Macaroni and cheese is a fantastic comfort food, often a family favorite, and also incredibly versatile. Box mac and cheese works when you’re in a hurry, while a good baked mac and cheese with a few added ingredients like lobster, shrimp, veggies, or extra cheeses can be an upscale dining experience.
But what if you run out of milk before you can make your delicious mac and cheese? What if you open the gallon of milk only to realize it's gone sour in the fridge?
Don’t worry. You don’t automatically have to run out to the grocery store to get more milk. Instead, you can just look and see if you have one of these substitutes for milk in your pantry.
Of course, if you can't have milk for any reason, you might want to just switch permanently to one of the plant milk or other milk substitutes for mac and cheese!
What Does Milk Do In Mac And Cheese?
Before you can choose a good substitute, you need to know a few things about what milk does in mac and cheese.
A lot of people assume that it’s just there to help thin out the cheese and give you a rich and creamy cheese sauce instead.
Milk is doing that in mac and cheese, but it has another important role as well. When you melt cheese there are a couple of things that can go wrong. It can curdle, especially if you have other ingredients adding an acid to your dish. In that case, you don't get a lovely creamy sauce, but a runny mess with hard lumps of solidified cheese.
The other common way cheese sauces go wrong is that they split, producing a whey-like liquid and a harder almost gelatin-consistency sauce that’s difficult to mix back in.
Adding milk to cheese sauce, including mac and cheese sauces, helps to provide liquid, moderate the pH, and better blend all of the ingredients together so that you get the right consistency.
A good milk replacement needs to do all of those things, or it won’t work.
The Best Milk Substitutes For Mac And Cheese
For this article, we're looking specifically for substitutes that will work well no matter what kind of mac and cheese you're making. So that includes box instant mac and cheese, stovetop mac and cheese, baked mac and cheese, and everything in between.
Sour cream is a fantastic substitute for milk in mac and cheese, and some people even prefer the effect of sour cream on their mac.
There are a couple of reasons this is such a good substitute. For one thing, since sour cream is thicker than regular milk, it doesn’t thin out the cheese sauce as much.
That means that you can add more sour cream and still get a creamy finish.
The tangy flavor of sour cream is also a great addition to many mac and cheese recipes. The tanginess can help to cut through the fatty flavor of some mac and cheese, helping it feel a little lighter and more refreshing.
Sour cream can also make your mac and cheese a little more filling, which can help for folks who are looking to reduce their portion sizes.
Heavy cream is another good substitute, particularly for baked mac and cheese. It doesn't have as much water content as regular milk, which means that less will evaporate off. That's perfect if you like your mac and cheese recipe but struggle with it drying out too much in the oven.
Heavy cream is more calorie dense though, so you might want to reduce the amount of cheese you use or make other adjustments if you want a diet-friendly mac and cheese.
Half and Half
Half and half is a good option if you like mac and cheese made with heavy cream, but don’t want it to be quite as heavy as it is.
Half and half is literally just half milk and half cream, so this is a great in-between substitution. However, it's important to remember that half and half tends to act more like milk, so you probably need a little more half and half than cream to account for evaporation.
Don’t have fresh milk? Evaporated milk is a good substitute. This option has condensed milk solids and sugars, which does mean that it's a little more calorie-rich than regular milk.
If you want to avoid the added calories, just mix in a little extra water until you have the desired thickness in the milk.
Be careful though, you don’t want to mistake evaporated milk for sweetened condensed milk. Sweetened condensed milk is far too sweet for most mac and cheese, and is usually only used in dessert recipes.
Dry Powdered Milk
Another option is to make your own milk from powdered milk.
Boxed mac and cheese actually already contains powdered milk most of the time in their cheese mix. Adding more can also give you a little bit of a sweet flavor in your mac and cheese, but it’s not unpleasantly sweet.
In baked mac and cheese, you might want to use a more concentrated powdered milk solution than you would normally mix. That’s because rehydrated powdered milk is often a little thinner than fresh milk. By adding more of the powder you get a liquid that’s much closer to fresh milk than normal.
Since that density is important for getting a creamy cheese sauce, it can really help.
If you don’t like the flavor of powdered milk, adding a little butter or heavy cream can help make it taste more like fresh.
Yogurt is another excellent option, especially in vegetarian mac and cheese.
Like sour cream, yogurt’s natural thickness and tangy flavor can really bring out the best possible flavors in your mac and cheese, while its added protein content can give you a better nutrient profile in your finished meal.
Just be careful you don’t get sweetened yogurt. Some brands sweeten even their unflavored yogurts, and that can make them too sweet for mac and cheese.
Greek yogurt is even better if you’re looking to add accessible protein to your mac and cheese.
Coconut cream is another good option if you're looking for a plant-based or lactose-free milk alternative for mac and cheese.
Avoid coconut milk, since it can be a lot thinner and sweeter, and might give you too much of a sweet flavor in your mac and cheese.
This option also tends to work better if you have a strongly flavored cheese in your mix, or one that’s a little more on the sour side. Gruyere, blue cheese, or Swiss cheese can all help to balance the natural sweetness of coconut cream.
Plant-based milks are another good option, though everyone is going to have their own preferences. Rice, soy, almond, and cashew milk all work similarly well, though you do have to adjust the amount slightly depending on how thick or thin your milk is.
That said, it’s important to make sure you’re using unsweetened unflavored milk. Vanilla soy milk might be a great ingredient for dessert baking, but vanilla mac and cheese usually doesn’t taste good.
Like the other milk products we’ve talked about, unflavored (or savory flavored) cream cheese also works well.
You can also use the flavor of the cream cheese to enhance your mac and cheese if you want. A smoked salmon cream cheese works well in lobster mac and cheese, while a chive and onion cream cheese can give you a pleasant onion flavor in almost any kind of mac and cheese.
The trick here is that you do need to reduce how much solid cheese you’re using to make room for the cream cheese. Adding a little water, broth, or butter can also help make sure the cheese forms a cheese sauce instead of a slightly soft melted cheese.
Adding more butter might seem a bit like cheating since butter is already an ingredient in most mac and cheese recipes, but it does work!
Butter adds both the liquid and the milk solids you need for a good cheese sauce.
However, every recipe is going to need a different amount of butter. As a rule you can start by doubling the butter in the recipe and skipping the milk. However, for recipes with a lot of hard cheese, or very little butter, you might need to add more.
Broth is a surprisingly good substitute for milk in mac and cheese, and if you choose the right broth, it can also have nutritional and diet advantages.
The trick here is figuring out how much broth you need without making the cheese sauce too runny and using a lower-sodium broth (or one you made yourself) to avoid a too-salty flavor.
Remember, most hard cheeses are salted, so you don’t need to add as much salt as you normally would.
Oil can also work, though it can take a little more effort to get the oil to emulsify with the cheese as it melts. This is a good substitute for any mac and cheese where you make the cheese sauce on the stove, including the ones where you mix it with the pasta and then bake.
You’ll want a whisk or an immersion blender to help combine the cheese and oil once the cheese is fully melted.
A simple flour and butter roux is also a great substitute for milk. You'll still need to add moisture though, so this option works best combined with water or broth since roux is a natural thickener.
But, the thickened water or broth will help keep the cheese sauce smooth and creamy and can bring a lot of additional flavor if you add spices and seasonings to the roux.
Just remember, roux gets a stronger flavor as it cooks, so you might want to play around with how dark you want your roux before you add other ingredients. A great roux and cheese pairing can really make mac and cheese shine.
Mayonnaise might seem like an odd choice since it’s a dairy-free emulsion, but this option works surprisingly well. It can also give your cheese sauce a lighter and fluffier texture, which can help if you’ve had a thick or overly gluey sauce in the past.
However, you want to look for plain mayonnaise, not the sweetened kind. Or, if you know how, you can even make your own homemade mayo just for this!
Water (bonus if it’s pasta water)
Surprise, surprise! Water actually works perfectly well as a milk substitute in mac and cheese. It adds all the liquid you need, though it doesn’t have the creaminess or flavor that other substitutes add.
However, if you add a little pasta water, instead of plain tap water, to your cheese sauce, you might get better results.
That’s because the starches left behind in pasta water help sauces bind to pasta, so you won’t have any naked noodles when your mac and cheese is finished.
Not sure what to serve with your newly perfected mac and cheese? Well, here are 27 delicious side dish ideas, perfect for mac and cheese dinners!