Macaroni and cheese is an American classic.
A basic mac and cheese recipe with just a bit of salt and pepper is great on its own, but by knowing which spices to add to mac and cheese to level it up, you’ll create an unforgettable dish that you’ll want to make over and over again.
The best spices for mac and cheese include:
- Garlic powder
- Onion powder
- Cayenne pepper
- Paprika, and
However, the spices you select will depend on the desired flavor of your dish.
In this guide, I’ll share some of my favorite spices for mac and cheese to give you the inspiration to liven up this classic dish.
Best Mac and Cheese Seasoning
You can make a conventional mac and cheese – opting for flavorful savory herbs and seasonings, or you can make a spicy dish by adding different types of pepper.
Mediterranean and Italian herbs are some of the most common spices added to traditional mac and cheese, but there is a huge selection of other spices you can add to your macaroni and cheese recipe to make it taste terrific.
If you want to turn the heat up, cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes may be the way to go.
The recipe you use for your mac and cheese plus who you will be serving are two deciding factors when selecting the flavor profile.
If you are cooking for a large group and you do not know their preferences, you may not want to add anything – especially if you will be feeding children.
So, what are the best mac and cheese seasonings to help your cheesy dish stand out?
Here are some of my and my family’s favorites:
1. Garlic And Onion Powder
While these are technically two spices, I am a strong believer that garlic and onions go hand-in-hand.
Garlic and onion powders can be added to almost any dish to give it a deeper flavor.
Both of these spices are inexpensive and easy to find.
They are staples in most pantries, making them a perfect go-to for any dish – especially mac and cheese.
If you want your next mac and cheese to have something a little “extra,” these two staples are the way to go.
Often combined with other Mediterranean and Italian herbs like basil, marjoram, thyme, and garlic, oregano is versatile and flavorful.
The great thing about oregano is that it is not overpowering, so that you can add a decent amount to your pasta.
You can also combine it with other flavors, including salt, garlic and onion powders, oregano, basil, and paprika.
It’s easy to strike a flavorful balance with oregano, so you won’t have to worry about it standing out or competing with other herbs in your dish.
If you like pasta sauce and pizza, chances are you like oregano, so don’t be afraid to be heavy-handed with it!
Basil and oregano are both members of the mint family, which explains why they work so well together.
Basil is frequently added to sauces like pasta sauce, pizza sauce, and, yes, cheese sauce for macaroni.
I find that it can be especially complementary to your dish if you use mozzarella, provolone, or other soft Italian melting cheeses.
This common, inexpensive spice will add a touch of Italian flavor to your macaroni and cheese.
It is very hard to add too much basil, so don’t worry about being heavy-handed when adding this seasoning to your pasta dish.
It can also be used as a garnish when the pasta comes off the stove or out of the oven.
Marjoram is another herb from the mint family. It is considered an Italian herb like oregano and basil, and Italian herbs pair beautifully with cheese.
Marjoram and oregano are very similar, but marjoram provides a bit of sweetness. The two herbs go well together in any dish.
This seasoning can be a little more difficult to find, and you might not have it in your pantry already.
It’s slightly more expensive than the others we have mentioned, but it is delicious and worth the price.
If you truly want to create an Italian-style mac and cheese, having the trifecta of oregano, basil, and marjoram will do the trick!
Paprika is a flavorful spice that adds a touch of color to any dish and is one of my favorites to use in mac and cheese.
If you want a smoky taste to your meal, you can add smoked paprika. It’s a great option for bringing your mac and cheese to a barbecue or cookout.
Paprika is especially good in homemade mac and cheese dishes when added directly to the cheese sauce.
The small amount of red coloring makes the pasta look great, and the paprika complements the flavor of the cheese.
Just like oregano, paprika is not particularly strong, and it mixes well with other spices.
It’s also a great finisher. You can sprinkle a bit on top of a bubbly mac and cheese casserole for a pop of color that will make it impossible not to dig in.
6. Cayenne Pepper
If you want to spice things up, cayenne pepper is a great option.
Adding this seasoning to your mac and cheese will bring some heat to the table.
There is nothing better than a slightly spicy homemade baked macaroni and cheese.
Cayenne pepper, some garlic powder, paprika, and a little bit of nutmeg will give you the perfect combination of flavors to impress your dinner guests.
If cayenne pepper is too hot for you or your guests’ liking, you can substitute red pepper flakes instead – this is something I often do when making this dish for kids.
You will still get the flavor and heat of the pepper, but crushed red pepper flakes are not as hot as cayenne pepper.
Heat works well with mac and cheese because it can often be such a rich dish. That little bit of spice helps to cut through the richness to create a more balanced flavor.
7. Chili Powder
Another way to spice up your mac and cheese without going too far on the Scoville scale is by using regular chili powder.
Chili powder is a mild seasoning made from ground chili peppers.
While cayenne peppers are a type of chili, the peppers used in commercial chili powder are nowhere near as hot.
Chili powder will add more subtle heat and a touch of smokiness to your mac and cheese, giving it a Tex-Mex feel instead of overpowering you with spice.
You can take things further with the Tex-Mex theme by adding red and green bell peppers to your dish.
I like to refer to this spice as my “secret weapon” when it comes to savory comfort foods.
When most people think of nutmeg, they think of the spice combination that goes into holiday foods like pumpkin pie, hot cocoa, apple cider, and other wintery recipes.
I was so unsure of this at first, but when I tried it, I understood the hype.
Nutmeg is widely available in all grocery stores and anywhere seasonings are sold, so you can snag some for your macaroni and cheese easily.
Not only does it make your traditional mac and cheese more flavorful and decadent, but it is a great addition to spicy mac and cheese as well.
No matter what other spices you include in your dish, you can add a dash of nutmeg to take it up a notch.
With nutmeg, a little goes a long way. Only add a tiny amount. Don’t go overboard, or you may overpower the whole dish. It’s also always better to use freshly grated nutmeg, if possible.
Buy it whole, and grate it directly into your recipes as needed.
9. Truffle Salt
I’m including this spice last on the list because it might not be as easy to find.
Plus, it’s typically a bit more expensive than other spices.
But, truffle salt is becoming more popular among foodies and in the restaurant industry.
If you can get your hands on some, it’s a great way to add more depth of flavor to your creamy mac and cheese.
Truffle salt combines black truffles and sea salt grains. The flavor is hard to describe unless you’ve ever tasted truffles, but it provides an earthy, savory flavor – almost similar to mushrooms.
Truffle mac and cheese has become exceedingly popular in expensive restaurants across the country.
You might not be able to shave black truffles directly into your mac and cheese, but truffle salt is the next best thing if you want to take your dish up a notch.
The 9 herbs and spices above are some of my absolute favorites for changing up a classic mac and cheese.
My go-to choices are usually paprika, onion and garlic powder, and a dash of nutmeg, but all of those I’ve added above work wonderfully to level up this comfort dish.
Play around with flavors and see which one you like most in your mac and cheese.
Nutmeg is added to mac and cheese to enhance its flavor with a warm, nutty, and slightly sweet taste.
To add more flavor to mac and cheese, consider ingredients like bacon, sautéed onions, garlic, mustard, hot sauce, or different types of cheeses.
Yes, paprika is good in mac and cheese as it adds a mild, sweet, or smoky flavor, depending on the type of paprika used.