Macaroni and cheese is arguably one of the first dishes a lot of people learn to make – even kids!
It is the epitome of comfort food, the perfect quick and easy throw-together meal, and the ultimate blank canvas to experiment with!
What makes mac and cheese even better is when it is made from scratch – with a lot of love, if you will!
You can easily substitute ingredients making it a fantastic dish for everyone, including those who struggle with lactose intolerances or who simply are looking for some milk alternatives.
But, can you make mac and cheese without milk? And what do you use as a milk substitute? You absolutely can make macaroni and cheese without milk and there are a ton of fantastic substitutes! Our favorites include sour cream, cream cheese, and yogurt. Great non-dairy alternatives include any type of plant-based milk like coconut milk or cream, almond milk, and oat milk.
Get those napkins ready folks, because today we will be looking at this drool-worthy dish, mac and cheese.
More specifically, we will be looking at the many milk alternatives you can use and exactly how to use them!
Traditional Mac And Cheese
The exact origin of mac and cheese cannot be pinpointed to a day or even a precise origin, but it is believed that mac and cheese originated in Northern Europe.
The first known record of mac and cheese dates back to 1769, still making it a relatively old dish.
Former US president Thomas Jefferson brought this family favorite to the United States after a visit to France.
He loved it so much that it was served at a state dinner in 1802! So, yes, he might have been a little obsessed with this creamy dish, but aren’t we all!?
Ever since then, mac and cheese has become one of the world’s most popular pasta dishes.
Mac and cheese is not only served as a dish on their own but often are served as an accompaniment to other dishes, especially barbeques or roast dishes.
Mac and cheese is usually made from a combination of macaroni and a thick and creamy Mornay sauce.
Mornay sauce is simply a béchamel sauce that is made from butter, flour, and milk. Then, a bunch of cheese is melted into the sauce to create that delicious pull.
This is usually the first part where people experiment with the flavors of macaroni and cheese.
Traditionally, cheese-like Emmental, Cheddar, Parmesan, or Gruyere is used in this sauce – or a combination of them.
Today, people use virtually any and every type of cheese that can melt nicely. Cheeses like feta (that don’t melt so well) won’t create a smooth and creamy sauce.
To make this delicious sauce is also very easy, but it does take a bit of time to make – it’s a labor of love. The butter and flour are mixed together over heat to form a roux (the thickening agent).
Then, very slowly and in small batches, the milk is whisked in to create a smooth slurry, and eventually the sauce.
After every addition of milk, the ingredients are whisked together to create a smooth and lump-free sauce.
Once the sauce has thickened to the correct consistency, the grated cheese is added along with additional flavoring ingredients like salt and pepper.
Once the sauce has been made, cooked macaroni pasta is added. The dish can then be served as is or placed in a baking dish to be grilled.
Toppings for baked mac and cheese include additional cheese or breadcrumbs for a more crunchy texture.
Every household has its own twist on this dish and many people add some type of meat to it.
The most popular is arguably cooked bacon bits or ground beef. This adds a bunch of protein and additional savory flavor.
Substitutes For Milk In Mac and Cheese
Milk substitutes or alternatives can be used or needed for a wide variety of reasons.
The most popular reason being an allergy or intolerance, however, today, many people have simply moved to healthier alternatives or a vegetarian or vegan diet.
No matter what your reason is, we have got you covered! We have included some dairy alternatives for when you simply ran out of milk and some non-dairy alternatives.
Cream cheese is an incredibly soft, smooth, thick, and creamy ingredient – these qualities are exactly what makes it such a fantastic alternative for mac and cheese.
It will give you that added thick and luscious texture and uber creaminess.
And, because it also has a relatively neutral flavor (compared to many other milk alternatives) it won’t affect the flavor of your mac and cheese dish too much – you probably won’t even notice it!
To use cream cheese as a substitute for milk in your mac and cheese, simply substitute the milk in the recipe with cream cheese.
You can use equal parts despite the different consistencies.
One thing you can change if you’d like is the amount of flour used. Because cream cheese is already nice and thick, you can use a tiny bit less flour.
In our opinion, we like to keep it the same to get an even thicker sauce!
Another technique many people use is to thin the consistency of the cream cheese.
This can be done by either softening the cream cheese or whipping it before adding it to the sauce. This will simply make it melt into a sauce much easier.
Cream cheese contains a larger amount of fat than milk. Make sure to use a low-fat or fat-free cream cheese if you’re worried about the calories!
Whipped cream cheese also contains fewer calories and a smaller percentage of fat, so we would opt for this option instead!
Cream cheese is one of those ingredients you can have a little fun with. There are a variety of different flavors on the market that you can try.
Using a flavored cream cheese can add a twist to your favorite recipe! We recommend trying chive and onion, garlic and herb, or spicy jalapeno!
Plain Double Thick Yogurt
But, isn’t yogurt for breakfast? Not anymore. Over the last couple of years, more and more recipes have started to use yogurt as a milk or cream substitute.
Yogurt isn’t necessarily healthier compared to milk, but it does have different health benefits (obviously depending on the type you use).
In cooking and especially baking, it adds a ton of moisture, richness, thickness, and a delicious tangy flavor.
Yogurt is also very thick and has a tangy flavor, making it yet another great substitute for milk or cream.
The thickness of the yogurt, especially double cream plain yogurt, helps add more volume to your sauce and can be substituted in equal parts.
When using yogurt as a milk substitute for macaroni and cheese, we highly recommend only using double-thick plain yogurt as it will give your mac and cheese a much creamier texture.
Low-fat products have different consistencies that just don’t create as nice of a sauce.
Yogurt may have a tendency to split when heated too much. Therefore, make sure to heat the sauce slowly on a low heat setting.
You can also heat the yogurt before adding it to the roux (the flour and butter mixture) which will also help avoid your sauce from splitting.
Using yogurt in your sauce gives you a healthier option for mac and cheese.
Yogurt is rich in nutrients, high in protein, low in fat, and a better option for heart-healthy diets!
Sour cream is a much easier alternative to work with than yogurt.
It doesn’t have that tendency to split when it is heated, and it still has the same tangy flavor profile than plain yogurt.
However, for some people this tanginess is a bit too overwhelming, so you can add additional flavoring ingredients to help balance it out or hide it.
Sour cream has a less thick consistency compared to yogurt and cream cheese. It is literally cream consistency (runny but thicker than milk) with a sour flavor profile.
This alternative will give you the closest consistency to what milk would.
To help balance out the tanginess, we recommend using sweeter cheese varieties like cheddar or gouda.
You can even combine cream cheese (that has sweet flavors) with sour cream to create an uber creamy sauce with well-balanced flavors.
Sour cream however is relatively high in fat, but low in carbs – just keep that in mind if you are looking for a “healthy” alternative.
Powdered milk is made from pasteurized milk that has been dehydrated.
Using powdered milk as a milk substitute has two great benefits; it doesn’t have to be refrigerated and it has a much longer shelf life even compared to long-life milk.
Full disclosure, using powdered milk isn’t the ideal substitute to use as it may not add the delicious flavor and creaminess you are craving to the same quality other products would.
However, it is a fantastic last-resort alternative when you simply must have mac and cheese ASAP. Keeping some in your food cupboard could just save the day!
To rehydrate powdered milk, simply add some water to it. Once it has been made into a liquid again, simply use it in exactly the same way you would regular milk.
Powdered milk has a slightly sweeter flavor compared to regular milk. This is because it was dried during production, which basically helped concentrate the flavors, specifically the sweetness in milk.
To balance out this sweetness (if of course, you want to) simply add a tiny bit more salt or use a more savory cheese, like a matured cheddar.
Vegan Substitutes For Milk In Mac and Cheese
Over the last couple of decades, and increasingly so in the past few years, the food industry has really placed a big focus on animal-free products.
This was probably sparked by the major uptick in uncomfortable dairy intolerances and allergies.
Plus, not only do they tend to have more overall health benefits, but they include much more sustainable ingredients and contribute to major environmental benefits.
This has naturally called for an increase in the production of available options to cater to these dietary requirements.
Mac and cheese, unfortunately, is a staple meal a ton of people previously could not consume due to intolerances and allergies or the choice to lead a vegan lifestyle.
Whatever your reason, luckily, there are now a ton of easy-to-find and extremely healthy non-dairy alternatives.
These alternatives are all plant-based, making them suitable for vegetarian and vegan diets as well.
You can use any dairy-free item you would like, but for today, let’s focus on coconut cream, almond milk, and oat milk.
We will focus on how their consistency will affect the mac and cheese as well as their flavor.
Coconut cream is a very thick, creamy, and rich dairy alternative derived from coconuts.
It is completely natural and vegan and can be bought in different forms as well.
Obviously, you can also use coconut milk (a thinner version), but you also get full fat and low-fat versions.
In terms of how the consistency will affect your mac and cheese, it will pretty much do the same as yogurt or cream cheese.
It will definitely add a ton of creaminess and even thickness.
The flavor on the other hand will completely change your mac and cheese, however, not necessarily in a bad way if you use the correct accompanying ingredients.
Coconut cream has an obvious coconut flavor that you cannot hide. It also is much sweeter than milk (you can buy unsweetened versions though).
The coconut flavor should be embraced! Use sweet or neutrally flavored cheeses with the coconut cream (or milk) to help balance out the flavor but also still keep that coconut flavor.
When using coconut cream for your mac and cheese, you should definitely play around with the flavors.
You can try incorporating some Asian flavors into your traditional mac and cheese recipe or even make a spicier dish.
One last thing we just have to mention. Coconut cream is completely nut-free, making it a great alternative for people with nut allergies.
A ton of non-dairy alternatives are nut-derived products (like almond, cashew, or macadamia milk).
Almond milk is a nut-based alternative and doesn’t contain any dairy and lactose. It has a similar consistency to milk but is slightly thicker.
You can substitute the milk in equal parts with almond milk (or any other nut-derived milk).
Almond milk is made by blending almonds with water. The product is then strained to remove the still solid pieces. You are then left with almond milk.
Like coconut cream, almond milk has a very distinctive flavor. You can find unsweetened or sweetened versions, as well as full-fat and low-fat variants to each.
For mac and cheese, we recommend using unsweetened almond milk so you don’t have to adjust the sweetness of the dish.
Almond milk is packed with nutrients, however, it is quite diluted because of the production method used.
If you are looking to include the nutrients of almonds into your diet, you’d be better off adding whole almonds to your mac and cheese.
Almond milk is low in calories and could potentially lower your risk of heart disease. Some versions have also been enriched with vitamin D.
Almond milk will also add a lovely toasty flavor to the mac and cheese because of the nuts!
If you’re not particularly fond of the flavor of almond milk, try adding some Dijon mustard to your sauce along with fresh herbs and spice.
If you do like almonds, we even recommend making a crispy topping with salty toasted flaked almonds!
Oat milk is made by blending oats together with the water – a very similar process to nut milks.
Oat milk, in our opinion, has the best “neutral” flavor of all dairy-free milk alternatives. It doesn’t have a very intense flavor and blends in seamlessly with its accompanying ingredients.
It does have a sweetness to it, but this can be easily balanced out or masked with spices, more salt, or even just a more savory salty cheese.
Oat milk is packed with fiber and can help lower the levels of your cholesterol. And, it can even be made at home!
Substituting oat milk with regular milk in mac and cheese will give you a creamy sauce with a mild flavor.
Make sure to use unsweetened oat milk just like with any other dairy-free alternative.
How To Make Mac And Cheese Without Milk
Making mac and cheese without milk is much easier than you might think!
We have already mentioned the differences between consistencies for each of the alternatives we have discussed.
To start making your milk-free mac and cheese sauce, you will always start with the roux.
Combine the melted butter with the flour and start cooking it over low heat. Once fully combined, this is when you can add your milk alternative.
Keep in mind the ratios and tricks we have mentioned for each – for example, whip the cream cheese to make it melt quicker and easier.
Most milk alternatives can be substituted in equal quantities.
Slowly add your milk alternative while whisking well after every addition. Add the alternative slowly to prevent any lumps and to slowly thicken your sauce.
Only after the sauce has thickened should you add the cheese and seasoning ingredients.
Powdered milk should be rehydrated with water according to the brands’ instructions. The rehydrated milk can then be used just like you would regularly.
Keep in mind the consistency of your substitute ingredient compared to milk.
If your ingredient is thicker, such as cream cheese, you will need less roux (thickening agent).
If your substitute is runnier than milk, you will probably need more roux to make a thick sauce.
It is also important to keep in mind that not all ingredients react in the same way when heated. As we have mentioned, yogurt may split when heated.
Make sure to heat it slowly or heat it before adding it to your sauce.
So, if your substitute ingredient gives you the perfect consistency and flavor, you are good to go.
Simply add your cheese, allow it to melt, and then add your cooked macaroni. As easy as that!
But what if it doesn’t work? Don’t be too quick to throw it down the drain! Most “faults” can be very easily fixed.
If your sauce is too runny and not thickening correctly, try adding a little pasta water to it. The starch will allow it to thicken.
If the sauce is grainy, try whisking it vigorously with a little pasta water, which will first thin it out and then bring it together.
When using substitutes it’s always trial and error. Make sure to taste the sauce while you’re cooking to make sure the flavors are well-balanced.
And always remember to make notes to your recipe and share your results.