3-Ingredient Stovetop Mac and Cheese Recipe

Fewer ingredients than the boxed version but comes together in the same amount of time.

A bowl of 3-Ingredient Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Why It Works

  • Cooking macaroni in a small volume of water concentrates the starch from the pasta, helping the cheese form a creamy emulsion.
  • Similar recipes call for cooking pasta in milk, which can scorch. Cooking in water and adding evaporated milk toward the end fixes this problem.
  • Evaporated milk contains protein micelles, which help keep an emulsified sauce smooth and creamy.

This macaroni and cheese—this pot of creamy, gooey, cheesy, glorious macaroni and cheese—was made with three ingredients in about 10 minutes. Seriously. That's one fewer ingredient than you need to add to the pot to make a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese.

Not only that, but all three ingredients are staples, with shelf lives of weeks or months, which means that a simple lunch is always on hand.

This idea came from working on my cacio e pepe recipe, the Roman dish with pasta, pecorino, and black pepper. In that recipe, I cook spaghetti in a small volume of water, using the starchy pasta water to emulsify the cheese into a creamy sauce. I wondered if the same thing would work for an American-style macaroni and cheese, using more cheese and cheddar in place of pecorino.

It didn't quite work the first time—the high proportion of cheese caused the sauce to break and turn greasy—but with a few tweaks, I nailed it.

Key #1: Use Less Water

The first key was to reduce the amount of water I was using to the bare minimum: I place the macaroni in a pot and add just enough cold water to cover it, then throw in a little pinch of salt and bring it all to a boil. So long as you stir while it cooks, the pasta cooks up perfectly al dente.

Macaroni in a boiling pot of water, being stirred. There is only just enough water to cover the pasta, which helps concentrate starch.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Why less water? Easy: more concentrated starch. As the pasta cooks, it sheds starch. You want that starch to stay in the pot, as it plays a crucial role in helping the sauce stay creamy and emulsified. Without it, the cheese turns tough and greasy.

Key #2: Use Evaporated Milk

The second big key was to use evaporated milk as the base liquid. Evaporated milk is a highly concentrated source of milk protein micelles—bundles of proteins that can act as powerful emulsifying agents—which help to keep the sauce creamy and smooth.

To make two servings, just think in sixes. All you've got to do is cook six ounces of dry pasta until the water is almost absorbed and the pasta is just shy of al dente (this takes about six minutes), then add six ounces of evaporated milk and six ounces of grated cheddar cheese (it also works fine with any good melting cheese, like Fontina, Gruyère, or Jack). Stir it all together until it's creamy and emulsified, and you're ready to eat. (If dinner gets slightly delayed for some reason, the sauce will thicken up, but you can thin it out again with a splash of water and some good stirring.)

Wasn't that easy?

A collage of four photos demonstrating ingredients being added. The top left image shows the cooked pasta in a dry pan. The top right image shows the pasta in a pan with milk added. The bottom left image shows the pasta, milk, and shredded cheddar in a pan. The bottom right image shows all of the ingredients mixed together, with the milk and cheese being fully emulsified into a combined sauce.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Now, normally I do all my research on existing recipes before I start working on my own version. This time, I was so excited to get into the kitchen that I completely neglected to do so until afterward. Good thing I eventually did, too, because it turns out that there are quite a few similar recipes out there. Many call for cooking pasta directly in milk, a technique that works okay, but it can lead to scorching if you're not super careful with stirring. I prefer the evaporated-milk route because it ensures a clean pan with no burnt bits on the bottom.

Of course, it also turns out that Pillsbury has a recipe that's almost completely identical, save for a few differences (less cheese, more pasta, longer cook time). Looks like I've got more in common with the Doughboy than just an overly poke-able belly.

Anyway, just because Pillsbury did it first doesn't make the recipe any less delicious (and I happen to like my extra-cheesy version better).

So tell me. Would you rather eat what comes out of that blue box, or this?

Close up of the finished mac and cheese in a pan

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Yeah, I thought so.*

Luckily, six minutes is all you need for a complete ab workout, so give yourself a quarter of an hour and you can make dinner and then immediately work it off, with some time left over to drop your dishes in the dishwasher. Is this going to replace my ultra-gooey stovetop mac and cheese as my favorite stovetop mac and cheese recipe? I don't think so, but as far as work-to-results ratios go, this new one is one of the best recipes around.**

*Okay, even I admit that sometimes Kraft mac and cheese is exactly what I want, especially if I make it the way my mom did, with an extra slice of American cheese melted into it.

** If you are willing to kick it up by a couple ingredients, try a good dash of hot sauce, some mustard powder, or a little knob of butter stirred in there as well. I won't consider it cheating.


How to Make 3-Ingredient, 10-Minute Stovetop Mac and Cheese

January 2017

Recipe Facts



Cook: 15 mins
Active: 8 mins
Total: 15 mins
Serves: 2 servings

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  • 6 ounces (170g) elbow macaroni

  • Salt

  • 6 ounces (180ml) evaporated milk

  • 6 ounces (170g) grated mild or medium cheddar cheese, or any good melting cheese, such as Fontina, Gruyère, or Jack


  1. Place macaroni in a medium saucepan or skillet and add just enough cold water to cover. Add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently. Continue to cook, stirring, until water has been almost completely absorbed and macaroni is just shy of al dente, about 6 minutes.

    Macaroni elbow pasta cooking in a pot of water

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

  2. Immediately add evaporated milk and bring to a boil. Add cheese. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring continuously, until cheese is melted and liquid has reduced to a creamy sauce, about 2 minutes longer. Season to taste with more salt and serve immediately.

    A collage showing the steps to making 3-ingredient mac and cheese. The evaporated milk is added to cooked pasta. The second photo shows shredded cheddar cheese added to the pasta and milk. The third photo shows the cheese is melted but not yet incorporated. The fourth photo shows the cheese sauce enveloping the noodles.

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik


If you are willing to kick the total ingredients up to more than three, try a good dash of hot sauce, some mustard powder, or a little knob of butter stirred in with the evaporated milk.

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
605 Calories
36g Fat
38g Carbs
31g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 2
Amount per serving
Calories 605
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 36g 46%
Saturated Fat 21g 103%
Cholesterol 112mg 37%
Sodium 947mg 41%
Total Carbohydrate 38g 14%
Dietary Fiber 2g 5%
Total Sugars 10g
Protein 31g
Vitamin C 2mg 9%
Calcium 857mg 66%
Iron 1mg 8%
Potassium 388mg 8%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)