Southern baked mac and cheese with a crunchy, golden brown breadcrumb topping! Made with gruyere and white cheddar cheese. Creamy, cheesy, and comforting!
Southern baked mac and cheese is one of my favorite comfort meals to make. It's creamy and loaded with tons of gruyere and white cheddar cheese. The breadcrumb topping adds tons of crunchy texture and buttery flavor! I use two different kinds of cheese in this baked mac and cheese but this recipe is versatile and can be made with different kinds of cheese. More on this below!
When making this southern baked mac and cheese, I recommend buying blocks of cheese and grating this using a food processor with the grater attachment. The cheese is fresher and it's way more cost effective than buying pre-shredded cheese. But you can definitely use pre-shredded cheese and your mac and cheese will still taste delicious!
Variations on Southern Baked Mac and Cheese
- Add protein
- precooked chicken or pork
- smoked sausages
- Add veggies
- sautéed onions and peppers
- roasted garlic
- diced carrots
- panko or regular breadcrumbs
- fried crunchy onions
- more shredded cheese
- Spicy Mac and Cheese
- cayenne pepper powder
- smoked paprika
- ancho chili powder
- chopped jalapenos
The Best Kind of Cheese to Use in Southern Baked Mac and Cheese:
The best cheese combination for mac and cheese is to use at least two types of cheeses - one for melting and creaminess, another for adding flavor:
- Use cheese that's extra creamy and melts smooth. These are usually younger cheeses that haven't been aged too long (though there are some exceptions to this). Examples of this are gruyere, harvarti, fontina, Swiss cheese.
- Use cheese that adds a lot of flavor - sharp cheddar, parmesan, pecorino, blue cheese, provolone.
For this recipe for southern baked mac and cheese, I used a creamy gruyere and a sharp white cheddar. Gruyere cheese is a creamy, mild cheese that is excellent for melting into sauces. But gruyere's flavor lacks sharpness and tang. To add more cheesy flavor, I used a sharp white cheddar. This combination was perfect in this mac and cheese!
What type of pasta is used in mac and cheese?
For mac and cheese, you want to use a pasta shape that's able to hold onto the mac and cheese sauce. Choose one with lots of texture, ridges, and grooves. A great example of this is cavatappi pasta. You can see in the photo below, the shape of the pasta allows it to hold onto a lot of sauce. Other good pasta shapes to use in mac and cheese are elbow macaroni, shells, fusilli, penne, or bowtie.
How to Make Southern Baked Mac and Cheese
How to Make Mac and Cheese Sauce
Start with Roux
Roux is a butter and flour mixture used to thicken up sauces. It's the base of a good mac and cheese. You don't want your roux to get too dark so keep the heat low enough to keep this a pale yellow color. Note: darker roux is traditionally used for gumbo and etouffee.
Make a Bechamel Sauce
Once the roux is ready, slowly drizzle in warm milk. This is important because it will help you avoid lumps. I also recommend using a whisk at this point to make sure you get a smooth sauce. Once the milk is added to the roux, it's called a bechamel sauce and it's now ready for the cheese.
Make a Mornay Sauce aka Mac and Cheese Sauce
Now that you have the bechamel sauce, turn off the heat and add in the shredded cheese. Once you add cheese to the bechamel sauce, it's called a mornay sauce, otherwise known as mac and cheese sauce. At this point, if you want spicy mac and cheese, you can add a dash of cayenne powder or finely chopped jalapenos to the sauce. I added a half teaspoon of cayenne and lots of freshly cracked black pepper. It definitely added a kick but it wasn't overwhelmingly spicy as we didn't want to make an overly spicy mac and cheese.
Pour your gruyere mac and cheese sauce on top of your slightly undercooked pasta and stir it together until the sauce completely covers your pasta.
Top it with extra shredded cheese and toasted butter breadcrumbs for some crunchy texture, then bake it in the oven. If your breadcrumbs start to get too dark, cover it with foil and continue baking.
Your southern baked mac and cheese should have a crunchy golden brown breadcrumb topping sitting on top of a layer of gooey, melted cheese. Underneath will be perfectly cooked pasta covered in a rich, creamy gruyere sauce. The perfect gruyere mac and cheese!
This gruyere mac and cheese makes the perfect side for the holidays! We've been making this for Thanksgiving and Christmas for 6 years and our friends and family request it every time!
How to Reheat & Store Leftovers
Store leftovers in an airtight container and store in the fridge for up to 5 days. This also freezes well and can be kept in the freezer for 1 month.
To reheat, place your mac and cheese in an oven safe dish and reheat at 350 degrees until the cheese starts to melt. You may need to cover the top with foil so the breadcrumbs don't burn. You can also microwave for 1 minute at a time until the cheese starts to melt.
I hope you enjoy this recipe for southern baked mac and cheese with breadcrumbs! Please share, rate, and comment below. I’d love to hear from you!
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Southern Baked Mac and Cheese with Breadcrumbs
- 1 lb cavatappi pasta
Mac and Cheese Sauce:
- 6 Tablespoons butter
- 6 Tablespoons all purpose flour
- 4 cups whole milk - warmed up in the microwave
- 1 cup diced yellow onions - (optional)
- 16 oz gruyere cheese - shredded
- 8 oz white cheddar cheese - shredded
- salt and pepper to taste
- 5 Tablespooons butter
- 2 cups breadcrumbs - use panko bread crumbs for a flakier crust
- ½ teaspoon cayenne powder - add more or less depending preference
- 2 teaspoons truffle oil
- Preheat your oven to 375 degress F.
- Boil the cavatappi pasta according to the directions but take it out and drain 1 - 2 minutes early. The pasta will further cook when it's baking in the oven so we do this to avoid overcooking the pasta.
Mac and Cheese Sauce
- Make the roux: Melt the butter in a pot over medium heat. Once it's melted, add in the flour and stir quickly using a flat spatula. Make sure to scrape the bottom and sides and continue stirring for 3 minutes. Make sure the roux doesn't get dark and stays a pale yellow color.
- Make the bechamel sauce: Slowly drizzle in the warm milk into the pot while stirring vigorously with a whisk. Add in the diced onions at this time. Stir continuously for about 5 - 7 minutes until the roux and milk have combined and the sauce has thickened. Make sure to scrape the bottom and sides. The bechamel should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
- Add the cheese: Turn off the heat and add ¾ of the gruyere and cheddar cheese to the pot. The rest will be used on top of the mac and cheese. Stir the sauce and cheese together until the cheese has fully melted. At this time, you can taste for salt and pepper. You may not need any depending on the saltiness of your cheese. Add in cayenne powder if you prefer a little spice.
- Add your cooked pasta to a baking dish and pour the sauce over the pasta. Mix it well until the pasta is completely covered. Top with the remaining ¼ shredded cheese.
- Melt the butter in a pan and then add the breadcrumbs and toss together until the breadcrumbs are evenly coated. Add in the optional truffle oil at this time.
- Spread the breadcrumbs evenly on top of the shredded cheese.
- Bake the mac and cheese on the center rack in the oven for 30 - 35 minutes. If the breadcrumbs start to get too dark, cover the mac and cheese with foil and turn down the heat to 350.
✎ Recipe Notes
- Mix the pasta with the cheese sauce and add it to your baking dish, leaving out the shredded cheese and breadcrumb topping.
- Let it cool, cover tightly, and store it in the fridge for up to 2 days.
- When you're ready to bake, add the shredded cheese and breadcrumb topping and bake at 375. It's ready when the edges are bubbly.
- Note: Chilled mac and cheese may take longer to bake than the time listed in the recipe. If you need to bake it longer, you may need to cover the top with foil towards the end to prevent the breadcrumbs from burning.
- Preheat your oven or toaster oven to 350 degrees F. Reheat until the mac and cheese is warmed through and the breadcrumb topping has crisped up again. If desired, you can add more breadcrumbs before reheating for more crunchy texture.
- If you find the cheese sauce has separated or to be dry, you can mix in a tablespoon of milk per serving and stir gently to combine.
*Nutritional information is an estimate, calculated using online tools.