Panera Bread Mac & Cheese Copycat is just as creamy and indulgent as the original recipe with a rich sauce of cheddar cheese, butter, heavy cream, and milk.
Table of contents
Sabrina’s Panera Mac and Cheese Recipe
Whether you’re looking to satisfy a Panera Bread craving or want to master a truly amazing mac and cheese recipe, this is the recipe for you. This homemade version of Panera Bread’s White Cheddar Macaroni is sure to be a hit for family dinner. Impress at the next potluck with a large batch of this rich, hearty, and leveled-up cheesy pasta dish.
What sets this Mac and Cheese apart is the perfectly smooth, buttery cheese sauce made with a blend of three kinds of cheese, butter, whole milk, and heavy cream. It’s the ideal comfort food: creamy, buttery, warm, indulgent, and so easy to make!
Panera Mac and Cheese can be whipped up in just about 15-20 minutes, making it a new favorite quick dinner recipe you will go back to dozens of times. As a bonus point, this mac and cheese can easily be prepared ahead of time in a slow cooker for busy weeknights. Prep it the night before and reheat in the crock pot for an easy, ready-to-go party side dish.
- Roux: The cheesy creamy sauce starts with a roux made with butter, flour, and salt. A roux is a classic technique of cooking flour in butter. The butter helps cook off the raw flour taste and this paste helps thicken the milk mixture that you add later.
- Milk Mixture: You add a cup milk and 1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream to turn the melted cheese into a smooth sauce. The heavy cream adds richness and the milk helps keep the creamy cheese sauce from being too rich and thins it out a bit.
- Cheese: This incredible mac and cheese recipe is made with a flavorful blend of cheeses. The white cheddar cheese, sharp cheddar cheese, and American cheese come together for a tangy, creamy, delicious cheese sauce. Make sure to use fresh grated cheese for the smoothest sauce.
- Pasta Shells: You want to use shell pasta for this Panera Mac and Cheese Copycat recipe to keep it spot on. The pasta shape doesn’t change the taste though so feel free to use elbow macaroni or other small pasta you have on hand.
How to Make Panera Mac and Cheese
Time needed: 25 minutes.
- Cook the Pasta
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add in pasta, cooking for just one minute shy of the package instructions for al dente. Drain pasta without rinsing and set it to the side while you prepare the sauce. Don’t rinse the pasta, the starch on the pasta helps thicken the sauce.
- Make the Roux
To make a smooth roux, melt the butter completely over medium-high heat in a Dutch Oven or large pot, then turn the temperature down slightly as you whisk in the flour. Make sure to fully incorporate the flour so you don’t get any clumps in the sauce.
- Melt the Cheese Sauce
Whisk in the salt, milk, and heavy cream to the roux. Continue mixing for 4-5 minutes until the sauce thickens. Add in all of the cheese, and mix until melted and fully combined. For best results, use freshly shredded cheese over the packaged shredded cheese.
- Combine and Serve
Add the cooked pasta to the pot and stir until it’s coated in the cheese sauce. Serve immediately for the best taste and consistency in the sauce.
Cooking Tips & Tricks
Grate the cheese yourself
It is an extra step but grating the cheese yourself for Mac and Cheese makes such a difference to the texture of the sauce. Bagged shredded cheese has anti-caking agents on it so it doesn’t stick together and they can make your cheese sauce gritty.
Don’t add the cheese too soon
You want your milk mixture to be thickened and be hot enough to simmer before you add your cheese. If the milk isn’t hot enough, the cheese won’t melt and combine properly. If it isn’t thickened before you add the cheese, it won’t ever get thick or smooth.
Sides for Your Panera Mac and Cheese
Main Dishes: Because it is so creamy and rich, Panera Mac & Cheese pairs great with a variety of savory, meat-based entrees like Oven Baked Rotisserie Chicken, Grilled Pork Chops, or Easy Pulled Pork.
Side Dishes: If you’re feeling indulgent, this glorious white cheddar macaroni can shine all on its own with a sprinkle of leftover cooked bacon and a side of Sautéed Green Beans.
How to Store Panera Mac and Cheese
Store: Panera Bread Mac and Cheese is best served immediately and you can keep it up to two hours at room temperature before it should be stored. Store leftover Panera Mac and Cheese in a covered dish or an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to four days.
Reheat: You can reheat Mac and Cheese in the microwave or on the stove top. Add a small splash of milk (about 1 tablespoon) and heat in the microwave covered, in bursts of 30 seconds to one minute until it is heated through. For the stove, reheat in a pan over low heat, stirring occasionally, adding milk a tablespoon at a time until desired consistency and heated through.
Freeze: It’s not recommended to freeze Panera Mac and Cheese since the dairy will separate and make the consistency of the sauce grainy if you reheat it.
Alternative Cooking Techniques
Slow Cooker Panera Mac and Cheese
- Add the butter to a crockpot on high heat and allow it to melt.
- Whisk in the flour and cook for 30 seconds.
- Mix the salt, milk, and heavy cream.
- Stir in the cheeses and uncooked pasta.
- Cover and switch crockpot to low heat and cook for 3-4 hours or until pasta is tender.
- Give a final stir, and serve warm.
The best cheese for mac and cheese is one that melts well and is slightly creamy but also has a strong, sharp flavor so you can taste the cheese. It’s also good to use a blend of cheeses to add some depth. Cheddar cheese, smoked Gouda cheese, and white cheddar cheese are all good for making cheese sauce.
The biggest culprit of why your cheese isn’t melting is because you used bagged shredded cheese and the anti-caking agents on the shreds are stopping it from melting. Also, if your milk mixture isn’t hot enough, or on the other hand too hot, your cheese won’t melt properly.
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
- 2 cups white cheddar , freshly shredded
- 1 cup cheddar cheese , freshly shredded
- 8 ounces American cheese
- 1 pound medium pasta shells
- Cook the pasta 1 minute shy of the ingredients listed on the box, then drain and set aside.
- In a large dutch oven add the butter on medium heat until melted.
- Whisk in the flour and cook for 30 seconds.
- Add in the salt, milk and heavy cream, whisking well until it starts to thicken, about 4-5 minutes once it has some to a simmer.
- Add in all the cheese (white cheddar, cheddar and American) and whisk will until fully melted.
- Add in the pasta and gently stir until well coated. Cook for 2-3 minutes to allow sauce to thicken and cling to pasta.
- Serve immediately.
Panera Mac and Cheese Variations
Cheese: While Panera’s recipe uses a blend of cheddar cheeses, you can make this recipe your own by experimenting with cheese combinations like sharp cheddar, smoked gouda, or mozzarella.
Pasta: This recipe can easily be substituted with a different type of pasta shape or variety like elbow macaroni, rotini, or bowtie. You could also use whole-grain or gluten-free pasta to adjust to dietary needs.
Veggies: Mac & Cheese can be topped with a variety of vegetables. Try it with Roasted Cauliflower, Roasted Broccoli, green beans, bell peppers, or sautéed spinach.
Chicken: For an extra punch of protein, top this mac and cheese with grilled, rotisserie, or even fried chicken (for an extra crunch). Try it with Barbecue Chicken during the summer with some thinly sliced red onions, corn, and more shredded cheddar cheese!
Toppings: This recipe is delicious all on its own, but if you want to kick it up a notch, try finishing with some toasted bread crumbs, bacon bits, green onions, roasted garlic, balsamic glaze, or a Buffalo Wing Sauce.