The Cozy Cook

Panera Mac and Cheese Recipe – (BEST Copycat!)

Make Panera’s famous Mac & Cheese right at home with this spot-on copycat recipe. Serve it hot off the stove or enjoy it baked with a crunchy Ritz topping. You can’t beat the creamy Vermont White Cheddar sauce! 

Be sure to serve this with my Baked Chili Cheese Dogs!

A pot full of creamy White Cheddar Shells and cheese for Panera Mac and Cheese recipe.

Panera Mac & Cheese Recipe

It’s an interesting time in history right now, on this April day in 2020. Like many of us, I’ve been missing trips to my favorite restaurants and have been relying heavily on all of my restaurant copycat recipes.

Panera is known most prominently for two things. Their Broccoli Cheddar Soup, and their super creamy White Cheddar Mac & Cheese.

I’ve tried all kinds of White Cheddar varieties in this recipe and I’ve come up with a clear winner. (See ingredient list below or in the recipe card.)

I’ve served this hot off the stove and have also added crumbled Ritz on top and baked it. Either way, it’s the best.


Ingredients

See recipe card at the bottom of post for ingredient quantities and full instructions

  • Butter
  • Flour
  • White Cheddar Cheese– Cracker Barrel Vermont Sharp White tastes just like Panera’s. Be sure to shred it from a block. AVOID using shredded cheese from a bag if possible, as it contains cellulose that prevents the cheese from sticking together, but also prevents the cheese from melting well in sauces and soups. Also avoid using Extra Sharp Cheese or Aged Cheddar as it won’t melt as well.
  • Heavy Cream
  • Milk, preferably whole
  • Dry Mustard- you can also use Dijon
  • Salt/Pepper
  • Hot Sauce- This only enhances the flavor of the cheese, you can’t taste it at all and it doesn’t make it spicy. Totally kid friendly too.

 


How to Make it

PRO TIP: Shred the cheese from a block, it won’t melt well if it’s pre-shredded from a bag. Allow it to come to room temperature prior to mixing into the sauce. This is the secret to an ultimate creamy consistency. Also ensure that the base is warm and not too hot when you add the cheese, otherwise you can end up with a gritty consistency.

Melt the butter in a soup pot over medium-high heat and whisk in flour. Continue to whisk until it begins to turn a light golden color.

Slowly add the heavy cream and milk. Add the seasonings and hot sauce. Whisk for about 3 minutes.

Making a roux in a soup pot and adding milk to make Panera mac & cheese.

Reduce heat to low and gradually sprinkle in cheese, whisking continuously. Sauce will continue to thicken upon standing.

Adding cheese to Panera Mac & Cheese Sauce and stirring it until creamy.

Add cooked pasta and stir to combine. Serve! See below for instructions on Baked Macaroni and Cheese or the Crock Pot Method.

Adding cooked shell pasta to a soup pot and stirring it into Panera Mac & Cheese Sauce.


Baked Version

To bake this mac & cheese, use 3/4 lb. pasta instead of the whole pound as it will continue to absorb the sauce as it bakes.

Boil the pasta for 1 minute less than al dente.

Combine with cheese sauce and transfer to a lightly greased 9 x 13 casserole dish.

Top with 1 cup of crushed Ritz crackers or Panko breadcrumbs. (Optional but tasty.)

Bake at 325 degrees for 15 minutes and let it sit for 5 minutes prior to serving.


Make Ahead/Crock Pot Method

  • Cook the pasta for 2-3 minutes less than al dente. Drain.
  • Prepare the cheese sauce and let it cool a bit after you’ve made it.
  • Use a silicone spatula to combine the pasta into the sauce until just combined, don’t overmix. It’s okay if it’s not all coated perfectly.
  • Refrigerate for 1-2 days. (If preparing ahead of time.)
  • Place in a Slow Cooker on low for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

Other Cheese Options

If you want to use a variety of cheeses to change up the flavor of this dish, the following cheese combinations are great in macaroni and cheese, use as many different cheeses as you want!

  • Gouda
  • Mozzarella
  • Mild Cheddar
  • Monterey Jack
  • Gruyere

Refrain from using extra sharp or aged cheeses as those won’t melt as well.


Adding Hot Sauce to Mac & Cheese

The Hot Sauce is strictly used to enhance the flavor of the cheese.

It may sound surprising to add hot sauce to macaroni and cheese, especially if you plan to serve this to kids. However I can assure you that this doesn’t make the recipe spicy at all, and you can’t even taste it.

What to Add to Mac and Cheese

These options will take any macaroni and cheese to the next level!

  • Bacon, Ham, Pulled Pork, Sausage, Buffalo Chicken, Kielbasa, Lobster, BBQ Chicken, Hot Dogs
  • Broccoli, Mushrooms, Peas, Corn, Spinach, Sun-dried Tomatoes, Pesto, Caramelized Onions, Chili

Storing Leftovers

  • Refrigerate for 3-4 days in an airtight container in the fridge. Although this can also be frozen, it doesn’t reheat as well due as the dairy separates a bit.

A white bowl of Panera mac and cheese on a white plate with a fork .

Try These Next

Get my Free Meal Plan

I’ve got a Free Meal Plan with 7 of my super popular recipes (complete with grocery list)! Sign up for my email list and I’ll send it over now along with weekly dinner recipes!

And follow me on FacebookInstagram, and Pinterest!

A pot full of creamy White Cheddar Shells and cheese for Panera Mac and Cheese recipe.

Panera Mac & Cheese Recipe

4.87 from 15 ratings
This SUPER creamy White Cheddar Mac & Cheese Recipe is just like the Panera version! Serve it right off the stove top, in the Crock Pot, or enjoy it baked. Delicious additions include bacon, crushed Ritz crackers, and more!

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. medium pasta shells, or elbow macaroni

Roux

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup flour

White Cheddar Sauce

  • 3 cups Cracker Barrel Vermont White Cheddar, shredded, 1 block = 2 cups
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 cups milk, preferably whole

Seasonings

  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground mustard,, can sub Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot sauce, Optional, see notes

Instructions

Shred the Cheese

  • Shred the cheese first and set aside. It should be close to room temperature when added to the sauce.

Boil the Pasta

  • Boil a large pot of water and cook according to pasta package instructions. Drain well when finished. Prepare the sauce while the water boils and the pasta cooks.

Prepare the Sauce

  • PRO TIP: Measure out all of your ingredients and have them ready when you start the sauce. This is especially true of the cheese as it shouldn't be cold when added to the base.
  • Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour for 1 minute, until it begins to turn a light golden color.
  • Slowly whisk in the heavy cream and milk. Whisk for about 3 minutes.
  • Add the seasonings and hot sauce.
  • Reduce heat to low. Slowly sprinkle in the shredded cheese, stirring as you do so.
  • Whisk continuously until smooth and thickened. Remove from heat.
  • Add boiled pasta and stir to combine. Serve!

If Baking

  • Use 3/4 lb. pasta instead of the whole pound as it will continue to absorb sauce while it bakes.
  • Boil for 1 minute less than Al Dente.
  • Transfer to a lightly greased 9 x 13 inch casserole dish.(Optional: Top with 1 cup of crushed Ritz crackers.)
  • Bake at 325 degrees for 15 minutes. Let it sit 5 minutes prior to serving.

Notes

Other Cheese Options

Feel free to switch this recipe up to add different flavors, use as many difference cheeses as you'd like!
  • Gouda
  • Mozzarella
  • Mild Cheddar
  • Monterey Jack
  • Gruyere

About the Hot Sauce

The Hot Sauce is strictly used to enhance the flavor of the cheese.
It may sound surprising to add hot sauce to macaroni and cheese, especially if you plan to serve this to kids. However I can assure you that this doesn't make the recipe spicy at all, and you can't even taste it.

Make Ahead / Crock Pot Method

  • Cook the pasta for 2-3 minutes less than al dente. Drain.
  • Prepare the cheese sauce and let it cool a bit after you've made it.
  • Use a silicone spatula to combine the pasta into the sauce until just combined, don’t overmix. It's okay if it's not all coated perfectly.
  • Refrigerate for 1-2 days. (If preparing ahead of time.)
  • Place in a Slow Cooker on low for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

Storage

Refrigerate for 3-4 days in an airtight container in the fridge. Although this can also be frozen, it doesn't reheat as well due as the dairy separates a bit.

Nutrition

Calories: 588kcal, Carbohydrates: 50g, Protein: 21g, Fat: 34g, Saturated Fat: 21g, Cholesterol: 107mg, Sodium: 576mg, Potassium: 271mg, Fiber: 2g, Sugar: 5g, Vitamin A: 1138IU, Vitamin C: 1mg, Calcium: 407mg, Iron: 1mg

Leave a Comment & Rate this Recipe

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click the Stars to Rate This Recipe




62 comments on “Panera Mac and Cheese Recipe – (BEST Copycat!)”

  1. Truly the best mac and cheese my husband and I have ever had. Thank you.

  2. Another excellent recipe!  Yours are the best!
    Can you make the day before but not bake until the next day?  I know you can put in the crockpot but if you wanted to heat in oven?
    I did try and still tasty but wondered if you had any suggestions to keep it extra moist?  Thanks!!

  3. Phenomenal! I use gruyere and emmental and cheddar. I also used sesame chili oil for the hot sauce. The last small tweak I made was coating the pasta in truffle oil before refrigerating the pasta. I undercooked the pasta, then made the sauce and put the sauce and pasta in a crock pot for 1.5 hours. It was perfect. Everyone accused me of buying it and making it look as though i bought it.

  4. Question: is the amount of cheese in the recipe based on cups shredded or cups in the block? An 8 oz block of cheese actually shredded becomes 2 cups. 

    • Hey Maxine! This recipe is based on cups shredded (3 cups)- as you mentioned, an 8 oz. block is equal to 2 cups. So you would need 1.5 blocks for this recipe! 🙂

  5. Disregard my last comment – it eventually thickened!

    • You know what’s funny?! I gave it more time in case you came back to say that, I had a feeling it would! Cheese sauce comes around eventually and thickens up as time goes by! Nice work!!

  6. I did a trial run and made it as shown here for 8 servings. However, the sauce never thickened. I followed the recipe exactly so is there some detail I missed? We did add a little more cheese but that didn’t seem to help thicken it. Maybe add more flour?

  7. Help! Cannot find Cracker Barrel Vermont White Cheddar anywhere. Do you have a next best cheese? I found another recipe that said Cabot’s is good – agree or disagree?

  8. This was delicious!!! Will be making again, and again!

  9. Can you substitute 3 cups of half and half instead of the heavy cream and milk?

  10. My daughter really wants Panera Mac and cheese for her graduation open house so I’m searching for the best copycat recipe (because catered it would run me about $700!!). This recipe sounds like a winner! How would you recommend I go about this? I’d like to have it kept warm and served from big electric roasters but I’m not sure how to do it so I don’t ruin the texture or screw up the recipe since I need over 100 servings. 

    • Hi Maxine, I do have make-ahead instructions in the post and I recommend keeping it warm in a Slow Cooker, I’m not sure if electric roasters would work, if the temperature is low then it should be fine! I’ll put the make-ahead instructions below because that would be your best bet in doing the prep work and then letting it heat up during the open house. Also, if you click on the number of servings in the recipe card, a slider will appear, and you can move it right to adjust the number of servings and the ingredient quantities will automatically update. I hope that helps! -Stephanie

      Make Ahead/Crock Pot Method
      Cook the pasta for 2-3 minutes less than al dente. Drain.
      Prepare the cheese sauce and let it cool a bit after you’ve made it.
      Use a silicone spatula to combine the pasta into the sauce until just combined, don’t overmix. It’s okay if it’s not all coated perfectly.
      Refrigerate for 1-2 days. (If preparing ahead of time.)
      Place in a Slow Cooker on low for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

As Seen On…