Help me make Crock Pot Mac & Cheese
December 18, 2016 2:03 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend needs to make a "comfort food" to serve at a work lunchtime potluck. We decided on making Mac & Cheese. Since we have never done this in a crock pot, we gave it two test runs, and have not been very happy with the results.

We've been following the recipe here: - but it hasn't really come together. The flavor isn't very cheesy, the mustard seems to overwhelm, and the noodles get grainy rather than al-dente, or even smooth-overcooked.

I have ideas I'd like to try, but not enough time (or money) to keep making batches of mediocre mac & cheese:

* Can I precook noodles, and combine w/ a cheese sauce at last moment? How do you do & store a cheese sauce separately?
* Should I be using velveeta, cheese soup, or other cheese-like-substances?
* I have sodium citrate handy, which can help cheese emulsion, not much experience with it though.

Does anybody have some advice on slow cooker Mac & Cheese?
posted by cschneid to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This seems like a really bad plan. I've made a LOT of mac & cheese, and the texture you want will be obliterated by the slow-cooker.

Is there not an oven there? I'd do a baked mac & cheese with a bacon/breadcrumb coating because that's the most delicious kind of mac & cheese there is. But it would require an oven.

Is there no oven? Is there a reason it has to be in the slow-cooker?
posted by guster4lovers at 2:10 PM on December 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is a work potluck, so there's no oven (just a microwave and/or whatever we bring). So even a reheated / prepped version of real baked mac&cheese won't work, since there'd be no way to warm it up.

Work also has to continue through the morning, so she can only do minor amounts of babysitting of the food.
posted by cschneid at 2:13 PM on December 18, 2016

To actually answer your questions:
1) Yes, you can pre-cook noodles. Just shock them in ice cold water to stop the cooking. Then use some oil (spray oil is best) to keep it from sticking.
2) Yes, you can make a cheese sauce separately, though I'd really worry about it splitting. I'd probably do it from a bechamel, but it's still likely to split if it's not heated gently.

This is a recipe I'd trust if you really have to go the slow-cooker route.
posted by guster4lovers at 2:14 PM on December 18, 2016

Please forgive if this isn't useful, because I have not done Mac and cheese in a crock pot, but I have recently learned to do it in an Instant Pot, and the last part (post pasta cooking) may be similar enough to help you.

I started with this recipe, but simplified it because my kids are more in favor of simpler flavors. To modify it further for your purposes, do the following:

- cook one package pasta (1 pound)
- add 2T butter
- while it is hot, mix in grated or shredded cheese (the 3 cheese "Mexican" mix is what I frequently use just because it's easy). I don't use quite as much as the recipe calls for, because I like a creamy rather than overly cheesy sauce
- pour in one cup of milk (substitute part with heavy cream for extra decadence-- I think this makes thesodium citrate less necessary, too)
- stir, stir, stir
- salt to taste
- keep warm in crock pot as desired, mixing in a bit more cream or milk if necessary-- i wouldn't keep it like this forever, but if the point is to keep it warm for a bit while people eat, it should be fine. I've left it in the instant pot on "warm" for an hour with no problem.
posted by instamatic at 2:15 PM on December 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Personally I would never cook it in a crock pot, because for me the most important part of mac & cheese is the crust. I mean, the sloppy part is all well and good, but without the crunch and the toasted-cheese taste that you get from a good oven bake, it's not the same meal.

Is there any reason you can't just bake it in an oven at home and reheat it at work? A microwave will reheat mac & cheese pretty well. You could warm it up in the crock pot, but in my experience a microwave is perfect for the job.
posted by pipeski at 2:17 PM on December 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

If you have a microwave, I've also had good luck making this recipe in advance, then reheating in a microwave and adding a bit of cream to keep it from drying out. I've never had a problem with the sauce "breaking."

I previously made sauce from scratch with a bechemel, and this is a bit cheesier, and with cream added is just as smooth and much faster and easier.
posted by instamatic at 2:18 PM on December 18, 2016

In the same vein as instamatic, I've made good mac n cheese in the Instant Pot and kept it servable for over an hour on warm - maybe even up to 2 hours.

I followed the same steps as instamatic except after cooking the noodles, I added canned evaporated (not condensed) milk and 1/2 grated mild cheddar plus 1/2 slices of American cheese individually wrapped slices (from Trader Joes, Velveeta would also work - these cheeses have sodium citrate in them) - the evaporate milk and the added sodium citrate in the American cheese help avoid the gritty or splitting problem.

My only concern would be keeping it at even warm in a crockpot (or Instant Pot) for more than 2 hours. I'm not sure at what point the noodles would turn to mush.

Here's the base recipe: though I modified mostly by adding the American cheese.
posted by RoadScholar at 2:25 PM on December 18, 2016

Girlfriend here. I'm unfortunately a bit limited on my options: this is for a department-provided lunch for the school staff. The meal has to be "ready to go" when lunchtime starts as the staff only has half an hour to eat, but I teach for the 2 hours immediately before lunch so I basically have to plug something in and go. I can pop into the staff lounge a few times, but not for any serious length of time. Ovens around the school are already spoken for during that time.

Other departments have already done lots of soups and taco bars all month, so I thought mac and cheese would fit the "comfort food" requirement, break up the monotony, and provide a vegetarian option. It sounds like it might be a losing proposition, though. We're open to other suggestions as well.
posted by cschneid at 2:40 PM on December 18, 2016

What about doing a baked mac and cheese and baking some potatoes in the oven along with it. Then heat up an ice chest with some hot water, dump the water and put a towel down on the bottom. Put the mac and cheese in there along with the potatoes to provide heat, close the lid and go to work. It should stay warm enough for lunchtime serving.

(I've done this with baked potatoes, but not anything else with the baked potatoes. Those things were still piping hot though!)
posted by MultiFaceted at 2:57 PM on December 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is the recipe I always use for Crockpot Mac and Cheese and we like it well enough. Two differences from your recipe that may make the difference, in this one you kind of par-cook the macaroni first (the recipe says to boil it for six minutes, but I do it for four). You could do that ahead of time. Also this recipe uses both an egg and cheddar cheese soup as a stabilizer, so that might give you a better sauce.
posted by katyggls at 3:02 PM on December 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do you have time for another test run? Cook the noodles partially, mix in the evap milk and cheeses. Leave it a little soup-y - a little wetter than you would want for the end result. Leave it on warm. (Slow cookers vary so much on warm and tend to be hotter, leave off as long as you can, then turn to warm for two hours.) Taste.

(If that doesn't work I have a cream of tomato soup and a broccolli cheddar that work perfectly under those conditions. Maybe with a nice bread.)
posted by RoadScholar at 3:04 PM on December 18, 2016

I'm trying to figure out what I'm missing -- is there a reason you can't use the Crock Pot's crock to make a standard baked mac and cheese, and then -- if a microwave is available -- nuke it before serving and plop it into the slow cooker on a keep-warm setting, or, if no microwave is available, just turn it on far enough in advance for it to be hot by mealtime?

Slow cookers make pretty terrible pasta, but it doesn't sound like there's any reason you have to MAKE IT in the slow cooker just because eventually it will be IN the slow cooker. Think of the cooker as a re-heating device, not a cooking one.
posted by kmennie at 3:04 PM on December 18, 2016 [9 favorites]

Echoing a few things above: evaporated milk and a little American cheese in your bechemel is going to be your friend due to stabilizers. What I'd do is probably something like Alton Brown's stovetop recipe (adding a few slices of American for stabilization) which you then pour into the crock pot for reheating and serving.

(Cooking it all in a crockpot is going to give you very bad noodles)
posted by General Malaise at 3:35 PM on December 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Or, you could use this recipe from Cooking for Engineers (Cook's Country) for just the mac sauce and cheese (sans bread crumb topping) and, again, for into the crock pot for heating/serving. It's the basis for the mac and cheese I make and it's really, really good.
posted by General Malaise at 3:37 PM on December 18, 2016

I signed up to bring mac & cheese to a work pot-luck under similar circumstances recently. I just made the mac and cheese as I normally would and used the crock-pot to keep it warm throughout the morning.

I used this recipe:

And just transferred it to the crock-pot in the morning.

Personally, I would have never used the cream of cheddar soup, but people raved about how creamy and rick the dish turned out. And I do have to admit, it was tasty.
posted by JennyJupiter at 3:45 PM on December 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Beef stew or chili would be good comfort foods you could leave for a couple of hours. A big pot of rice in a rice cooker would go with either.
posted by ctmf at 4:10 PM on December 18, 2016

This might be considered cheating, but my favorite mac 'n cheese is Annie's White Cheddar Shells. You could whip up a big batch on the stove and use your slow cooker to keep it hot.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:21 PM on December 18, 2016

Sweet Potato Chilli to the rescue! A tub of sour cream next to it for garnish? Yum!

1 large onion, chopped.

1 pckge Taco Seasoning, or as garlic, cumin, Oregano + dried chillis or paprika to taste

1 or 2 large Sweet Potatoes, cubed

1 large can Crushed Tomatoes

1 large can or 2 regular size cans of pinto bean.

Salt and Pepper to taste.


Sweat the onions until translucent, add the spices and develop their flavors a little. Add can of tomatoes, add the cubes potatoes. Are the sweet potatoes just covered by the toms and liquid? Add a little water if needed. Cover and simmer. Add pinto beans once the potatoes are soft. Taste for seasoning. Tweak seasoning. Garnish with cilantro (on the side so folks can add if they want) lime wedges, and sour cream.
posted by jbenben at 4:46 PM on December 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

(I haven't thoroughly read all the previous answers, but...)

I had promised to bring mac and cheese to a recent work potluck, so I made it at my desk in a slow cooker using this recipe.

I have to say, it was surprisingly delicious! I got tons of compliments, and several requests for the recipe. The pot was scraped clean by the end of the lunch.

The only thing I added to the recipe was using a serving spoon to occasionally remove excess oil which forms on the top. I also gave it a gentle stirring about an hour before serving.

I will definitely be using this recipe again.
posted by The Deej at 5:10 PM on December 18, 2016

My gf uses this recipe for crockpot mac-n-cheese and it's quite tasty. She uses shells, but I'm sure you could use whatever you have or like. I mean, spaghetti would be odd, I suppose.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:36 PM on December 18, 2016

The recipe The Deeg linked is basically the same as the recipe General Malaise linked to from Cooking For Engineers - the iheartrecipes blog just condensed a lot of fussy steps by using canned cheese soup as part of the base. You should feel good using The Deeg's recipe.

I toast panko bread crumbs in a skillet with garlic powder and oregano and sprinkle that on top of baked cheesy dishes to add some delicious, you could bring that topping in a Tupperware and sprinkle it on before serving.
posted by jbenben at 8:29 PM on December 18, 2016

This is virtually identical to the recipe my grandma passed down. I like to add a layer of cheese on top to form a bit of a crust. At my Thanksgiving work potluck, though, someone stirred it all up (thought they were helping) right before we are. It wasn't as pretty but it was still yummy.
posted by jhope71 at 10:50 PM on December 18, 2016

As a different cheese-based comfort food idea, I recently made cheesy hashbrown potato casserole (sometimes called "funeral potatoes") in my crockpot for a similar work event and it worked beautifully. You can find many recipes online; I used one like this, but added crushed cornflakes on top for the last few hours of cooking.
posted by pril at 8:48 AM on December 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

It looks like a suitable recipe has been identified, so I'll just offer my cheater tip: you can toast breadcrumbs at home and bring them in a baggie to pour over the top OR leave on the side in a cup or shaker and people can sprinkle over their serving a la minute. It's not quite the same as a baked crust but it does bring a little oven-type flavor to the party.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:40 AM on December 19, 2016

Why not bake it-- then just use the slow-cooker as a reheating device an hour or so before the event begins?
posted by Static Vagabond at 10:47 AM on December 19, 2016

Queso Shells and Cheese

16 ounces Pasta, cooked to package directions
4 tablespoons Butter, (cut into 1 inch pieces)
12 ounces Velveeta Queso Blanco Cheese (cut into 1 inch cubes) OR regular Velveeta
1 cup Half and Half
1/2 cup Green Chile, roasted, stemmed, peeled and diced OR canned green chilies

Cook pasta according to package directions--under cook the pasta

In a saucepan over low heat, melt the butter and Velveeta cheese cubes. Add the half and half and continue stirring until the sauce becomes creamy.

When the pasta has cooked, drain and add to the cheese sauce. Add 1/2 cup of diced green chile and blend into the pasta and cheese.

Reheat in crock-pot. I've won three office potluck "competitions" with this recipe. You can add 4 cheese blend, crema, sour cream, more really can't ruin this dish. It's easily doubled.

Makes 8 servings
posted by jennstra at 11:07 AM on December 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Update: Did another test run, was a success. Winning recipe:

1lb elbow noodles
2c milk
1 can evaporated milk
1 can cheese soup
4 oz cheddar shredded
4 oz muenster shredded
4 oz cream cheese
Some salt
1/4 tsp sodium citrate
Hot sauce (Sriracha) at end

I precooked the noodles to just short of done, cooled with cold water, and sprayed with Pam.

The sodium citrate is something I used in the first run, and not the second, and didn't mention. It's a chemical which helps cheese stay smooth after being melted. You can get it on amazon for a few bucks. I have no clue exactly how much it helped, but it seems to keep cheese from curdling. (it has been rather great in previous uses for stove-top cheese sauces).

I set it all in my InstantPot on slow-cook mode on regular for a little over an hour.

THANK YOU everybody, I think this will all work out.
posted by cschneid at 7:03 PM on December 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

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