Instant Pot

Instant Pot Mac & Cheese

October 12, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten
Author Notes

I am an al dente–obsessive. Accordingly, I was as skeptical as the next person about making pasta in an Instant Pot. Wouldn't a pressure cooker completely obliterate the noodles beyond the point of chewiness, to complete mush?

But, I'm also a sucker for convenience. And when I come down with a craving for cheesy pasta, it's not one to be shaken off lightly. It's the kind of craving that grips you by the shoulders and shakes you until it's been addressed. In other words, the sooner, the better.

With this in mind, I took note as Instant Pot pasta recipe after Instant Pot pasta recipe cropped up on blogs and within cookbooks alike.

It's no surprise that so many people have conceived of such dishes. Pressure cookers are, after all, just a (very clever, high-tech) way to make warm, soft victuals—the type of meals Laurie Colwin called "nursery food" in Family Happiness—in a fraction of the time. And there's nothing more comforting or heartening than a big bowl of noodles. So, a few weeks back, when a mac and cheese craving struck, I decided to give it a shot.

But if this was going to be truly convenient, that meant I didn't want to deal with the whole rigmarole of draining noodles, or making a roux. I wanted to dump everything into the pot, press start, open the lid, and commence my nursery food–enjoyment. So I did, for the first time around: I added milk, cream, broth, Pecorino, salt, pepper, and the uncooked pasta, and let it rip. Then, I stirred in big handfuls of grated cheddar, and got to sampling. To my delight, not only were my noodles far from mushy after a five-minute jaunt in the pressurized pot—they were infused with a subtle, irresistible cheesiness from the cooking liquid that I'd never before encountered in cooked pasta.

I was hooked. From there, potential embellishments poured forth like the liquid from my dishwasher the one time I forgot to fully shut its door. I experimented with different types of cheese. I added bacon and alliums. I omitted broth and tried it with water in broth's stead. I added a stovetop-crisped panko topping that came together in minutes, while the pasta was cooking.

The version I've included here is by far my favorite, but you should feel free to skip the pancetta if you'd like to keep it vegetarian, or swap out the cheddar for another medium-soft grater-friendly cheese like Gruyère. If you're not up for the panko topping, save it for next time you make this. (And oh, how I hope for your sake that there's a next time.) And feel free to dial up the cayenne if you like even more of kick!

For me, "next time" will be tomorrow, because this dish is nothing if not the perfect last-minute side to add to a Thanksgiving menu. It comes together in about 20 minutes, is cheesy-as-heck, and best of all, won't take up any valuable oven space.

The only foreseeable issue is that you'll have to share. But the holiday is technically all about giving, so maybe just this once. —Ella Quittner

Test Kitchen Notes

Featured in: 36 Best Instant Pot Recipes for When You Want Slow-Cooked Flavor, Fast. —The Editors

Watch This Recipe
Instant Pot Mac & Cheese
  • Cook time 20 minutes
  • Serves 6 or more
  • 1 tablespoon butter, plus 2 tablespoons
  • 5 ounces pancetta, thickly sliced and roughly chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • 3 small or 2 medium shallots, finely minced (about 1/3 cup minced)
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup chicken broth (you can substitute vegetable)
  • 1 1/2 ounces Pecorino Romano, finely grated (about 1/2 cup, packed) (you can substitute Parmesan)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus 1/2 teaspoon
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated black pepper
  • 1 pound fusilli (or other similar twisty shape), uncooked
  • 1 large pinch powdered cayenne pepper
  • 3/4 cup plain panko
  • 12 ounces ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • Finely chopped chives, for garnish (if using)
In This Recipe
  1. Turn your multi-cooker on to its sauté setting (if your cooker has a timer component, set it to 15 minutes just to be safe, then hit cancel when you switch to pressure cooking mode) and add 1 tablespoon of butter. Add the pancetta, and sauté for a few minutes, until it crisps up on all sides. Using a slotted spoon, remove about a third of the crisped pancetta and set aside. Add the shallots to the cooker, and sauté in the rendered pancetta fat until they begin to turn translucent.
  2. Add the milk, heavy cream, broth, Pecorino, salt, pepper, and pasta, and stir to combine well, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot as you mix. (The noodles won’t be fully submerged—that’s fine.) Put the lid on the cooker and turn to pressure cook mode on high for 5 minutes. (If you like your pasta less al dente, set it for 6 minutes.)
  3. Meanwhile, on the stovetop, melt remaining 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat in a 10-inch or larger skillet (either cast iron or non-stick works), and add the cayenne. Cook for 30 seconds, then add the panko and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook all together over medium heat, constantly moving the panko around, until it’s midway between the color of graham crackers and the color of caramel. Set aside, off heat.
  4. Once the pressure cooking is completed, let the multi-cooker naturally release pressure for 1 minute before carefully turning it to instant release. When the pressure has been fully released, open the lid, and immediately stir in the cheddar cheese, stirring until it fully melts. (If you need extra heat, turn it back to sauté mode for another few minutes. If you need additional moisture, add another splash of milk.) Adjust seasoning to taste, then serve in individual bowls topped with a few heaping spoonfuls of toasted panko, the reserved pancetta crisps, and the chives (if using).

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Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.