The best cheeses to use in your homemade mac & cheese

While instant macaroni and cheese might pass the college dorm test, we all learn eventually that nothing beats the real stuff. When it's done right, homemade mac and cheese has the potential to be truly transformative — the stuff dreams are made of. Luckily for all of us cheesy carb lovers, this meal is simple to whip up from scratch. Like most dishes you'll cook, half the battle is won (or lost!) when you're choosing your ingredients in the grocery aisles. Whether it's baked for an irresistibly crunchy top or cooked on the stovetop for maximum creaminess, this perennial comfort food requires the right cheese in order to fulfill its dinnertime destiny. To help you get started on your mac game, here's a down-and-dirty guide to the major players at the market.

Classic sharp cheddar: always a crowdpleaser

Firm, rich, and relatively mellow, cheddar cheese gets its name from the English town where it originated. One of the most popular varieties of cheeses in the world, it is beloved for its melting powers and smooth flavor. While this cow's milk cheese is an ideal choice for grilled cheese sandwiches and general snacking, cheddar has also made quite a name for itself as the go-to choice for traditional all-American mac and cheese. You simply can't go wrong.

Complex Gruyere adds mature flair

Made from cow's milk, Gruyere borrows its name from a village in Switzerland. This hard cheese is prized for its complex flavor profile. With subtle sweet notes that complement earthy, nutty ones, Gruyere easily adds depth of flavor to a variety of dishes. From gratin and fondue to burgers and grilled cheese, this winning Swiss cheese delivers the goods. It lends mac and cheese just the right touch of grownup sophistication.

Smoked Gouda lends meaty flavor (minus the meat)

Named after the Dutch city it hailed from, Gouda is a semi-hard cheese appreciated for its smooth, creamy texture and mild flavor. While a majority of Gouda is made with cow's milk, some types are made from sheep's or goat's milk. Young Gouda is rich and mellow, while aged varieties possess a deeper, more pungent flavor. If you want to infuse robust, bacon-adjacent notes to your mac and cheese, try using smoked Gouda. You will not be disappointed.

Monterey Jack: mild and pleasing with creamy results

An American cow's milk cheese with origins in Monterey, California, the aptly named Monterey Jack is easy to love. At once firm and creamy, it melts like a dream, making it the perfect choice for all your gooey cheese needs. Buttery in texture and very mild, like cheddar, Monterey Jack is an easy choice for mac and cheese that both children and adults can get on board with. For deliciously melty, smooth, velvety mac, we highly recommend some Jack.

Brie: creamy, decadent dream come true

Named after a region in France and literally eaten by kings, soft-ripened Brie is buttery, runny, and creamy like you wouldn't believe. Its flavor ranges from mild to extremely nutty and tangy, depending on what you get your hands on at the store. This creamy wonder is the right way to go if you're looking to make mac and cheese that's sure to impress. Luxurious and decadent, this rich cheese promises to instantly take your humble mac to the next level.

Aged cheddar and Parmesan

The sharper, more complex flavors of aged cheddar team up well with salty Parmesan. This combo is amazing in grilled cheese sandwiches — and the same goes for mac and cheese. Italian Parmesan's slightly fruity, subtly nutty notes and grittier texture pair beautifully with the smoother, creamier mouth feel of cheddar. Make this mac and cheese. Your stomach will thank you.

Gaga for goat cheese

Whether it's used as the star attraction, or to complement other cheeses, nothing puts a "what is that flavor?" zing into your homemade macaroni and cheese quite like goat cheese can. Goat cheese (called "chevre" when it's from France), comes in many varieties and can range from a creamy tanginess to a crumbly grassiness that is beloved by cheese lovers across the globe. Try melting it into a classic stovetop cheese sauce for a macaroni and cheese that can go straight to your plate or into the oven for a bronzed crunch.

Fabulous fontina

Hailed for its unique versatility as both a table cheese and a cooking cheese, fontina is a crowd-pleasing, melty cheese that will work beautifully in many macaroni and cheese recipes. Fontina is a cow's milk cheese that has been crafted in Italy since 1477 but is also widely available in both Swedish and Danish styles which are recognizable by their red wax wrapping. Skip the pricier varieties that are more suitable for serving on a cheese board, and instead opt for a mid-priced fontina that is ideal for cooking. With a flavor that balances earthiness with a buttery mouthfeel, fontina is a cheese you'll definitely be reaching for again.

Heavenly havarti

Havarti and cream havarti are cheeses that, like fontina, are also prized for their versatility as a slicing cheese and a cooking cheese. This semi-soft cow's milk cheese was developed in the 19th century in Denmark and can often be found blended with herbs and spices like dill, caraway, or even jalapeno peppers. Aged for three months, havarti's flavor can range from mild to strong and is often seen on dessert cheese plates. Its buttery meltiness makes havarti a welcome addition to a delicious homemade macaroni and cheese.

Cream cheese

A true American invention, recipes for cream cheese filled American cookbooks and newspapers as far back as the 1700s. In 1872, an upstate New York dairy factory that was manufacturing the lighter French variety of cheese known as Neufchatel, decided to shake things up a bit by adding cream to the cow's milk cheese recipe. The rest is history. Though many store-bought brands contain gums and stabilizers to preserve the stability of the fresh cream cheese, purely crafted artisan brands are available in specialty markets that will send you straight to cream cheese heaven. The USDA mandates that cream cheese be at least 33 percent fat, making it a fantastically creamy choice for your mac and cheese. Try blending its creaminess with a cheese of a bolder flavor for delicious results.

Cottage cheese: surprising and economical

Cottage cheese is a fresh, unripened curd cheese that is valued for its high protein content and mild, sweet flavor. Often used as a lower-fat substitute for heavier cheeses in many recipes, cottage cheese's unique texture has also found a place in more decadent recipes. Try the New York Times' recommendation for a mixture of cottage cheese and sharp cheddar for a classic elbow macaroni and cheese dish, or consider adding in some sour cream for a tangy kick.

Raclette is made for melting

The very name "raclette" is used to describe the famous dish of gooey cheese, scraped onto a waiting mound of bread or potatoes, as well as the cheese itself. Made with cow's milk from the grasslands of the French and Swiss Alps, raclette is similar in texture to Gruyere cheese, with a distinctive aroma. Like Gruyere, raclette does not separate when melted, making it a great cooking cheese and one that would lend a nutty and refined flavor to any mac and cheese recipe.

Boursin

Sometimes called Gournay cheese, boursin is a French cream cheese that can readily be found in your supermarket's appetizer section. It's a buttery and easily spreadable cheese that's brilliant on bread, crackers, and crudite, and comes in a vast array of herb and spice infused flavors. Highly meltable, boursin will add a pop of intense, complex flavor to your homemade macaroni and cheese recipe. Suffering sticker shock from your grocery store's boursin price tag? Try your hand at making it homemade: cream cheese, butter, and your choice of herbs and spices can be blended for a more economical version.

Magnificent mascarpone

Mascarpone is an Italian double- or triple-cream soft cheese that is often the shining star of dessert dishes like Italian cheesecakes or tiramisu. Its high fat content, however (it's been likened to a cross between cream and butter), makes mascarpone an excellent choice for savory dishes as well. Celebrity chef Michael Symon makes his mouth-watering mac and cheese with a blend of mascarpone, cheddar, and half and half. Over at the New York Times, Melissa Clark combines mascarpone with Brie and cream cheese for a mac and cheese with an undoubtedly velvety finish.