Copycat Panera Mac and Cheese Recipe

This easy Copycat Panera Mac and Cheese is a ultra creamy macaroni and cheese recipe. Ready in just 20 minutes and made with two kinds of cheese it’s great as a side dish or an indulgent lunch or dinner!

This velvety smooth Panera mac and cheese pairs perfectly with just about any main dish from Baked Chicken Breasts to the perfect Steak.

panera copycat mac and cheese in a red pot with a wooden spoon
Table of Contents
  1. Copycat Panera Mac and Cheese Recipe
  2. Why We Love This Recipe
  3. Detailed Ingredients
  4. How To Make Panera Mac and Cheese
  5. FAQs
  6. Serving Suggestions
  7. Variations
  8. Storage
  9. Expert Tips
  10. More Cheesy Recipes
  11. Copycat Panera Mac and Cheese Recipe

Copycat Panera Mac and Cheese Recipe

If you love the rich and creamy Mac and Cheese at Panera, then you’ve come to the right place. I’ve made a few Panera bakery-inspired copycat recipes over the years and they’ve all turned out well, but this one is honestly a dead ringer for the Panera version. Super creamy and so cheesy, this easy Panera Mac and Cheese Recipe is a must-make!

Why We Love This Recipe

  • It’s better than baked. If we are being completely honest, I have to tell you that I often prefer a baked macaroni and cheese over a stove top version, but this version is much quicker and so creamy.
  • It’s customizable. Add toppings like bacon, tomatoes, and avocado, or even BBQ pork or BBQ chicken on top!
  • It’s so quick and easy. The best part of this recipe is that it cooks in minutes for an easy dinner or snack. While my pasta boils, I make the cheese sauce and then mix it all together. I love fast side dishes that I can make to quickly round out a meal. Roast some broccoli on the side and you have a well rounded dinner!

Detailed Ingredients

  • Pasta shells I used shells but you could also use macaroni just like Panera does.
  • Roux – Unsalted butter and all-purpose flour.
  • Milk – Added to the roux and simmered to create the base for the sauce. Whole milk is the best option, but skim milk will work. Heavy cream or a mix of the two could also be used.
  • Cheese – The secret is really in the cheeses. You must use white American cheese slices and extra sharp Vermont white cheddar cheese. Any other cheese will change the flavor and not taste like Panera’s.
  • Dijon mustard and hot sauce – The other secret ingredients are dijon mustard and hot sauce. The mustard adds a sharp tang while the hot sauce adds flavor. Don’t omit it or you won’t achieve the desired results. I promise it won’t make the dish spicy!
  • Kosher salt and black pepper

How To Make Panera Mac and Cheese

Get a detailed list of ingredients & instructions in the recipe card below.

  1. Grab a pot and cook pasta shells according to the package directions. I used shells because that’s what my family likes but you can use regular macaroni too just like Panera does.
  2. While the pasta is cooking, make the cheese sauce. Melt some butter in a saucepan over medium heat and whisk in flour to make a roux. Once that’s cooked and golden add milk and simmer it until the sauce is thickened.
  3. Add some dijon mustard and hot sauce for flavor. Then turn off the heat and stir in the cheeses. It’s important to move the pan off the heat at this point to keep the cheese from getting too hot and separating or “breaking” your sauce.
  4. Once the cheeses are melted you’re ready to serve!
Collage of 6 images depicting the steps for making Panera mac and cheese

FAQs

Does Panera use real cheese?

Panera bread mac uses a creamy blend of cheeses, including Vermont White Cheddar in their mac and cheese recipe. To get that really creamy consistency, we add some white American cheese to the mix.

What kind of cheese is best for Mac and Cheese?

I prefer Vermont White Cheddar, and shredding it myself right off the block. Pre-shredded cheese has thickeners coating the shreds to keep the cheese from sticking. It also keeps it from melting properly so I highly recommend always shredding your cheese yourself.

Why add hot sauce to Mac and Cheese?

The hot sauce is a key secret ingredient. Because a small amount is used, it adds a flavor boost without really adding any spice.

Serving Suggestions

Serve it as a side or a meal. We usually eat ours as a side dish, but you could definitely make this into a main course for a simple meatless Friday dinner. Or turn it into a complete meal by adding some broccoli and chicken.

A side view of a pot of macaroni and cheese

Variations

There are tons of options when you want to add something more to your mac and cheese. Just off the top of my head…

Protein: Ham, chicken, BBQ pork, BBQ chicken, bacon, diced pork tenderloin, steak, BBQ beef, crab, lobster, tuna, chili, sausage.

Vegetables: Red bell peppers, zucchini, broccoli, asparagus, mushrooms, peas, diced tomatoes, garlic, spinach.

For a completely vegetarian mac, use dairy free cheeses and dairy free milk.

Storage

Storage: Mac and cheese will stay fresh when you store it in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3-4 days.

Reheat: I recommend reheating leftovers in a saucepan on the stove over medium-low heat. You may need to add a few tablespoons of milk.

Freeze: Well technically it can be frozen, it doesn’t reheat well as the sauce tends to break down and separate.

shells in cheese sauce with a silicone spo0n
  • Always shred cheese fresh from the block.
  • Time-saving tip: While your water is boiling and the pasta is cooking, make the sauce.

More Cheesy Recipes

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A close up of macaroni and cheese

Copycat Panera Mac and Cheese

Copycat Panera Mac and Cheese is ultra creamy and ready in 20 minutes. Made with two kinds of cheese it's a great side dish or main entree.
Prep Time 10 mins
Cook Time 15 mins
Total Time 25 mins
Course Side Dish
Cuisine American Classic
Servings 6 people
Calories 768kcal

Equipment

  • Sauce Pan

Ingredients
  

  • 12 ounces pasta shells or macaroni
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 2 1/2 cups milk
  • 8 slices white American cheese cut into pieces
  • 4 ounces Vermont extra sharp white cheddar cut from a block and shredded yourself
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions
 

  • Boil water in a large saucepan and add pasta. Cook to al dente according to package instructions.
  • While pasta cooks, make the cheese sauce. Melt butter in a saucepan. Once melted, add flour. Whisk until combined and golden and cook for a couple of minutes. Stir in milk and bring to a low boil. Simmer for 5-6 minutes, or until thickened. Stir in dijon and hot sauce.
  • Turn off the heat. Add cheese and stir until cheeses are completely melted. Add cooked pasta and stir to coat completely. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Notes

Serve as a side dish to compliment your favorite protein, or as a main dish topped with bacon, chicken or anything else you love.
Storage: Mac and cheese will stay fresh when you store it in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3-4 days.
Reheat: I recommend reheating leftovers in a saucepan on the stove over medium-low heat. You may need to add a few tablespoons of milk.
Freeze: Well technically it can be frozen, it doesn’t reheat well as the sauce tends to break down and separate.

Nutrition

Serving: 1cupCalories: 768kcalCarbohydrates: 79gProtein: 32gFat: 36gSaturated Fat: 21gCholesterol: 105mgSodium: 1094mgPotassium: 512mgFiber: 3gSugar: 11gVitamin A: 1348IUVitamin C: 1mgCalcium: 851mgIron: 2mg
Keyword panera mac and cheese, panera mac and cheese recipe


Amanda

Amanda blogs at Old House to New Home where she shares easy ways to eat, create, and decorate, all while raising two young girls! Amanda is a Spanish teacher, wife to a great husband, and mommy to the two most beautiful little girls! Amanda loves food, traveling, and transforming their 115 year old house into their home.

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Comments

  1. Yummy. I used 6 oz cheddar, the sliced white American, 3 cups milk, 8 oz capatavi. Baked with buttered seasoned breadcrumbs. I apologize for changing it up a bit. I hate when people do that but I wanted to bake with crusty top but I wanted to use the American cheese. Had to start more soupy cause gets dryer when baked!

    1. Hi Sandy, I appreciate your feedback! I am a huge supporter of making a recipe work for you – I love when you share your own spin on my recipes.

    1. Any kind you like – tabasco, sriracha, cholula or even buffalo sauce. Just something to cut the creaminess a little bit.

  2. When you say white American cheese, do you mean the kind like Kraft that comes in a package?
    Or are you talking deli cheese?

    Thank you!! Looks excellent!!

    1. Either one – Kraft makes a white American cheese you can buy in singles like the orange one. It’s linked in the post. You could also check with your deli to see if they have it.