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Best Southern Baked Mac and Cheese Recipe
For my family, there are certain foods that are absolutely mandatory for us to have for family gatherings and special occasions. You have your hams, your turkeys, and roast beefs, but the stars of the show are definitely the sides and desserts. Cornbread dressing, collard greens, sweet potato pie, and pound cake are never missing from the table. It just doesn't feel like a holiday without them. But one of our all-time favorite recipes is baked macaroni and cheese, and this creamy southern mac and cheese recipe is our go-to!
Homemade mac and cheese recipes can vary wildly, but for me the best kind has a cheesy custard filling made with egg and evaporated milk. Then it's got a topping of even more lightly browned cheese. If you haven't had this style of old fashioned baked mac and cheese with evaporated milk, this will be your new favorite side dish!
How do you keep mac and cheese creamy?
Getting creamy mac and cheese can be a challenge, especially when you're using this custard-based method. That's why I'm sharing my secrets with you to make this southern baked mac and cheese just as creamy as can be! But before we continue, these are secrets! I'm sure I can trust you guys to keep it on the hush. But just make sure no one is looking over your shoulder while you read this. Ok, if the coast is clear, read on...
Secret #1: Overcook your macaroni
Normally, you would want to cook your macaroni until it's al dente -- that is, it still has a bit of a chew to it. But for this recipe, forget everything you learned from Giada de Laurentiis and boil your macaroni for two minutes longer than the maximum time listed on the package directions. For example, the macaroni I used instructed me to boil it for 8-10 minutes, so I set my timer for 12 minutes.
So how does this make your southern baked macaroni and cheese creamier? Well, as your macaroni boils, it absorbs water. So by boiling it a little longer, we're preventing the macaroni from absorbing too much of the milk while it's baking, allowing more of the milk to form that creamy, cheesy, custardy filling around the pasta. Trust me-- it works!
Secret #2: Mascarpone
OK, forget what I said about not being in Italy, because we're using a classic Italian ingredient to add to the creaminess of this soul food baked mac and cheese! Mascarpone is an Italian cream cheese that adds a smooth, mild soft creaminess to bump up the creamy flavor of the cheese filling even further!
I got this idea from my Uncle Glenn, who told me about using mascarpone many Thanksgivings ago when I asked him how his mac n cheese recipe was so amazing! The mascarpone really takes it up a notch and makes this the best baked mac and cheese recipe!
Secret #3: Coat your macaroni in butter
You may have gathered from secret #1 that the key to making this easy baked mac and cheese super creamy is keeping the macaroni from absorbing too much liquid as it bakes. That's what this step is about as well! We're going to toss the cooked macaroni in butter before adding the other ingredients. This creates a barrier that prevents the other liquids from penetrating the macaroni as it bakes. It should help you to end up with more cheesy custard filling that makes the finished dish delicious!
Not-So-Secret #4: Freshly Grated Cheese
This definitely isn't much of a secret. But you'd be surprised how many people still use pre-shredded cheese to make their macaroni and cheese! It's so much faster, but pre-shredded cheese is often coated with cellulose (wood pulp!) to prevent it from sticking together, which dries it out significantly. This dryness will then translate into your dishes, which we definitely don't want.
For this southern baked macaroni and cheese, you should definitely buy your cheese in blocks and grate it yourself to keep the sauce nice and creamy. It's an extra step, but makes a huge difference!
What are the 3 best cheeses for mac and cheese?
First, I like to use one semi-hard aged cheese like sharp cheddar. Then one creamy cheese that melts well, like mild cheddar, mozzarella or Monterey Jack. And finally, an extra-creamy cheese like mascarpone or cream cheese just to add to the creaminess of your southern baked mac and cheese recipe!
What milk is best for mac and cheese?
For me, evaporated milk is the way to go. Making old fashioned baked mac and cheese with evaporated milk is second nature to me. And I think it produces the creamiest results! Evaporated milk also works with the egg to create that custard filling that I just love. Here's everything else you'll need:
Southern Baked Mac and Cheese Ingredients
- elbow macaroni - you'll need 8 ounces of macaroni (or small shells, or cavatappi, or whatever similar pasta shape you prefer. I find elbow macaroni is best for holding all that yummy cheese). So it's about half of a one-pound box.
- butter - I use salted, but you can use either salted or unsalted butter and adjust your seasonings accordingly.
- extra-sharp aged cheddar cheese - This cheese forms is the largest portion of the flavors in this soul food mac and cheese, so be sure to get the good stuff! I like to use a really good quality sharp cheddar cheese that's been aged at least 12 months for the most flavor. It should come in a block for you to grate yourself -- trust me, it makes a big difference in this southern mac and cheese recipe!
- mild cheddar cheese - you can also use any mild, melty cheese you like. Mild cheddar, gouda, jack, mozzarella, or fontina all work! Again, in block form for you to grate yourself.
- mascarpone cheese - that's right, we're using three types of cheese in this southern baked macaroni and cheese!
- whole milk - you can also use low-fat milk, and it still works well.
- evaporated milk - if you don't have evaporated milk, you can use a cup of heavy cream and omit the butter.
- salt - you can adjust the amount of salt to your taste, along with the seasonings below, before adding your egg.
- cajun or creole seasoning - I like the flavor boost from creole seasoning in this southern baked mac and cheese, especially with the blend of cheeses. I like Tony Chachere's. If you don't have any, you can substitute a half teaspoon each of garlic powder, onion powder, and cayenne pepper.
- dry mustard powder - adds a slight tangy flavor that goes so well with the cheese in this baked mac and cheese recipe.
- ground nutmeg - I always have whole nutmeg on hand to grate fresh, but in this recipe ground nutmeg works great too.
- egg - beaten well.
- cracked black pepper - to add to the top before baking. You can also add paprika or more cajun seasoning.
How do you make southern mac and cheese from scratch?
This is such an easy baked mac and cheese recipe! This video shows you how to put it together, step by step!
- First, cook your macaroni until it's nice and tender, drain it, and stir in some butter.
- Then you'll combine your milks and mascarpone in a large bowl and whisk it to make sure it's all smooth.
- Add in your grated cups of cheese and seasonings, then stir in your buttered macaroni.
- Pour the mixture into a buttered baking dish, then top with more cheese and bake!
- Let it cool for a bit out of the oven, and then enjoy your easy southern mac and cheese!
Baked Mac and Cheese Tips and F.A.Q.
It's a matter of texture. In this recipe, we're going for a creamy, yet slightly firm custard-like filling. It's a texture that is distinct from stovetop macaroni and cheese. Many baked macaroni and cheese recipes use a roux to make a cheese sauce on the stovetop, and then transfer the mac and cheese to a dish, add more cheese and/or bread crumbs, and bake it. That's why I do in my Smoked Mac and Cheese with Bacon!
In my experience, the texture is different in a roux-based mac and cheese than with a custard mac and cheese. So making our southern baked mac and cheese evaporated milk and egg makes it come out a bit firmer and more casserole-like, but still able to achieve that rich creaminess that we all love! Plus, you won't have to add the extra step of making a roux -- everyone loves an easy southern mac and cheese recipe!
If you've ever made a pumpkin pie, a flan, or my Brown Butter Sweet Potato Pie, you may be familiar with evaporated milk. Evaporated milk is simply milk where some of the water has, well, evaporated. Because of the missing water, it has a higher protein content than regular milk. That makes everything creamier without adding extra fat (the way heavy cream would). It's perfect in baked goods when you want to create a custard made from eggs and milk, because it adds extra creaminess compared to regular milk.
Evaporated milk has more protein than regular milk, but less fat than heavy cream, which gives this easy baked macaroni and cheese a thick, creamy filling without too much greasiness. Evaporated milk is also not refrigerated in most places, so you can get it in the baking aisle or on Amazon! Evaporated milk is a major ingredient in my Banana Pudding Cheesecake Squares and my Eggnog Bread Pudding with Brown Butter Rum Sauce!
This is really up to you! I usually use at least one block of cheddar, sometimes one block of sharp cheddar and one block of mild cheddar. Other times, I switch it up and replace one of the cheddars with monterey jack, gouda, or mozzarella. Any semisoft shredded cheeses work great in this easy baked mac and cheese recipe.
I make this easy baked mac and cheese recipe with mustard powder and a Creole seasoning blend like Tony Chachere's. But in general some other flavors I like to add to mac and cheese recipes (in addition to salt and pepper) are cayenne pepper, paprika, garlic powder, and onion powder.
Yes! You can prepare your mac and cheese the night before and bake the following day. Just complete all the steps except the last one (baking), and place in the fridge covered with plastic wrap. The next day, bake in preheated oven as normal, although you may need to add 5-10 minutes to the cook time.
Yes, this southern baked mac and cheese freezes very well! Just cool the mac and cheese completely, cover tightly with plastic wrap and foil, and freeze for up to 2 months. Allow to thaw, still wrapped, in the fridge before baking as usual. I actually use this method to make my mac and cheese ahead of time for most Thanksgivings! You can also freeze leftovers in an airtight container for up to two months.
Mac and cheese gained popularity as a southern food after James Hemmings, the enslaved chef to Thomas Jefferson, mastered the recipe. It then became a celebration dish among Black people in the south, remaining popular to this day.
I prefer this easy southern mac and cheese as-is, but you can always mix in a few dollops of sour cream for creaminess. You can also add different types of cheese to your preference -- this Chick-Fil-A mac and cheese recipe uses Parmesan and Romano cheeses! I also love adding crispy chopped bacon for smokiness, sliced green onions, or a few splashes of hot sauce!
Yes, old fashioned mac and cheese with evaporated milk is a southern classic for the Thanksgiving table! It's popular in the south all year long.
If you try this recipe, I would love it if you could leave a star review rating and comment below! It’s so wonderful hearing your feedback! And don’t forget to share your creations with me by tagging @chenee_today on Instagram!
More Holiday Recipes You'll Love
- Pressure Cooker Ham Braised in Beer
- Brown Butter Sweet Potato Pie
- Christmas Charcuterie Board
- Lemon Sour Cream Pound Cake + Juneteenth Cookout 2021
- Banana Pudding Cheesecake Squares
Equipment you may need
- 3-quart casserole dish
- cheese grater
- 8 oz. (227 g) elbow macaroni - about half a 16-oz. box
- 2 tablespoon (30 ml) salted butter - plus more for baking dish
- 1 large egg - beaten
- 1 13 oz. can evaporated milk
- 1½ cup (366 g) whole milk
- 8 oz (227 g) extra-sharp white cheddar cheese - good quality
- 8 oz (227 g) mild cheddar cheese - or another mild cheese like monterey jack, fontina, or gouda
- 8 oz (227 g) mascarpone cheese - room temperature
- 1½ tsp. (9 g) salt
- 1 teaspoon (5 ml) cajun or creole seasoning
- ½ teaspoon (2 ml) dry mustard powder
- ⅛ teaspoon (1 ml) ground nutmeg
- fresh cracked pepper - for topping
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly coat a 3-quart casserole dish or 9x13 pan with butter or spray with cooking spray.
- Cook macaroni according to package directions, adding 2 minutes to the maximum time listed on the package. Drain; stir butter into macaroni until butter is melted.8 oz. elbow macaroni, 2 tablespoon salted butter
- While macaroni is boiling, shred both cheese blocks using a box grater. Combine shredded cheese until evenly mix, then set aside about half of shredded cheese mixture for later.8 oz extra-sharp white cheddar cheese, 8 oz mild cheddar cheese
- In a large bowl, whisk together mascarpone and evaporated milk until smooth (there may still be some lumps, which are okay).8 oz mascarpone cheese, 1 13 oz. can evaporated milk
- Mix in the whole milk, followed by the salt, creole seasoning, mustard powder, and nutmeg. Stir in half of the shredded cheese mixture.1½ cup whole milk, 1½ tsp. salt, 1 teaspoon cajun or creole seasoning, ½ teaspoon dry mustard powder, ⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Taste mixture to see if seasonings are to your preference and adjust if necessary. Stir in beaten egg.1 large egg
- Add buttered macaroni to milk/cheese mixture and stir to combine. Pour the whole mixture into your prepared casserole dish.8 oz. elbow macaroni, 2 tablespoon salted butter
- Sprinkle remaining shredded cheese evenly over the top, followed by some fresh cracked pepper, if you like.fresh cracked pepper
- Bake in preheated oven for 50 minutes or until cheese on top is melted and browned, and filling is bubbling. Cool slightly before serving.
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Last Updated on October 11, 2022 by Chenée Lewis