Brown butter works magic on this easy mac and cheese

Illustration for the "How to boil water" series on how to make mac and cheese.
(Caroline Marks / For The Times)

With so many of you having to stay home and cook for the first time — ever or more than you have in a long time — we get that it can be overwhelming to have to cook all your meals from scratch. So we’re here to get you started.

Each day we’re going to post a new skill here and go into detail about how to do it — a resource for cooking basics so you can get food on the table and get through this.

A series of simple tutorials for making some basic recipes at home.

March 26, 2020


Lesson 25: Brown Butter and From-Scratch Mac and Cheese

The only secret to perfecting brown butter: Stay with it. It takes only a few minutes to melt past foamy golden to pecan brown, developing a toasty depth and a nutty, almost caramel, aroma. (If it cooks beyond that, it’ll burn and become bitter, so don’t walk away.) Once you’ve nailed this simple kitchen trick, brown butter lends a rich deep flavor to cookies, cakes, vegetables, fish and pasta, like the mac and cheese below.

After the butter’s foam subsides over its golden liquid, its milk solids will drop to the bottom of the pan. Scrape up those specks while stirring the sputtering liquid so they don’t stick. When those bits edge past a tan color, turn off the heat. The butter will keep browning in the carryover heat of the pan. If those specks hit almond brown and continue to darken, immediately scrape it all into a bowl to prevent burning.

Use it however you like but definitely try it in this mac and cheese. Brown butter not only seasons the crumbs for the topping but enriches the sauce. With this dual use, you get the best of both mac-and-cheese worlds: the luxe silky sauce of stovetop mac and cheese with the toasty crunch of the baked kind.

Brown Butter Mac and Cheese

Time35 minutes
YieldsServes 2 to 4

As with brown butter, mac and cheese sauce demands you stick by the stove. You need to keep whisking — first to cook out the raw taste of the flour without scorching it and then while you dribble in the milk to ensure the sauce stays smooth. As the milk is added gradually, the butter-flour mix (known in French as a “roux”) will seize into clumps — keep whisking — then come together as a thick paste — keep whisking — smooth into sauce — keep whisking — then finally bubble and thicken again — you should still be whisking. It doesn’t take long, so don’t stop. You can rest after a few minutes of whisking the bubbles. Turn off the heat, dump in the cheese and slowly stir with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon to melt. The pasta follows, as do the seasonings.

Both brown butter and this mac-and-cheese sauce demand attention, but in a good way: Staring into the hypnotic stirring in your pan beats staring into another screen. And witnessing buttery alchemy is nearly as rewarding as eating it.