Creamy Microwave Macaroni & Cheese is an incredibly easy way to deliver a single-serving of comforting mac in just about 10 minutes, whether you're in a college dorm room or an office break room.
Creamy Microwave Macaroni & Cheese: the backstory.
This is the second installment of what I'm calling my Dorm-Room Cooking Series.
You see, a couple of weeks ago, we moved our daughter into her dorm room—her first time living away from home.
Before she left, I showed her how to make a pasta dish right in her dorm-room microwave and set her up with a microwave pasta maker and all of the ingredients.
Can you make Macaroni & Cheese in a dorm room? Why not?
Because our daughter is on the meal plan at school, I figured that the pasta maker and ingredients would most likely gather dust in her closet. So when she called to tell us about her week, I was absolutely ecstatic to hear that not only had she made the pasta, but she'd made it so many times that she needed to go shopping for more.
Sometimes, she explained, she simply didn't feel like leaving the dorm room to get food.
She'll be coming home for her first weekend visit soon, and I plan to show her the next step up in the scintillating world of microwave pasta-cooking: Creamy Microwave Macaroni & Cheese.
All of the ingredients for the original microwave pasta were shelf-stable. But this one, since it uses fresh cheese and milk rather than powder, does require a mini-fridge.
How to make creamy macaroni and cheese in the microwave
First, why cheese sauces break
If you've ever tried making cheese sauce of any kind in the microwave—be it nachos, chile con queso, cheese soup, or the like—you're probably acquainted with what a broken sauce looks like.
Greasy, grainy, clumpy—in short, completely unappetizing.
This is most likely because you used an aged cheese, such as cheddar, that really doesn't behave well at all in sauces—unless that sauce contains a certain something something (see below).
(Of course, this doesn't happen with that heinous food substance in the orange, rectangular box. You know, the one that—by virtue of the preservatives and other crap it contains—you find on the shelf rather than the refrigerated section?)
A magic ingredient for a creamy sauce that doesn't break
After doing a lot of research on why cheese sauces break, I ran across an article from Cook's Illustrated that does an excellent job of explaining why that "process cheese food" mentioned above doesn't break when melted into sauces.
In addition to lots of preservatives and other nastiness, it contains emulsifiers, chief among which is sodium citrate.
Now, I am far more concerned about the preservatives and the highly processed nature of these food substances than I am about sodium citrate.
Far from being a sinister food-industry chemical, sodium citrate is simply the salt of a chemical—citrate—that is naturally produced in our bodies during the metabolism of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates (specifically, during the citric acid cycle).
That's enough biochemistry geekery—for now.
Suffice it to say that sodium citrate is the key to smooth, creamy cheese sauces.
You can easily buy food-grade sodium citrate and add the tiniest amount to your cheese sauces to achieve ooey-gooey perfection. However, this doesn't strike me as being particularly realistic for a college dorm room.
The other option? Use American cheese.
With that in mind, I chose to adopt the solution suggested by Cook's Illustrated: using American cheese.
Not singles (you get horrific results with these—most singles are not even considered cheese).
Not pre-shredded (pre-shredded cheeses have things like cornstarch added to keep the strands from clumping—that's death to cheese sauce).
I use a block of good-quality American cheese—like what you'd get at the deli counter.
I'll admit: the flavor of American cheese is, at best, meh. That's why, for Creamy Microwave Macaroni & Cheese, we're going to mix it with another cheese that packs a ton of flavor. You can play with the flavor profile however you want—for example, by adding smoked gouda for a smoky-flavored mac.
But for the purposes of Creamy Microwave Macaroni & Cheese, we're keeping it very simple: approximately a 1:1 mix of American and extra-sharp cheddar.
To make things easy on yourself, grate the cheeses in advance, then refrigerate in an airtight container.
How to make Creamy Microwave Macaroni & Cheese
For this task (beyond the microwave and mini-fridge), you'll need a microwave-safe, BPA-free bowl or storage container with steep sides so that the water and milk don't foam over while the macaroni cooks.
If you use a ceramic or glass container, keep in mind that the container itself will be very hot. So use oven mitts whenever you remove the container from the microwave! For this reason, I prefer a plastic vessel with handles (although I still use all necessary precautions to avoid steam burns!).
Because you really, really CANNOT use pre-shredded cheese for this or any other cheese-sauce-containing recipe, you'll need a cheese grater. For college dorm rooms, the ideal cheese grater has its own built-in catch-and-store container.
In order to measure the proper amount of cheese and milk, you'll need measuring cups (and measuring spoons if you decide to add in the optional ingredients).
I say this with a wink, because after you've made Creamy Microwave Macaroni & Cheese a few times, you'll become very good at eyeballing the ingredients, adding more cheese or milk as needed until it tastes just right.
You'll also need a large spoon for stirring and serving. Although you can certainly eat the mac and cheese straight out of the container, you might also want a serving dish to gussy it up just a tiny bit.
Creamy Microwave Macaroni & Cheese: the steps
To make Creamy Microwave Macaroni & Cheese, first add the macaroni, water, and a pinch of salt to a microwave-safe bowl.
Microwave on high for 2 minutes, then stir carefully.
While the pasta cooks, watch to be sure that the water doesn't foam over the sides of the bowl. If it does, simply open the microwave and stir carefully.
On the other hand, if the pasta dries out during the cook time, simply add an additional 2 tbsp. of water and stir to loosen.
Continue microwaving and stirring at 2-minute intervals for a total of 6 minutes.
Carefully check (IT'S HOT!) to see if the macaroni is soft enough for your taste: we're targeting just about al dente.
If not, continue microwaving for 2-minute intervals, if necessary—up to a total of 8 minutes—until the macaroni is al dente.
Usually the 6 – 7 minute mark does it for me, but that will vary depending on the power of your microwave.
Now, stir in the milk, mustard, and hot sauce (or paprika), and microwave for 30 seconds more.
Then, mix in the American cheese and microwave for an additional 30 seconds.
Finally, stir in the cheddar cheese.
Note that it may not all melt right away.
Lid the bowl and replace it in the hot microwave, letting it stand for 3 minutes.
Another good stir, and that's it! Comfort-food heaven, y'all.
A couple of options: you could always and in a small amount of dried herbs (i.e., no more than ¼ tsp.).
A splash of heavy cream would make this dish sheer, delicious decadence—but the fact that it only makes 1 serving means that you won't have any leftovers "talking to you".
Creamy Microwave Macaroni & Cheese: a caveat
I realize that I'm not winning over any die-hard Kraft Dinner aficionados here:
This microwave macaroni & cheese IS so easy that a kid could make it.
But it's still more complicated than making it on the stovetop. I'm well aware of that: my creamy-one-pot stovetop macaroni and cheese is a family favorite.
This recipe is specifically for dorm rooms and any other situation where you don't have access to a stovetop.
Or maybe for those occasional bad-hair, low-energy days when waddling my pajama-clad butt over to the microwave is at the limit of my capabilities.
I still haven't gotten used to the fact that our daughter is away at college.
But she's having a wonderful time, and it's a bit comforting to know that she can cook some dishes in her dorm room that remind her of home.
P.S. For a bunch more easy one-pot dinner ideas, check out my how-to article, Mastering Easy One-Pot Meal Recipes! Or, for putting your pantry to work, pop over to Easy Pantry Meals – Living Out of Your Pantry (and refrigerator and freezer).
- ½ cup dried macaroni pasta
- ½ cup water
- ⅛ tsp. salt, or to taste
- ¼ cup milk (I like whole, but you can use any kind you like)
- ½ cup American cheese, shredded (see Recipe Note #1)
- ½ cup extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (see Recipe Note #1)
- ¼ tsp. dried mustard (optional)
- ¼ tsp. tiny squirt of Sriracha, OR ¼ tsp. paprika (optional)
- ⅛ tsp. ground black pepper (optional), or to taste
- ⅛ – ¼ tsp. dried herbs (optional)
- 1 tsp. heavy cream (optional)
- Add the macaroni, water, and salt to a microwave-safe bowl (I prefer to use a plastic, BPA-free storage container with handles). Microwave (uncovered) on high for 2 minutes, then stir carefully. While the pasta cooks, watch to be sure that the water doesn't foam over the sides of the bowl: if it does, simply open the microwave, remove the bowl (see Recipe Note #2), and stir carefully. If the pasta dries out during the cook time, add an additional 2 tbsp. of water and stir to loosen.
- Continue microwaving and stirring at 2-minute intervals for a total of 6 minutes. Carefully check (IT'S HOT!) to see if the macaroni is soft enough for your taste. If not, continue microwaving for 2-minute intervals, if necessary—up to a total of 10 minutes—until the macaroni is just under al dente. This cooking time will vary considerably depending on the wattage of your microwave.
- Stir in the milk, along with the mustard, herbs, and hot sauce or paprika (if using). Microwave for 30 seconds more. Stir the American cheese and cream (if using); microwave for an additional 30 seconds. Stir in the cheddar cheese (it may not all melt right away); cover the bowl, letting it stand for 3 minutes. Stir well, sprinkle with black pepper (if using), and serve immediately.
ALWAYS USE CAUTION WHEN WORKING WITH STEAMING-HOT FOOD TO PROTECT AGAINST BURNS.
- Absolutely DO NOT use any kind of bagged, pre-shredded cheese. These contain fillers (to keep the shreds of cheese from clumping) that will single-handedly destroy your sauce.
- If you are using a ceramic or glass bowl, be aware that it will get VERY HOT during the cooking process. Always use oven mitts or a kitchen towel to remove the bowl from the microwave.
NOTE ON SERVING SIZE: this is a "by-the-book" single serving. Eat it with a side salad or other serving of vegetables to make a filling meal. I've been known to double the recipe if I'm being naughty and filling up on the mac & cheese alone.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 1 Serving Size: 1 recipe
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 550Total Fat: 39gCholesterol: 211mgSodium: 2671mgCarbohydrates: 37gFiber: 2gSugar: 9gProtein: 53g
Nutrition data provided here is only an estimate: if you are tracking this information for medical purposes, please consult a trusted external source. Thanks!
Healthy Dorm-Room Microwave Pasta: #1 in the Dorm-Room Cooking Series. Healthy Dorm-Room Microwave Pasta only takes a microwave and a microwave-safe pasta cooker. Done in <10 minutes, it could also be called "lab-rat pasta" or "office-cubicle pasta" for its simplicity.