The 9 Best Cheeses for Mac and Cheese, from Classic Cheddar to (Yes, Really) American
We don’t like to play favorites, but we would do unspeakable things for macaroni and cheese. It’s salty, carby, cheesy, gooey, comforting and celebratory all at once. And when it comes to cooking a batch at home, we aim for near-perfection.
How to choose a cheese for making mac and cheese:
Before you select a cheese for your mac, check the recipe: Does it call for making a béchamel? (That’s a white sauce made with a roux—flour cooked with butter—and dairy.) This will influence your cheese choice. If you are starting with a béchamel, you won’t need to worry much about your sauce breaking or splitting (aka turning into a curdled, greasy mess). But if the recipe doesn’t have a béchamel base, you’ll want to use a combination of cheeses: one for flavor and one that’s processed (like American cheese, cream cheese or Velveeta) for stability.
Beyond that, the best cheeses for mac and cheese balance flavor with meltability. Ideally, the cheese is sharp and flavorful—neither too stinky or too bland—with a creamy, gooey texture when melted. TBH, most cheeses can’t offer both qualities, but combining a few types will solve that problem. And when given the choice between young or aged fromage, you’ll want to stick to younger cheeses for mac and cheese purposes. Older cheeses tend to have drier, crumbly textures—great for serving on their own, but not so much for melting.
Here, the nine best cheeses for mac and cheese:
1. Cheddar CheeseHonestly, if you could only make your mac and cheese with one fromage for the rest of time, we would argue it *has* to be cheddar. It’s the iconic mac-and-cheese cheese! It’s melty but not plasticky, sharp but not overwhelmingly pungent and adds just the right amount of gooiness. Plus, it’s easy to combine with other cheeses. When choosing a cheddar, go for something semi-hard but not too crumbly, and always grate it yourself; the pre-shredded stuff contains stabilizers that can affect the final texture of your mac. If you’re not starting with a béchamel, we recommend mixing cheddar with a meltier cheese—like Colby, Monterey Jack or even a processed cheese like American—to prevent the sauce from breaking.
- Classic mac and cheese flavor
- Melty but not too gooey
- Sharp but not overly pungent
- Can break without a béchamel or processed cheese
Try it in: Baked Mac and Cheese Bites
2. Monterey JackFor a lusciously silky and mild macaroni, Monterey Jack is an excellent choice. Its melting qualities (and therefore, cheese pulls) put other cheeses to shame. As with cheddar, it’s best to buy a block of Jack and shred it yourself, and it makes an ideal pair for other less melty, more intensely flavored cheeses like Parm, blue cheese and cheddar. Or try Pepper Jack for a kick.
- Superior melting abilities
- Pairs well with stronger-flavored cheeses
- Flavor is very subtle on its own
3. ColbyIf cheddar is the edgy cheese from the big city, Colby is its mild-mannered cousin from the ’burbs. It’s similar to cheddar but produced in a way that reduces its acidity, resulting in a milder final product. It’s also almost identical to Monterey Jack, but is seasoned with annatto, which gives it a sweeter, nuttier flavor along with its orange hue. Because it’s so mild, you’ll definitely want to pair it with a stronger cheese for a flavor boost—try cheddar, Parm or goat for some funk.
- Melts like cheddar but has a milder flavor
- Pairs well with other sharper cheeses
- Can break like cheddar, so it’s best with a béchamel
Try it in: Stovetop Mac and Cheese
4. Colby-JackYou can probably guess: Colby-Jack is a marbled cheese made by combining Colby and Monterey Jack. We wouldn’t necessarily make a mac and cheese with just Colby-Jack (it’s too mild), but it’s one of our favorites for enhancing the silkiness of a cheddar-based sauce, and it pairs well with just about any other funky cheese.
- Plays well with others (cheeses, that is)
- Too mild on its own
Try it in: Easy Southern Style Baked Mac and Cheese
5. Gruyère CheeseAdd Gruyère to your mac and cheese and suddenly things are feeling fancy! This Swiss melter is a classic addition to gourmet-leaning macs, because it melts well and has a refined, nutty flavor. For the best sauce texture, choose a younger, creamier Gruyère; the older varieties tend to have a grainier texture that’s better for enjoying on a charcuterie board. Just like cheddar, Gruyère can cause your sauce to split if you’re not super careful. We’d pair it with a béchamel instead of a processed cheese to preserve its refined flavor.
- Creamy, nutty flavor makes for a high-brow mac and cheese
- Can cause the sauce to break if not paired with a béchamel
6. HavartiButtery, sharp and salty? Those are three traits we wouldn’t mind in a bowl of macaroni. Luckily, there’s Havarti for that. The Danish semi-soft cheese is subtle but not too mild, with excellent melting abilities and a propensity for other, louder flavors.
- Great for melting
- Flavor is buttery and subtly sharp but not too mild
- Better paired with sharper cheeses than used plain
Try it in: The Best Homemade Mac and Cheese
7. FontinaFor the intense cheese pulls and a balanced yet decidedly funky flavor, reach for Fontina. This Italian cheese is semisoft and sorta sharp—it’s nutty like Gruyère but with an extra earthy, savory je ne sais quoi. Young Fontina has a softer texture that makes it ideal for saucing mac and cheese. (It’s also a popular choice for fondue, go figure.) Just remove the rind before incorporating it in your recipe.
- Excellent melting qualities
- Earthy flavor is a far departure from the classic mac
Try it in: Four Cheese Mac and Cheese
8. ParmesanHere’s the thing: We wouldn’t necessarily make a purely Parmesan mac and cheese. It just doesn’t have the melting abilities. But they don’t call Parm the “King of Cheeses” for nothing, and it’s basically the perfect supporting character in your macaroni story. It’s salty, nutty and strongly umami, so it’s ideal for enhancing other cheeses. Pair Parmesan with a classic sharp cheddar and you’ll never look back.
- Enhances and rounds out the flavor of other cheeses
- Can’t be used on its own
Try it in: Greens Mac and Cheese
9. AmericanWe know you’re scoffing, but hear us out: If there’s one thing American cheese is good at, it’s melting. It’s oh-so-silky and because it’s processed, it won’t ever split, so it’s kinda perfect for adding to mac and cheese. The flavor isn’t much to write home about, so it’s best paired with another cheese (although, in a pinch we’ve been known to slap a few slices on a bowl of noodles and call it a day). Another cool thing about American cheese? You can use it to stabilize your sauce if you want to skip the béchamel.
- Excellent melting qualities
- Can stabilize cheese sauces in place of béchamel
- Flavor is relatively one-note
Try it in: Easy Homemade Mac and Cheese