It doesn’t get any more scrumptious than southern baked mac and cheese, y’all. So rich in flavor, beaming with four different kinds of cheeses; and true to its classic southern roots with crispy brown edges. This here is the baked mac and cheese to make for any occasion, holidays, and beyond- extra creamy and so dang good!

southern baked Mac and cheese in baking dish with gold serving spoon

Mac and cheese, ahem, baked mac and cheese is arguably one of the most coveted staples known. This famous side dish is known to both Southerners and Black folks like grapes are known to wine, ha! There is an unspoken rule that only the best baked mac and cheese recipe graces the holiday table…and prayers to you if you even think about messing it up cuz ain’t no one gonna forget it lol.

Real talk, this side dish is synonymous with comfort and coziness. Whenever I think of it, I think about family meals, holiday gatherings, community events, and everything in between. Baked mac and cheese is a force all on its own. Sure, there is regular stovetop, traditional macaroni and cheese but there is nothing like this classic baked version. So excited to share this one with you!

black hand holding gold spoon with baked Mac and cheese

Southern Baked Mac And Cheese

So, what is baked mac and cheese? For starters, let’s begin with the earliest known origin of this dish- “a pie called macaroni or macaroni pie.” Yup, that is exactly what baked mac and cheese translated to around 1802. Since its hazy origin, this dish has been taken to a whole new level largely in part to African Americans in the South and all over, and also in the Caribbean.

There are a few distinctions that make this recipe southern in nature. First, this is a macaroni and cheese recipe that is baked in the oven. Next, the types of ingredients used: elbow macaroni pasta (if any other pasta is used, it ain’t southern!), eggs (for structure), a béchamel sauce, milk, cream, half-and-half, evaporated milk, seasonings (yes, seasonings) and the cheeses. All in all, while there are hundreds of baked mac and cheese recipes; all recipes should (hopefully) result in a baked macaroni pie loaded with creamy, cheesy goodness.

What You’ll Need For This Recipe

(Note: the full ingredients list, including measurements, is provided in the recipe card directly below.)

  • The cheeses: Sharp cheddar cheese, smoked gouda cheese, pepper jack cheese, and velveeta (gasp!). All four cheeses play a different role.
  • Elbow macaroni pasta: As mentioned above, elbow macaroni, is the holy grail staple of southern baked mac and cheese. This isn’t up for a debate, argue with someone else if you’d like, thank you kindly.
  • Butter: Listen, if you see a baked mac and cheese recipe that does not call for butter, run for the hills! Butter is an essential fat needed for richness, flavor, and to keep a level of moisture within the mac. >> #butterbeready
  • Flour: For this recipe, I’m using a classic béchamel cheese sauce as the base; flour is used in the creation of the sauce and gets combined with the butter.
  • Milk and half-and-half: These are the two liquid components within the cheese sauce. Both ingredients add a level of richness and creaminess.
  • Spices: salt, pepper, ground mustard, garlic powder, onion powder, smoked paprika, ground nutmeg, and a pinch of cayenne pepper (optional). Yes, even macaroni and cheese gets seasoned because bland mac is offensive.
southern baked Mac and cheese in blue baking dish with gold serving spoon and beige linen on the side

Baked Mac And Cheese Research 🤓

I’ve tested different variations of baked mac and cheese recipes and ultimately landed on one that I feel good about. I had a previous version that I didn’t feel was solid enough and always aimed to revamp it. Different versions included the use of eggs, a dump and bake/layer approach, using more flour in the cheese sauce, and much more. Testing was exhausting but delicious, ha!

⇢ With eggs, I consistently felt meh about them and how they had a tendency to produce a certain texture. And with the mix, dump and bake approach, I felt it lacked a well-developed base. Testing included milk and heavy cream ratios, too. Too much cream produces a very thick and too rich of a mac. Lastly, too much flour in the cheese sauce can produce a chalky taste.

The 4-1-1 On This Baked Mac And Cheese

THE CHEESES. I love the combination of cheeses here, y’all. Baked mac and cheese needs that signature sharp cheddar cheese, ding. In addition to that, we’ve got smoked gouda cheese. This cheese has a lovely, nutty bite and flavor that adds as smoky note. Then pepper jack cheese adds a lil punch of contrast with its subtle heat. Finally, the most known in southern baked mac and cheeses is the use of velveeta. This is a processed type of cheese product that tastes like American cheese. Velveeta has a very soft consistency with an impeccable melting ability. I didn’t want to like it; but can’t deny the pockets of gooey, creamy cheese puddles it creates within the baked mac and cheese.

THE BÉCHAMEL/CHEESE SAUCE. This sauce comes together super quickly. A béchamel is just a fancy French term that means cheese sauce. The sauce comes together with melted butter, flour, and the liquids. Once that simmers, add in the spices, and a good portion of the shredded cheeses. Now you have a cheese sauce that coats the pasta and gives structure.

SPICES. Okay, so…a good baked mac and cheese is going to be well seasoned. Flavorless mac and cheese is one of the worst things, yikes. Most of the spices called for in my recipe are straightforward but I want to take a moment to talk about a few that may have you like- huh. Ground mustard (or powdered mustard) adds a signature acidic, component that spices up sauces and mac and cheese. It’s important to note that it is not as pungent as bottled mustard, fyi. Ground nutmeg, odd, I get it. Nutmeg has a nutty and warm note that actually balances the overall savoriness in flavors in mac and cheese.

baked Mac and cheese spices on small white plate

The Best Cheeses For Baked Mac and Cheese

 ⇢ One of the things I love about making this side dish is that there are no hard or strict rules as to what types of cheeses to use. While there are a few signature cheeses that work best, feel free to select your favorites ♡

  • Sharp cheddar cheese (yellow): This one is a classic, sharp/extra sharp cheddar cheese that needs to be at least one of the cheeses used for mac and cheese.
  • Other great cheesy options: gouda, pepper jack, gruyère, mozzarella, colby jack, monterey jack, fontina, asiago, and muenster. In addition, you could throw in a little soft cheese like block-style cream cheese, too.

Tips + Tricks For Recipe Success

  1. Grate your own cheese. I know it’s an additional step but so worth it. It makes a huge difference to shred the blocks of cheese yourself using a food processor or boxed grater. Pre-shredded bags of cheese contain a white powdery substance called cellulose. That anti-caking agent prevents the cheese from having that ultra creaminess level.
  2. Don’t overcook the pasta. This is super important, folks! The pasta will continue cooking as it bakes and if you overcook it you’ll end up with mushy pasta, ew. You’ll want to cook your pasta until it is al dente (cooked, but firm). I usually achieve this right around 5-6 minutes, tops.
  3. Working with the béchamel. When adding the flour into the butter, be sure to continually stir the mixture together so that it is free of any lumping. Also, as noted in the recipe card, make sure to cook the mixture to allow the flour taste to cook off, this is a roux.
  4. Bake and then broil. Baking the mac and cheese achieves a lovely set, overall baked mac and cheese. However, I always love to give it a quick go under the broil setting to get that perfectly crispy, slightly blistered crust on top. Totally optional but do ittttt.
different types of cheese for baked Mac and cheese in bowls on beige surface

How To Get Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese

I took to my socials to ask many of you what questions and comments you had as it relates to all things baked mac and cheese. The results? The number one question submitted had something to do with how to keep or get baked mac and cheese super creamy. This is honestly a loaded question as there are a few different elements involved.

⇢ The cheeses, the liquids used, and the fat within your baked mac all play a part in the final results. There is a lot of richness within this recipe that will produce a creamy and decadent baked macaroni and cheese product.

Baked Mac And Cheese Variations

Another common question was- can I add this or that?

  • Breadcrumb topping: I’m not a fan of the breadcrumb vibe on my mac but definitely could see why some love it. For this, toss your fave breadcrumbs along with some melted butter and sprinkle on top of the mac before baking.
  • Add some cooked bacon: Some crispy bacon on top or within the mac and cheese itself will amp up the yumminess. Stir it in the cheese sauce along with the cooked mac or garnish on top- same with pancetta, too!

Make Ahead Mac And Cheese

⇢ If you want to prep this dish ahead to save yourself some time, you can!

  • Make the recipe as directed all the way up until the baking part. Make sure the dish is cooled completely, cover with foil, and transfer it into the fridge. It will be good for about 1-2 days when stored this way.
  • When ready to make, let the dish sit out on the counter to come back up to room temperature and then bake as directed.
  • One note to mention in the spirit of full transparency- this dish is at its very best when made and baked on the same day. While you technically can make this dish ahead, the overall texture does slightly change.
baked Mac and cheese on small white plate with gold fork

What To Pair With Southern Baked Mac And Cheese

Anything your heart desires, ha! All jokes aside, this mac would be splendid when boo’d up with my brown stew chicken, smothered pork chops, buttermilk fried chicken, classic meatloaf, and my stewed oxtails, suhhh good.

Storing Mac And Cheese

This baked mac and cheese reheats beautifully whether it’s back in the oven or in the microwave. Make sure any leftovers are covered tightly with foil and refrigerated. I do not recommend freezing this dish. It will keep for about 2-3 days stored in the refrigerator.

⇢ Reheating mac and cheese: there’s enough richness in this recipe to keep things moist enough but if you feel like it needs more, I got you. Add a touch of milk, cream, or an extra pat of butter to help loosen the mac and cheese while microwaving leftovers and stir well to fully incorporate.

When To Make This Recipe

Alright, this is a silly question but I wanted to elaborate on the significance of baked mac and cheese. While many cultures indulge in this deliciousness, this is a recipe that holds huge weight within Black culture specifically.

You will usually find this staple on the table for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Juneteenth celebrations, potlucks, family reunions, family dinners, funeral receptions, and everything in between. Baked mac and cheese to the Black community is a true love story…just like it is with collard greens

black hand pulling southern baked Mac and cheese out of baking dish with gold serving spoon

Hope y’all enjoy this recipe! Big thanks to my friends over at Sur La Table of whom I was commissioned to develop this recipe for. I’m also using that gorgeous Le Creuset Heritage Covered Baker sold exclusively at SLT 💙

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southern baked Mac and cheese in baking dish with gold serving spoon

Southern Baked Mac and Cheese

  • Author: Quin Liburd
  • Prep Time: 20m
  • Cook Time: 40m
  • Total Time: 1 hr
  • Yield: 6 1x
  • Category: Side Dishes
  • Method: Baking
  • Cuisine: Southern

Description

It doesn’t get any more scrumptious than southern baked mac and cheese, y’all. So rich in flavor, beaming with four different kinds of cheeses; and true to its classic southern roots with crispy brown edges. This here is the baked mac and cheese to make for any occasion, holidays, and beyond- extra creamy and so dang good!


Ingredients

Scale
  • 8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, block-style
  • 8 ounces smoked gouda cheese, block-style
  • 8 ounces pepper jack cheese, block-style
  • 8-ounce block Velveeta (original flavor), cubed
  • 1 pound dried elbow macaroni pasta
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour (see notes)
  • 2 cups whole milk (or milk of choice)
  • 2 cups half-and-half
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon (a pinch) cayenne pepper- optional

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Generously grease/butter a 9×13-inch baking dish (or something comparable: use whatever oven-safe vessel you have). Then set the dish aside.
  2. Prep the cheeses: Use a food processor or handheld boxed grater to shred the cheddar cheese, smoked gouda cheese, and the pepper jack cheese. Place the shredded cheeses into a large bowl and place the cubed cheese into another bowl.
  3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Once the water is boiling, add in the elbow macaroni. Cook the pasta just until al dente (cooked, but firm)- this should take no more than 5-6 minutes! Do not over cook the pasta as it will continue cooking while baking in the oven.
  4. Then drain the pasta in a large colander- do not shut off the heat. Rinse the pasta under cool water to stop the cooking process and leave the pasta in the colander, set aside. Return the empty large pot to the stove.
  5. Add the butter into the same pot over medium heat. Once the butter melts completely and begins to sizzle, add in the flour. Use a wooden spoon/utensil to stir the flour into the butter until it dissolves. Allow the mixture to cook, stirring, until the mixture turns a light, golden color- about 2-3 minutes to cook off the flour.
  6. Slowly pour in the milk, while whisking constantly, then followed by the half-and-half, and bring this mixture to a nice simmer while continuing to whisk. Make sure there are no lumps at all. Simmer for about 5 minutes and then remove from heat.
  7. Stir in the seasonings: salt, pepper, ground mustard, garlic powder, onion powder, smoked paprika, nutmeg, and cayenne (if using). Followed by three-quarters of the shredded cheese (leave about 1/4 cup of each cheese for sprinkling on top). Use a rubber spatula to fold everything into the sauce until it thickens (it should coat the back of your spoon) and everything is fully incorporated. Give the sauce a taste test and adjust any seasonings, if desired.
  8. Add the cooked macaroni into the cheese sauce and toss together to combine, make sure all of the macaroni is well coated.
  9. Carefully empty the mixture into your prepared baking dish. Evenly distribute the cubed pieces of velveeta cheese into the macaroni, lightly submerging them under the surface. Then sprinkle the reserved bit of shredded cheeses that you have directly on top of the dish. Then place the baking dish on top of a large baking sheet (just in case anything bubbles over).
  10. Bake the mac and cheese, uncovered, for 35 minutes or until the top of the dish is golden brown, crispy, and bubbly throughout. Afterwards, I like to reset the oven to the broiler setting to get a deeper, slightly blistered browning on top- this takes just about 2 minutes!
  11. Serve immediately and enjoy!

Notes

  1. Please read the blog post in its entirety for more tips and tricks.
  2. Use gluten-free flour in place of all purpose flour, if you need to.
  3. Storing: This mac and cheese will keep, covered tightly with foil, for about 2-3 days stored in the refrigerator- simply reheat leftovers in the microwave or oven.

Keywords: southern baked mac and cheese, baked mac and cheese, southern recipes, southern food