Forget the boxed stuff, this Instant Pot Mac and Cheese is just as fast, almost as easy, and so much more delicious. Made in just a few minutes in the Instant Pot / pressure cooker, these perfectly cooked noodles are wrapped in a creamy sauce that uses real cheese.
It took some convincing to get my kids to even try this mac and cheese. My five-year-olds gave it a distinctly suspicious look the first time I put a bowl of it in front of them. “What’s in this?” Clara asked, “REAL cheese?”
I was worried that the blue box had forever ruined them for the real deal. But one bite, and they were converted. While there will always be a place for boxed mac and cheese in our house, real mac in a creamy sauce that tastes like actual cheese is something that we can all enjoy. (I’ll take mine with bacon and peas, please!)
Keep reading for a few of my favorite variations and plenty of tips to get that pasta cooked just right.
Why Make Mac and Cheese in the Instant Pot
This is a true one pot meal. There’s no draining necessary because the pasta absorbs all of the liquid as it cooks. Even better, the pasta retains all of its natural starch (instead of releasing it into water that will be poured down the drain), serving as a natural thickener for the cheesy cream sauce.
- Pasta – Just about any type of pasta shape will work for this mac and cheese. Use the classic elbow macaroni or try some of my other favorites – conchiglie, fusilli, or cavatappi.
- Salt – Don’t forget to add some salt to the pasta water. This will give the pasta maximum flavor as it cooks.
- Milk – Use any type of milk you like. Whole, 2%, or skim or even an alternative milk like almond or oat.
- Butter – Butter adds a rich flavor to the sauce. You can skip this if you’re wanting a lighter version.
- Dijon Mustard – This adds a bit of extra flavor to the sauce. It’s tangy and a bit tart. You can skip it if you’d like.
- Hot Sauce – A tiny dash of hot sauce adds depth to the sauce. It won’t make the dish spicy (as long as you add just a dash).
- Cheese – This is the key to the flavor of mac and cheese. White or yellow cheddar are the classics, but feel free to use any cheese you like. Fontina is extra creamy. I love to use a bit of gruyere in mine.
How to Make the Creamiest Mac and Cheese
Ever had a mac and cheese that was grainy or clumpy? This is easy to avoid if you know the tricks. Here’s what to do to insure you get the creamiest of creamy mac and cheese;
- Grate the cheese yourself – Don’t buy pre-shredded cheese if making mac and cheese. It can include additives that keep the cheese shredded and those additives can mess with the creaminess of your mac and cheese.
- Add the cheese in several increments – Resist the urge to stir all of the cheese in at once. Add it in a few handfuls, whisking well between each addition. This will give it time to melt slowly, rather than clumping.
How Long to Pressure Cook Pasta
You can use any shape of pasta to make this mac and cheese, but it’s important to make sure the pasta cooks for the right amount of time. This will vary depending on the pasta shape you use. Check the box / bag for the recommended cook time. Use the lowest, even number in the range. (If only one time is given and it’s odd, round down. So, 7 minutes becomes 6.) Then use this chart to determine how long to cook the pasta under high pressure. (For more details, check out How to Cook Pasta in the Instant Pot.)
Variations on Mac and Cheese
- Peas and Bacon (my favorite)
- Steamed Broccoli
- Diced Carrots (saute them in a bit of butter first)
- Ham and Peas
- Stir in pureed sweet potatoes or butternut squash (like in this Sweet Potato Pasta Bake)
- Steamed Crab or Lobster (fancy!)
- Tex Mex – Stir in ½ tsp of chili powder and ½ tsp of ground cumin, add black beans, diced bell peppers, and / or corn
- Italian – Use fontina cheese; Stir in ½ tsp Italian seasoning
- Spinach Artichoke – stir in chopped marinated artichokes and baby spinach after the cheese
Other Favorite Comfort Foods
- Taco Casserole with Ground Beef – This may be my favorite thing to have in the freezer. It’s easy to make with just a few ingredients. Taco night done casserole-style!
- Instant Pot Baked Potato Soup – For this simple soup, the key is the toppings. Load it up with bacon, sour cream, and cheese.
- Slow Cooker Chicken and Biscuits – This classic is perfect for cold winter nights and cooks all day in the slow cooker.
- 6 Quart Instant Pot Duo – All you need is an instant pot to make this one pot meal. This is the pressure cooker I have – it’s a great size for our family of five.
Instant Pot Mac and Cheese
- 6-quart Instant Pot
- 8 oz Pasta, any shape
- 2 cups Water
- 1/2 tsp Salt
- 1/2 cup Milk, any type
- 2 Tbsp Butter
- 1/4 tsp Dijon Mustard (optional)
- Dash Hot Sauce (optional)
- 4 oz Cheese, cheddar, grated (see note)
- Combine pasta, water, and salt in the bowl of an Instant Pot. Give everything a stir to combine.
- Close and lock the lid.
- Set the vent to Sealing.
- Pressure cook on High, using the time appropriate for the pasta you are using. (See the chart below.)
- At the end of cook time, leave the Instant Pot on natural release for 5 minutes. Then manually release any remaining pressure. Unplug the Instant Pot or make sure all heating / warming functions are turned off.
- Combine milk, butter, mustard, and hot sauce in a microwave-safe bowl. Heat just until the butter is melted and the milk is warm, ~1 minute.
- Remove the lid from the slow cooker and whisk in the milk mixture. Add the grated cheese in 4 portions, whisking well between each addition.
- Place the lid back on the machine (no need to seal it, just set it on top). Let the mac and cheese sit, covered, for 5 minutes more. (This last rest time will allow the cheesy sauce to thicken up a bit more and the pasta to finish cooking.)
- Serve immediately.
Want to see a happy toddler? Give her a box. (Shout out to my sister, Veronica, in this picture and my new Airfryer for working on some new recipes for Cook Smarts)!
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