Homemade, baked mac and cheese with bread crumbs is one of my favorite comfort food. Creamy macaroni topped with crispy crumbs is hwat makes this macaroni and cheese next level!
Macaroni and cheese is such a simple, well-loved side dish. Yet, can be a little tricky to get just right. I’ve made macaroni and cheese so many times, tweaking all along the way. I’ve finally landed on this recipe as our family favorite.
I’ve picked up a lot of inspiration from different places along that way but the three main sources of inspo are: Cracker Barrel, Chick-Fil-A and my mom’s homemade mac and cheese. 🙂
Do you love Cracker Barrel Mac and Cheese? Then you’ll love the flavor of this mac and cheese.
Inspired by many trips to Cracker Barrel, inquiring with a few of the waitstaff for hints at how they make their macaroni and cheese, I’ve finally landed on this homemade recipe for baked macaroni and cheese.
What I love about Cracker Barrel’s mac and cheese is that is has an extra layer of flavor.
What’s their secret? They add chicken stock.
To achieve this rich flavor, you can add chicken bullion to your cheese sauce, or you can add chicken stock (or broth) in place of some of the milk or in addition to the milk to make this more creamy and saucy.
Have you tried Chick-Fil-A’s mac and cheese?
Chick-Fil-A’s macaroni and cheese is rich and creamy with a tangy taste. If this kind of flavor is more your style, here are a few tips for making a homemade version of Chick-Fil-A mac and cheese:
- Add more milk. You can add more or less milk depending on how thick and creamy you want your cheese sauce to be. More milk, makes it more saucy.
- Add a heavy dollop of sour cream. Have you noticed is has a bit of a tart flavor to it? You can easily get that by just stirring in some sour cream to taste.
- Change up your cheese. On the Chick-Fil-A website, they tell us they’re using cheddar, Parmesan and Roman cheese. So those would be your cheeses to substitute in.
- Skip the bread crumbs. If you want. Or add them and put your own spin on Chick-Fil-A’s tasy side dish. 😉
Bread crumbs and baking optional. But recommended for best results. 😉
Unlike Cracker Barrels mac and cheese, I do like to add panko or Italian breadcrumbs to the top because I love the little bit of crunch you get. However, you can leave those off if you’d like. You can also skip the step of baking the mac and cheese if you’re short on time.
I like the breadcrumbs baked until their golden brown and I also think baking the noodles in the cheese sauce helps to meld the flavor together a bit more but it’s not 100% necessary.
Velveeta and American cheese is the best cheese for homemade mac and cheese.
I know both of these aren’t “real” cheeses but they melt really well.
You can use other types of cheeses though to change up the flavor. Some cheeses don’t melt as nicely and can make your cheese sauce chunky. What helps is melting the cheese into your sauce at a low temperature. For best results, don’t let you cheese sauce come to a bubbling boil. This is what causes your cheese sauce to look like it’s curdling.
Mom knows best.
Baked mac and cheese always reminds me of my momma. My mom’s homemade macaroni is what you might call the “Mac Daddy.” Mac Mommy? Gosh, this is getting cheesy…
Sorry, got carried away with the puns there.
It’s just that macaroni and cheese reminds me of a specific time in life when I returned home after going away to college. I was welcomed home with a seemingly endless supply of cheesy homemade macaroni and cheese.
It’s one of those dishes that is called comfort for for a reason. It fills your belly with warmth and love. For me, macaroni and cheese is just one of those dishes that’s delicious, comforting and homey but since it’s heavy on starch, I try to make sure I control my portion size.
Make it easy on yourself.
Now I make my own mac and cheese, like a grown up. 🙂 And I’ve really honed my skills as this point since I’m a mom and macaroni and cheese is one of those foods my kids actually eat. So I’ve had practice. Ya know?
So, I want to let you in on a little secret to making homemade mac and cheese a little easier. It’s the pot. You can use a dutch oven or a cast iron skillet. With the dutch oven there’s no need to transfer the cheesy macaroni into an oven-safe pan before baking, you can take it right from the stove top to the oven.
You can do the same with the cast iron skillet, the sides are just lower so it’s more difficult to stir without spilling but the presentation is nicer. So I guess which one you choose, depends on your priority there.
Check out this video to see how to make this homemade mac and cheese, step by step:
What’s the best dutch oven brand to buy?
Well, I’m not sure of that but I can tell you a little about the ones I’ve used. I used to own the Food Network dutch oven and I loved it. I actually purchased it from Kohl’s on Black Friday and didn’t know if I was going to use it that much but it was a great deal and they are not cheap otherwise.I quickly learned it’s very versatile! You can fry in it, make casseroles, popcorn and even bake bread in it! So dutch ovens in general are pretty awesome. I you don’t own one, I highly recommend making the investment.
But the point was, which one is the best. Well, the Food Network brand is pretty affordable compared to other brands. I am already on my second dutch oven though. The enamel started chipping on my first one I think because I used bleach to clean it. Apparently that’s a no no but I didn’t like the stains.
I now have a Lodge dutch oven and I think I love that one even more. 🙂 It’s even more reasonably priced and I like the rounded shape of it more. So far it’s held up about a year and it hasn’t stained like my other one did although, that may be because I know better how to use it now. ?
But what about a cast iron skillet?
As you may have noticed, the photos show my macaroni and cheese baked in my cast iron skillet. I knew I was going to be taking photos so I opted for the prettier presentation.
As I mentioned, you can still create your cheesy roux in the skillet, add your noodles and then transfer the skillet into the oven, it’s just a little harder to contain the macaroni noodles when you stir in the cheese but not impossible!
So if you have either a cast iron skillet or a dutch oven, you’re good to go. If not, no biggie, you’ll just have to use an extra casserole dish when transferring from the stove top to the oven to bake.
Tips for Making a Roux-based Cheese Sauce
Making a roux is simply melting butter and adding flour to form a paste that thickens your sauce. It’s pretty straight forward but one tip that will help you achieve the best flavor is this: When you melt the butter and whisk in flour, you want to let it bubble for a minute or two. This cooks the flour and the butter enriching the flavor, and cooking out some of the floury taste. You’ll want the butter and flour mixture to become a golden brown and then you’ll know it’s just right.
A roux-based cheese sauce becomes really thick quickly so you can thin it out with extra liquid, in this case, milk or chicken stock.
What’s the deal with adding barbecue sauce to macaroni and cheese?
I really love this combination! Especially when baking with bread crumb on top. This is a southern thing. The barbecue sauce is completely optional but if you’re serving this mac and cheese with something like pulled pork, ribs or even grilled chicken, then the barbecue sauce really works.
What other food goes well with mac and cheese?
My favorite way to serve mac and cheese is with pork ribs smothered in good quality barbecue with a side of broccoli slaw! And maybe a side of corn bread or corn casserole. 🙂
Try the 3-2-1 Ribs method for cooking pork ribs. It’s a no-fail easy way to cook ribs whether you’re a noob or pro.
Mac and cheese is a great side dish for any meal though, really. It pairs well with most any main dish.
Mac and cheese is a great and all but maybe you may need some other ideas!
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