheese to rival your favorite boxed stuff wasn’t as simple as just melting your favorite cheese over your preferred cooked noodles. With go-to cheese drawer options such as cheddar or mozzarella, that approach only yields a stringy, greasy blob, not the creamy, squidgy, evenly-coated noodles you were seeking. Even with something like American cheese, which is purpose-built to melt, the result still leaves you wanting something more… complex.

Perhaps, like me, you were equally chagrined to learn that trying to approach homemade mac and cheese like the adult cook you aim to be is pretty labor intensive, possibly involving a homemade bechamel sauce, toasted breadcrumbs and the utilization of both the stovetop and the oven. That’s a lot of steps (and subsequent dishwashing) for making “simple” comfort food. 

As a cheese educator and lifelong lover of the stuff, I’m not willing to sacrifice quality when it comes to mac and cheese. What if there was another way? A secret ingredient that binds noodles and cheese together from scratch in such a way that makes you feel like an accomplished, grown cook but doesn’t take more than 10 minutes nor utilizes more than one pot. 

ingredients for mac and cheese on table ingredients for mac and cheese on table

If you want a creamy mac, add some cream cheese to the mix.

Pamela Vachon/CNET

You’ll still find it in the dairy aisle…

Enter: cream cheese. I mean, it’s kind of right there in the name, is it not? What we’re looking for in a homemade stovetop mac and cheese is primarily creaminess and cheesiness. Cream cheese isn’t so much a secret ingredient then as one we overlooked because of its inextricable association with bagels and little else. (While we’re here, heavy cream can also do some heavy lifting for homemade mac and cheese “longevity,” something we have a slight concern for, right?)

For those who are dubious, cream cheese does qualify as cheese, being made from the coagulated curds of milk, and has a pedigree and precedent of other soft, spreadable, cheeses from Europe such as robiola and neufchâtel. 

Why cream cheese is key to stovetop mac and cheese

ingredients for mac and cheese on table ingredients for mac and cheese on table

Grating cheese is the only true prep work you’ll have to do for this recipe.

Pamela Vachon/CNET

Cream cheese brings several things to the pot when it comes to homemade mac and cheese. It is an FDA-regulated product that requires certain characteristics to be called by the name, all of which happen to make it tremendously desirable in potential macaroni and cheese employment.

Read moreMold Growing on Cheese Doesn’t Mean You Need to Throw It Out. Here’s What to Do Instead

Legally, the term “cream cheese” refers to a pasteurized, unaged dairy product that contains at least 33% milkfat, (consisting typically of both milk and cream,) with a moisture content of up to 55%, and has a pH between 4.4 and 4.9. Its milkfat and moisture content add to its richness and spreadability, respectively, and that pH gives it a distinct tang that cheese alone can’t typically achieve: even some of the sharpest cheddars only get to a pH of around 5. This is key. Consider that your favorite boxed mac and cheese includes both citric acid and lactic acid among the ubiquitous sauce packet ingredients. That necessary tang is very much a part of the nostalgic mac and cheese experience.

Cream cheese also includes an emulsifier, carob bean gum, which keeps it from separating into its protein and fat components when heat is applied. Some cheeses also naturally do this better than others. Alpine-style cheeses such as Gruyere and raclette have built-in melt-ability, but cream cheese provides a base that will help emulsify your mixture no matter what kinds of cheese you have on hand to use. Plus, using cream cheese avoids a certain grainy texture that bechamel-based cheese sauces can sometimes exhibit, and doesn’t get absorbed by the noodles quite so quickly.

How to make creamy homemade mac and cheese in under 10 minutes*

noodles boiling in pot noodles boiling in pot

Use your favorite short-cut pasta. 

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For any of your typical short-cut noodles whose cooking time is typically between 7 and 9 minutes, you can assemble everything you need while the pasta is boiling, and have creamy, homemade mac and cheese in under 10 minutes. *Any noodle type with a cooking time over 10 minutes will take that number of minutes, but no matter what, you’re getting the goods in no more time than the boxed version would typically require.

cooked noodles in pot cooked noodles in pot

Drain the pasta well after cooking.

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Another benefit of the cream cheese approach to mac and cheese is that it’s as easy to make for one as it is for several since its ingredients are simple to scale as single servings. This is less about a specific recipe and more about ratios and winging it, but for each serving, you’ll need:

  • 2 oz short-cut pasta
  • 1 oz cream cheese, cubed or cut for quicker melting
  • 1-2 oz shredded cheese or cheeses of your choosing (always better to shred yourself, but you do you)
  • Salt and pepper to taste, other seasonings as desired

That’s it. Cook and drain the noodles, add everything to the pot while it’s still hot, and stir to combine. Most of the time I don’t even use a colander to drain the noodles, and instead employ a slotted spoon to hold them back while draining out the water. If a little pasta water remains that’s fine. It will help loosen the finished sauce and add seasoning.

ready-to-stir ready-to-stir

Cooked noodles, cheese and spices, all ready to be stirred.

Pamela Vachon/CNET

Variations on a cream cheese/mac and cheese theme

The method above is as simple as it gets, but you can riff in any number of ways, none of which necessarily adds time or additional dishes to the process. Want a silkier texture? Add a dab of butter. Want more fluidity? Add a splash of milk or cream. Want to add complexity? I swear by onion powder, which to me creates a depth of flavor and savory quality that compliments any cheese choice. Trying to lighten the caloric load? Feel free to use reduced-fat cream cheese and/or shredded cheese. It all works. Want the outcome to be more orange? Make sure you’re using orange cheese, add paprika or (do this anyway) hot sauce.

spices for mac and cheese spices for mac and cheese

A dash of onion salt and paprika will punch up the mac even more, but you can use nutmeg, garlic salt or any other spices you fancy.

Pamela Vachon/CNET

You can also up the ante with any number of mix-ins, all of which require little prep. I often toss some broccoli, asparagus or peas in with the pasta for the final minute of cooking, because… balance. Like a meaty mac? Add cooked bacon, rotisserie chicken, or ground beef. (Also balance.) Once you start with this simple preparation, you’ll find there are an endless number of ways to personalize it, and it will doubtlessly become a staple in your menu rotation.



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