Is there anything better than a good old plate of homemade macaroni and cheese? It’s a very quick and easy dish to make, has a ton of variations to the recipes, and is an extremely delicious and filling meal.
But sometimes macaroni and cheese can become a bit boring, repetitive and bland, so why not change it up? The easiest way to add some variety is by changing the flavor profile of the sauce or by substituting the milk.
So, what are the best substitutes for milk when making mac and cheese? Any creamy or milk-based product is a great substitute for plain milk in mac and cheese, be it animal or plant-based. These include dairy-based products like cream cheese, sour cream, and yogurt. Plant-based options include coconut milk, almond milk, and soy milk.
Today we will look at some of the best substitutes for milk in mac and cheese. We will not only look at their consistency and flavor but also how to substitute them and some extra tips to keep in mind when doing so.
Also, if you haven’t tried this boxed mac and cheese you can get on Amazon, then you absolutely need to, it’s the best I’ve found.
Mac and Cheese
Mac and cheese is a dish that consists of cooked macaroni pasta and a creamy, melty, stringy cheese sauce.
There are a ton of variations on this dish depending on where you are from, and often it is garnished with additional grated cheese on top, or breadcrumbs for added crunch.
The sauce, in our opinion, is the most important element of the dish. Mac and cheese is made with mornay sauce, which is just a fancy word for cheesy béchamel sauce.
To make this sauce is very easy; you combine melted butter and flour to create a roux (the thickening agent), slowly add some milk, and constantly stir the sauce over heat until it becomes thick.
Then you mix in your various cheeses and add them to the macaroni before it gets baked.
This is where the fun part comes in. By using other ingredients instead of milk, you add a whole different flavor to the dish.
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Milk Substitutes in Mac and Cheese
Some of these substitutes might react differently when making the sauce and might even require more roux, but we’ll discuss all of this and more.
1. Cream Cheese
Cream cheese is one of the best substitutes for milk you can find. It has a very mild, slightly sweet taste that closely resembles that of milk. This is part of what makes it such a great substitute.
Now, the obvious difference between these two ingredients is the consistency. Cream cheese has a much thicker and spreadable consistency. This is what gives it that extra creaminess that will also make your mac and cheese creamier.
To use cream cheese as a substitute, you can simply replace the milk with equal parts cream cheese. Because of its consistency, you also have the option to leave out the butter. You will still have a very thick, creamy, and extra cheesy sauce!
It may be easier to melt your cream cheese or soften it before you add it to your sauce.
Here’s a fun tip for you; try various brands of cream cheese, but also various flavors. We love to use herb-flavored cream cheese for our macaroni and cheese. It adds a new flavor element, without adding any extra work!
2. Sour Cream
Sour cream is another great choice for a milk substitute, especially if you want similar textures but a more complex flavor.
It has a thicker consistency than milk, and slightly thicker than that of cream. It has a fantastically tangy and almost sour (hence the name) flavor that adds a very interesting element to mac and cheese.
Milk can be substituted with sour cream in equal parts and the sauce is made in exactly the same way.
However, the flavor is very different from cream cheese, being less neutral and less sweet. You may need to add other ingredients to bring it up to par.
To break the acidity of the sour cream, you can add some freshly minced garlic or some other dried herbs. It doesn’t change the tangy flavor, just balances it beautifully.
Sour cream can also be used in addition to milk. You can use half milk, half sour cream in order to create a well-balanced, more complex sauce compared to a plain bechamel.
Sour cream can also be used as a substitute for Greek yogurt-based mac and cheese recipes. The yogurt and sour cream are very similar in consistency and taste, making them interchangeable.
3. Plain Yogurt
Plain Greek yogurt is another very effective substitute. Like we’ve just mentioned, plain yogurt and sour cream are very similar in consistency and taste, and are therefore interchangeable.
Plain yogurt will give you a much creamier sauce for your pasta and also add that delicious tangy flavor that can easily be adapted.
Greek yogurt will yield much creamier and thicker results compared to normal, low-fat, or fat-free versions.
A very important thing to remember when using yogurt in any recipe that requires heating is to do so slowly. If yogurt is heated too quickly, it has the tendency to split (the water and fat separates).
When making your sauce with yogurt, slowly heat the yogurt separately over a double boiler, or extremely slowly in a small saucepan before adding it to the roux.
Make sure to constantly stir while you are heating your yogurt and to also use a very low heat when making the sauce.
4. Whipping Cream
You cannot go wrong when substituting milk with cream, but make sure it’s whipping cream. Whipping cream has a thinner consistency than double cream and will incorporate into the roux much easier.
Of course, you can use double cream and whipping cream interchangeably.
Using cream instead of milk will make your macaroni and cheese much creamier and much richer. You can choose to leave out the butter, although we wouldn’t pass it up.
Note that the cream will dilute the color of the cheese sauce considerably, so if you prefer a more yellow mac and cheese, make sure to use a brighter cheese, like an orange cheddar.
Both whipping and double cream can be substituted in equal parts with milk.
5. Coconut Milk/Cream
Moving on to a non-dairy and vegan substitute, coconut milk is the perfect option and is just as easily accessible as the previously mentioned dairy-based substitutions.
Coconut milk has a very distinctive coconut flavor, which only slightly translates into the cooked mac and cheese – you will definitely notice a difference, but it won’t smack you in the face.
If you aren’t a fan of coconut flavors, you can dilute it with some water or add strong aromatics like herbs and garlic. We also often use coconut cream instead of coconut milk, which provides a much creamier sauce.
Try using unsweetened, full-fat coconut milk for the best possible results. We would also highly recommend using canned versions, as these are usually much thicker and creamier than bottled ones.
6. Almond Milk
Almond milk is another very accessible dairy-free milk that makes for the perfect milk substitute in mac and cheese.
Just like coconut milk, and any other type of milk, be it plant or animal-based, it has a very distinctive almond or nutty flavor. This is something you either love or hate, but before making a final decision, you have to try it in mac and cheese!
Almond milk comes in sweetened and unsweetened versions and which one you choose is entirely up to you.
Personally, we opt for the sweetened versions when making a mac and cheese sauce because it resembles the sweetness of the milk better – but again, it is entirely up to your own preference!
Almond milk is much thinner than milk, so it won’t produce a very creamy and thick sauce. To counteract this, you can either add more roux (flour and butter mixture) or cheese.
And who doesn’t want more cheese, right?
7. Soy Milk
Soy milk was one of the first non-dairy milk substitutes, so naturally, it will work great for substituting milk in mac and cheese as well!
Soy milk has a very distinctive taste that many people don’t like, but by simply balancing it with additional ingredients, it will please any palate.
You can also use a more fragrant and aromatic cheese that will create a very complex flavor profile.
Soy milk is naturally less sweet than milk, but when it comes close in terms of consistency.
We would recommend using unsweetened and unflavored soy milk. If you choose a vanilla-flavored soymilk, it might not go well with the other flavors of the macaroni and cheese.
It will create an unnatural sweetness that is very difficult to balance well in pasta.
8. Other Dairy-Based Milks
We’re briefly revisiting animal-based milks, which include goat, sheep, and camel milk.
Each of these milks have extremely unique flavors that might not be for everyone, but if you’re feeling experimental, and if you have access to these types of milk, definitely give them a try! You might even discover a new favorite!
They are generally much richer and less tangy compared to cows’ milk, but the consistency is virtually the same. You can substitute these milks in equal parts and make the sauce in exactly the same way.
To neutralize the flavor of these milks, you can thin it with water, a more neutral-tasting milk, or add aromatics like garlic, herbs, and spices.
Some cheeses do tend to neutralize the taste completely, so we would recommend starting by only substituting the milk (without adding spices).
Many of these milks, like goat milk, has a much lower lactose content, meaning people who struggle with lactose-intolerance might not have the same issues with these milks.
9. Powdered or Evaporated Milk
Powdered milk is a great substitution because of its longevity. It makes for the best milk substitution if you suddenly run out of fresh milk.
By simply storing a container of powdered milk in your food cupboard, you can save yourself loads of stress.
Powdered milk is made by simply combining the milk powder with regular water and can then be used to make the sauce.
Generally, it creates a creamier milk that is also much sweeter than regular milk. This sweetness is well-balanced by the normal levels of salt in the recipe and is very appetizing.
Evaporated milk is milk that has a lower water content but isn’t in a powdered form. This version of milk can also be used as a substitution, and may even work better than powdered milk.
It has an even sweeter taste than regular and powdered milk, so you might need to thin or dilute the flavor with regular milk or water, or by balancing it with other flavors.
Condensed milk is an extremely sweetened version of evaporated milk and has an almost syrup-like consistency. We wouldn’t use this for macaroni and cheese unless it has been diluted.
We felt like we had to mention condensed milk, purely because a lot of people often confuse it with evaporated milk.
10. Oat Milk
Getting back on track with dairy-free milk substitutions, oat milk is another favorite of ours.
We’ve only had this type of milk a few times, but we must say, it is delicious, filling, and makes for a great non-dairy substitute.
It is sweeter than milk, but not by much. Unlike many other nut and cereal-based milk alternatives, it doesn’t have an extremely distinctive and pungent flavor.
When used in the macaroni and cheese recipe, it blends in perfectly and you’d hardly notice it! As with most alternatives, use the unsweetened version to prevent an unbalanced recipe.
11. Cashew Milk
Our second mention-worthy nut-based milk is made from cashew nuts. It has a very rich and neutral milk-like flavor and a silky-smooth consistency.
When using it as a substitution in macaroni and cheese specifically, it will blend in seamlessly and most people won’t even notice the difference.
You can use cashew milk the same way you would regular milk, substituted in equal parts. As always, choose an unsweetened and unflavored version to prevent strange flavors from forming.
Another thing to keep in mind that a lot of people tend to forget is that cashews are not nut-allergy-friendly. People with nut allergies can still have a severe allergic reaction.
12. Quinoa Milk
Quinoa milk is a lesser-known plant milk, but we feel that there isn’t enough hype around it. Naturally, it is much harder to come by.
However, if you do have the opportunity to use it, your first recipe should be macaroni and cheese. This grain-based milk is made from quinoa seeds and water, the same way nut milk is made.
Quinoa milk has a slightly sweeter and nuttier flavor that is very distinctive of quinoa. When used in macaroni and cheese recipes, the nutty flavor is very prominent and creates a beautifully balanced flavor profile.
This milk is perfect when you want to experiment with cheese, as its flavor is neutral enough to fit with virtually any other flavor.
You can substitute regular milk with quinoa milk in equal parts and prepare the macaroni sauce in exactly the same manner.
13. Rice Milk
Rice milk has an extraordinarily similar flavor to that of cows’ milk! You will hardly notice the difference in the macaroni and cheese and neither will your picky guests.
The consistency, however, is where the major difference comes in. Rice milk is much less creamy and almost has a water-like consistency.
This can be easily fixed by simply using more roux (the melted butter and flour thickening agent), or by adding more cheese to the recipe. The cheese will bind the sauce together while also creating the creaminess.
14. Hemp Seed Milk
Hemp products are becoming increasingly popular and much more widely used, especially in everyday recipes like mac and cheese.
From a nutritional standpoint, hemp seed milk is very nutritious compared to other hemp products.
Hemp seed milk has a very nutty flavor, some even describing it as earthy. It is also surprisingly thick and creamy, which will make your sauce extra creamy when mixed with the cheese.
When substituting milk with hemp milk to make the macaroni sauce, you would generally use a bit less roux because of its consistency.
After you’ve made the sauce, you can thin it with some water to make it more spreadable, but this is up to your personal preference.
Another note we’d like to give is that the nutty flavor might sometimes be bitter to those who are used to or prefer sweet milk versions. You can add some sugar or syrup to help this, but again, it is entirely up to you.
15. Water or Butter
This is a last resort type of substitute if you have none of the above-mentioned substitutes available.
This method is a bit more complicated, as you have to constantly check the consistency and flavor of the sauce.
To make a cheesy macaroni and cheese sauce using water and butter, follow these tips:
- Make a roux using equal parts of butter and flour. Then add the water and after that the cheese.
- Do not use a ton of water! This will only create a runny sauce that won’t be appetizing. The water is merely there to act as a starting base for the cheese to melt into.
- Use the cheese as the main liquid base and to help thicken the sauce and create a creamy texture.
- You have to use quite a lot of cheese, preferably the very melty kinds like cheddar and gouda. Stay away from soft cheeses, as they will only become watery, not thick.
- After you achieve the correct consistency, you can add more butter to add richness to your sauce and continue cooking until the correct consistency has been achieved again.
- Make sure to season this sauce extra well, as the watery base can sometimes be bland (if you don’t use enough cheese or strongly flavored varieties).
What Is a Good Substitute for Butter in Mac and Cheese?
If you are using butter in the mac and cheese recipe as part of the roux (the thickening agent) you have to use a similar substitute. These include margarine and ghee – anything that will help as a thickening agent.
If you are only using butter as a flavoring agent and to add richness or change the consistency, you can use heavy cream, cream cheese, mascarpone, and melted ghee or margarine.
Do These Substitutes Work With Any Variation of Mac and Cheese?
As with any recipe, especially those with a wide variety of variations, it is extremely important to experiment.
Each of the above-mentioned substitutes have their own unique flavors that might not be appetizing with every other type of flavor.
For example, we do not like using almond milk with ground beef mac and cheese, but we do enjoy soy milk with it.
Make sure to take notes when using substitutes, something you can refer back to, to make sure you can improve on the previous recipe and adapt it to your personal liking.
Are These Substitutes Nutritious?
This is difficult to answer but is a frequently asked question. It really depends on what your own definition of nutritious is.
To many people, cow’s milk isn’t nutritious and causes severe inflammatory reactions, while to others it is a crucial part of their daily dietary needs.
Generally, animal-based milk products contain a lot of vitamins and minerals. Plant-based milks usually don’t contain as many nutrients because they are often strained (which removes a ton of nutrients) and diluted with water.
Before using any substitute, make sure you know what it contains and if it meets your personal dietary requirements.
Up Next: Can You Freeze Mac and Cheese?