It’s a given that mac and cheese is a classic American dish that is well-loved (and people have strong opinions about). The addition of sausage and pesto adds just a little time to preparation but the results are so delicious. It’s totally worth it.
This article has affiliate links to products I prefer and recommend.
Plus, I’m going to give you little shortcuts so you can choose the level of work you put into it. Just know each shortcut you take means a potential sacrifice in flavor. That being said, I’m confident that no matter which way you make this dish, you will still deliver a satisfying mac and cheese to the table.
I’m going to talk us through this recipe in the order I make it to keep my prep time as efficient and streamlined as possible. Because, let’s face it. Most of us have limited hours to spend in the kitchen.
The very first thing I do is get out all my ingredients and dishes/pots. This means I have almost everything right at hand when I’m ready to do the next step.
Fair warning, this recipe makes a lot of mac and cheese, which is perfect if 1) you love mac and cheese and can eat it for days; 2) you want to batch cook and put some away for a freezer meal. You can half the recipe, but I have not tested the cheese sauce halved. Theoretically, it should be fine.
Start the pasta.
I use elbow macaroni (or the corkscrew macaroni) for my mac and cheese. Other pasta shapes work well with an alfredo or cheese sauce, but mac and cheese really needs good old macaroni. I will also use penne if that’s what I have on hand.
The very first thing I do is get a pot of water on to boil. Salt your water. Put a lid on it, and move on. ~~ We come back to the pasta in a bit in our recipe so imagine you’ve stepped away to do other prep for 10-15 minutes. ~~
Now, we’re going to dump the pasta into the pot, set a wooden spoon across the top (it almost always keeps the pasta from boiling over), and set the timer for the al dente time to cook (per the box).
As soon as the pasta is done cooking, drain and set to the side. If it sits a while before mixing into the sauce, stir occasionally to keep it from turning to a lump of gunk.
Shortcut: You can use ready-to-use pasta packets. You would need enough for approximately 8 cups cooked pasta.
Cook the sausage.
Choose your favorite sausage. I like to use a mix of sweet and hot Italian sausage links and cut them into small pieces before cooking. Sauté* the sausage in a large deep-sided pan because you will make your cheese sauce in this pan as well. (A fancy word for frying over relatively high heat with little, or in this case, no oil).
You want to cook the sausage until it’s just cooked through, 155-165 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s nothing wrong with owning and using a meat thermometer. If you don’t already have one, I like the one linked. Just do it. Especially if you are worried about undercooking meat. It will change your life to have meat that is cooked perfectly instead of overcooked.
~~ While the sausage is cooking, prepare your sauce ingredients: measure out the cornstarch and seasonings, milk, and shred the cheese if needed.~~
Shortcut: Use ground loose sausage or precooked crumbles. But for the love, don’t skip!
Little secret. White sauce and cheese sauce look super intimidating to make, especially when you hear words like “roux” and “don’t break the sauce” thrown around liberally on food shows. But they aren’t.
They take a little patience and sometimes even when you are expert at it you break a sauce or two (or, uh, scorch it!). I taught my kids how to make it when they were younger before they could hear that drama.
The trick to white sauce is equal parts: 1 tablespoon butter + 1 tablespoon cornstarch (or flour) + 1 cup milk.
It’s also super important that you put the ingredients into the pan in a specific order. AND that you slowly add the milk and whisk it in well.
My favorite thing about making sausage cheese sauce is that it cooks a little quicker than the sloooooooow add a little milk, stir, thicken, add a little milk of a white sauce by itself. That’s because I find the cornstarch can be stirred into the melted butter and coats the sausage much more evenly so less chance of lumps of cornstarch not incorporating well.
~~ Quick aside: By this point, I’m guessing your pasta water has boiled and you dropped the pasta in. Make sure you set the timer for the al dente cook time.~~
So back to the cheese sauce. You’re going to melt the butter in the pan with the sausage. Then you’re going to mix together seasonings and cornstarch and sprinkle that across the sausage and stir together until the sausage is mostly evenly coated.
Everything you read will say keep your stove on medium heat. I’m super impatient so I tend to bump it up to medium-high. Medium WILL help you control NOT BURNING IT better. 😉
Add just a little milk at a time – stirring in and letting thicken before adding a bit more. If you dump it all in at once you risk your sauce never thickening. Or taking forever and a day. And ain’t nobody got time for that.
Once your sausage white sauce is thickened, add the shredded cheese. ~~I know…this felt like forever to get to this point, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Your pasta might not even be done cooking yet.~~
Stir that cheese in well and remove the pan from the stove.
Shortcut: Go for it. Use the pre-shredded cheese. I know they say it doesn’t melt as well, blah blah blah. Seriously. I’ve given people mac and cheese they raved about and it had pre-shredded cheese in it.
And now we have the pesto.
You can buy your favorite jar of pesto or make it. Seriously, I’m all about making it myself. If you have a food processer it’s so easy and it’s bright and tasty. I use this nut-free kale pesto recipe. Bonus points: I always have a little leftover.
Shortcut: buy your favorite pesto.
Put it all together.
After you’ve mixed the macaroni and sausage cheese sauce together, you can either serve it straight out of the pan or throw it in the oven for a bit. Before serving from stovetop or putting in the oven, you add some pesto.
Also, this is a great spot to stop if you want to prep ahead. You make it all up, put it in a 9×13 pan and refrigerate then bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes-1 hour. BOOM! Dinner.
Boxed Mac & Cheese
Shortcut of all shortcuts: I’m not a fan of boxed mac and cheese, but if you must, you must.
Make your boxed mac and cheese per the directions on the box. Stir in 1/4 cup shredded cheese. Mix in crumbled cooked sausage. Stir in some pesto. And there you have it. The fanciest boxed mac and cheese you ever did make.Print
Sausage and Pesto Mac and Cheese
Classic homemade mac and cheese gets a flavor upgrade with the addition of Italian sausage and pesto. This easy twist is sure to become a family favorite.
- Prep Time: 20 minutes
- Cook Time: 50 minutes
- Total Time: 1 hour 10 minutes
- Yield: 12 servings 1x
- Category: Main Dish
- Method: Stovetop
- 16 ounces dry pasta
- 2 pounds sausage (ground/links)
- 6 Tablespoons butter (salted or unsalted)
- 6 Tablespoons cornstarch
- 1/2 teaspoon ground mustard
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper (optional)
- 6 cups milk
- 24 oz. sharp cheddar cheese*
- 1/4 cup pesto**
- In a large pasta pot, bring water to a boil. Once boiling, add the pasta and cook to al dente, according to directions on package. Once pasta is done, drain and set aside, stirring occasionally to keep from sticking.
- Meanwhile, heat a large deep-sided pot (6-quart is a good size) over medium heat. Add sausage to pan. If using sausage links, cut into 1/2 inch pieces before adding to pan.
- While sausage is cooking, prepare cheese sauce ingredients. Set butter to side. Mix together cornstarch, ground mustard, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Measure milk. Shred cheese, if needed.
- Once sausage is cooked through to a temp of 155-165°F, turn off heat, unless cheese sauce ingredients are ready to add.
- With sausage still in pan, over medium heat, add butter.
- Once butter is melted, stir in the cornstarch and seasoning mixture until sausage is evenly coated.
- If baking the mac and cheese, preheat oven to 375°F.
- Add milk to sausage mixture, approximately 1/2 cup at a time, stirring in until thickened before adding more milk.
- Once all milk is stirred in and mixture is thickened, add cheese. The cheese will thicken it even more to a saucier consistency.
- Once cheese is stirred in, mix pasta and sausage cheese sauce together.
- If serving from stovetop, top with pesto and swirl into mac and cheese.
- If baking: Put into 9×13 oven-safe baking dish. There will be more mac and cheese than fills this pan. I usually have another 9×11 pan of mac and cheese, which we use as lunches or put in the freezer.
- Dot top of mac and cheese with spoonfuls of pesto and lightly swirl in. Also called, take a fork and just kind of jab it in a bit. We don’t have patience for elegance around here.
- If baking, put in preheated oven for 20 minutes. (Total cook time includes baking for 20 minutes).
- Cheese: I like to use New York or extra sharp cheddar. You could also use a blend of your favorite cheeses. Using a 6 ounces of gouda in place of some cheddar makes a creamier mac and cheese.
- Pesto: this is “ish.” You may want to use a bit more or less. The amount really comes down to preference.
Keywords: mac and cheese recipe, macaroni and cheese, homemade mac and cheese, mac and cheese with sausage
You might also like these Homemade Mac and Cheese recipes.