Is there anything better than homemade mac and cheese? The uber creaminess of the bechamel sauce, the extra-long cheese-pull from every bite, the delicious salty-sweet balance of flavors—we are drooling just thinking about it!
But, sometimes, it just isn’t enough. Sure, traditional dishes are always good and will never go out of fashion, but what if you want something just a little bit extra?
Mac and cheese is the perfect dish that will allow you to add virtually anything while still remaining delicious!
So, what are the best simple additions to mac and cheese? We love adding either cured meats, chicken, tuna, or ground beef. These you can flavor in any way that you’d like and the biggest consideration is how it will pair with the cheese. You can also add vegetables, tomato, breadcrumbs, a variety and combination of cheeses, and spices.
Today, we will not only look at traditional mac and cheese but how to give it that extra bit of love.
We have divided the additions into categories so that you can see some of our favorite ways to add each. You can use this as a reference and create thousands of recipes to your liking!
Classic (Traditional Mac and Cheese)
Macaroni and cheese is a classic and world-famous dish that is loved by people of all ages! Arguably every household in the world has its own way of making it with its own unique twists.
This dish has been around for ages, albeit in a slightly different form. The first mention of pasta and cheese dishes dates all the way back to the 14th century in an Italian cookbook, Liber de Coquina.
Over the centuries, the delicious dish evolved and evolved into what we today know as the ultimate comfort food, macaroni, and cheese.
This delicious pasta dish is made with macaroni pasta and a delicious cheddar cheese sauce. This mixture is traditionally baked inside of a casserole dish, but other regions like to make theirs inside a saucepan on the stovetop.
Another classic way to make macaroni and cheese is to make a Mornay sauce. This is a type of cheese sauce where the grated cheddar cheese is added to a Bechamel sauce (white sauce) base.
The grated cheese melts away, creating an uber creamy and cheesy dish.
Traditional Mac And Cheese Variations
Now, of course, the word “traditional” means something different to everyone, especially when you ask people from different parts of the world.
While these recipes are variations of what most people know as a “traditional recipe”, they are still considered classic base recipes for mac and cheese.
The first major variation in recipes you will see is the type of pasta used. Traditionally, macaroni pasta is used which are slightly curved narrow tubes.
Other forms you will see in some recipes include short-cut extruded pasta or other types of decorative pasta.
Short-cut extruded pasta includes varieties like fusilli, mezze penne, penne pasta, and pipe rigate.
The other major variation on traditional macaroni and cheese is the cheese used. Traditionally, cheddar cheese is the most common type used. Other cheeses that are also sharp in flavor (or matured) include gouda, Havarti, Jarlsberg, gruyere.
Classic Baked Mac And Cheese Recipe
This is an incredibly easy and delicious traditional mac and cheese recipe that can be whipped up in less than an hour! And, it works as the ultimate base recipe for any variation, like the ones we will list below!
Ingredients For The Mac And Cheese
- 1 teaspoon fine salt
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 16 ounces elbow macaroni (or macaroni of your choice)
- 2 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
Ingredients For The Mornay Sauce
- 2 tablespoons cake flour (or all-purpose flour)
- 2 tablespoons salted butter
- 2 cups milk (or cream), heated
- 10 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
- ½ teaspoon fine salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Fill a large pot with water and fine salt. Bring the water to a boil.
- Then, once the water is boiling, add the oil to help prevent the pasta from sticking to each other. Add the elbow macaroni and give it a proper stir. Allow the pasta to boil for between 8-12 minutes, or according to the package instructions.
- While the pasta is cooking, start making the Mornay sauce. First, melt the butter in a large saucepan. The larger surface area will help make the sauce thicken quicker.
- Then, once the butter has been melted, remove the pan from the heat and add the flour.
- Whisk until you have a thick paste. Then, slowly add the heated milk while whisking constantly. Make sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the pan to ensure that all the roux (flour and butter thickening agent) is fully incorporated.
- Then, on low to medium heat, continue whisking until a thick sauce forms. Once the sauce has thickened, add the grated cheddar cheese and whisk until it has fully melted.
- Finally, add the fine salt and freshly ground black pepper, and whisk until a uniform mixture is formed.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a casserole dish with non-stick cooking spray or brush it with melted butter or olive oil.
- To assemble the traditional mac and cheese, combine the drained and cooked pasta with the Mornay sauce. Place the pasta inside the casserole dish and top with extra grated cheddar cheese.
- Bake the mac and cheese for roughly 20-30 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and become crispy.
9 Simple Additions To Mac And Cheese
The additions we have provided today we divided into categories. This will allow you to use them as guidelines and inspiration to create your very own unique flavor profiles for mac and cheese.
1. Cured Meats
Okay, so we thought we may as well start with the “fanciest” category of mac and cheese add-ins. But, while cured meats might sound fancy, it doesn’t have to be.
Cured meats include any type of meat that has been processed and include bacon, salami, ham, and pepperoni.
These are all extremely common examples that will add some protein, a ton of unique flavor, and color to your classic mac and cheese.
Less common, but still incredibly easy-to-find options include spicy chorizo, pancetta, Parma ham, corned beef, blood sausage, and prosciutto.
What makes cured meats a great option other than the nutritional value and protein they add, is that they come in a wide variety of flavors and textures.
By only using one cured meat per recipe, you will still never run out of options to try!
We especially love the smoked category of cured meats. It adds incredibly delicious and deep rich complex flavors to what can sometimes be a bland (or at the very least repetitive dish).
In terms of how or how much to add, this is entirely up to you. These meats are great to add because of how little work they require. For example, most of these meats can be added as-is—no other work or cooking is required.
And even if you have to cook it, like bacon or sausages, for example, you can do so in a separate pan and simply mix it into the mac and cheese base.
That’s it! You can add as much or as little of what you want and even use a combination of meats.
Tomato and pasta have always been a fantastic flavor pairing, but it isn’t very common to combine a tomato base with a cream base (the Mornay sauce). However, there are delicious ways you can do this.
Now, for this addition, we wouldn’t necessarily make a tomato sauce of any kind. The best way to incorporate tomatoes into your classic mac and cheese recipe is to use them whole in some way.
For example, you can simply add some fresh tomato slices and layer them between mac and cheese.
You can also make a diced tomato mixture. But, don’t make it too fine. You don’t want added moisture to thin the consistency of your creamy Mornay sauce or create a watery mess.
The slight tanginess and sweetness of fresh tomato balance out the salty cheesiness of the mac and cheese. It is truly a pleasantly surprising flavor pairing that works for any occasion!
This is another easy and very versatile addition to traditional mac and cheese.
You can play around with flavor as much as you would like to, but we would recommend using shredded chicken instead of chicken bites or whole pieces of chicken.
Mac and cheese isn’t a chunky dish, so don’t add anything bigger than bite-size.
The simplest way to incorporate shredded chicken is to simply roast chicken breasts with some salt and pepper, shred them, and fold them into your mac and cheese pasta base.
But, if you are feeling like experimenting with some flavor, you can make a delicious BBQ pulled chicken recipe or something like Cajun grilled pulled chicken.
You can use any recipe as long as it pairs well with the flavor of the cheese you use.
Then, you can also incorporate some vegetables alongside the chicken (but keep in mind, this is more work and makes the addition a little less simple, despite still being incredibly easy).
Vegetables that pair well with chicken include mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, and cauliflower.
4. Ground Beef
Ground beef works in pretty much the same way as the shredded chicken does, but the flavors that you will use to season the meat with will, for the most part, be a little bit different.
If you don’t like ground beef, you can also use beef pieces like beef goulashes or even stewing beef.
You just need to think about how to cook these types of beef cuts because they tend to require moisturizing cooking techniques and longer cooking times.
Incorporating ground beef is very easy. You can make a saucy ground beef mixture or a drier mixture simply seasoned with herbs and spices.
Both of these options have a ton of room for experimenting with and can simply be mixed in. They also don’t require a ton of time to make and add a lot of protein.
SO, this might not really seem like an “addition” however, adding multiple types of cheeses can create an incredible flavor profile and unbelievable creaminess!
And, you can still use some other additions like simple roasted shredded chicken or sautéed vegetables.
You can be as simple or elaborate as you’d like, but regardless of which you choose, this is one of the easiest and simplest additions to mac and cheese.
Some delicious cheese pairings we love include:
- Matured cheddar, muenster, parmesan, and gruyere
- Swiss cheese, gouda, feta, and cream cheese
- Matured cheddar, monterey jack, ricotta
- Fontina, parmesan, matured cheddar
- Cheddar, mozzarella, gouda
Adding vegetables to an otherwise very unhealthy and high-fat and carb meal, won’t necessarily make it healthier, but it will add some nutritional value.
You can add one or two vegetables or a wide variety—again, whatever you’d like to do you can, which is why we love this option. It is even a great way to use leftover vegetables or some that are close to expiring.
Some of our favorite vegetable additions and combinations to use with mac and cheese are:
- Broccoli and peas
- Spinach and cauliflower
- Bell peppers, carrots, broccoli, and corn
- Roasted sweet potato
- Green beans and cauliflower
The possibilities are endless and virtually all veggies go great with a creamy and cheesy pasta bake. You can even use some of these in conjunction with additional cheese or seeds and nuts.
Here are some more interesting and easy ideas:
- Spinach, onion, and feta
- Butternut and sunflower seeds
- Green beans and parmesan cheese
- Roasted vegetable mix with seed mix
While this may seem like a very strange and unorthodox addition, shredded canned tuna is a great, easy, and very budget-friendly addition to traditional mac and cheese. Not to mention all of the nutrients it adds!
Tuna is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and other essential vitamins and minerals.
And, if you aren’t the biggest fan of tuna, you can also add some smoked salmon ribbons, shredded smoked haddock, crabsticks, and even regular chopped crumbed fish fingers!
Breadcrumbs are a very underrated addition to mac and cheese and while it is written in stone as “traditional” in some countries, in others it is taboo. But we highly advocate it!
Breadcrumbs help add a very interesting crunch to the otherwise soft dish. You can fold it into the pasta base itself, but also add some additional crumbs to the top of the bake.
These crumbs will crisp up while the mac and cheese are baking and become deliciously golden brown.
What we love even more about this addition is that you can make your own breadcrumbs using stale bread. Simply break the old bread into small pieces, add some on top, and bake it as-is.
You can also make breadcrumbs from scratch by drying out the bread slice before crumbling it on top of the dish. This will give you a finer crumb and not large pieces.
Of course, we had to add spices to our list, because sometimes, it is as simple as that! Just think of how delicious your mac and cheese are with only salt and pepper.
Now, think about how incredibly flavorful it can be if you added some spice mixes to your Mornay sauce!
You can create a delicious Indian masala spiced mac and cheese using some garam masala, chili powder, cumin, and garlic powder.
Another one of our personal favorites is a spicy mac and cheese with hot mustard powder, some Szechuan pepper, and flavorful paprika.
But, everything doesn’t have to be hot. You can create a mildly-flavored autumn-like mac and cheese using nutmeg, sweet paprika, fenugreek, and some cinnamon powder.
Up Next: The 9 Best Whipped Cream Substitutes