Mac and cheese doesn’t get any easier than this 3 ingredient macaroni and cheese. The 3 ingredients? Elbow macaroni, heavy cream, and Cheddar cheese. And it takes just 20 minutes.
The kids are clamoring for dinner and the only thing anyone wants is a big bowl of comfortingly cheesy pasta. Yet you swore you were never making the stuff out of a box again. Or maybe you simply don’t or can’t run out to the store for ingredients for a glam baked macaroni and cheese casserole with oodles of creamy cheese sauce. Let us help. With just 3 ingredients and 20 minutes, everyone can be happily noshing on an incredibly respectable mac and cheese.–Angie Zoobkoff
3 Ingredient Macaroni and Cheese FAQs
Can I make this mac and cheese ahead of time?
Alas, sadly, no. This was created as a last-minute fix and, as such, doesn’t rely on a cheese sauce that’s made with stabilizers of any sort, such as xanthan, k–carrageenan, guar gum, pectin, and sodium alginate, to keep the sauce from thickening. Leftovers won’t reheat particularly well, so save this for a delicious desperation dinner rather than something you intend to turn to for leftovers you can heat throughout the week.
White Cheddar, sharp Cheddar, and old Cheddar. What difference will they make in this recipe?
Cheddar’s rich mouthfeel and degrees of sharpness make it a perfect choice for adding a lot of flavor without buying piles of different cheeses. Sharp Cheddar, especially the inexpensive, mass-market block you can buy at the supermarket, is the perfect balance between meltability and flavor for mac and cheese. Old cheddar is just a way of saying that it’s been aged longer, making it sharper and more flavorful. Extra-sharp or extra-old Cheddar is quite dry and won’t melt well so keep those for eating out of hand. And white cheese? For the most part, it’s the same as regular Cheddar but without added coloring.
3 Ingredient Macaroni and Cheese
- 1/2 pound elbow macaroni fusilli or other short pasta
- Salt to taste (optional)
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 cups freshly grated sharp Cheddar cheese (use whatever kind you like and have on hand)
- Chives, thinly sliced (optional)
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
- Stir in the macaroni and cook, stirring frequently at the beginning, until al dente, about 1 minute shy of what the package directions suggest.
- Dump the macaroni into a colander placed in the sink to drain.
- While the macaroni drains, place the pot back on the stovetop over low heat. Add the cream and then the cheese. Stir, increasing the heat slightly as you need to in order to speed things along, until the cheese melts into a sauce, 3 to 5 minutes.
- Add the pasta to the sauce and stir enthusiastically until the sauce thickens and clings to each noodle, 1 to 2 minutes. Serve immediately.
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Recipe Testers’ Reviews
I have to admit that both my daughter and I can’t stand KD, but my husband and son love the stuff. We all love homemade macaroni and cheese so I was hoping this would be a happy medium. It was so much more. It’s rich and creamy, with just a hint of bite from the cheese, and we were all fighting over the last few spoonfuls. Plus it was so quick and easy to make! The sauce came together beautifully and was thin enough to coat each piece of pasta.
Holy Moly Macaroni, this is good. It’s a bit of a cross between the ease of a Kraft Dinner and the flavor of the more “upscale” Stouffer’s frozen mac and cheese. I was working on a finicky ole stovetop at the beach that takes an hour to boil water, so I cooked the macaroni earlier in the day. When it was time to eat, I just threw together the cream and cheese and whipped up a thick, luscious sauce. No roux or béchamel to contend with, just those 2 ingredients that coated the cooked pasta beautifully.
Be sure that you use your favorite Cheddar, a dash of salt, and dinner is done.
If you’re looking for a quick and easy dinner that takes you back to being a kid, this 3 ingredient macaroni and cheese is your recipe. It truly reminded me of eating Kraft macaroni and cheese as a kid. It’s a great recipe to have on hand when you are short on time and have a craving for mac and cheese.
I used white Cheddar (Cabot Seriously Sharp) and it was delicious. Also, I actually found if I let it sit for a couple of minutes, it thickened up a bit.
If you have a macaroni and cheese itch that needs to be scratched, this is the fastest way there. I finished this dish in under 20 minutes, including the time to wait for the water to boil.
To further demonstrate how stupidly easy this recipe was, I purchased all 3 ingredients at the gas station. Now if that isn’t simple cooking, I don’t know what is. Granted, this isn’t Grandma’s baked macaroni and cheese with a crusty breadcrumb topping and subtle flavors of herbs mixed throughout…but that recipe is for another day. Today is about getting comfort food in front of you in less time than it takes to watch an episode of The Office.
The only driver of flavor in this recipe is the cheese, so choose wisely. Considering the only other ingredients are pasta and cream, my suggestion is to go big on some nice sharp (or even smoked) Cheddar. It was the perfect proportion of pasta and cheese sauce—not too much sauce left and the noodles weren’t too dry
The only drawback to this recipe is that it doesn’t make great leftovers. My recommendation is to add a little milk or cream when you reheat it to loosen up the cheese sauce, otherwise, it gets a little gummy.
This 3 ingredient macaroni and cheese came together so easily—like, scary easy. From start to finish, it took maybe 12 to 15 minutes, making it super ideal for weeknights or even a decadent lunch. I definitely recommend a strong cheese, like a sharp Cheddar or a smoked gouda, since the cream drowns out some of the flavors…but you could definitely experiment with a bunch of cheeses or combinations of cheeses to suit your tastes.
I’d also recommend allowing at least a few minutes to allow the sauce to come together. It didn’t separate at all but needed maybe 3 to 4 minutes of gentle stirring to thicken up–definitely add the al dente pasta as soon as the cheese melts into the cream so that the pasta can absorb some of the sauce, but, again, 3 to 4 minutes of gentle stirring will get the sauce nice and creamy.
One last thing, the recipe as written says it makes 3 servings, but realistically, it’s like 2 for the main course portion.
Mac and cheese with real ingredients! Yes! I’m not a huge mac and cheese fan but my partner is and I’d much prefer he eats this one than the one from the box simply because it’s made from ingredients you can pronounce. It’s also super easy and uses things you’ll likely have on hand so it can be made on a whim. Definitely decadent and a once-in-a-while treat.
This 3 ingredient macaroni and cheese is extremely simple to make and turns out great. I was surprised how the macaroni and cheese turned out like the boxed mixes yet it had all the flavor and richness of homemade macaroni and cheese. It was extremely fast to make; it took less than an hour and used only 3 ingredients.
While the pasta drained, I put the cup of cream over low heat while slowly adding the grated Cheddar. I kept the mixture on low heat to avoid scalding the cream. It took 4 to 5 minutes while stirring constantly before the Cheddar mixed with the cream and began to thicken.
At this point, I added the macaroni and kept stirring for about 3 minutes until the sauce thickened even more and began to cling to the pasta. I added some finely chopped parsley for color and served the pasta hot.
Typically I make my mac and cheese with a homemade white sauce and Cheddar or smoked Gouda cheese plus a little bit of cream cheese for extra creaminess. This recipe bypasses the white sauce and produces creaminess with luscious heavy cream. Pasta, cream, and cheese. Wow. Simple and rich.
The amount of fat in a cup of cream stopped me in my tracks at first, and then I figured this recipe doesn’t have the combination of butter and full-fat milk that the white sauce does, so the difference in fat might not be as much as it appears at first glance. I haven’t researched it, so perhaps ignorance is bliss. In any case, the blissful indulgence is worth it.
The creamy cheese sauce here does require vigilance and near-constant stirring, but the result is a wonderful batch of macaroni and cheese in less than half an hour. To speed it up, one could sacrifice an extra pot and make the sauce while boiling the pasta instead of reusing the same pot. The pasta cooks for 10 minutes, and it also took me 10 minutes to get a lovely smooth cheese sauce.
One of my children is an incredibly finicky eater and always has been. There are very few foods she likes and often stops liking something if we give it to her too often. Last night, in the middle of preparing another dinner, she decided she wanted mac and cheese. Of course, no blue boxes in the house, but I did have the three ingredients. We were about 15 minutes away from having the roast chicken and vegetables I was preparing for everyone else, and I was able to get a whole batch of mac and cheese done for her at the same time.
I happened to have shelf-stable cream from Trader Joe’s, elbow macaroni, and a block of Cheddar. I shredded cheese while the water boiled and it only took 2 to 3 minutes on low heat to get the cheese and cream to form a rich sauce for the pasta.
Was this the best mac and cheese I have ever made or tasted? No and no. I prefer a little crisp, cheesy topping and a slightly less creamy texture. That being said, the result to effort ratio was off the chart. And the pickiest eater in the county was pretty pleased.
I would recommend NOT using too old or sharp cheese as that might make this a little grainy, but use what you’ve got since this is intended to be something you make on the fly.
I’ve never been a fan of the Kraft Mac and Cheese dinners. Sadly, my husband loves it! To his way of thinking, that orange cheese-like sauce is the gold standard for all mac and cheese. I have tried wonderful, luscious, complex, and creamy versions over the years, but they’ve just never measured up to his one and only orange favorite. Until now.
I was more than excited to try this amazingly simple stovetop mac and cheese recipe. Of course, I used orange sharp Cheddar cheese and elbow macaroni (wasn’t going to raise any needless alarms!). I followed the easy instructions. The shredded cheese melted into the simmering heavy cream in about 3 minutes, and after adding the elbows, and coating them well in the beautiful orange and velvety sauce, I let them cook an additional 2 minutes for the sauce to thicken. The verdict—he liked it! He won’t admit that he likes it better, but for me, this quick “real cheese” stove-top version will be our new gold standard for when he (now me) gets that hankering for good old mac and cheese for dinner. I usually serve mac and cheese as a side dish, so this will easily serve four persons.
It’s important to note that you must use freshly shredded Cheddar to get the creamy sauce results. Packaged, pre-shredded Cheddar will end up very stringy and unappealing. My sauce didn’t break at all and came together perfectly in just under 3 minutes.
I used Barilla elbows and the cooking time on the box was only 7 minutes, as opposed to the recipe’s suggested 10. I cooked the pasta for 6 minutes (cooking time minus one minute) and drained. While the pasta drained, the pot was placed back on the hot burner and set to low. I added the cream and slowly stirred in 1 cup of Sargento 4 State Cheddar and 1 cup Sargento Extra Sharp Cheddar. I had to increase the heat from low to 4 (electric stovetop) gradually over 10 minutes and stir constantly for the cheese to completely melt. Once the drained pasta was added, I turned off the stovetop. It only took about 30 seconds of enthusiastic stirring for the dish to come together. The cheese sauce thickened quickly and clung beautifully to each piece of pasta.
A few days later, I decided to retest the recipe, using Italian black truffle sea salt in lieu of plain salt in the pasta water, and switched to a lighter-colored, more finely shredded cheese, New York Extra Sharp Cheddar. The results were really delicious—pieces of truffles from the salt clung to the drained pasta and lent an additional depth of flavor to this simple dish.
Two notes: Do not be discouraged if your pasta has turned into a gluey, lumpy mass in the strainer while you’re preparing the sauce. It will separate easily once stirred into the cheese. Also, if you use finely shredded cheese, the cooking time for the sauce reduces by half.
Creamy and smooth cheese sauce and plump little pasta—this 3 ingredient macaroni and cheese is more than perfectly fine when you’re in a pinch. And once you’ve made it, you’ll remember the ingredients by heart: half a box of pasta, one 8-ounce package of cheese, one half-pint container of cream. I used extra-sharp Cheddar for this recipe, as I prefer punchier cheese for mac & cheese.
While I waited for the water to boil, I measured the pasta and prepped a simple green salad. And while the pasta was cooking I shredded the cheese and carved the rotisserie chicken I had bought at the store on the way home from work. (Yes, I wanted dinner FAST). In 20 minutes I had dinner on the table that looked like it had popped out of a mac and cheese ad. What more could you ask for on a weeknight?
What an easy, fun, indulgent recipe! My young kids and I enjoyed every creamy last drop! I used a combination of half Cheddar jack and half extra-sharp Cheddar. Make sure you grate the cheese yourself; do not use the pre-grated cheese or it will not turn out as smooth and creamy. I would not recommend using more than half extra-sharp Cheddar as it can sometimes make a cheese sauce a bit grainy. The sauce didn’t break and it melded together nicely.
This recipe was easy to make and delicious.
I used macaroni pasta in this recipe. The sauce came together after about 5 minutes on medium heat and there were no problems with the sauce breaking at any point. After adding pasta to the sauce, I stirred it for a further minute and the sauce coated the pasta well. I garnished the pasta with freshly ground black pepper and served it with a fresh salad on the side.
This 3 ingredient cheese macaroni and cheese was enough for 3 large or 4 smaller portions. Smaller portions work a bit better as this is rich and is good served with a small fresh green salad on the side.
Originally published February 18, 2021
If you make this recipe, snap a photo and hashtag it #LeitesCulinaria. We'd love to see your creations on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Oh goodness—this 3 ingredient macaroni and cheese is a dangerously simple recipe!
And my mother would approve of this recipe. The author cites Kraft dinner as a childhood favorite, but my mother prided herself on never cooking out of a box so Kraft dinner was an exotic treat for me only to be had at the home of friends. This recipe recreates that creamy, rich, cheesy flavor with only three ingredients—no boxed shortcuts needed.
It melted beautifully—no breaking or stringiness—and created a smooth and delicious sauce. Just the right sauce-to-cheese ratio.
Don’t think about the calories, don’t question how easy this is, just use good Cheddar and don’t overcook your pasta. Comfort food in one pan. This is rich enough to be a full meal, but you could also fold in jalapeños for a little bite or some steamed veggies to make a primavera pasta. So good, so simple.