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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.


How to Make it

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

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 .

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

Panera Mac & Cheese Recipe

4.96 from 44 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
Did you try this recipe?Mention @TheCozyCook on Instagram or tag #thecozycook!

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

  1. OMG you’re awesome I need to try this. I love their Mac and cheese. however I’m not a huge fan of shell pasta. what would you recommend I use that or when I ever I cook mine sometimes a few of the the noodles stick together and I can’t get the sauce in there. what’s a good way to prevent that what do you do to prevent this from happening.

    • Hi Becky! You don’t have to use shells, you can use any kind of pasta, macaroni would be great! To prevent your noodles from sticking together, make sure you’re using a big enough pot to cook the pasta in, otherwise they get crammed in there and can stick together. You also want to give it a stir a few times throughout cooking, especially in the beginning, so that any noodles that are sticking together can break loose! 🙂

  2. I use this recipe all the time. I normally add a bit of fried chicken and bacon cut up into it though. This recipe is gold. You can use any cheeses for it.

  3. ABSOLUTELY DELICIOUS!♡♡♡♡ it tastes JUST like Panera‘s mac
    Love love love it!!

  4. This is all I can eat unfortunately. I am 8 weeks pregnant, so much for healthy eating, but my stomach can only tolerate Panera Mac n cheese (or your wonderful copy cat recipe!)and a few other bland foods. So much for me eating healthy. But I am greatly appreciative. I was eating low carb before I got pregnant, lots of veggies, meats, etc; now I can no longer stomach any of it. I wonder if my body would allow me to swap the pasta for chickpea pasta? I strictly never ate gluten before now here I am eating mostly gluten LOL. This recipe is life saving for these early days of pregnancy. Also my kids appreciate it 🙏 i highly recommend and this recipe is bookmarked

    • I’m so happy that this is one of the rare foods that you can enjoy right now Josie!! Maybe your appetite will change as time continues! Congratulations on your pregnancy and thank you so much for the review, I really appreciate it! -Stephanie

  5. Just made this sauce and used Mini Wagon Wheel Pasta YUMMY! 
    I strongly suggest using 1/2 cup salted butter and add 1 cup sour cream into the sauce prior to melting cheese into the pot. 
    Add onion powder and garlic powder for additional flavoring. Lactose free milk is great to use! For those lactose intolerant people like myself 

  6. This is my go to recipe for Mac-n-cheese. I literally used to make a different recipe every time  I made homemade Mac-n-cheese until I came across this recipe. My whole family loves this version and ask for it regularly.

    • Hi Melissa! I am so happy that you love this recipe!! It’s one of my favorites too, you can’t go wrong. I love that you make different variations of mac and cheese every time, fun! Thank you so much for the review! -Stephanie

  7. Hi, my granddaughter loves Panera macaroni and cheese and I would like to make this for her. My problem is I have an electric stove top and lowering the heat takes too much time. Would taking the sauce off the heat for about a minute before adding the cheese work better for consistency? Thank you for taking the time to answer.

  8. It was really good! My son is a very particular child, and he thought it was very similar to Panera’s. He just said that he thought that Panera’s Mac and cheese has more sauce, so the second time I made it, I just used less pasta. Now, he pretty much thinks it is exact! Thank you!

  9. Would have been a better recipe if you put how many boxes of pasta rather than lbs. I made one Box of noodles instead of 2. 

  10. This was my first time making any homemade Mac and cheese and it is amazing! Better than Panera, if that’s possible !
    The instructions are great, I was a bit nervous doing a roux, but it went really well! Thank you! This is a keeper!

    • Hi Glenna! I am so happy that you loved the Mac and Cheese!! And nice work with the roux, you’ll get more and more confident with that each time you make it! 🙂 -Stephanie

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