With just 5 minutes cooking time (thank you Instant Pot!), this lush and creamy macaroni and cheese recipe is made with 100% real cheese and couldn’t be easier or faster to make in the pressure cooker. Plus, I’m sharing 5 more recipe ideas for jazzing up this old-fashioned family favorite for adults and kids alike, especially when it’s time to party.
I grew up on the blue-boxed variety of mac and cheese. In high school my friends called it yellow death. I called it delicious. In fact, it’s still one of those things we always have in the cupboard for emergency situations…like when it’s Tuesday…or Wednesday…or Thursday…or…you get the picture.
But after making this homemade mac and cheese recipe in less time and with all real ingredients, I don’t think I’ll be replenishing my stash any time soon.
I honestly can’t think of a food that is more comforting to me than a lush and creamy macaroni and cheese recipe, and I am ALWAYS on the lookout for a new variation on my favorite cheesy noodle. So when I was introduced to this pressure cooker version by my friend Ashley, it went straight to the top of my bust-out-the-Instant-Pot-must-make list.
And that’s how in just 5 minutes cooking time, we had this velvety lush mac and cheese ready for devouring.
Now that this recipe has become a super fast, weeknight solution for what to have when there’s no time to cook, I’ve come up with 5 doctored up versions of this basic mac and cheese recipe depending on what I had hanging out in my fridge to create a super easy solution for easy entertaining and creating a mac and cheese bar where guests can mix and match to make their own.
Who is ready to dig in?
How to Make Creamy Macaroni and Cheese
I remember years ago when a friend made us the most amazing homemade mac and cheese for a dinner party. It was lush. It was smooth. It was rich and velvety and everything mac and cheese devotees dream of. I asked him what the secret was to making it so creamy. His answer: Velveeta. Ugh. Now, I’ve been known to enjoy a slice or three of the processed stuff, but the real cheesy deal is way more my style.
So how do you get that lush creamy texture when you don’t want to use processed cheese or make a butter, flour and milk roux?
The secret is evaporated milk.
Evaporated milk can be somewhat confusing. Is it real milk or is it pseudo-milk? Evaporated milk is indeed real cow’s milk that’s been cooked down so some of the water content evaporates, creating a shelf-stable, always at the ready ingredient. I’ve used it time and again as creamer for my coffee when we’re out of milk or half and half. It’s concentrated and has a slightly heavier tasting milk. And in macaroni and cheese it keeps the cheese from breaking or getting greasy because there’s less moisture to contend with.
When cooking this mac and cheese there’s no need for draining the pasta cooking water, it’s all mixed into the sauce, and that’s why you only need 5 ounces compared to recipes like this that call for 3 cups of whole milk.
What to use instead of evaporated milk. To make your own evaporated milk, simmer 2 1/4 cups of regular milk down to 1 cup. Or replace it with 3/4 cup whole milk and 1/4 cup half-and-half.
The Best Cheese to Use in Mac and Cheese
Choosing the right cheese is essential to a delicious mac and cheese. I’ve found a combination of yellow and white cheeses is the best combo out there.
Choose a cheddar that has a bite to it, such as medium or even better, sharp cheddar cheese. This is the key for the signature cheese flavor.
For the velvety quality, add a meltable white cheese like:
- Monterey Jack
When adding the cheese to this mixture, you’ll want to use a heavy wooden spoon to really get in there and stir things up and add the cheese in batches. The result is a mac and cheese that’s smooth and rich and creamy.
Creamy Instant Pot Mac and Cheese
Use a combination of sharp cheddar with creamy white cheeses to create a mac and cheese with plenty of cheese flavor but won't become chalky.
- 1 pound macaroni pasta such as shells or cavatappi
- 4 cups water
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground mustard
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt optional
- 1 5- ounce can evaporated milk
- 4 cups shredded medium or sharp cheddar cheese
- 2 cups soft white cheese such as gouda Swiss, fontina, or provolone
- In the insert of an Instant Pot or pressure cooker, add the macaroni, water, butter, kosher salt, ground mustard and garlic salt. Cook in the pressure cooker for 5 minutes on high, then quick release. Add the evaporated milk and half of the cheeses and use a wooden spoon to vigorously stir until the cheeses have melted then repeat with the rest of the cheese, stirring until the sauce is creamy. Add any additional toppings or mix-ins below at this time. Serve warm.
Dressed Up Macaroni and Cheese Five Different Ways
Macaroni and cheese is one of the easiest meals to add a just a couple of ingredients and create a whole new spin on the original classic. I like to create these additions for parties, and serve up a simple, make-it-yourself mac and cheese bar. Simply keep the mac and cheese warm in the Instant Pot then let your guests mix and match to their hearts desires.
If I’m making it at home, I’ll often keep half of the mac and cheese plain for leftovers, then dress up a couple of individual bowls for eating right now.
Mac and Cheese with Hot Dogs
I grew up on this low-brow classic and it’s still a favorite today. To make, simply boil up a batch of hot dogs, then slice into bite size pieces and mix in. Use chicken sausage, kielbasa or other sausages if you’re feeling fancy.
Pesto Macaroni and Cheese
This version of dressed up mac and cheese is my daughter’s favorite. To make, simply stir in homemade pesto or store-bought. I typically use one tablespoon pesto per bowl. Add a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese or toasted pine nuts or walnuts for a little crunch. To make this even more of a Mediterranean-inspired meal, add chopped sun-dried tomatoes or roasted red bell pepper to round out the savory flavors.
Macaroni and Cheese with Caramelized Onions and Garlic Breadcrumbs
Sweet and jammy homemade caramelized onions add a touch of class to creamy mac and cheese. I make the onions ahead of time, store in the fridge, and then reheat them when in need. I like to add a contrasting crunch with a sprinkling of garlic breadcrumbs. To make, simply melt 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet over medium high heat, add 1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs and 1/4 teaspoon garlic and stir the breadcrumbs often until golden, toasted and fragrant. Stir in 2 teaspoons minced parsley and transfer immediately to a small bowl and set aside.
Top the macaroni and cheese with warmed caramelized onions and sprinkle with the toasted panko crumbs, or, stir the onions into the mac and cheese if desired.
Buffalo Chicken Mac and Cheese
Add 2 tablespoons butter to a medium bowl and melt the butter in the microwave. Stir in 2 tablespoons Frank’s RedHot Buffalo Sauce and add 1 cup of shredded chicken, mixing until combined. Top the mac and cheese with a few tablespoons of the shredded chicken in sauce, and garnish with crumbled blue cheese.
Macaroni and Cheese with Butternut Squash and Crispy Fried Sage
We often have leftover butternut squash in the fridge so with its mild taste, it’s a natural veggie to add in for a little more health in the mac. Both diced cooked squash or creamed work equally well here when combined with the cheesy sauce. To make the crispy fried sage, simply add 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil to a fry pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the sage leaves and cook for 15-30 seconds, flip, and cook for another 20 seconds or so. Transfer to a paper-towel lined plate and sprinkle with kosher salt to top the mac and cheese.
Roasted cauliflower, sweet potato, or even broccoli would work here too.
More Macaroni and Cheese Recipes to Love
- Skillet Cauliflower Mac and Cheese
- The Best Homemade Mac and Cheese
- Lobster Mac and Cheese
- Fried Mac and Cheese Balls
- Homemade Cheeseburger Mac and Cheese
- Stovetop Pesto Macaroni and Cheese with Corn and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
- Chicken Divan Macaroni and Cheese
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