The Easiest One-Pot Mac and Cheese

This quick and comforting classic comes with minimal dishes to wash—and a secret healthy ingredient
December 26, 2019 Updated: December 26, 2019
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We’re in the final stretch. In the past 30 days, you survived Thanksgiving with your in-laws and Christmas with your entire extended family. Now all that remains of the “holiday season” is the hazy week between Christmas and New Year’s.

Even if you were on vacation for the majority of this week, it’s likely that you—like my husband and me, who spent the holidays on our own, thousands of miles away from any family members—are absolutely exhausted. If you weren’t responsible for cooking all of the meals over the holidays, you were on the clean-up committee, and cleaning up after a holiday party is no joke. 

There are certain times that call for a healthy one-pan meal, but the week after Christmas is simply not one of them. At this point, my body is made up of about 50 percent sugar cookies, and I have no plans to reset my blood sugar levels until after Jan. 1. Neither my husband nor I have any interest in cooking, but our post-holiday bank account is also screaming at us to stop eating out so much. Enter: one-pot cauliflower mac and cheese. 

This is the easiest homemade mac and cheese possible—plus, I threw in two cups of cauliflower that blend seamlessly into the cheese sauce. Depending on who you’re feeding, that cauliflower can be used to trick picky kids into eating vegetables, or make two adults feel better about eating a bowl of mac and cheese for dinner.

I’m no stranger to one-pot pastas, but among all the variations out there, this mac-and-cheese recipe takes comfort and ease to the next level. It abandons all acceptable rules of pasta cooking in favor of expediency and dishwashing minimalism, promising to get you onto your couch, binge-watching “Jack Ryan” with a bowl of piping hot, cheesy carbs in no time at all.

Here’s the trick: You boil the pasta directly in the milk that becomes the cheese sauce. As you boil your pasta in the milk, the milk is absorbed into the pasta, the pasta’s starches are released and thicken up the milk, and the milk reduces—a triple threat that creates the thick, creamy cheese sauce you always hope for in homemade mac and cheese.

Would a native Italian cook her pasta in milk? No, no she sure would not. But this move negates the need to drain your pasta, and you know what? I don’t even remotely notice a difference between this hack-y method and the traditional method of draining your pasta and adding it back to a cheese sauce that was made in a separate pot. 

My method means fewer things to wash (no strainer, and no second pot), which is a huge win with my husband, who typically (OK, always) gets stuck doing the dishes. 

We add the cauliflower to the pot of boiling milk a couple minutes after the pasta, since it takes less time to cook, and we don’t want it getting mushy on us. Once the pasta is al dente (aka almost finished, but still with a tiny bit of a hard bite), all that’s left to do is to stir in the cheeses and seasonings, and serve up two massive bowls of creamy mac and cheese. 

One-Pot Cauliflower Mac and Cheese

Serves 2 very hungry eaters

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 pound pasta shells or cavatappi or whatever shapes you have in the pantry 
  • 2 cups cauliflower florets (about 1/4 head of cauliflower)
  • 4 ounces sharp Cheddar 
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon mustard powder

In a large pot over medium-high heat, combine milk, water, and salt and bring to a simmer. Add the pasta, reduce heat to low, and cook for two minutes. Stir in the cauliflower and cook, stirring often, until pasta is al dente (almost cooked through, but not totally soft!). Check your package instructions for timing guidelines, but be sure to taste the pasta as you go since it will cook a little differently in milk versus water. 

Turn heat to low and stir in the cheeses, one handful at a time, until completely melted. Stir in remaining ingredients.Taste for seasoning and add more salt, garlic powder, or mustard powder if desired. 

Cooking Tips

I purposefully kept the ingredient list minimal for this recipe, but feel free to jazz things up by using multiple kinds of cheese. Pepper Jack, Monterey Jack, Swiss, and Gouda are all good options. 

Don’t want to add cauliflower? No problem—you can simply eliminate it and use the same proportions of water and pasta. Broccoli would also be delicious there! 

This mac and cheese freezes wonderfully. Double the recipe and freeze half for dinner next week, or next month. Then just throw it in a pot, add a splash of water, and reheat over medium-low heat.

Do you love crunchy breadcrumbs on your mac and cheese? Sauté 1 tablespoon butter with 1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs in a large skillet over medium heat until golden brown.

Caroline Chambers is a recipe developer, food writer, and author of “Just Married: A Cookbook for Newlyweds.” She currently lives in Carmel, Calif., with her husband, George, and baby boy, Mattis. Follow her on Instagram for cooking tips and snippets from her life in Northern California @carochambers