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.
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.
I made sure to make this recipe the cheesiest, ooey-gooey, most comforting and creamy stove top Panera mac and cheese copycat I could possibly make, and I really wanted to make sure that when you tried this recipe, that you would truly believe that it tastes like Panera. Or as close as possible.
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! I simply cooked the pasta according to package directions and found that 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 quick and easy to make. Melt butter, add flour, and milk or heavy cream for 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 mustard and hot sauce. I didn’t because people tend to say they can be overwhelming, which is why I prefer using the spices, but feel free to add them to taste.
Use lots of freshly grated cheese, and a pasta that holds all that cheese sauce. Boom, Panera Bread mac and cheese all done in under 30 minutes!
Also, I do suggest using 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 science.
SO HOW DO I MAKE SURE MY Panera bread MAC AND CHEESE COMES OUT PERFECT EVERY TIME?
When making your bechamel, use a large pot to hold all the soon-to-be cheese sauce and make sure you are whisking constantly for a minute or two, 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 nappé sauce. Nappé means that it’ll coat the back of a spoon when it’s ready.
The Cheese — aka, the best part
Panera Bread’s Mac and cheese is known for using Vermont white cheddar cheese, which gives that nice, tangy “macaroni and cheese” flavor. But to get that creamy, ooey-gooey, cheesy texture, you’ll have to add something else.
Cheddar is a hard cheese, which means it doesn’t melt down into a creamy texture easily, and it can break and become grainy without some help to keep it together. This is where we breakout the American cheese. It has emulsifiers that keep your cheese from breaking apart, it’s easily accessible in the store, and it won’t change the flavor of your macaroni and cheese as long as you use a good trusted brand. While recipe testing, I found that some brands had a ton of added sugar that really changed the taste! Velveeta is a good melting option, too, by the way.
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 than a harder, sharper cheese and add more flavor.
As you add your cheese, make sure that the heat is OFF or your pot is removed from heat. 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 grainy and separating in a second.
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 home cook, this recipe would be best to try out, just use the same cheese and spice from this Panera Bread copycat.
Can I freeze 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 an hour, or until heated through. Stir well before serving, adding milk if it needs to loosen up.
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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.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 4 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 490
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.