Can You Make Mac And Cheese Without Butter? – And What To Substitute

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We have done a few mac and cheese articles and needless to say, we have quite an obsession. But who doesn’t?

Mac and cheese creates such a blank canvas for any cook to work from and is the perfect way to start experimenting with flavors and flavor pairings!

But, can you make mac and cheese without butter? You can definitely make mac and cheese without butter, but it really does lose something special. Butter adds a creaminess and a rich flavor that takes a boring pasta dish to the next level.

So, if you still want to add those delicious qualities but don’t have butter or are looking for vegan alternatives, we have a bunch for you!

The closest substitute is margarine, which also happens to be vegan and dairy-free. Other than that, you can use cream, yogurt, soft fresh cheeses, and even mayonnaise. For vegan alternatives, you can use nut butter, coconut creams, and seed pastes.

In this jam-packed article, we will be exploring what traditional mac and cheese is and how you can elevate it by substituting butter.

We will look at some great and tasty dairy substitutes, but also explore some vegan and dairy-free substitutes you can use instead of butter.

What Is Mac And Cheese?

Everybody knows and loves mac and cheese. It is a classic savory dish that is considered a comfort food all around the world!

It can be as simple as cooked pasta with cheese, or as elaborate as a 4 cheese chorizo bake mac and cheese dish. The possibilities are endless, which is part of why it is so popular.

But before diving deep into the many options you have, let’s first have a look at traditional mac and cheese. This will help you understand what it is and how to choose the most authentic substitute.

The first record of mac and cheese (or rather a baked pasta dish with cheese sauce) dates back to the 14th century.

Naturally, like most pasta dishes, it originated in Italy. A cookbook called Liber de Coquina mentioned a delicious Parmesan and pasta casserole.

The first “modern” printed mention of mac and cheese dates back to 1769 in Elizabeth Raffald’s book, The Experienced English Housekeeper. This dish mentioned a creamy Bechamel sauce, grated cheddar cheese, and cooked macaroni.

The mixture is sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and baked until golden and bubbly. This is essentially exactly what mac and cheese still is today!

Traditional Mac And Cheese Recipe

A classic and simple mac and cheese dish consists of a Mornay sauce and cooked pasta – that’s it! A Mornay sauce is a cheese sauce made with a bechamel sauce (white sauce) and grated cheese.

This cheese can be anything, but traditionally, it is either cheddar, Emmenthal, Gruyere, or parmesan.

The pasta can also be virtually any type of short pasta, but today, you find specific “macaroni” pasta. They have a slightly curved tube shape to them and range in length between an inch or two.

Mac and cheese dishes are baked until they become golden brown. They are then usually topped with more grated cheese or some breadcrumbs.

Mac And Cheese Variations

What makes mac and cheese especially great is that different countries have their own unique twist to it. For example, different areas use different kinds of cheeses like cheddar, Emmenthal, or Havarti. 

There are also countries that make their traditional mac and cheese with meat. This can include various types of ground meat, cured meat, and even larger pieces of meat.

We especially love adding spiced ground beef or turkey. Bacon, salami, and ham are also fantastic and simple additions to any mac cheese.

Many people also add different spices. Believe it or not, but spicy mac and cheese is a staple on some continents like Asia, Africa, and South America. This can include fresh chilies or peppery spices, like Sichuan peppers.

Other common spices used include nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin, and a variety of dried herbs like oregano, parsley, and rosemary.

And, of course, we aren’t skipping vegetables! They are also some of the most popular additions because of how flavorful they can be. Onions, peas, leeks, mushrooms, bell peppers, and butternut are only a few popular options commonly used.

Functions Of Butter In Mac And Cheese

So, you may have noticed that we haven’t mentioned butter at all so far. Well, butter is one of those secret ingredients when it comes to making mac and cheese.

Now first, we need to mention that butter is used to make a bechamel sauce. This is not how we have substituted butter today, but it is still worth mentioning. Some of our substitutes below will be able to work as a substitute for butter in a roux.

When butter is used to make a roux, it is mixed with flour. This mixture is the thickening agent that creates a creamy bechamel sauce (that later turns into a Mornay sauce). Once the roux is made, milk is slowly added.

The second function, and the one we will be substituting for today, is the addition of butter for flavor and creaminess. Butter is an incredibly rich ingredient. It also helps add a creamy and thick texture to the baked dish.

Can You Make Mac And Cheese Without Butter?

You can definitely make this baked pasta dish without butter, and many recipes don’t even include it! But, honestly, we just love adding it. Why wouldn’t you?

As we have mentioned above, it adds creaminess, a richer flavor, and an incredibly smooth texture to the dish.

Substitutes For Butter In Mac And Cheese

So, when thinking about substitutes for butter in mac and cheese, think about what you are substituting. If you merely want to copy the delicious semi-sweet flavor butter has, then your substitute should have those similar characteristics.

But, if you want to substitute the creaminess, then look at creamy alternatives. Luckily, there are many options you can choose from to meet your exact needs. And, you can even experiment to create a new flavor profile!

1. Ghee

While some of you may be familiar with ghee, it is still a relatively underrated and now well-known product. Ghee is a type of butter that is clarified.

This clarified version is still very high in fat, so it will give the mac and cheese a ton of creaminess and rich flavor. In fact, it is actually richer than regular butter!

Another great benefit of using ghee is that it is less oily. The way clarified butter is made is by melting it until the milk solids and excess water separate. These parts are strained out, leaving only the fat.

During this process, ghee also gets a very toasty and nutty flavor to it, which does wonders for a basic mac and cheese. 

Ghee can be made in advance at home and kept in the fridge for months! However, it can also be bought at some grocery and health stores.

2. Yogurt

Yogurt is a very accessible substitute for butter in mac and cheese. You probably already have some in your fridge. But, we would recommend only using plain yogurt. And, if you can, double-thick or Greek yogurt.

The plain flavor will ensure that nothing challenges the delicious flavors of the cheese you are using. And, it still helps create a nice balanced flavor profile.

Plain yogurt will also add a much-needed tanginess when you are using sweeter cheeses like unaged cheddar or gouda.

And, arguably most importantly, yogurt will add a smoothness to your mac and cheese that even exceeds the capabilities of butter!

3. Soft Fresh Cheese

This is a broad category of cheeses that will all work equally well. They can add a ton of creaminess when incorporated correctly. And, of course, because there are so many different types available, you can experiment with flavors a lot!

Soft fresh cheeses are any type that has been set using either an acid-set or direct-set method. What this means is that acid (instead of rennet or enzymes) has been directly added to milk to make it coagulate. The whey separates from the curds.

Both these parts can be used to make soft cheeses. These cheeses generally have an extremely high moisture content, which is what makes them so creamy.

Some popular, easy-to-find, and relatively affordable soft fresh cheeses that pair well with mac and cheese are:

  • Feta (soft)
  • Cottage cheese
  • Cream cheese
  • Mascarpone
  • Ricotta

4. Cream

Cream is an incredibly easy addition to use instead of butter. However, keep in mind, it has a thinner consistency. But, luckily, its consistency is close to melted butter, and it’s much creamier!

Now, there are many different types of cream available today. We recommend using thick cream, heavy cream, whipping cream, or double thick cream. All of these basically refer to the same thing and will add the best texture to the mac and cheese.

If you don’t have cream or cannot find any, you can also use milk or even as a last-ditch effort, evaporated milk. Just make sure to check the consistency of the mac and cheese to ensure that it doesn’t thin out too much.

5. Sour Cream

We love sour cream! It is one of our favorite additions to pasta dishes in general! This ingredient will add creaminess to your pasta as regular cream or yogurt would. But, what makes it special is the flavor it will add.

Sour cream, as the name suggests, has a sour flavor and adds a tanginess to the pasta dish. And, it will help deepen the existing flavors of the cheeses you use. It also pairs well with many types of meat and vegetable additions if you choose to add them.

You can also make your own sour cream. To do so you only need milk or cream, and some type of acid. We prefer using lemon or lime juice, but in a pinch, you can add vinegar.

Combine one cup of milk or cream with about 1 tablespoon of acid. Just like that, homemade sour cream!

6. Mayonnaise

This is an incredibly clever trick that is becoming more well-known by the day! Mayo is an excellent substitute for butter in mac and cheese, but, can also actually be used to substitute some of the bechamel sauce.

By using mayonnaise, you can actually add a ton of creaminess, great texture, and a well-balanced tangy flavor.

You can even get flavored mayonnaises and ones that meet a variety of dietary needs. For example, Hellman’s makes a fantastic vegan mayo! And for the health-conscious, you can choose a reduced-fat or reduced-oil mayo.

One thing we would recommend is not adding too much mayo. It is quite heavy and extremely thick, so it will change the consistency of your mac and cheese a lot. You don’t want it to overpower it.

Vegan And Dairy-Free Substitutes For Butter In Mac And Cheese

Whatever your reason is for wanting a vegan or dairy-free substitute, we have got you covered! And, you would actually be surprised at how many delicious and easy vegan substitutes there are!

Now, vegan substitutes are definitely dairy-free, but dairy-free substitutes aren’t always necessarily vegan. So, for that reason, always check the packaging to ensure that the product meets your requirements.

1. Margarine

For some reason, we never really think of margarine as a vegan product, but believe it or not, it actually is completely vegan. In fact, it is so vegan that many in the community refer to it as “the original vegan butter.”

But, as always, check your specific product to make sure that it doesn’t contain any other animal products. Margarine is made with water and vegetable oil. This compared to butter which is made from milk.

It has a very similar consistency and is practically the same when melted. And, even the flavors are similar! Most kinds of margarine are quite processed and contain a ton of flavorings (in this case, butter flavoring).

This is arguably the perfect substitute for butter in mac and cheese, regardless of it being vegan and dairy-free.

2. Plant-Based Butter

Despite margarine, there are actually quite a few other vegan butter products out there. These butters, like margarine, are made with plant oils, including coconut oil, olive oil, macadamia nut oil, sesame seed oil, and much more.

What makes these different from margarine is that they are made with a lot more expensive ingredients. Margarine, because of how processed it is, is usually made using cheap sunflower oil, canola oil, or an oil blend.

These plant-based butters are often gluten-free, dairy-free, and have similar textures and characteristics to butter and margarine. They will add creaminess, and as an added bonus, a unique flavor!

Another fantastic benefit of these kinds of butter is that you can use them as s substitute for butter when making a roux as well!

3. Nut And Seed Butters

This is a wide category of products and it doesn’t necessarily apply to every type out there. But, we love adding a dollop or two seed or nut butter into our mac and cheese.

These butters add delicious texture, a rich texture, and a very unique flavor.

The best seed butter we would recommend using is tahini, a well-known sesame seed paste. And, for nut butters, there are loads of options to choose from.

Again, just make sure they’re vegan. We love peanut butter, but almond butter also adds a slight sweetness that complements mac and cheese well.

Just bear in mind that the flavor of butter you choose should pair well with the type of cheese you use. So, this substitute works best when using mildly flavored cheeses like gouda, feta, and mozzarella.

4. Coconut Cream

We end with another very easy substitute and one you know and probably love; coconut cream. Coconut cream is an incredibly rich, luscious, and slightly sweet plant-based cream used in many Asian and South-American dishes.

For mac and cheese, to put it mildly, it adds an exotic flavor and simply elevates the entire dish. It goes especially great with soft cheeses!

If you don’t have coconut cream, you can also use coconut milk. Coconut milk is runnier, so just don’t add too much at once!

Up Next: What To Add To Mac And Cheese

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