Creamy, rich, super cheesy and flavorful white cheddar mac and cheese just like Panera Bread’s popular side dish! This dish is from-scratch and made in less than 20 minutes.
*Recipe and post has been edited for clarity! Thanks, y’all!*
Panera Bread has been going through some things.
Including taking away the beloved Chipotle Chicken Panini.
Nothing is safe. Including their macaroni and cheese. I am simply waiting for the day it disappears or ends up completely changed around….looking at you ‘chipotle chicken melt’. You ain’t no chipotle chicken panini. You are an impostor.
Which is why I like to take up the copycat recipes of my favorites. Especially Panera Bread’s mac and cheese. The chipotle chicken panini/mac and cheese Pick Two combo was my life at Panera, y’all.
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I made sure to make this recipe the creamiest, cheesiest, ooey-gooey, most comforting stove top mac and cheese I could possibly make, and I really wanted to make sure that when you tried this recipe, that you would be completely and utterly satisfied by it’s amazing similarity to Panera Bread’s mac.
Most copycats use shells I noticed. I do not; in fact I found this pasta type by accident, and what a happy accident it was. It’s called pipe rigate, and it looked really small in the box but it puffed up. At first I was like ‘oh no, it’s going to be too big to be a good ‘macaroni and cheese’ sized pasta, but noooo!
It’s perfect! Each shell is a medium sized, sort of mix between elbow and ‘shell’ pasta shapes, with a big mouth to hold lots of creamy cheese sauce.
I mean, just full of cheese.
This might go into my basics just because it’s so easy to make. Stove top mac: the bechamel, simple spices, including cayenne and mustard powder, although if you want to go with the original Panera Bread mac and cheese recipe, use a bit of Dijon and hot sauce (people tend to say they can be overwhelming, which is why I prefer using the spices), lots of freshly grated cheese, and a pasta that holds all that cheese sauce.
I mean, it’s really the best of a basic recipe, and Panera has made serious bank off of it.
Freshly grate a block of white extra sharp Vermont cheddar. Do it by hand, do it by food processor, just do it. Do not use the pre-shredded stuff in the bag; not only does the cellulose it’s dusted with make it harder to melt, but the cellulose can make your cheese sauce grainy.
Also, I do suggest whole milk or even heavy cream (or half and half) for a rich cheese sauce. Don’t skimp out and get skim. You will end up with grainy sauce, trust me. Something to do with fat in the milk and science. It’s a science.
So how do I make sure my mac and cheese comes out perfect every time?
When making your bechamel, make sure you are whisking constantly, mixing the flour with the fat well and cooking out the raw flour and making sure to get in those corners of the pot so nothing is missing (the flour in the corners can burn). Then slowly add your cold milk, whisking like a crazy person, to ensure that all the flour is being well incorporated and whisking while the bechamel thickens to make sure it doesn’t burn or clump at the bottom. You also want to make sure you don’t boil the bechamel, once the milk is incorporated you need to turn the heat to medium-low so your sauce doesn’t clump up, burn, or become grainy. You are looking for a thickened sauce, it’ll coat the back of a spoon when it’s ready.
As you add your cheese, make sure that the heat is OFF! Super important, y’all. If your heat is too hot, it will separate your cheese, making your sauce clumpy, grainy, oily; so keeping the heat off while adding the cheese to the hot bechamel sauce (turning it into a mornay! Hey, fancy culinary terms!) makes sure that the sauce stays smooth.
Also, make sure your cheese isn’t pre-shredded. The dust coating the shredded cheese will make the melting process difficult, which will make you want to turn the heat back on, and if you’re not careful, you can go from not melting to separating in a second.
A bit of American cheese is added. Sharp cheeses and harder cheeses tend to separate easily, they just aren’t the best of melters. Ones like American cheese (which is made with emulsifiers to ensure a smooth melting process) or even velvetta helps immensely. If you are uncomfortable with using American or Velveeta, other great melting cheeses to use are Gruyere, a mild white cheddar, and Monterey Jack. These are better at melting and add more flavor!
If you aren’t comfortable creating a mornay sauce (bechamel with cheese), try using the method I used in my creamy stove top mac and cheese. It’s an easy one pot mac and cheese recipe without using a bechamel, and will create a creamy, rich cheese sauce for your mac. IF you’re a beginner, this recipe would be best to try out, just use the same cheese and spice from this Panera Bread copycat.
You can also exchange most or all of the milk in this recipe with evaporated milk, using a small cornstarch slurry to make a thickener, like in my everything cheese sauce. This will give you a thick and creamy cheese sauce as well.
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- 16 oz uncooked pasta of your choice
- 4 tbsp unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup all purpose flour
- 3 cups whole milk or half and half, cold
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp ground white pepper
- 1/2 tsp mustard powder
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 8 oz block extra sharp white cheddar cheese, grated
- 4 oz block white American cheese (or other mild melting cheese like white cheddar), grated
- Cook pasta according to package directions in a large pot with well salted water.
While Pasta is Cooking
- In a medium sized saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. When melted, whisk in flour and cook for 2-3 minutes, whisking constantly to cook out the raw flour.
- Begin splashing in milk, 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 heat to medium-low, whisking consistently and getting into the corners (to ensure nothing sticks to the bottom and burns) until bechamel becomes thick and coats the back of a wooden spoon, about 5-8 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in spices.
- Stir in cheeses, a small handful at a time, whisking in well until the cheese melts completely. Continue until all cheese is incorporated. Taste, and season til you're satisfied.
- Drain pasta when ready and add back into the large pot; pour cheese sauce over pasta and stir to coat each piece of pasta well. Serve immediately.
Amount Per Serving:Calories: 490