4 Best Add-Ins for Macaroni and Cheese

There are some comfort foods that just never get old and that make both kids and adults ridiculously happy. On the top of the list is macaroni and cheese.

I have a very sophisticated friend who, upon arriving at my house for dinner, will say, “Is that mac and cheese I smell? Oh, please tell me that’s mac and cheese. I really hope it’s mac and cheese.” And for her, it usually is.

GUSSY UP YOUR FAVORITE MAC AND CHEESE

Plain macaroni and cheese is absolutely delicious. But as you may have guessed from the title of this piece, there are many ways to gussy it up and keep it interesting from dinner to dinner.

Mac and cheese is a great base for all kinds of seasonings, for hot sauces of all stripes, for different vegetables, even for different types of meat. There are almost no wrong answers here!

START WITH A BASIC RECIPE, THEN IMPROVISE

Start with a favorite mac and cheese recipe – like this one! – and then work in whatever ingredients speak to you. The suggested amounts of add-ins will work with any macaroni and cheese recipe that calls for one pound of pasta.

Green Chile Mac and Cheese

Green Chile Mac and Cheese

1 Punch Up Your Sauce

A standard cheese sauce is delightful, and using your favorite cheese or cheeses will already give your mac and cheese a distinct personality. But try adding a little spice!

A little heat goes a long way, and there are so many ways to add some spice to your sauce. If you want to really bring it, then keep adding heat until you reach the right tongue-tingling level for you and your family.

The amounts given below are merely guidelines; the good news is that you can start with smaller amounts, and then keep tasting your sauce to see if you like it as is, or want to keep dialing up the heat.

Add the following to the sauce after the cheese is melted:

  • Add cayenne pepper or dried red pepper flakes to the sauce, starting with about 1/2 teaspoon and increasing the amount gradually.
  • Add 1 tablespoon chili powder.
  • Hot sauces! You may never reach the end of these variations, such as Sriracha (Southeast Asian), Harissa (Moroccan), Gochujang (Korean), or good old Tabasco sauce. Start with 1/2 teaspoon, and increase as desired.
  • Start with spicy peppers, such as hatch, Anaheim, or jalapeño, then roast them, chop them, and add them in after the cheese melts. Amounts are hard to suggest because the heat varies so much, so start small, taste as you go, and add gradually!

Try this recipe for a little kick in your mac and cheese routine:

Green Goddess Mac Cheese

Green Goddess Mac and Cheese

2 Add Some Veggies

If you pair mac and cheese with a salad, you are good to go. But for a bona fide one dish meal, you can also put some vegetables right into the mac and cheese after the cheese has melted into the sauce.

For vegetables that need to be cooked, such as broccoli and butternut squash, roasting them is a good way to add nice caramelized flavor to the dish. Leftover vegetables prepared another way you can certainly be used as well.

Here are some choices for adding those nutritious veggies to your dish.

  • About 2 to 3 cups roughly chopped greens, such as kale, chard, spinach, or a power greens mix
  • 2 to 3 cups roughly chopped cooked broccoli, cauliflower, or broccoflower, or Romanesco
  • 2 cups cooked asparagus, cut into 1/2-inch pieces.
  • 1/2 to 1 cup sautéed chopped or sliced leeks
  • 2 cups sautéed cubed zucchini or summer squash
  • 2 cups diced tomatoes
  • 2 cups cooked corn kernels
  • 2 cups cooked cubed butternut or other winter squash, or sweet potatoes

Try these vegetable-infused cheesy pastas:

Beef Chili Mac and Cheese

Chili Mac and Cheese

3 Pack It With Protein

Adding some meat or other protein to your mac and cheese makes it even heartier and certainly defines it as a main dish. Although mac and cheese (amongst its many appeals) is a vegetarian dish for the most part, it doesn’t have to be.

You can add in all sorts of meaty and even seafood-y additions. Some people even like to mix beef chili into their mac and cheese. But don’t forget all of those vegetarian versions of proteins available today, like baked tofu or tempeh or soy versions of things like shredded chicken—all of those non-meat options work as well.

Add any of these proteins after the cheese has melted, and stir for a couple of minutes to heat through before adding the pasta to the sauce:

  • 1 to 2 cups cooked cubed (or shredded) chicken, ham, pork, or beef.
  • 1/2 to 1 pound sautéed and drained ground beef, pork, turkey or chicken (you could also add in 1 tablespoon chili powder as you sauté the meat for a more chili-like vibe).
  • 1 to 2 cups sautéed extra firm tofu, or puree some of the sauce with 1 cup soft tofu in a blender, then return it to the pot, then add your noodles.
  • 1 to 2 cups cubed cooked lobster or shrimp.
  • 1/2 to 1 cup cooked crumbled sausages, from pork to turkey to chicken (or try a vegetarian “sausage”).
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup cooked crumbled bacon, speck, or pancetta (watch the addition of salt if you add one of these salty cured or smoked meats). Sauté any of these in a skillet until crispy, then fold it in at the very end, so it holds on to its crisp-chewy texture.

Try these meaty mac and cheese recipes as well:

Stuffed Squash with Delicata make the breadcrumb topping

4 Crispy Panko Topping

The contrast of the creamy mac and cheese against the crunchy breadcrumb topping is delightful. It’s a great way to make macaroni and cheese part of a more elegant dinner—kind of like a gratin!

Make a simple crispy topping with from panko breadcrumbs (a fluffy type of Japanese breadcrumbs) and a bit more cheese.

Your Turn!

There are so many ways you could riff on a simple bowl of mac and cheese. What are some of your favorite add-ins and toppings?

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Comments

  • Bunny

    When I cater for kids parties, I’m famous for making Rachael Ray’s Harvest Moon Mac and Cheese. It has pureed squash added to the cheese sauce, and the kids don’t even know it’s healthier for them. Several adults, recently, at a dinner I catered, said it was the best mac and cheese they’d ever tasted, and even one who said he didn’t like mac and cheese loved it. Many wanted the recipe and I told them it was easy to find online.

  • Susan

    I love this! Our family’s current favorite is is Elise’s “Green Chile Mac and Cheese”, but I have seen many tasty variations. “Purists” need not apply! But for me, standard M & C gets boring & starchy so we usually saute` some spinach to eat along side & add some roasted vegetables inside. Thank you for all these interesting variations. This site is a treasure–every recipe we have tried has been delicious!!

  • Elise Bauer

    Thanks so much for these ideas Katie! I made a triple batch of my green goddess mac and cheese for our Christmas dinner this year and everyone went nuts over it.

  • Diana Robinson

    All these ideas sound wonderful! I’ll try them all. Thank you for the great recipes. Happy new year.

  • Lee

    Nicely said nola2chi :)

  • Lee

    I love add-ins! Thanks for this post! Yes, Mac and cheese is a classic all on it’s own, but adding delightful add-ins and toppings allow for a whole new level of the classic! One of my favorites (and a quick weekday meal that’s hearty and so easy to make) is to add tuna that I put Worcestershire sauce and a bit of garlic and onions in the mix and just mix it in right before you serve, along with some peas too. Top it with crunched up rice Chex cereal (when I’m out of Panko) & parm and broil for a few to get that golden fun and viola, yummy-ness ensues!

    • Elise Bauer

      Such great ideas Lee, thank you! Love the idea of adding tuna and Worcestershire sauce with some peas at the end. Also rice Chex? Brilliant! It’s like GF panko.

  • [email protected]

    Add sliced tomatoes on top of Mac ‘n Cheese and pop in oven – delicious!

  • Wendy

    Ever since I was a child, I’ve hated a crumb topping on mac n cheese. My grandmother always used bread crumbs and I’d beg my mother to not give me the crumbs and she would invariably bypass the topless portion to make my portion crumby. She never used crumbs on hers. I still don’t like crumb toppings and ask them to be left off where possible. I’ve had bacon mac and cheese but don’t care for it, but I would love to try lobster mac and cheese. I sometimes add hot dogs sliced and have added stewed tomatoes in the past when the dish dried out to much from reheating.