3-Ingredient Stovetop Mac and Cheese Recipe

This creamy, homemade macaroni and cheese has fewer ingredients than the boxed version, and comes together in the same amount of time.

A bowl of 3-Ingredient Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese.
Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Video: J. Kenji López-Alt

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.

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.

The first key was reducing the amount of water to a bare minimum, just enough cold water to cover the macaroni in its pot.

Less water yields 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.

The second key was using 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.

There are quite a few similar recipes out there. Many call for cooking pasta directly in milk, a technique that works okay, but 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.

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 around.

1:43

Recipe Facts

4.5

(83)

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

Rate & Comment

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

  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.

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  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.

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Note

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.