Southern Baked Mac and Cheese is synonymous with Southern entertaining and the ultimate comfort food.
You would be hard-pressed to find any holiday or celebration involving food in the South without a homemade, baked mac ‘n cheese casserole, full of creamy melted cheese front and center on the table.
You will find a mac and cheese casserole dish (or two!) at almost every social gathering in the South. Try my version of this easy pasta dish full of tender macaroni noodles and creamy cheese sauce; it’s sure to become one of your favorite recipes.
In my opinion, the best mac and cheese is the simple, classic kind. This recipe is an old-school, traditional macaroni and cheese made from scratch. It’s the favorite side dish at every gathering I take it to, and a perfect accompaniment to almost any main dish.
My Southern-style macaroni and cheese has a super creamy texture and is topped with crushed buttery Ritz crackers that take the flavor to the next level. Bring it to your next Sunday dinner gathering, and it is sure to get rave reviews.
Why you will love this recipe:
- Homemade mac and cheese is the perfect side dish for special occasions. It goes well with all kinds of main dishes.
- It is a crowd-pleaser! Everyone at your family gatherings, from kids to adults, will love this easy Southern-style dish.
- This recipe makes the best Southern baked mac and cheese with creamy cheesy goodness.
Ingredient notes and substitutions:
- Elbow macaroni: As mentioned above, feel free to substitute your favorite cooked pasta instead of elbow macaroni.
- Butter: Brings richness and body to the cheese sauce.
- All-purpose flour: Combined with the butter, flour serves as the base of the roux for our cheese sauce.
- Kosher salt: To season the sauce
- Ground mustard: Mustard powder is the secret ingredient in any great mac and cheese. It helps balance the richness of the dish.
- Milk: I recommend whole milk for a rich and creamy sauce.
- Sharp cheddar cheese: For the best melty cheese, make sure to shred it by hand.
- Cream cheese: Adds a silky smooth texture to the cheese sauce.
- Ritz crackers: Ritz crackers add a perfect buttery crunch to the top of the this casserole. You could substitute buttered bread crumbs or panko if you don’t have Ritz crackers.
- Parmesan cheese: I always love a mix of different cheeses in mac and cheese, and the Parmesan in the cracker topping adds a great depth of flavor.
How to make Southern Baked Macaroni and Cheese:
- Preheat your oven to 375°F.
- Cook the pasta according to package directions to the al dente stage. Drain and set aside.
- Melt the butter in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat.
- When the butter is melted, add the flour, salt, and mustard, a little at a time, whisking constantly.
- When the flour and butter mixture is smooth, add the milk, a little at a time, continually whisking to make sure you don’t have any lumps.
- Continue to cook for about two minutes or until the béchamel sauce is thickened and smooth. Test the mixture often by coating the back of a spoon with the sauce. Run your finger across the sauce. If the line is thick enough that it stays put without dripping or running, it’s done.
- Add the cheese slowly to the sauce, about a cup at a time, and stir until melted. Once you have added all of the cheese, add the cream cheese and stir until combined. Remove the pan from the heat.
- Add the cooked pasta to the sauce and mix well to combine.
- Pour the macaroni mixture into a large 5-quart baking dish sprayed with no-stick cooking spray. Set aside.
- Add the Ritz crackers to your food processor and pulse until the crackers are crushed into fine crumbs. Add the melted butter and parmesan cheese and mix well to combine.
- Top your casserole evenly with the crumb mixture and bake for 30-35 minutes or until the sauce is bubbly and the crumb topping is golden brown and crispy.
- Serve your Southern Mac and Cheese Casserole immediately.
What’s the best pasta to use in this recipe:
Elbow macaroni wins my vote every time for the best pasta for a traditional mac and cheese recipe. However, you can substitute just about any pasta you like or have on hand. Good choices include penne, shells, farfalle, rotelli, cavatappi, fusilli, ziti, and rigatoni.
What’s the best cheese to use in this dish:
We could debate the merits of different kinds of cheeses all day long. This recipe features a combination of three kinds of cheese: sharp cheddar, cream cheese, and parmesan.
However, it’s a versatile recipe, so feel free to substitute any types of cheese you love. Sharp white cheddar, medium cheddar, Monterey Jack, Colby Jack, Gruyere, Manchego, Gouda, or pretty much any combination of hard cheeses you happen to have on hand would be delicious. When I make this dish, I usually clean out my cheese drawer and use bits and pieces of what I have on hand.
The most important part of the cheese equation is to shred your own cheese. I know how tempting it is to use the pre-shredded cheese and how much time it saves, but if you want the creamiest mac and cheese, shred it yourself.
That said, I must admit I’ve used pre-shredded cheese when I’m in a time crunch, so I won’t tell if you won’t.
How to store and reheat leftovers:
Leftovers will keep in a tightly covered container for three to five days in the refrigerator or up to two months in the freezer.
To reheat in the oven, splash about a tablespoon of water over the top, cover with aluminum foil, and heat for 25-30 minutes. If frozen, allow it to thaw overnight in the fridge before reheating.
You can also reheat individual servings in the microwave. Add a few drops of water to the top, cover loosely with wax paper, and microwave for 30 seconds to one minute.
Make it ahead:
You can make this dish up to 24 hours ahead. Make it to the point of putting the macaroni and cheese mixture in a casserole dish, and do not make the topping. Cover tightly, refrigerate, or wrap tightly in plastic and aluminum foil, and freeze.
If frozen, allow to thaw in the refrigerator overnight before baking. Before you are ready to bake it, remove it from the refrigerator to allow it to come to room temperature. Make the topping as directed, and sprinkle it over the top, then bake as directed.
There is no difference. Mac and cheese, or mac n’ cheese as it’s sometimes called, are the same. It’s just called different names in different parts of the country.
Pasta plus cheese equals the most comforting of comfort food. When you are eating it, it feels like a warm hug! It also often evokes nostalgic memories of childhood and home cooking.
Be sure to cook the pasta only to the al dente stage. It will continue to cook when you bake it.
In this recipe, the addition of the crushed Ritz crackers and Parmesan cheese makes a delightfully crispy and tasty topping.
Expert Tips and Tricks:
- If you don’t want to use your food processor to crush the crackers, place them in a plastic storage bag. Crush with a rolling pin, or even your hands until they are broken into fine crumbs.
- If you don’t have kosher salt and want to substitute table salt, use only half as much as the recipe calls for.
- To make this recipe gluten-free, use gluten-free elbow macaroni, substitute one-fourth cup of cornstarch for the flour, and use gluten-free panko crumbs instead of the Ritz cracker crumbs.
More Southern recipes:
If you need more menu ideas here is a link to all of my Southern recipes:
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Best Southern Baked Mac and Cheese Recipe with Ritz Crackers
- 11'x15"'baking dish, 5 quarts
Macaroni and Cheese Ingredients:
- 16 ounces dry elbow macaroni
- ½ cup butter
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons ground mustard
- 5 cups whole milk
- 6 cups sharp shredded cheddar cheese
- 4 ounces cream cheese
- 1 ½ cups Ritz cracker crumbs about 40 crackers
- ¼ cup butter melted
- ½ cup Parmesan cheese grated
- Preheat oven to 375°F
- Cook pasta according to package directions to the al dente stage. Drain and set aside.
- In a large pot or dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat.
- When the butter is melted, add the flour, salt, and mustard, a little at a time, whisking continually.
- When the flour and butter mixture is smooth, add the milk, a little at a time. Keep whisking to make sure you don't have any lumps.
- Continue to cook for about two minutes or until the sauce is thickened and smooth. Test the mixture by coating the back of a spoon with the sauce. Run your finger across the sauce. If the line is thick enough that it stays put without dripping or running, it's done.
- Add the cheese slowly to the sauce, about a cup at a time, and stir until melted. Once you have added all the cheese, add the cream cheese and stir until combined. Remove the pan from the heat.
- Add the pasta to the sauce and mix well to combine.
- Pour the macaroni mixture into a large 5-quart baking dish (11" x 15"), sprayed with no-stick cooking spray. Set aside.
- Add Ritz crackers to your food processor and pulse until the crackers are crushed into fine crumbs. Add the melted butter and parmesan cheese and mix well to combine.
- Top your casserole evenly with the crumb mixture and bake for 30-35 minutes or until the sauce is bubbly and the crumb topping is crispy and golden brown.