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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!
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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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Once the cheeses are melted you’re ready to serve!
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.
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.
The hot sauce is a key secret ingredient. Because a small amount is used, it adds a flavor boost without really adding any spice.
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.
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: 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.
- 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
- Four Cheese Rigatoni
- One Pan Taco Macaroni and Cheese
- Easy One Pan Cauliflower Mac and Cheese
- Spicy Nacho Cheese Sauce
- Creamy, Four Cheese Spaghetti
Copycat Panera Mac and Cheese
- Sauce Pan
- 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
- 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.