Mac & Cheese Theory 101: How to Make the Best Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Are you absolutely sick to death of eating plain old Kraft Dinner? (Or Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for all of our American friends out there.) If you want to leave that boxed crap behind and make this classic dish yourself, you’ve come to the right place. Prepare yourselves, because we’re taking you to mac and cheese bootcamp. 🧀

You think macaroni and cheese is a fucking game?

Mac and Cheese Recipes: From Budget to Bougie

Here are five drastically different macaroni and cheese recipes for you to try — they start off easy and get progressively more fancy. Don’t want to follow a recipe? Click here to skip the recipes and head straight to Mac and Cheese Theory 101 where we cover:

  • What kind of cheese is best for macaroni and cheese?
  • What spices go well with macaroni and cheese?
  • What can you mix into macaroni and cheese?
  • ... and other baked mac and cheese tips!

Cheeto Mac & Cheese

Make Matty Matheson’s recipe.

No filter will make this thing look good.

No filter will make this thing look good.

Dear god why did we choose to make another Matty Matheson recipe? This recipe is a mess. The amount of processed cheese used was astronomical (and expensive). The sad part is that the whole thing tasted quite bland — we actually had to add in extra seasoning in the form of pepper and chili powder to try and give this thing something resembling a flavour. For the amount of time we spent dissolving processed cheese in warm milk and adjusting the seasoning, we could have made a really nice bechamel sauce and added in good quality cheese. Also, the cheetos were kind of nasty. This recipe was definitely something that seemed like a good idea at the time, but ultimately it failed to meet every expectation.

Worth It? Hell no!

Baked Three-Cheese Macaroni

Get this recipe from Taste of Home.

traditional baked macaroni and cheese

Holy cheese batman. There are six and a half cups of cheese in this recipe! When we made this we used a smoked gruyère instead of regular gruyère, because that’s all they had at the store (we're not complaining). Spices could be better used in this recipe to enhance the flavour of the cheese so you don't have to use so much. Cheddar and gruyère pair nicely though!

Worth It? If you have $$$ to drop on cheese, yes.

Smoky Mac and Cheese

Watch this Tasty video.

Smoky Mac and Cheese.JPG

While this isn’t the fanciest mac and cheese ever, it does job quite well. The variety of spices and cheeses used creates a super comforting and perfectly adequate mac and cheese. It’s perfect for a cold rainy day or for a BBQ. It does the job well. Enough said.

Sidenote: Using smoked paprika or smoked cheddar (or both if you like to live dangerously) adds a fantastic flavour to this dish. Seriously, this smoked mac and cheese, BBQ ribs, cornbread, and coleslaw would be the perfect summer BBQ menu.

Worth It? Yes!

A Killer Mac’N’Cheese

Follow Jamie Oliver’s recipe.

macaroni and cheese with tomatoes

Jamie claims that this is a proper American-style mac and cheese, but we have never seen a macaroni and cheese recipe with tomatoes in it until we made this — and we’re really glad we did! The tomatoes add a nice burst of freshness and acidity, balancing the heaviness of the cheese. Toasting your own breadcrumbs in a pan instead of baking them on top of the macaroni is also a nice touch, as this allows you to enjoy any leftovers without reheated soggy bread crumbs.

Sidenote: If you make this, don’t forget to take out the bay leaves before you start to mix everything together! Jamie forgets to mention this in his recipe.

Worth It? Yes!

Macaroni & Blue Cheese

Watch Gordon Ramsay make this.

blue macaroni and cheese

This is the kind of mac and cheese that you make if you really feel like treating yourself. It tasted delicious, there’s absolutely no denying it. The hardest part about this recipe is the lack of a recipe — we tried to find a written recipe somewhere, but it doesn’t exist. The only thing we had to go on was Gordon’s list of ingredients as well as a few key instructions such as: deglaze, strain, and bake. This is also the recipe’s greatest strength — the lack of a strict formula allows you to experiment and put your own twist on it. If you feel confident in your abilities, go ahead and whip up some gourmet mac and cheese — you deserve it.

Worth it? Absolutely yes!

Mac and Cheese Theory

Okay, so you’re ready to start making your own mac and cheese, but you don’t trust Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay to give you the best recipe. (lol wut?) So what do you do? Well, you statistically analyze 25 different mac and cheese recipes on the internet to figure out what the optimal macaroni and cheese is, of course. What, you don’t have time to do all of that? Well, we here at Mediocre Chef aren’t a fan of #FakeNews and we think that facts and evidence speak for themselves. So we statistically analyzed 25 different mac and cheese recipes that we pulled from the internet, just for you. Yes, we are mega nerds.

simpsons nerd

What Kind of Cheese is Best for Macaroni and Cheese?

The cheese(s) you use for your mac and cheese are, ultimately, going to be up to your preference. However, science says that you should probably use cheddar. In fact, 76% of the recipes we sampled used cheddar in some form (orange, white, sharp, smoked, etc). If you do use cheddar, our math says that it should be 63% of the total amount of cheese used. Gruyère is also a good cheese to use as it appeared in 28% of the recipes, and should be used as 44% of the total cheese blend.

Sidenote: Yes, we know that adds up to 107%, but the math to normalize it is more than we’re willing to do on Saturday afternoon.

You will never, ever know how much time went into making this chart.

You will never, ever know how much time went into making this chart.

Furthermore, different cheeses have different reasons for being used. Cheddar, while great at adding flavour and colour, does not melt very well and won’t really contribute to the gooeyness of the dish. Conversely, mozzarella won’t add much flavour to your baked mac and cheese, but it will melt wonderfully well and make your mac and cheese stringy. A good rule of thumb is to use a melting cheese and a flavourful cheese, and then add spices to your preference.

What Spices Go Well With Macaroni and Cheese?

Salt, pepper, mustard (dry or dijon), and cayenne were the top four seasonings that appeared in the baked macaroni and cheese recipes we analyzed. Other honorable mentions include: nutmeg, fresh parsley, garlic, thyme, paprika, and chili powder.

Don’t add all of these spices into your baked mac and cheese. You want to tour flavourtown, not take up residence there.

Don’t add all of these spices into your baked mac and cheese. You want to tour flavourtown, not take up residence there.

As you can see, if you aren’t using salt and pepper in your mac and cheese, you’re a goddamn fool. Dry mustard or dijon will enhance the flavour and help cut the creaminess of the dish, making it easier to shovel more mac and cheese into your face. Cayenne pepper does a similar job, but with a bit of added heat. Fresh parsley gets a shoutout for making your baked macaroni and cheese look fancy AF.

What Can You Mix In Macaroni and Cheese?

There are a lot of different ingredients you can add to your baked mac and cheese to make it a complete meal. Below are just a few ideas:


  • Shredded Chicken

  • Crumbled Bacon

  • Chopped Hot Dogs

  • Lobster


  • Broccoli

  • Diced Tomatoes

  • Sauteed Mushrooms

  • Caramelized Onions

  • Spinach & Artichokes

  • Sun Dried Tomatoes

  • Frozen Peas (Or, you could not.)


  • Hot Sauce

  • Ketchup

  • Ranch Dressing


  • Jalapeños

  • Pesto

  • Garlic

  • Cheetos (Don’t. Just don’t.)

This isn’t a comprehensive list, as you can really add anything to mac and cheese, but it will point you in the right direction. Don’t know where to start? If you want to add in some extras, we recommend choosing at least one protein and one vegetable to make a balanced meal. Don’t add too many vegetables — remember, you’re making mac and cheese, not a vegetable medley with noodles!

How to Make the Best Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Baked macaroni and cheese can super simple or super complicated. Ultimately, the best macaroni and cheese recipe is up to your tastes, but we recommend following a few simple (and scientific) guidelines:

  • Create a bechamel sauce — this will be the base of your macaroni and cheese.

    • 88% of recipes we sampled started with a bechamel sauce.

  • Season with salt and pepper, and probably dry mustard or dijon mustard.

    • 84% of the recipes we sampled used salt, 72% used pepper, and 40% used dry or dijon mustard to enhance the flavour of the cheese.

  • Use 3 cups of cheese for your sauce. Remember to use both a melting cheese and a flavourful cheese!

    • This is based on the average cups of cheese used (3.7 cups) in each recipe from our dataset, with an additional ½ cup reserved for the top.

  • Top with breadcrumbs and ½ cup of cheese before baking. This creates a melty and crispy layer on top! If you plan on having leftovers, we recommend toasting the breadcrumbs in a pan and adding them on top after instead — no one likes soggy reheated breadcrumbs.

    • 64% of recipes we sampled topped their mac and cheese with breadcrumbs.

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