The best copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese

Chick-fil-A isn't exactly well-known for their side dishes. Sure, their waffle fries are phenomenal, and we love the kale crunch salad when we're craving more superfoods in our life, but we don't usually hit their drive-thru for the sides. That is, until they announced that mac and cheese had a permanent spot on their menu in 2019. It features super tender macaroni smothered in a rich sauce that rivals the mac and cheese at most sit-down restaurants. This cheesy bowl is the perfect complement to crispy chicken nuggets, or it's hearty enough to eat on its own as a meal.

If you can't get enough of Chick-fil-A's ooey, gooey mac and cheese, we have some great news: We came up with a homemade version that tastes just as good. You will probably have to pick up a few ingredients — their recipe features five different kinds of cheese — but it's simple enough to make and is ready to hit the dinner table in as little as 30 minutes. Want to know how we came up with an almost identical copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese recipe? Read on to find out.

Gather the ingredients for your copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese

Before we began developing our copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese recipe, we took a peek at Chick-fil-A's website to see if they happened to give away the recipe. While they didn't provide any quantities, they did list the exact ingredients we needed to get started. A few ingredients were obvious — macaroni, salt, and a blend of cheeses — but we were surprised to see that they used nonfat dry milk instead of regular milk. After doing a quick test batch, we agreed that dry milk powder was the way to go: It had a lighter texture than the mac we made with real milk.

From there, we only had to round out the ingredients list with a few additions. The ingredients list contained both margarine and butter, but we chose to use just butter in our recipe for simplicity's sake. Chick-fil-A also uses egg yolk powder, which we couldn't locate at the store, so we stuck with a liquid yolk instead. They also include wheat flour and a few seasonings (paprika, turmeric, and anatto) for color, so we added those ingredients to our list. The rest of the ingredients appeared to be preservatives, so we took a pass on items like xanthan gum, emulsifying salt, and modified food starch.

You'll find a full list of the ingredients — and the step-by-step instructions — at the end of this article.

What types of cheese go into copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese?

We didn't have to dig deep to know that Chick-fil-A uses multiple cheeses in their mac and cheese. After all, their menu describes the items as containing a "special blend of cheeses including Parmesan, cheddar, and Romano." What we didn't know was that there are two additional types of cheese included in the recipe: American and BellaVitano, a buttery, nutty cheese made in Wisconsin.

You might be tempted to scale the number of cheeses back to one or two, but using all five really adds a ton of extra flavor and texture to your cheese sauce. Kitchen Conundrums explains that using a combination of cheeses is a great way to get the wonderfully gooey texture that you love in a cheese sauce — that comes from the softest cheese, American cheese — while also achieving a rich, complex flavor. If you were to only use crumbly aged cheeses like cheddar, Romano, or Parmesan, the sauce would end up grainy and taste too sharp.

Do you need to make a roux to create authentic copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese?

While many online copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese recipes don't use flour, we included it in our recipe. For starters, it's included on Chick-fil-A's ingredients list, so we felt like using flour was a required step to create the most authentic copycat mac and cheese. We also know from experience in developing other cheese sauce recipes that a little bit of flour goes a long way to creating a stable sauce that won't break.

It turns out there's some pretty solid food science behind starting a cheese sauce with a roux — the combination of equal parts flour and butter that's cooked until it no longer tastes like raw flour. When you whisk milk into a roux, the flour's starch molecules break open to absorb the liquid and thicken the sauce. This process also primes the starch molecules to act as a barrier when the cheese melts, preventing the cheese from clumping and ensuring that the fat won't separate. That means your cheese sauce will be smooth instead of grainy or oily. Pretty cool, huh?

If you plan to make this recipe with gluten-free noodles, feel free to skip the flour. Take care to add the cheese very, very slowly, as it won't have any starch to protect it from breaking. The sauce won't turn out quite as thick and smooth, but it will be close.

Why does this copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese recipe contain egg?

Before we get started, let's talk about wildcard ingredient in this recipe: Egg yolks. It might seem like a very odd addition to mac and cheese, but it's actually a common ingredient for cheese sauces. Eggs play a few essential roles that help the sauce come together (and then, stay together).

Adding an egg yolk to sauces like cheese sauce is a great way to thicken the sauce — which is important if you're going the gluten-free route — as well as providing a rich flavor. But the major reason to include an egg in mac and cheese is because of the egg's ability to emulsify other ingredients, bringing together oil and water in emulsions like mayonnaise or hollandaise sauce. It also works for creamy sauces, binding the fat molecules in the cheese to the liquid in the milk, preventing the sauce from breaking when it's reheated. That's important for a company like Chick-fil-A: We learned from Redditors that the employees receive already-made bags of mac and cheese, "squeeze [it] out of [the] bag," and reheat it in the oven.

To keep the egg yolk from scrambling, it's important to temper the egg before it goes into the sauce. Don't worry; we'll explain how to do it when we get to that step.

Cook the macaroni for copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese

Normally, we'd tell you to bring a large pot of water to a boil and follow the directions on the box for al dente pasta. But we read an interesting theory on Todd Wilbur's Top Secret Recipes. He suggested boiling the macaroni for 20 minutes, more than double the recommended cook time on the box. The idea is that the longer cook time allows the macaroni to absorb as much water as possible, ensuring it won't steal any extra liquid from the sauce when they're tossed together. We thought we'd give it a try and see if the theory was correct.

We boiled three batches of macaroni: one for the box's recommended eight minutes for al dente, another for 12 minutes, and a third for the full 20. We combined the cooked macaroni with the sauce and let it sit in the refrigerator for an hour. Sure enough, the third pasta — the one that cooked for 20 minutes — was our favorite. The pasta itself was soft and chewy, and the sauce hadn't lost any of its creaminess. We were sold!

Start the cheese sauce for copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese

While the pasta is cooking, we'll go ahead and make the cheese sauce. Things are going to move quickly here, so it's best to prepare by getting everything ready by whisking together the water and dry milk powder to rehydrate the milk and grating all the cheeses. It's okay to combine the grated cheeses, but we recommend keeping the American cheese separate.

To make the sauce, we'll start by melting the butter in a large pot over medium heat until it's bubbly and melted, about two minutes. Then, add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the roux becomes frothy and smells nutty. When the roux is ready, add the rehydrated milk and bring the mixture up to a simmer. After about 10 minutes, the sauce should be nice and thick.

Now it's time to temper the egg yolks — a process that sounds intimidating but is really quite easy. Tempering eggs is just a fancy way of saying that we'll slowly increase their temperature, keeping them from scrambling when they hit the hot milk. Place the yolk in a small bowl and slowly pour in 1/2 cup of the hot milk, whisking constantly as you pour. When the mixture is well incorporated, add a second 1/2 cup of hot milk, repeating the whisking process. Now that the egg is warm, you can whisk the egg-milk mixture back into the pot without fear.

Add the cheese one handful at a time for the perfect copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese

From here, we'll remove the pot from the heat and get ready to melt the cheese into the sauce. You want to work quickly to keep the milk from cooling down too much, but not so quickly that the cheese doesn't have a chance to melt fully. Rushing this process too much can result in a broken, oily sauce, so only add the cheese one handful at a time.

Start with the American cheese, which is the softest cheese and will melt the fastest. Add a few pieces of cheese at a time, stirring constantly until it's fully melted. Then, repeat the process by adding another handful of cheese until it's all incorporated. When all the cheese is in, season the cheese sauce with the salt, paprika, turmeric, and annatto. At this point, the cheese sauce is ready to use, or you can cool it down in the refrigerator for later use. The flour and the egg yolk will protect the cheese sauce from breaking as it cools and reheats.

Do you need to add the spices to make a copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese?

We're only adding a few spices to our copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese recipe, and they're mostly included to add coloring. The recipe only uses an eighth of a teaspoon of paprika and a pinch of turmeric and annatto, which is barely enough to impact our mac and cheese's flavor. Combining all three spices together adds a lovely orange hue to your mac and cheese that makes it look like the real deal, but don't feel like you have to make an extra trip to the grocery store to get them if you don't already have them on hand.

If you're used to adding ground black pepper or white pepper to your mac and cheese, you can totally add it to this recipe. Chick-fil-A's ingredients list doesn't contain any pepper, so we left it off the list, but it would add a nice peppery finish. While you're at it, you could also make this recipe your own by adding other spice additions like garlic powder, ground mustard, or cayenne pepper.

Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta to finish this copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese recipe

There's only one more step before you serve your copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese. Pour the cheese mixture over the cooked macaroni and stir gently to combine. The heat of the cheese sauce should warm the pasta if it cooled while making the sauce, but you could also reheat the mixture briefly in the microwave if the pasta was very cold. Then, portion the mac and cheese into bowls and top them with a sprinkle of grated cheddar cheese.

If you're a fan of baked mac and cheese, we're sorry to inform you that this isn't the right recipe. Chick-fil-A's mac and cheese has a baked layer of cheese on top, so you could definitely sprinkle some cheddar on your homemade version and pop the mac and cheese under the broiler to get a melty crust. The broiler would work if you want to top the mac with crispy bread crumbs, too. But baking this recipe for any length of time in the oven isn't a great idea. The macaroni is already cooked to its limit, and it will turn to mush with additional cook time. This sauce doesn't contain enough liquid for the oven either, so the mac and cheese would taste dry. Better to just leave this one to a stovetop recipe.

How close did we get to the original Chick-fil-A mac and cheese?

If Chick-fil-A ever decides to discontinue this side dish, you'll have nothing to fear: This recipe is just as good as the original. The sauce is creamy, cheesy, and packed full of flavor — and it has the perfect consistency to boot. We were surprised at how much we loved the overcooked macaroni, too. Twenty minutes felt like way too long, but it had the exact same texture as the restaurant's, and it didn't soak up extra sauce, keeping the dish nice and creamy.

So whip up a batch of copycat Chick-fil-A chicken nuggets and honey mustard dipping sauce, heat up a side of this mac and cheese, and get ready to fool your friends into thinking they're eating the real deal. Don't be afraid to make a double batch of mac and cheese, either, so you'll have plenty for dinner and lunch. Our leftovers reheated just fine the next day, and they made an incredible (albeit ridiculous) grilled buffalo chicken mac and cheese sandwich.

Copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese directions

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Makes: 4 servings as a main dish or 6 servings as a side dish

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound elbow macaroni
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup nonfat dry milk powder
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 8 slices American cheese, torn or cut into small pieces
  • 1-1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese, plus additional for topping
  • 1/2 cup grated BellaVitano Gold cheese
  • 1/4 cup grated Romano cheese
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground paprika
  • Pinch ground turmeric
  • Pinch ground annatto

Directions:

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook for 20 minutes, until the macaroni is very soft and plump. Drain the macaroni in a colander and set aside. Do not rinse it with water. If the pasta is cooked before the cheese sauce is finished, toss it with a little cooking oil to keep the noodles from sticking together.
  2. Meanwhile, make the cheese sauce by melting the butter in a large pot over medium heat. When the butter is bubbly and melted, about 2 minutes, add the flour. Cook, stirring constantly, until the roux is frothy and smells nutty, about 3 to 5 minutes.
  3. In a small bowl, combine the water and nonfat dry milk powder and whisk until the powder is incorporated. Slowly whisk the milk mixture into the roux and bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat. Cook for 10 minutes, until the liquid has thickened.
  4. Place the egg yolk in a small bowl. Add 1/2 cup of the hot milk to the egg yolk, whisking as you add to keep the yolk from scrambling. Add a second 1/2 cup of hot milk, whisking until it's incorporated, before adding the warm egg-milk mixture back to the pot.
  5. Remove the pot from the heat. Working quickly to keep the milk from cooling down too much, add the cheese one handful at a time, starting with the torn American cheese and moving on to the grated cheeses after the American is fully incorporated. Stir constantly until the cheese is melted before adding the next handful of cheese.
  6. When all the cheese is added and incorporated, stir in the salt, paprika, turmeric, and annatto.
  7. Pour the cheese sauce over the cooked macaroni and stir gently to combine. Portion the mac and cheese into individual bowls. Top with additional grated cheddar cheese and melt the cheese under the broiler, if desired.