Panera Mac & Cheese Copycat Recipe
Let’s learn how to make Panera Bread’s Famous White Cheddar Mac & Cheese at home and even better!
In 2019, a video went viral on TikTok of a Panera employee taking out a package of frozen macaroni and cheese to defrost it in hot water before serving. It came as a huge shock because their Mac and Cheese is so good that even I thought it was made from scratch! The company reassured everyone though that it was shipped frozen to avoid any preservatives but unfortunately, the girl lost her job over the scandal.
Either way, fresh or frozen, Panera Mac and Cheese holds a very special place in my heart. I used to go to Panera Bread everyday after high school to do homework and study for exams. I always ordered the mac and cheese with a French baguette on the side. Once the Mac and cheese was done, I dipped the bread in the leftover cheese sauce because it was just that good.
Today we’re going to make it at home fresh and even better!
WHAT YOU WILL NEED
Panera Mac and Cheese is not the typical yellow or bright orange Mac and cheese you might be used to. It’s actually a white/light yellow color because it’s made with white cheddar – our most important ingredient! Here’s everything you will need:
- Pasta: I used Cavatappi but feel free to use any shape you like. For a more traditional recipe, use elbow macaroni pasta. To make it just like Panera, use Pipette pasta which is shaped like large elbow.
- Butter: This is going to add a beautiful rich taste to this Mac and cheese and is half of what maxes a roux.
- Flour: All purpose flour! Together with the butter, we’ll make a roux which acts as a thickener for the cheese sauce.
- Half & Half: This is my favorite dairy to use whenever I make mac and cheese. It’s not too rich like heavy cream but it adds a lot more creaminess compared to milk.
- Mustard Powder: The secret ingredient you should always add to your Mac and cheese. The acidity in the mustard helps cut through the fat. You can find it in the spice section of any major grocery store. Otherwise, swap it for 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of Dijon or yellow mustard to taste or omit it.
- Garlic Powder: Just because garlic enhances everything!
- Salt: When adding salt, keep in mind the butter has salt if using salted butter as well as all the cheese.
- Black Pepper: Always a must!
- Nutmeg: This is also optional but trust me, a dash of it goes a long way to balance the tangy cheese flavor and all the fats.
- Cream Cheese: I love adding a little to my Mac and cheese – just trust the process.
- Sharp White Cheddar Cheese: Make sure to buy it as a block and grate it yourself! It will melt a lot better compared to pre-shredded.
- Monterey Jack Cheese: This is completely optional! If you want to skip it, just replace it for more sharp white cheddar.
- Parmesan: Grate it yourself fresh and the flavor it adds to this is incredible. I also like to add more on top of my individual bowl with some more black pepper or hot sauce.
How To Make It
There are three basic parts to making mac and cheese from scratch!
1. The first step is to start by maxing a roux. If you’re not familiar with a roux, it’s flour and fat cooked together typically in equal parts to thicken sauces. To a sauce pan or pot over medium heat, add the butter and once melted, whisk in the flour. Whisk for 1 to 2 minutes until bubbly and golden.
2. The second step is to add the dairy and spices and whisk together until smooth and creamy. Once it starts to bubble, add the cheese and whisk until all of it is melted and smooth.
3. The third part is to cook your pasta in salted water according to package directions and then toss it into sauce. I like to cook it on the side as I make the sauce so it’s all ready at the same time.
Tips & Notes
- Make sure to grate your cheese at home rather than buying the packs of pre-shredded cheese. Pre-grated cheese contains preservatives to prevent the cheese from clumping which is not ideal when you want them to melt together into a creamy smooth sauce.
- If you want the sauce to be thinner, add more half and half. If you want the sauce to be thicker and more cheesier, add more cheese. Then just serve warm with some more Parmesan and a sprinkle of black pepper on top.
- Add veggies to the mix to make it more nutritious and filling. My favorite to add to mac and cheese is broccoli and green peas.
- To add protein, mix in some chopped grilled chicken or soy chorizo!
- You can also use salted butter but just tweak the salt as needed!
WHAT TO SERVE IT WITH
If you make this recipe, let me know on Instagram! I love seeing your remakes SO much.
Panera Mac & Cheese Copycat
- 16 ounces pasta shape of choice
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup all purpose flour
- 3 cups half and half
- 1 teaspoon dry mustard powder
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- pinch of nutmeg
- dash of cayenne powder optional
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt to taste
- 2 cups sharp white cheddar cheese shredded
- 1/2 cup Monterey Jack cheese shredded
- 1/4 cup parmesan freshly grated
- 2 tablespoons cream cheese
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook according to package directions.
- Heat a saucepan or pot over medium heat. Add the butter. Once melted, whisk in the flour and cook 1 to 2 minutes until it just starts to bubble and turns a golden color.
- Pour in the half and half and whisk continuously until smooth. Then add the dry mustard powder, garlic powder, black pepper, nutmeg, cayenne powder if using, and salt. Whisk together.
- Reduce the heat to low and add all the cheeses. Whisk together until there are no more clumps and the sauce is completely smooth. Taste and adjust anything to your liking.
- Once the pasta is done cooking, drain it and toss it into the sauce. Mix together and serve warm!