How to make mac and cheese without flour (and why you might want to reconsider)

Everyone loves mac & cheese, but making a roux (with flour) takes time and can be a pain to get right. No one wants grainy mac and cheese!

Read on to discover how to make mac and cheese without flour, but also how to make a better roux.

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How to make macaroni and cheese at home

There are two fundamentally different approaches to homemade mac and cheese. You can make it on the stovetop, or you can make it in the oven. And then there’s a third approach, which is a combination of the two. And these different methods each make multiple appearances across the recipes I reviewed (which are listed at the bottom of the page).

Whichever approach you take, there’s always an ingredient included who’s role is to thicken the sauce. And for the majority of these recipes, that ingredient is flour.

That’s not to say you can’t make mac and cheese without flour. But before you do, I have a question for you.

Why do you want mac and cheese without flour?

If you need to avoid flour for dietary reasons, then you should skip down to the section on making macaroni and cheese without flour. Based on the 20 recipes I reviewed you have a few good options available to you.

But if you’re avoiding flour because you’ve previously struggled with making your cheese sauce, I’d encourage you to read on. With attention to a few tips it’s not hard to master, and a good white sauce really will make your mac and cheese beautifully smooth and creamy.

A colourful bowl full of stovetop macaroni and cheese.

Stovetop mac and cheese

The most popular approach is to make your mac and cheese entirely on the stovetop.

Most of the stovetop recipes are based on the same basic process:

  1. Start with a roux of equal parts butter and flour.
  2. Make your roux into a bechamel (white) sauce by slowly adding milk.
  3. Make your bechamel into a mornay sauce by adding your cheese.
  4. Combine with your cooked pasta and warm it all through.

That’s not to say it’s simple though. Making a roux is fiddly and time consuming. So why do it?

The role of a roux in mac and cheese

At it’s heart, mac and cheese is just that – pasta and cheese. But on it’s own, cheese doesn’t make for a great sauce. When it’s hot it tends to be sticky and stringy. As it cools a little, it can hold together alright, but then as it cools more it tends to get firm and clumpy.

To overcome this, most mac and cheese recipes use a white sauce to carry the cheese. The role of flour is to thicken the white sauce.

When flour, or more specifically the starch in flour, is exposed to water, it absorbs the water and swells. This is the fundamental process behind how flour thickens a sauce. So why not just throw flour into a sauce to thicken it?

When starch absorbs water, it doesn’t just swell. It also clumps or sticks together. And hey presto, you’ve got a grainy or lumpy sauce! Yuck.

This is where the butter comes in. When you first cook the flour in fat, it coats the starch particles. This prevents them from sticking together, but it doesn’t stop them from absorbing liquid. This allows each starch molecule to swell up and move freely around your sauce, which thickens it without becoming grainy. Exactly what we want!

Making the perfect roux

The fundamentals of making a roux are fairly straightforward:

  1. Measure out equal amounts of butter and flour.
  2. Melt the butter in a pan. (You can actually use any fat. Butter is just favoured for its flavour.)
  3. Add the flour and stir until it is completely combined with the butter.
  4. Gently cook the roux until the raw flour taste is gone.

Sounds very simple. And it is, but there are a few things to take note of that will improve your roux.

Measure out equal amounts of butter and flour by weight

Butter is obviously a lot denser and heavier than flour, so if you measure by volume (like cups), you’ll end up with more butter than you need. Also, measuring flour in cups can vary dramatically depending on whether you’ve scooped it up with the cup, or dropped it into the cup.

Use clarified butter

Most butter is somewhere between 15% and 20% water. But we don’t want water mixing with our flour until it’s coated with fat. The best solution to this is to use clarified butter, but if you don’t have any (or time to make your own), let your butter simmer gently for a few minutes and most of the water will boil off. Make sure you don’t burn it though.

Stir continuously

Stir continuously while the roux is coming together to ensure all of the starch molecules get coated with fat.

A whisk is the ideal tool for making your roux. If you’re cooking in a non-stick pot, then a silicone whisk is the way to go, otherwise a steel whisk will do the job.

By the way, a whisk is a fabulous tool for breaking up ground meats for your chili or Bolognese sauce!

Cook off the raw flour taste

While it’s tempting to start adding the milk to make the white sauce as soon as the roux comes together in a paste, don’t. Make sure you cook it gently for as long as it takes for the raw flour taste to go away. It’ll likely take four to five minutes or more, but will prevent that floury taste in your mac and cheese.

Don’t overcook your roux

The longer you cook a roux, the more flavour it develops (typically referred to as nutty). This is great if you like it this way, but keep in mind that the roux’s thickening power decreases the longer you cook it. Plus at a certain point, and often quite suddenly, the milk solids in your butter will burn, ruining your roux.

You may’ve noticed the word gentle a few times now. The last point is this – a good roux takes time. So cook it gently, on low heat, for the best results.

From roux to bechamel (white sauce)

Once you’ve made your roux, it’s time to add milk to make it into a basic white sauce. And for this step there’s just one important thing to remember – add your milk gradually.

If you dump all of the milk in at once, it can surround chunks of roux, which can turn into lumps. The best approach is to add a small amount of milk, stirring constantly. Then don’t add more until that first splash of milk is fully combined with your roux. It will thicken up dramatically, but that’s okay.

Then repeat the same step. Add some more milk, stirring constantly until it’s combined. And keep repeating this process until all your milk is combined, at which point you’ll have a nice smooth white sauce.

At this point you need to cook it gently until it thickens up. It takes time for the starch molecules to absorb the milk, so give it time. It may take five to ten minutes or more, but the result will be worth it.

From bechamel to mornay (cheese sauce)

Once your white sauce is ready to go, it’s time to add your cheese to make your cheese sauce.

Just like adding milk to your roux, you need to be careful when adding cheese to your bechamel sauce. A few tips will help with this process:

  • Grate your own cheese from a block. Packaged grated, sliced or cubed cheese contains anti-caking agents to prevent the pieces from sticking together in the pack. These agents can interfere with how your cheese melts and lead to clumping or grittiness.
  • Lower the temperature of your sauce before you add your cheese. Some authors reduce the heat and some take the pot off the heat, but they almost all take some action to ensure a lower temperature when the cheese goes in. This ensures the cheese heats evenly.
  • Add your cheese gradually. Rather than dumping it all in at once, add your cheese in smaller amounts, like a half a cup at a time. Ensure the cheese is fully melted and integrated into the sauce before adding the next half cup. Like the tip above, this helps the cheese to heat evenly.
  • Stir constantly (but gently) to keep the cheese from cooling the sauce and clumping.

As you’ve probably guessed, making a roux-based cheese sauce for mac and cheese is not complicated, but it needs a gentle and patient hand. Take your time, and keep the heat down, and you’ll be well placed to create a beautifully creamy mornay sauce for your mac and cheese.

If you’ve struggled with the sauce before though, you’re not alone. Based on comments from readers of these recipes, a lot of people struggle with the stovetop method, often confronted by one of two main issues.

Avoiding a grainy mac and cheese

The most common issue people face is a sauce that’s grainy, gritty or lumpy. As we’ve seen, there are a few key things to remember to avoid this:

  • Use clarified butter for your roux, or gently simmer off the water in normal butter first.
  • Add the milk in small amounts, mixing each addition through before adding more.
  • Use freshly grated cheese.
  • Lower the heat before adding your cheese.
  • Add cheese in small amounts, melting and mixing through each addition thoroughly before adding more.
  • Stir constantly while making your roux, making your white sauce and adding your cheese.

Attention to these details will go a long way to ensuring your mac and cheese is smooth and creamy.

What about runny mac and cheese?

Graininess is not the only issue people have with their mac and cheese. Sometimes the sauce is just too runny or sloppy.

There are a few possible causes of a runny mac and cheese:

  • The most likely cause is too much liquid. If you’ve inadvertently added a bit too much milk you’ll need to give the sauce more time to thicken up. Do this gently though to prevent the sauce from breaking or splitting.
  • It’s important to simmer your white sauce once it’s combined. This allows time for the starch in the flour to do its job of thickening the sauce. Rushing through this phase will leave the sauce with a more soupy consistency.
  • Substituting a recipe’s dairy ingredient could also cause problems, especially if you choose a lower fat product. Even just replacing whole milk with skim milk could be enough to change the consistency of your sauce.
  • It could also be related to your pasta choice. Some pastas absorb more liquid than others due to their shape or their makeup. Using a less absorbent pasta than the author may inadvertently leave more water in the sauce. If you’re unsure, a couple of authors cook a little more pasta than the recipe calls for, and add more to the sauce as required.

If the sauce is only a little too runny, allowing it to cool slightly will quite possibly give you the texture you want. The fats in the cheese and butter will firm up a little as it cools, producing a thicker texture.

Closeup of a pile of white flour with a red cross over it.

Stovetop mac and cheese without flour

If all of that hasn’t convinced you to give a roux-based mac and cheese another go, or if you need to avoid flour completely for dietary reasons, there are a couple of options amongst the stovetop recipes:

  • Sabrina’s mac and cheese recipe on Dinner then Dessert uses blended cottage cheese with full fat milk and half-and-half. It’s worth noting that a few readers commented they’d had issues getting this recipe to thicken up. Just as many though comment on how good theirs turned out.
  • If you’re looking for a really quick and easy approach, This is Not Diet Food make their mac and cheese with a can of condensed cheddar cheese soup. This significantly shortcuts the sauce-making process. If you can’t eat flour though you should check the label of the can, as it’s quite commonly used to thicken soups as well.

But if you’re not tied to the stovetop, there’s a whole other method of making mac and cheese without flour.

Closeup of a white baking dish full of golden baked mac and cheese.

Oven-baked macaroni and cheese

Five of the authors cook their mac completely in the oven (apart from boiling the pasta). And all of these recipes have you make your mac and cheese without flour.

Although each author has a slightly different approach, these five recipes all work in fundamentally the same way. After cooking your pasta, you mix your other ingredients together, then combine them with your pasta in a baking dish. Some then top the casserole with extra cheese, and maybe a bit of paprika, before baking it in the oven.

Interestingly, all five of these recipes are either called or referred to as southern mac and cheese recipes. Apparently a traditional southern macaroni and cheese is an oven-baked casserole of pasta, cheese sauce and eggs. But there are some VERY strong opinions out there about what makes a traditional mac and cheese, and what makes a southern mac and cheese, and so on, so I’m going to leave the regional discussion at that!

That said, all five of these recipes do include eggs.

Eggs in mac and cheese?!?

As Stephanie from The Cozy Cook points out, the eggs are there to thicken the sauce (instead of a flour roux).

Eggs do give the finished dish a bit of a custardy texture, which some people love, and others really don’t. Some authors swear there’s no other way, but if you’re in the no eggs camp, and still want a baked mac and cheese, Stephanie gives great advice on replacing the eggs with a flour roux.

The combination approach – from stove to oven

A slightly more common approach than making the whole dish in the oven is a combination of the stovetop and the oven-baked methods.

Six authors prepare their cheese sauce on the stovetop, mostly based on the method I described above (roux, bechamel, etc). They then combine their sauce with their cooked pasta and bake it in the oven. Most of these recipes include extra cheese and/or breadcrumbs on top to create a golden crispy finish.

The one different recipe in this group is from Coop Can Cook, which relies on the starch of the pasta instead of a roux (and therefore has no flour). Coop’s mac and cheese recipe is another one worth exploring if you’re hoping to avoid flour or making a roux.

Making mac and cheese with and without flour

You have a few choices for how to approach your homemade macaroni and cheese:

  • Stovetop. Make your mac and cheese completely on the stovetop.
  • Oven-baked. Embracing the southern style, make your mac and cheese in the oven.
  • Combination approach. Best of both worlds, maybe? Make your cheese sauce on the stove, then bake the whole lot in the oven for a golden top.

But if you’re looking to make your mac and cheese without flour, your best option is one of the Southern oven-baked recipes. They take a totally different approach to thickening the sauce, but still produce delicious results.

These and the other recipes without flour are listed separately below.

An apron on a wooden surface with a diagram of macaroni and cheese on a heart.
The perfect cooking attire for mac & cheese lovers! Check it out now on Redbubble.

Recipes included in this review

Recipes for mac and cheese without flour

Stovetop mac & cheese Recipes

Mac & cheese recipes that start on the stove and finish in the oven

(Southern) oven-baked mac & cheese recipes

2 thoughts on “How to make mac and cheese without flour (and why you might want to reconsider)”

  1. I love the dedication you give to the art of creating the roux, then bechamel, then mornay. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much completely unnecessary.

    You can create a creamier, and even slightly healthier, cheese sauce that takes even less time to prepare by simply using one ingredient: Sodium Citrate.

    Sodium Citrate is the ingredient used to keep American Cheese soft, creamy, and meltable. Using it to create the perfect cheese sauce, though, is where it really shines. And it’s much easier than creating any of the other above sauces in stages.

    All you need to do is add about 2.0% by weight of Sodium Citrate to the combination of your milk, cream, and butter and dissolve completely before adding your cheese (Note: 2.0% refers to the total weight, including all cheese, that will be used. If you are using less liquid by weight than you are using cheese for a much thicker “sauce,” then you will want to instead experiment with amount of Sodium Citrate between 2.0% and 4.0% of the total weight of the cheese only).

    This is because, as we already know, acids, like lemon juice, accomplish the same goals as using flour of preventing the cheese fats from separating. This is why many chefs will add a splash of vinegar or wine or lemon juice to their bechamel. However, even in the smallest of amounts… eww. It’s much better to use an acid that does not change the flavor at all, and sodium citrate does that so well that absolutely no flour is needed when using exclusively sodium citrate for this role.

    I will never underestimate the power of a roux when it comes to making savory, fatty dishes, as many Indian dishes are known to do. But please, when it comes to making a cheese sauce, leave the flour in the cupboard and reach for the sodium citrate. Or in some cases, add it to your shopping list!

    Reply
    • This is a great addition to the discussion, thanks Ivan!

      I haven’t tried using citric acid before, but I’m definitely keen to give it a go now. Thanks for the tip and the helpful details too.

      Reply

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