Classic Crispy Top Macaroni and Cheese

By Ann Fulton

Classic Crispy Top Macaroni and Cheese - all-time favorite recipe with a spot-on gluten-free adaption linked
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Do you have a favorite comfort food? Good old macaroni and cheese is my 10-year-old’s usual request and he asked for it several times recently and I hadn’t gotten around to it.

Then, he got sick (twice!) and didn’t want to eat a thing. When he was finally on the mend and his appetite was returning, I knew it was time to make his favorite.

For a fancy mac and cheese, Ina Garten, of The Barefoot Contessa fame, has a terrific recipe. For a great traditional recipe which pleases kids and adults alike, I love this version.

It’s simple yet truly special thanks to the crunchy topping and hint of Dijon. All the ingredients are easy to have on hand, too. Feel free to use your go-to block cheddar cheese, but for this recipe, I don’t hesitate to use my favorite brand of pre-shredded cheddar. We enjoy extra-sharp (and Sargento’s Double Cheddar is wonderful), but if you prefer a mild cheddar, use that.


I like to put fresh tomato slices under the topping prior to baking, but I have purists in my family. So, I eat my tomatoes on the side. Several people in my extended family must eat their macaroni and cheese with a side of stewed tomatoes. Accordingly, they are sometimes on the menu.

This is also a great time to pull your favorite bag of frozen green veggies out of the freezer, which happen to be extra nutritious since they’re frozen at the peak of ripeness. Easy, too.

Christian, however, would be happiest with a mountain of mac and cheese on his plate, and nothing else. This recipe is dedicated to him. And I hope you enjoy it as much!

Bucatini, which is like a spaghetti-length elbow macaroni, is a fun noodle option and makes it possible to cut your mac and cheese into squares or wedges that will hold their shape fairly well. For easier cleanup, add the cooked pasta to the cheese mixture. Then, you only have one goopy pan to clean!

 For a gluten-free version–that nobody ever knows is gluten-free!–click here or on the photo below…

Seriously Delicious Gluten-Free Crispy-Top Mac & Cheese

Classic Crispy Top Macaroni and Cheese
Yield: 6 servings
This is basic mac and cheese at its best-easy and cheesy with just the right amount of crusty topping. People can’t put their finger on the secret ingredient, but the tiny bit of Dijon enhances the flavor beautifully. For added convenience, this recipe may easily be doubled and it freezes well.
  • 8 ounces pasta (my favorites are the traditional elbow, gemelli and bucatini)
  • ¼ cup butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • ¼ teaspoon each kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 level teaspoon Dijon mustard (resist the urge to use a heaping spoonful…a little goes a long way)
  • 2 cups milk (I use nonfat but 2% or whole are fine also.)
  • 2 cups (8 ounces) shredded sharp cheddar cheese
For the topping
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs) or coarse dry bread crumbs
  • ½ cup (2 ounces) shredded cheddar cheese (see notes)
  1. Preheat oven to 350℉.
  2. First, make the topping by tossing the panko with the melted butter in a medium bowl. Then mix in the cheese. Set aside.
  3. Cook the pasta according to the package directions, drain and cover.
  4. While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter in a large saucepan and blend in the flour, salt and pepper. Cook until the mixture is bubbly, and then gradually add the milk, stirring while adding. Stir in the Dijon.
  5. Over medium heat, cook and stir until the sauce boils, and then simmer for one minute, stirring constantly.
  6. Reduce the heat to low, add the cheese, and stir until just melted.
  7. Add the pasta to the cheese mixture and toss lightly to coat. Pour into a 9-inch square baking dish (see note), and then sprinkle with the topping.
  8. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the cheese is bubbly and the topping is lightly golden.

This recipe may be baked in any 2-quart casserole. I like using a 9-inch square pan because it provides a good ratio of crispy surface area to gooey inside. If you use a 9-inch round casserole, which yields slightly less surface area, you may wish to use about 3/4 of the topping recipe.

When freezing, it is best to do so prior to baking.

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  1. Addie

    My son wanted crispy Mac n cheese so I googled and found this recipe! I just made it and it’s now baking. I can’t wait to dig in, it’s looks so good! I’ll update once we’ve had it, just wanted to chime in while I wait!

    1. Ann Post author

      Coincidently, we just had leftovers of this for dinner, Addie! I’m delighted you found the recipe and hope you and your son enjoy it as much as we do!

  2. emily

    Thanks for the tips – I doubled the recipe and made sure to use sharp cheddar. The kids loved the dish, so much so, that there was none left to take home! One note, I did decide to cook the night before and reheat this morning. The dish was quite large and thick and so I heated for an extra 30 minutes – it wasn’t quite ready after 20.

    1. Ann Post author

      Thank you for the follow-up and the added details, Emily. An empty dish is a very good sign – unless you were hoping to have leftovers for dinner!

  3. Emily

    Hi Ann – I love reading all of your comments and saw one about the make-ahead option but just wanted to clarify. I plan to make this for my daughters preschool thanksgiving feast but I need to leave my house at 10am for the 11am feast. Should I cook in morning and leave room temp? Cool the night before and re-heat with breadcrumbs in the morning? Any experience with this as a make ahead dish is helpful. I was assigned the mac & cheese!

    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Emily, This mac and cheese tastes great reheated, so I wouldn’t hesitate to fully prepare it the night before or the morning of and reheat just before the preschool feast (such fun!). I’d choose based on what is more convenient for you. I like when the mac and cheese gets a little crispy around the edges, and it tends to get a little more of that when the crumbs are reheated, so no need to wait on the crumbs. They won’t get soggy. If you have any more questions, let me know, and I hope the kids enjoy!


    Hi Ann, I make mine in my instant pot, pop it in the oven with the topping for about 15min at 375 . I also do not make the sauce, just add the seasoning , 1/2 cup sour cream and shredded cheese to the pot when the macaroni is done, stir and dump it in the casserole for the topping crisping.

    1. Ann Post author

      I’m sorry that was your experience. I’ve made this recipe so many times, as have many readers, and have not had that experience. Even with no cheese, I’m unsure how the noodles would taste floury. If I can help troubleshoot, please let me know.

  5. Arthur Diggs

    I’ll do my mac my way its similar just wanted an easy topping to go over top. Now i got another dish for my restuarant. Thanks.

    1. Ann Post author

      Love that you’ll be adding this to your restaurant mac and cheese, Arthur! Feel free to take a picture. If you post on Facebook or Instagram and tag me, I’ll share it!

  6. Zia

    I woke up with a hankering for mac-n-cheese. Haven’t made it in many years as my son detests cheese anything. After searching for a recipe with a crispy crust, I found yours. One hour later, I was eating. Fantastic and very straightforward. Thank you! I used fine breadcrumbs and Gruyere as it is easier to find here than cheddar. Added extra butter as the finer breadcrumbs seemed to need more. Yummy!! This is a keeper.

    1. Ann Post author

      So happy to read your comment, Zia. I’m delighted you found this recipe and enjoyed. Gruyere sounds like a lovely addition. Thanks so much for the wonderful feedback!

    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Becky, I’m sorry you didn’t find this to be flavorful enough. Did you perhaps use a mild cheese or perhaps omit something? Usually the combination of a flavorful cheese, a small amount of salt and the Dijon give this a lot of interest. Perhaps a little tweaking is all that’s needed if you’re inclined to try again!

    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Linda, Go ahead and use the medium cheddar. In theory, you could add a little extra zip with more Dijon, but that could end up being overpowering. I’ve used medium cheddar before and the end result is still quite good.

    1. Ann Post author

      Yes, absolutely. It may need a few minutes more, but as long as it’s hot throughout you’ll be fine. I often broil for a minute or two at the end to expedite or simply to make the top golden brown. (Just watch really closely if you do this so it doesn’t burn.) Enjoy!

  7. Lisa

    This looks amazing. I am planning on making some for a sick relative (to stock up their freezer!). I’m going to assemble then freeze, prior to baking. Can you please advise cooking times from frozen? Thanks! 🙂

    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Lisa, Coincidentally, my younger son requested this the other day and I currently have macaroni sitting on the counter! I haven’t frozen this myself, but my preference would probably be to thaw before baking. That said, you could bake the frozen casserole, covered with foil, at 350°F for 1 hour. Then uncover and bake until the topping is golden, about 20 minutes longer. So nice for you to make this for a sick relative. I’m sure it will be much appreciated!