The holidays are coming up, which means it’s time for comfort food! This White Cheddar Mac and Cheese is a beloved recipe that I always make during this season. It’s cozy, comforting, and absolutely delicious!
Below I share everything you need to know to make an absolutely divine, creamy mac and cheese that will keep everyone coming back for seconds.
This white cheddar mac and cheese recipe is make-ahead friendly!
If there’s one thing I really really love, it’s mac and cheese. This white cheddar mac and cheese has a special place in my heart. I’ve made it every Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, along with these red skin mashed potatoes, and it has never failed to put a smile on everyone’s faces during the holiday season.
It’s creamy, comforting, and absolutely delicious.
I like to bake my white cheddar mac and cheese with breadcrumbs sprinkled on top for added texture and to bring all the flavors together until golden brown and bubbly.
Why my family LOVES this white cheddar mac and cheese:
- Creamy and comforting: You’ll love how creamy and smooth it is.
- Great texture! Creamy with crunchy herbed bread crumb topping? Yes please!
- Make-ahead friendly: Assemble it up to 2 days in advance and bake later.
3 Tips to Making Creamy Mac and Cheese
- Choose the right type of cheese: Your best bet is to use sharp cheddar cheese. It yields a creamy texture, melts pretty well, and tastes amazing. For this recipe, we use white cheddar cheese, ideally sharp cheddar for extra flavor. Other great options are gruyere and gouda.
- Grate the cheese yourself: Pre-bagged shredded cheese always comes with extra starches and preservatives that can also result in a gritty texture. Instead, use a block of cheese and grate it yourself with a box grater or food processor.
- Use whole milk for richness. Avoid skim milk, as it will make the sauce runny.
The ingredients I use to make white cheddar mac and cheese are pretty standard and are very easy to find in grocery stores. The full list of ingredients and quantities can be found in the recipe down below, but I wanted to provide a few helpful notes from my recipe testing here.
- Cavatappi pasta: Cavatappi is my go-to! It holds the cheese sauce very well and it’s short and long enough at the same time. Other options include rotini, elbows, penne, fusilli, and farfalle.
- Unsalted butter and all-purpose flour are used to make a roux, which will thicken the sauce.
- Whole milk: For the bechamel sauce. I’d highly recommend using whole milk for richness. Don’t use skim milk, as it’s diluted and will make the sauce runny.
- Sharp white cheddar block: You’ll need 16 ounces, equivalent to about 4 cups shredded.
- Garlic powder, salt, and pepper for seasoning
- For the herbed breadcrumb topping: sandwich bread, unsalted butter, garlic powder, and Italian herb seasoning. You’ll need a food processor to make the breadcrumbs.
Below is a visual overview on how to make this easy recipe at home. For details and extra notes, see the recipe card down below.
Step 1 | Cook the pasta
First, cook the pasta until al dente in a large pot with generously salted water, according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
Step 2 | Grate cheese
This step is super important! Using freshly grated cheese will make your mac and cheese extra creamy. Pre-shredded and bagged cheese often comes with added starch and preservatives that will make your sauce gritty.
How to grate cheese in a food processor: Attach the slicing and shredding disc. Do not attach the bottom blades. Turn on the food processor and press the cheese down the feed tube so it slowly goes through the blades and shred.
Step 3 | Make the bechamel sauce
Bechamel is basically a sauce made with roux and milk. In this case, it’s used to make the base to make the cheesy, creamy sauce for the mac and cheese.
- In a large pot, melt butter. Don’t let it burn.
- When it’s just melted, gradually add the flour and whisk to incorporate both.
- Over medium-low heat, whisk constantly for about 3 minutes, or until slightly thickened. At this point, it should be a bit pale in color and smell a bit toasty. Don’t let it burn.
- Gradually add the milk, whisking to incorporate. As the milk heats up, it will start to thicken as it comes to a very low simmer.
Step 4 | Add cheese and pasta
Incorporate the grated cheese and stir until melted, but do not bring to a boil (overcooking the cheese will cause it to turn gritty). Season with garlic powder, salt, and pepper to taste. At this point, add more milk as needed to make it creamier.
Next, add the drained cooked pasta and mix to combine.
Step 5 | Assemble and bake
- Make breadcrumbs by pulsing bread with melted butter, Italian seasoning, and garlic powder. Breadcrumbs will add lots of great texture.
- Transfer the mac and cheese to a 9×13 inch baking dish.
- Top with the breadcrumbs.
- Bake at 375 degrees F for 20 to 25 minutes, until bubbly and golden brown.
Substitutions and Variations
Here are a few notes on substitutions:
- Pasta shapes: My go-to is cavatappi. Also try rotini, elbows, penne, fusilli, and farfalle.
- Milk: I’d HIGHLY recommend using whole milk in this recipe for extra creaminess. If you really can’t find it, 2 percent milk is fine too. Do NOT use skim milk, as it’s often diluted with water – it will make your sauce runny.
- If you don’t have a food processor to pulse the bread, sprinkle some panko breadcrumbs tossed with melted butter.
As for variations, feel free to skip the breadcrumb topping and serve it as is. It will taste just as good and save you time!
If you have leftovers, this recipe reheats very well. Or you can use it to make mac and cheese bites!
Make Ahead Tips
Yes, you can make this white cheddar mac and cheese in advance! Make the recipe up until step 7. Cover with aluminum foil and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
When ready to bake: Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Let the mac and cheese sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Then, bake for 20 to 25 minutes, covered. Remove foil and top with the breadcrumb mixture. Return to oven and bake the white cheddar mac for another 15-20 minutes until golden brown and bubbly.
Freezing: I would not recommend freezing. Dairy and cheese don’t thaw or reheat very well. The sauce will break and become gritty.
Pairing and Serving Ideas
This white cheddar mac and cheese is a great side dish! It goes well with a variety of main dishes for almost any occasion. We love to make it for Thanksgiving and pair with a Slow Cooked Turkey Breast, or for Christmas with a Brown Sugar Glazed Ham!
These are our favorite mains to serve with white cheddar mac and cheese during the holidays:
Don’t use pre-shredded cheese. It contains extra starches and preservatives that will make it very hard to melt. Your cheese sauce may turn out gritty. I’d highly, highly recommend freshly grating a block of white cheddar.
The simplest method is to use a box grater. You can also use a food processor – use the slicing/shredding disc attachment and feed the cheese block through down the chute to grate (don’t attach the bottom blades when using the shredding disc).
I like to finish it in the oven to incorporate the breadcrumbs and let all the flavors come together, but it’s not needed. You can simply mix the cooked pasta with the prepared cheese sauce and serve it like that.
I would not recommend freezing mac and cheese. Dairy doesn’t freeze very well.
This recipe was published in 2020 and updated in September 2022 to include new photos and information, plus a few recipe modifications.
Tips for Success
- If possible, use sharp (or extra sharp!) white cheddar rather than mild cheddar for best flavors.
- Use freshly grated cheese to ensure creaminess and great texture. Don’t use pre-shredded cheese.
- The simplest way to grate cheese is with a box grater. You can also use a food processor with the shredding disc attachment.
- Use whole milk to make sure the sauce is rich and creamy. Don’t use skim milk, it will make the sauce runny.
White Cheddar Mac and Cheese
- 1 pound cavatappi pasta
- ½ cup unsalted butter
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 4 cups whole milk - plus more as needed
- 16 ounces white cheddar cheese, freshly grated - equiv to about 4 cups grated
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder - plus more to taste
- Salt and pepper to taste
Herbed bread crumb topping
- 6 slices white sandwich bread
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
- Cook pasta in generously salted water, according to package directions until al dente. Drain and set aside.
- Microwave the milk for a few seconds to bring it to room temperature. Set aside.
- In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt butter over medium-low heat until just melted, don’t let it burn. Gradually stir in the flour, whisking to incorporate. Whisk constantly for about 3 minutes, until slightly thickened. This is called a roux. At this point, the roux should be a bit pale yellow color and should begin to smell a bit nutty. Tip: Don’t rush this process as the raw flour needs to be cooked. Be careful not to let it burn.
- Gradually, add the milk, stirring to incorporate. Continue stirring until it thickens – it will thicken as it heats up. Tip: You can turn up the heat momentarily just to get it going and then reduce back to medium-low.
- Add the grated cheese and stir until evenly combined and melted. At this point, you can add more milk to taste if the sauce is too thick. Season with garlic powder, and salt and pepper to taste.
- Add the cooked pasta (drained) into the sauce and stir until well combined. Turn off the heat.
- Make the herb crumb topping: In a food processor, pulse the herbed bread crumb topping ingredients to make breadcrumbs.
- Transfer the prepared mac and cheese to a 9×13 inch baking dish. Top it with the prepared herbed breadcrumbs evenly.
- Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown and bubbly. Let it cool slightly before serving. Enjoy!
- Sharp vs. mild cheddar: For more intense flavors, go for sharp white cheddar (or extra sharp), but mild will work too.
- Grate the cheese yourself. Don’t use pre-shredded cheese, as these usually come with added starch and preservatives that make it hard to help. I buy blocks of cheese and use a box grater.
- How to grate cheese with a food processor: Attach the slicing and shredding disc on top of the food processor. Do not attach the bottom blades, you don’t need this part. Turn on the food processor and press the cheese down the feed tube so it slowly goes through the blades.
- Make ahead: Make the recipe up until step 7. Cove with aluminum foil and refrigerate for up to 3 days. When ready to bake: Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Let the mac and cheese sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Then, bake for 20 to 25 minutes, covered. Remove foil and top with the breadcrumb mixture. Return to oven and bake the white cheddar mac, uncovered, for another 15-20 minutes until golden brown and bubbly.
- Freezing: I would not recommend freezing it. Dairy does not reheat well after frozen.
- Pasta shapes: Aside from cavatappi, try rotini, elbows, penne, fusilli, and farfalle.
- Whole milk: If you really can’t find whole milk, 2 percent works too, although it may not be as rich. Do not use skim milk.
- Instead of making breadcrumbs from scratch, feel free to use panko bread crumbs tossed with melted butter and dried herbs.