Southern Mac and Cheese is synonymous with southern entertaining and is the ultimate in comfort food. You would be hard-pressed to find any type of holiday or celebration involving food in the South without a homemade, baked macaroni and cheese casserole, full of creamy melted cheese front and center on the table.
Often referred to as “soul food,” it’s right up there with fried chicken, collard greens, potato salad, black-eyed peas, and cornbread. This recipe is an old-school, traditional, homemade macaroni and cheese casserole made from scratch.
No boxed mac and cheese here. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve served it or brought it to covered dish suppers or other gatherings.
There are thousands of mac and cheese recipes out there, some fancy and some not, and some with additional ingredients such as lobster, bacon, hot dogs, hamburger meat or tomatoes. You can also find recipes in which it is cooked in a crockpot or an instant pot, or even in a pan on the stove.
No matter what the occasion, there is always room on the table for Southern Mac and Cheese, and quite often, it is the first side-dish folks look for. While all are delicious, sometimes classic and simple is best, and my recipe is just that, a simple, classic, tasty casserole. I hope you will give it a try.
What’s the best pasta:
Hand’s down; elbow macaroni pasta wins my vote every time. It’s also what is traditionally called for when making mac and cheese. However, with that said, in a pinch, or if you just prefer it, 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:
We could debate the merits of different 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 sharp white cheddar, Monterey Jack, Gruyere, Manchego, Gouda, or pretty much any combination of hard cheeses you happen to have on hand or prefer for the cheddar. 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 shredding the cheese yourself. 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 have to admit I’ve used pre-shredded cheese plenty of times; I won’t tell if you won’t.
Here’s what you will need:
You will need dry elbow macaroni, butter, all-purpose flour, kosher salt, dry ground mustard, whole milk, sharp cheddar cheese, and cream cheese. You will also need Ritz cracker crumbs, butter, and parmesan cheese for the topping.
Here’s how to make it:
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.
Cook the 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 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 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 pasta to the sauce and mix well to combine.
Pour the macaroni mixture into a large 5-quart baking dish that has been 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.
Leftovers and storage:
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, cover with aluminum foil and heat for 25-30 minutes. If frozen, allow it to thaw overnight in the fridge before reheating.
How to make it ahead:
You can make this dish up to 24 hours ahead. Make it up to the point of putting the macaroni and cheese mixture in a casserole dish, and do not make the topping. Cover tightly and refrigerate.
Before you are ready to serve it, remove it from the refrigerator to allow it to come to room temperature. Make the topping as directed and then bake as directed.
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.
If you are interested in other southern recipes, you might want to check out these popular favorites: Classic Southern Potato Salad, Homemade Peach Ice Cream, Southern Cheddar Biscuits, Southern Sweet Potato Pie, Southern Squash Casserole, Southern Cheese Grits Casserole, and Traditional Southern-Style Cornbread.
Here is a link to all of my southern recipes if you need more menu ideas or inspiration.
★ If you make this dish, please leave a comment and give this recipe a star rating. I would love to know how you liked it!
Thank you so much for visiting Grits and Pinecones!
Southern Baked Mac and Cheese Recipe
Macaroni and Cheese Ingredients:
- 16 ounces dry elbow macaroni
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoon ground mustard
- 5 cups whole milk
- 6 cups sharp shredded cheddar cheese
- 4 ounces cream cheese
- 1 1/2 cups Ritz cracker crumbs about 40 crackers
- 1/4 cup butter melted
- 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese grated
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- 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 of 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 (11x15), which has been 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.
**This recipe was originally published on December 23, 2017. It was republished on June 25, 2020, with expanded directions and tips.