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.