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This copycat Panera Mac and Cheese is super easy to make, with a well-seasoned cheese sauce and fun pasta shells! A perfect lunch or dinner side dish that's made in just 20 minutes.
When my husband and I were teens we used to go on little dates and study groups to Panera Bread, which was one of my favorite restaurants at the time, and get matching you-pick-two meals: Chipotle Chicken Panini and a cup of white cheddar mac and cheese.
Panera has gotten rid of their delicious original bacon-and-chicken sandwich but their mac and cheese is still going strong...
They've now got their baja mac and that delicious broccoli cheddar mac (which is based on their yummy Broccoli Cheddar Soup) but the classic Vermont White Cheddar Mac will always have a soft spot in my heart.
I'm just not paying eight bucks for it.
Since I love making copycat recipes, here's this dead ringer for panera's mac and cheese. It makes really creamy white cheddar macaroni and cheese in a short amount of time, it's one of my favorite side dishes that my whole family loves (or is a kid-friendly main dish) and it's comfort food that can be enjoyed year round. And the best part is that it taste just like the real thing but made in your own kitchen!
How to Make Panera Bread Mac and Cheese
On Panera's website the ingredient list for their mac broken down in laymen's terms is pasta, pasteurized processed cheese, milk and heavy cream, cheese sauce, salt, and flour. And of course a bunch of other stuff most people just aren't going to have or use because it's a mass made product.
Making mac and cheese is very simple: make a cheese sauce, boil pasta, mix it together. Here's what you need to make this copycat recipe:
Shells Pasta. This type of pasta holds a ton of cheese sauce because it cups around itself, leaving a big spoon area for cheese to sit in. Remember to salt your pasta water well in a large pot of water, it should taste 'like the ocean' before dropping in the shells. Cook it to al dente while you make the white cheddar cheese sauce
Butter. 'Milk Fat' is one ingredient in the original recipe, and that's what butter is!
Flour. To make the cheese sauce, you'll need to make a roux, which is flour and fat mixed together to create a thickening agent.
Whole Milk or Heavy Cream. Want a decadently rich, supremely creamy mac and cheese? Use heavy cream. You can replace at least half of the milk with it for a really fabulous dish.
Sharp White Cheddar Cheese. Panera's mac uses Vermont Sharp White Cheddar Cheese. Cracker Barrel (the cheese company, not the restaurant) makes their block Vermont Sharp Cheddar Cheese tastes exactly like Panera Bread's. But if you have a sharp cheddar cheese that you like, use it! If sharp cheddar isn't your type of cheddar, mild works as well. While different kinds of cheese can be used, the panera version uses specifically sharp white cheddar.
Pro Tip: Shred your own cheese using a box grater or food processor. Pre-shredded cheese is covered in cellulose, which keeps them from clumping together but also keeps the cheese from melting into a smooth, creamy sauce. So the best cheese to use for mac and cheese is a block of cheddar.
White American Cheese. That 'pasteurized cheese product' in their ingredient list? That's this. American cheese is full of emulsifiers, which stabilize cheese so that when it heats up it melts instead of separating and becoming gritty and grainy. This is most noticeable in a grilled cheese sandwich; nothing makes a grilled cheese better than American cheese and that's a fact, Jack.
Spices. We need seasoning here! A little garlic powder for flavor, black pepper, kosher salt, and mustard powder does wonders. The ground mustard enhances the cheddar flavor, I promise it doesn't taste like mustard at all. You could also substitute it for a small amount of dijon mustard.
Hot Sauce. I would call this one of the the secret ingredients. The mustard being the other one This is what separates regular white cheddar mac from Panera's white cheddar mac. No, it won't give you spicy mac and it won't taste like 'hot sauce', but it gives a distinct flavor profile that will make you go 'yeah, that's Panera Bread'. I like using sriracha because it's low in spice but big in flavor.
Making the Cheese Sauce
Making from scratch mac and cheese creamy and rich is easy when you know how to make a great cheese sauce. Make it while the pasta cooks so you
First, melt the butter in a large saucepan and then whisk in the flour. We want to whisk for another minute to cook out the raw flour taste, otherwise your sauce will have a hint of 'glue'.
Splash in the milk or cream, and make sure it's cold! Hot roux + cold milk = no lumps! Whisk the whole time while splashing a small amount at a time until the roux is mostly liquid instead of flour. Let it simmer until the sauce thickens up.
Pro Tip: You'll notice that the roux will suck up the milk and kind of seize up while whisking. Don't panic! That's just how roux acts. It'll keep doing that and it won't get nice and smooth until the sauce is more milk than roux. Just keep whisking and adding the milk; I promise you won't get lumps.
Once your sauce (which is technically called a bechamel right now) is thickened until it's nappe (this means it coats the back of a spoon and you can run a finger down the spoon and the sauce stays thick and separated), take it off the heat and add in small handfuls of cheddar and American cheeses at a time, whisking between each addition until the cheese melts.
Cheese can separate easily when the pot is still on the heat, especially a harder cheese like sharp cheddar or low-fat cheeses. That can lead to grainy and gritty mac and cheese. So taking it off the heat, while adding just enough cheese before mixing will make sure the cheddar gets melted in without breaking and separating. The emulsifiers in the American cheese will help with that, too.
Add in the spices, and stir in your cooked pasta shells. Taste for additional salt and stir it up. It's okay if some pasta water gets mixed in, it'll help make super creamy macaroni and cheese.
Ta-da! See how easy that was to make? I got a ton of little tricks for making the best mac and cheese recipe with simple ingredients, honey.
Keep the mac in an air tight container for up to 3 days (if it lasts that long) and reheat on the stove top in a saucepan or in the microwave with a splash of milk stirred in.
Can I Freeze and Reheat Mac and Cheese?
To freeze your mac and cheese, pour all of it into a freezer-to-oven safe dish, like an aluminum foil pan, and wrap with more foil. It’ll keep in the freezer for up to two months.
To reheat, bake in the pan covered with the foil with 2 tablespoons of milk per serving of Mac and cheese. Bake at 350 degrees f (180 degrees C) for about half an hour, or until heated through. Stir well before serving, adding milk if it needs to loosen up.
You can also freeze it in separate servings in freezer-safe zip top bags and thaw and rewarm the mac and cheese in a pot of gently simmering water for about 20-30 minutes until completely warmed through.
Want more amazing mac and cheese recipes? Check these out:
- Ultimate Bacon Mac and Cheese
- BBQ Pulled Pork Mac and Cheese
- Soul Food Southern Baked Mac and Cheese
- One Pot Stove Top Mac and Cheese
- Gentleman Jack Bacon Mac and Cheese
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- 16 oz uncooked shells pasta
- 4 tablespoon (56 g) unsalted butter
- ¼ cup (30 g) all purpose flour
- 3 cups (710 mL) whole milk, heavy cream, or half and half, cold
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon mustard powder
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon hot sauce
- 8 oz block extra sharp white cheddar cheese, grated
- 4 oz white American cheese (or other mild melting cheese like white cheddar), in small pieces
- Cook pasta according to package directions in a large pot with well salted water.
Make Creamy White Cheddar Cheese Sauce
- In a Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat. When melted, whisk in flour and cook for about a minute, whisking constantly to cook out the raw flour taste.
- Begin splashing in the cold milk or heavy cream, small amounts at a time, whisking well. It will seize up, don't panic. Continue pouring milk in small amounts, constantly whisking to ensure smoothness, until the mixture is no longer a paste-like consistency but more like a soupy liquid.
- Turn the heat to medium-low, whisking occasionally and getting into the corners to ensure nothing sticks to the bottom or the corners and burns, until the bechamel becomes thick and coats the back of a wooden spoon, about 5-8 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in mustard powder, garlic powder, and hot sauce.
- Stir in the sharp white cheddar and American cheeses, a small handful at a time, whisking in well until the cheese melts completely before adding the next addition. Continue until all the cheese is incorporated. Season with kosher salt and black pepper to taste.
- Drain the pasta when ready and add it into the Dutch oven; stir to coat each piece of pasta well with cheese sauce. Serve immediately.
Don't like American Cheese?
That's fine! Use another great melting cheese like Emmental, Gruyere, or Havarti!
Nutrition Information:Yield: 6 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 504Total Fat: 30gSaturated Fat: 17gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 10gCholesterol: 89mgSodium: 1021mgCarbohydrates: 37gFiber: 2gSugar: 2gProtein: 22g
All nutrition facts are estimations. Please see a physician for any health-related inquiries.
Eden Westbrook is the recipe developer, writer, and photographer behind Sweet Tea and Thyme. A classically trained chef, Eden has inspired home cooks into the kitchen with cultural comfort foods, easy family-friendly eats and sweets, and glorious spreads for date night and entertaining since 2015.