This recipe for my Best Crock Pot Mac and Cheese creates a thick, creamy, velvety, mac and cheese that isn’t grainy. Plus, it’s crazy easy!
How many times have you been to a potluck and gone to scoop out a big ol’ helping of mac and cheese from a slow cooker and found a gloppy, grainy, oily mess? My guess is more than once.
The problem with most slow cooker recipes for macaroni and cheese is that people have taken traditional recipes for mac and cheese and just dumped them in the crock pot. And that just doesn’t work.
Folks, your search for the perfect slow cooker mac and cheese ends here. Or at least mine has. And I’ve been searching for a long time!
Slow cookers are a strange (albeit helpful) beast. They are a moist heat that works great for some things, but not for others. Plus, every slow cooker cooks differently. So, it’s really hard to create a recipe that works well in every appliance.
But, let’s start at the top and work our way through this…
What’s the difference between a Crock Pot and a slow cooker?
Well, not much. In fact, all Crock Pots are slow cookers, but not all slow cookers are Crock Pots. Do I have you thoroughly confused?
Crock Pot is just a brand of slow cooker. But as a society, we’ve colloquially used that brand to refer to the appliance. It’s sort of like how we call all adhesive bandages band-aids, despite the fact that Band-Aid is a brand name. Or how we call those little cotton swabs that we clean out our ears with q-tips, when Q-Tip is actually a brand of cotton swab. See where I’m going here?
In the food world, we often use the terms slow cooker and crock pot interchangeably. They’re the same kind of appliance. It’s just that lots of different brands make slow cookers.
Why does slow cooker mac and cheese curdle?
Well, a few different things cause this to happen. Eggs, pre-shredded cheese, and heat can all cause cheese to separate and result in a curdled texture.
So, we’ve got to do a few things to prevent this from happening.
To start, this recipe doesn’t use any eggs. There’s just no need for them in this recipe.
Next, we shred our own cheese. Yes, it’s a little extra work, but it works. The cornstarch and cellulose that is often used to keep pre-shredded cheese from clumping together in the bag can cause a weird texture. So shred your own. Trust me on this.
Next, we face the heat issue. This one is a bit tougher because every slow cooker cooks differently. Like I shared on my Slow Cooker Ham and Beans recipe, sometimes even the exact same brand and model of slow cooker will cook at different temperatures.
Cooking the mac and cheese on low with frequent stirring is how we keep those edges of the mac and cheese from getting too hot and scorching the cheese.
Can I make substitutions with this recipe?
Look, I can’t tell you what to do in your kitchen, but I HIGHLY recommend you stick to this recipe as written. I want this to turn out perfectly for you and with lots of room for error here, I suggest you stick to the original recipe.
If you read nothing else in this post, read this!
Expectations are very important when it comes to recipes. So, I want to be sure I give you appropriate expectations with this one. I want you to know what you’re getting here.
Firs of all, method is very important with this recipe.
This isn’t a dump and stir and walk away for 7 to 8 hours recipe. Your mac and cheese will be absolute mush and you’ll come back and tell me what a horrible cook I am. Let’s not have that.
In all of our testing, we found that the cook time needed to be right at 2 hours on low for perfectly al dente pasta. But that will vary based on the exact pasta you choose as well as your specific slow cooker. So, you’ll need to stir it more frequently than other slow cooker recipes and you’ll need to taste it often so that you get the pasta cooked perfectly. Once it’s tender to your liking, switch the slow cooker to warm and serve pretty quickly. It will continue to cook and will eventually get mushy.
If you find the dish too thick, stirring in some warm milk will help.
What kind of mac and cheese does this make? Is it creamy?
The end product in this recipe is a gooey, velvety, smooth mac and cheese that is crazy creamy. It’s going to be a lot like the texture of frozen or refrigerated mac and cheese you find in the grocery store. If you want that intense cheese pull, stirring in some more shredded cheddar right before serving or even sprinkling some on top and allowing it to melt will give you more of that texture.
How do I make this work for a pot luck?
Because of the varying cook time, I strongly suggest testing this recipe on family with your specific slow cooker before taking it to something like a big family gathering, reunion, or pot luck. It’s just safer to know in advance how long it might take to cook.
Slightly under cooking your pasta and allowing it to continue to finish cooking on your way to the event will help to keep it from overcooking.
Let’s talk about a few of these ingredients…
Sharp cheddar cheese – shred your own. The bagged, pre-shredded stuff is super convenient for some recipes, but it contains cellulose and cornstarch, both of which can ruin the texture of this mac and cheese.
American cheese – this helps to make for a super creamy mac and cheese. I typically buy the slices (these aren’t wrapped in plastic) and thinly slice them. But the plastic wrapped slices will work, too. I’m already prepared for some of those “that’s not even real cheese” comments, but here’s the deal… it works. Use it.
Elbow macaroni – I just use regular ol’ elbow macaroni. Nothing fancy. And yes, it goes in uncooked. It cooks in the sauce and the starch from the pasta helps to thicken the sauce.
Evaporated milk – a MUST! There’s no substituting the creaminess evaporated milk gives this dish.
Whole milk – I’ve only tested this recipe with whole milk. I think you need the richness and fat. I mean, it’s mac and cheese. It’s not really meant to be healthy.
Dry mustard – It’s commonly found in lots of mac and cheese recipes and it gives it some great depth of flavor and that little bit of sharpness that it needs.
The Best Crock Pot Mac and Cheese
- 1 (16-ounce) block sharp cheddar cheese
- 4 ounces American cheese
- 1 (1-pound) box dried elbow macaroni (uncooked)
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
- 2 (12-ounce) cans evaporated milk
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Grate the cheddar and American cheeses on a box grater. Do not use pre-shredded cheese. If the American cheese is in slices, cut it into thin strips. Set aside.
- Spray the crock of a 6 to 8-quart slow cooker with nonstick cooking spray. Add the uncooked macaroni, butter, evaporated milk, whole milk, dry mustard, and salt to the slow cooker. Stir to combine. Add the cheeses and stir to combine.
- Cover and cook on low for 1 hour. Stir well, cover again, and cook until the pasta is done to your liking – about 1 additional hour (2 hours total). Switch the slow cooker to warm and serve immediately. The exact cook time will vary based on the specific slow cooker. As the dish sits, it will thicken more and the pasta will continue to soften. Gradually add warm milk to thin the sauce if it gets too thick.
My family and I LOVE Mac and cheese, call us the Mac and cheese connoisseurs. We prefer creamy, cheesy texture. But, this was a bit too cheesy/creamy. I did have someone else (hubby) go shopping for me and he only got 1- 8 ounce block of sharp cheddar. (I had less than half a block at home). So, I used 6 ounces of American cheese instead of 4 to compensate the missing sharp. So, about 12 ounces sharp cheddar and 6 ounces American (less cheese all together than what the recipe calls for). I did the rest of the recipe exactly as the recipe calls.
I may try it with only 2 ounces of American cheese and the rest sharp cheddar and see if that helps. Because this was just way too cheesy. Nobody liked it, and that’s extremely surprising for my son who would literally live off of Mac and cheese!
Not posting this to bash the recipe or Stacey! Because we all know he’s the best! Plus, I did alter it the slightest bit, which may have been the issue. I’m posting to let readers know my experience, and my alterations just in case they have the same issue. I will be trying this again, but with less American cheese.
Thanks so much, Amanda! This is a very helpful comment and is much appreciated!
I am trying to shop for the ingredients. I can only find single wrapped slices of american cheese. What else should I search for?
Those will still work! You just have to unwrap them all. 🙂
Stacey, after reading about ham and beans then Mac and cheese, I am starving!
I am allergic to onions. All sweet onions are not created equal. I can eat a true Vidalia onion, leeks and sometimes a red onion. Sweet onions from Texas or other countries are not the same.
For the Mac and cheese, can I use all evaporated milk ?
At a group dinner someone brought Mac and cheese that used penne and 3 cheeses. Wow. When I was a kid in the dark ages, Sunday included a giant pan of Mac and Cheese using NY Chedder that came in a black wax wrapper. Southerners eat good ! It’s why we are happy and pleasingly plump.
Ha! Thanks, MG! I guess that means I’m doing my job! 🙂 When it comes to sweet onions, Vidalia are the best, at least in my opinion. For the mac and cheese, I suppose you could use all evaporated milk, but I’ve not tested the recipe that way, so I can’t say for sure.
Is this something I could make the day before in the crockpot then set it on warm the next day to reheat?
Unfortunately not. This is best made and served within the timeline outlined in the recipe.
I do not recommend making this prior to serving. It should be served very soon after cooking(2 hours). I say this because I Iearned the hard way. It becomes a very unpleasant texture and flavor. I even attempted to add milk to fix it, didn’t work. It’s best served immediately. However, you could prep the ingredients the day before in the crockpot then start cooking it the day of. If you have to travel and bring it with you, cook it at home 2 hours prior and it will stay warm during your ride, then put it on warm once you arrive at your location.
Hope this helps you and others!
Hi. I did cook it on low and it was wonderful. Between two of us we really made a dent in it. We still have enough for probably 2 more meals. Thank you do much for this really good recipe!
So glad it turned out great and y’all enjoyed it!
I am preparing this as I write this. In the beginning you say to cook it on low. But then near the end your say turn it down to low so my question is do you cook it on high and then turn it to low or start and end on low?
Hey, Lois! You cook it for the entire time on low. I do mention to cook it on low in step 3, but only see that one mention of a temp. If you can show me where the other is, I’ll be sure to get it updated as to not create any confusion. Thanks!
Doubled the recipe, and it came out great! Cooked for 2 hrs 15 mins. Subbed 1/2 lbs of Gruyère for cheddar to add a little different flavor.
1.5 lbs Sharp cheddar
1/2 lbs American
1/2 lbs Gruyère
Shredding your own cheeses makes a HUGE difference in consistency. Thanks so much for this recipe. My family loved it!
Sounds great! So glad it turned out great for you!
Sooo… why not pre-grated cheese?! Curious. I don’t have it in me to start grating right now. 🤪
The pre-shredded stuff has cornstarch and cellulose to act as an anti-caking agent and can cause serious texture issues. I write about it in the post.
It’s mentioned multiple times in the blog before the recipe. Pre-grated/shredded cheeses have cellulose and corn starch that prevent them from clumping & sticking together. This results is the Mac & cheese not coming out right because the cheese will separate and become grity/grainy, instead of sticking to the noodles and being smooth and creamy.
Fantastic recipe! Made 2 nights in a row. My first attempt was good but let it go a little longer than I had planned so it was a tiny bit dry but flavor was still very good. Next night I made sure I stayed on top of the time AND did add just a little bit more liquid, not much though, and it turned out perfect! Had never made homemade mac and cheese and this recipe was so dang good and easy, I am now thinking I will never buy the boxed stuff again! Thanks for the recipe AND all of the tips in the post, that was incredibly helpful to me trying it for the first time!J
So glad to hear it turned out great for you!
Hi can I make this in a casserole crockpot?
Hmmm… I’ve not tested it that way, so I can’t say for sure.
Can i double this recipe in a 6 quart crockpot ?
Probably, but I’ve not tested that.
If I needed to double the recipe, do I need to adjust the cooking times? Will a double recipe fit in a 8 quart crock pot?
Just a question…it says to cover and cook for one hour, but then in the blog it says you need to stir frequently…is that during the first hour or just after the hour cook?
Yes, you stir after the first hour. The stirring is to keep the edges from burning.
Is dry mustard the same as ground mustard?
It is. Enjoy!
My family loved this recipe! It was a huge hit for Thanksgiving the only modification I made was the addition of 1/4th teaspoon of smoked paprika
Jack made this for our Thanksgiving menu and oddly enough, he added some paprika, too! Glad y’all enjoyed it!
Just checking to see if you and your family are okay. I think this is the most recent recipe that I have seen on your blog. The home page shows latest recipes from August and, when I click on the more recipes, this is the most recent one posted.
Hope everyone is well.
Barbara! You are so sweet to check on us! We’re just fine. We’ve had some family members with health problems and that combined with us not normally posting a bunch of new content at Thanksgiving (everyone seems to always cook the same things) make it look a little bare these days, but we’ll be back in a few weeks with tons of great holiday recipes! Thanks again!
Can this translate to an instant pot recipe?
Possibly, but I haven’t tested this in an Instant Pot, so I can’t say for sure.
This is a nice easy recipe. I added a cup of finely diced smoked ham after the pasta reached aldente’ stage just to warm the ham through and topped each serving with a 1/2 tsp of smoked Hungarian paprika,
which gave it a richer and subtle additional savory notes. I wonder if about 4 oz of shredded Velveeta block could be used to add more creaminess?
So glad to hear you enjoyed it, Robert! Love your additions as well! I think you could absolutely add some Velveeta.
I have not prepared this recipe…..yet….but I will after I ask this question: those crock pot and slow cooker ‘liners’ to help on the clean up: do you think one can be used with this recipe vs. spraying the interior of the cooker? Thanks
Absolutely! Feel free to use a liner with this recipe. They make clean-up so easy!