Use this guide for your first from-scratch, cheese dish, or to learn how to make your mac game even better.

Food trends come and go, but mac and cheese is forever. It’s one of the few dishes that appeals to children and adults alike, both in its simpler boxed forms, and in more refined variations. Because mac and cheese, at its most basic, is only comprised of the two ingredients included in the name, it’s also an incredibly versatile dish, one that can be changed up to suit growing palates of any age. And it’s also become a popular offering for companies that make frozen or instant meals, making it a great choice for people who need meals on the go. But mac and cheese isn’t only easy when it comes from a prepackaged meal — in fact, it’s very simple to whip up and customize at home, using your family’s favorite cheeses, toppings, and mix-ins to make the mac that works best for you.

We understand some home chefs might forswear unfamiliar mac in favor of their family’s favorite recipes; holidays simply wouldn’t be holidays without the traditional side dishes. But if you’re feeling experimental one night, a new version of mac and cheese might hit the spot. And if you’ve never made mac at home, then this guide will give you a place to start. Feel free to use this guide for your first from-scratch, cheese dish, or to learn how to make your mac game even better.

Step One: Choose Your Noodles

Mexican Mac and Cheese
Credit: Hector Sanchez; Styling: Heather Chadduck Hillegas

Technically, the noodle choice should be made obvious by the name, but there’s no real reason to be a pasta prescriptivist here. Penne, rotini, shell pasta — really any pasta that’s bite-sized and can absorb sauce is a good choice. If you’re trying to cut your carbs, or simply add more veggies, you could treat cut cauliflower like pasta and boil it right along with your noodles. Those cruciferous veggies will take on a macaroni-like texture, and taste fantastic once they’re covered in sauce.

Step Two: Choose Your Cheese & Cheese Sauce

Blue Cheese Mac-And-Cheese image
Credit: Meredith Food Studios

Meredith Food Studios

Once you’ve chosen your noodles, it’s time to decide which cheeses would go best on your cheese sauce. Of course, you could always go with a cheese that melts easily, like American or Velveeta, and including at least some of those cheeses will lend your cheese sauce a creamier finish. But you could also make a custom cheese sauce out of nearly any cheese by starting with a bechamel base and adding a cup of cheese for each two cups of milk while the sauce is still hot. Some cheeses, like extra sharp cheddar, will have a harder time melting, while others, like fontina and gouda, will easily mix into your sauce. If you’re including a cheese that emulsifies less readily, consider using a different cheese as a sauce and sprinkling the harder cheese across the top of your dish as a finisher. And don’t limit yourself to cheese varieties in the pre-shredded bag aisle; cream cheese, and other soft cheeses like ricotta, are your friends too.

Cheese type isn’t the only important choice to make at this stage. Depending on what kind of mac you’re making, you might want to include a few extra flavors in your sauce. A hint of mustard is a common choice, as is tabasco, but you could also stir in butternut squash for even brighter, creamier cheese. Roasted garlic also goes great when pureed in with the bechamel. If you’re in the mood for strong tasting food, try mixing in a small amount of truffle oil when making your sauce; when combined with the right cheese, the mushroom flavor will add incredible depth to your finished meal.

Step Three: Choose Your Mix-Ins

mr - Lobster Mac and Cheese Reshoot
Credit: Greg Dupree; Food Styling: Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Missie Crawford

Greg Dupree; Food Styling: Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Missie Crawford

Plain mac and cheese is, of course, delicious, but what’s the harm of mixing in a few complimentary ingredients? Classic options here include steamed broccoli, roasted peppers, bacon, and hot dogs, but if you’ve got any pulled pork on hand, you can make a fantastic barbecue-themed mac. Fried chicken or cut up chicken tenders is an easy way to step up your mac. For seafood lovers, lobster or crab mac and cheese might hit the spot. And of course, if you’re trying to sneak more veggies into your diet, you can simply roast whichever varieties you like best and stir them in. Take this as an opportunity to get a bit more creative while also using up more leftovers at the same time.

Step Four: Choose Your Toppings

Baked Smokin' Macaroni and Cheese
Credit: Beth Dreiling Hontzas; Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine

Once you’ve gotten the rest of your mac together, it’s time to decide how you’d like to finish it off. As previously mentioned, you could just top your mac with some additional cheese, but you could also finish it off with breadcrumbs and herbs. You could also make a topping made out of cereal and red pepper, showcased in the Baked Smokin’ Mac and Cheese linked above. And if you’d rather, you can always take the ingredients you originally planned to mix-in and use them as a topping ingredient instead. Roasted tomatoes would taste amazing mixed into mac, but they look even more incredible when used to top the finished fish.

Step Five: Cook Your Mac

How to Make Mac and Cheese on the Stove

Creamy Stove-Top Macaroni and Cheese
Creamy Stove-Top Macaroni and Cheese
| Credit: Lee Harrelson

Creamy Stove-Top Macaroni and Cheese Photo: Lee Harrelson

Stovetop mac and cheese is quite possibly the simplest way to make this classic recipe, since it can be completed in just a few steps: boil noodles, make cheese sauce, stir to combine. Cook your pasta to your preferred doneness, drain, and set aside. Then, once you’ve made your cheese sauce and allowed it to thicken to your preference, stir the pasta and cheese sauce together and pour into a serving dish. Finish with your favorite toppings and serve immediately.

How to Make Mac and Cheese in the Oven

Classic Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Classic Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Oven-baked mac and cheese is definitely the way to go if you prefer a thick, cheesy crust. For this recipe, warm your oven to at least 350°, but no higher than 400°. Combine pre-cooked or no boil noodles with your cheese sauce, along with any mix-ins you might like to use, and then pour the mac into an oven-safe dish. Top with cheese, bread crumbs, or whatever finishing ingredients you’d like to use, and then cook for 20 to 30 minutes. If you’re worried about the cheese or toppings getting too brown, tent your mac with foil until the last 10 minutes. You can also finish off the topic with a broiler instead, if desired.

How to Make Mac and Cheese in a Slow Cooker

Uncle Jack's Mac-and-Cheese
Credit: Hector Sanchez; Styling: Caroline M. Cunningham

This slow cooker recipe makes for a nostalgic, cafeteria-style macaroni that you can slice and serve like pie. Start with cooked noodles, and then combine heavy cream, evaporated milk, eggs, butter, and cheddar cheese to make a binder. Combine that binder with your noodles, then pour the mixture into a greased slow cooker. Sprinkle cheese over the top, then cook for three hours on high and then for one hour on low. It’ll be ready with almost no work at all.

How to Make Mac and Cheese in an Instant Pot

Instant Pot Bacon Mac and Cheese
Credit: Briana Riddock

Briana Riddock

If you have an Instant Pot, then you already have a way to make creamy, delicious mac and cheese in under 30 minutes. Start by using the saute function to cook up some bacon, broccoli, or whatever else you might want to stir into your macaroni. Remove your mix-ins, and then put uncooked pasta, water, butter, and salt into the pot. Set your pressure cooker function to “Less” by hitting adjust, and then cook the pasta for four minutes. Once you release the steam, you’ll be ready to stir in some evaporated milk and some cheeses of your choice to finish off this simple, yet delectable mac.

How to Make Campfire Mac and Cheese

One Pan Mac n Cheese
Credit: Thomas J. Story

This recipe requires you to premake a cheese sauce of your choice at home, but it’s worth the extra prep to have a delicious, filling meal while you’re out camping. For this recipe, make up your favorite mac sauce and store it in an airtight container. Then, bring some no boil noodles with you and cook them in about three cups of water using a cast iron pot or pan. Once the noodles have absorbed about half the water, stir in the cheese sauce, adding toppings if desired, and enjoy.

How to Make Mac and Cheese More Fun

Fried Mac & Cheese Bites

If the idea of eating mac in a bowl is getting old, you could always change up its form. Try baking mac in muffin tins for little bite-sized bits of cheesy goodness. Or, add some mac and cheese between two slices of American and wheat to make an amazingly gooey mac and grilled cheese sandwich. If you’re feeling really ambitious, freeze or refrigerate mac and cheese until it becomes congealed. Cut the mac into cubes, then dredge the cubes in flour, eggs, and breadcrumbs. Deep fry them, and you’ll have an appetizer that everyone will be grabbing for.