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Most mac and cheese recipes include butter and milk, whether you’re using a box mix or making this comfort food from scratch. But what happens if you’ve run out of butter or milk, or both? Or you’ve got a lactose allergy or sensitivity? What are substitutes for butter or milk in mac and cheese?
Substitutes for butter or milk in mac and cheese include most other dairy products: ghee, cream cheese, cream, sour cream, or yogurt. Plant-based substitutes for butter in mac and cheese are margarine and oil, while the milk can be replaced by coconut cream, nut, oat, rice, or soy milk.
Although you can make box macaroni cheese without milk or butter, homemade mac and cheese needs a white sauce or cheese sauce as a significant component. These roux-based sauces start with butter and milk as vital ingredients. Substituting the butter or milk, or both, is possible, although it may change the flavor and texture of your dish.
Table of Contents
- Substitutes For Butter In Mac And Cheese
- Substitutes For Milk In Mac And Cheese
- Water As a Substitute For Milk in Mac and Cheese
- Chicken Broth As a Substitute For Milk in Mac and Cheese
- Dairy-based Substitutes For Milk in Mac and Cheese
- Plant-based Substitutes For Milk in Mac and Cheese
- Soy Milk
- Nut Milks
- Which Substitute Will You Pick?
Substitutes For Butter In Mac And Cheese
Many boxed mac and cheese recipes include butter to make the dish creamier and full of flavor, so if you don’t have butter, you can simply leave it out and have a less decadent mac and cheese.
However, butter plays an essential role in the cheese sauce for homemade mac and cheese: to make the roux, you melt butter and then add flour, stirring continuously. To make the sauce, you add milk, cheese, and seasoning. The butter both thickens and enriches the sauce.
If you don’t have any butter, have a lactose allergy or intolerance, or want to cut down on fat, there are substitutes for butter in mac and cheese.
Dairy-based Substitutes For Butter in Mac and Cheese
If you’ve run out of butter but don’t have any issues with lactose, the easiest is to reach for another dairy product, as it will provide a similar fat to butter and retain the rich, creamy flavor that butter provides.
Ghee is a valuable butter substitute for people who have a milk allergy or lactose intolerance as it does not contain casein or lactose.
Ghee is very common in Indian cuisine and is a kind of clarified butter: butter simmered at low heat allows the water to evaporate, leaving only the fat.
As a butter substitute, ghee is beneficial as it has the same rich qualities as butter, and you can substitute equal amounts of ghee for butter.
The flavor of ghee is similar to that of butter and adds a slightly nutty flavor.
Since butter is made from cream, heavy cream is a good substitute for butter in mac and cheese and creates a luscious, decadent sauce, whether you’re using a box or making your own.
If you’re feeling very energetic, you can transform your cream into butter and then use your homemade butter – overbeating cream will turn it into butter.
However, you can also just use the cream to make your roux. Substitute half as much cream as butter required.
Another excellent butter substitute is sour cream, which you can use in the same way as heavy cream, substituting half as much cream as butter.
Sour cream also adds a delicious tanginess to your macaroni cheese.
Non-Vegan Substitutes for Butter in Mac and Cheese
If you want to avoid dairy but you’re not a vegan, there are a couple of other options to replace your butter.
Making a white sauce or roux means starting with fat – and that could be bacon grease, especially if you’re adding bacon bits to your mac and cheese. Bacon grease adds a rich, savory flavor to your mac and cheese.
Lard is clarified pork fat, which is a valuable butter substitute, rich in fat. Although it doesn’t have as yummy a taste as bacon grease, your mac and cheese will still have a slightly savory flavor.
Plant-based Substitutes For Butter in Mac and Cheese
Using plant-based oils instead of butter is often a healthy choice, as these are lower in saturated fats. If you are making vegan mac and cheese, you would also choose these butter substitutes.
Although margarine has been criticized for containing trans fats, margarine does contain 80% plant fat and is an excellent and obvious substitute for butter in mac and cheese.
This plant-based fat has a very similar flavor and texture to butter (think of I Can’t Believe It’s Not butter), so you can use it as a one-to-one substitute, and your mac and cheese will still taste as if it’s made with butter.
If you find that a margarine-based sauce is not as rich as a buttery one, add some nutritional yeast for extra flavor.
Being solid at room temperature, coconut oil is your best bet in terms of vegetable oil that has a similar texture to butter. You can replace butter with the same amount of coconut oil in your roux.
Other vegetable oils are a little trickier to use as butter substitutes in mac and cheese because you need to use far less oil than butter, less than half the amount. Using too much oil will overwhelm the dish.
Neutral-flavored vegetable oils like canola oil will create a roux but lack flavor and create a bland sauce, so you’ll have to compensate with seasoning or extra cheese.
More pungently flavored oils, like olive oil, will mean a robust-flavored sauce that, although healthy, is not to everyone’s taste. Try making a sauce with olive oil before creating a macaroni cheese with it.
Peanut butter, almond butter, and even tahini are fats and can substitute for butter in a mac and cheese. However, they are oilier than butter, so they will create an oiler sauce. Also, their flavor will be pronounced, which is perhaps not the ideal you’re looking for in a mac and cheese. Experiment before trying this out on your family and friends.
If you are using vegan cheese to begin with, use more! The base fats from these cheeses are often made from the plant based alternatives in this post for milk and butter. Just add more vegan cheese or use it for cooking. Keep in mind vegan cheese separates easily, so if you can find a powdered form or dice it finely, it will handle a bit better for cooking.
Substitutes For Milk In Mac And Cheese
Just as you need butter to create the roux for a mac and cheese, you also need milk to create that liquid. Again, you might be out of milk, be lactose intolerant, vegan, or just plain bored with the usual flavor of your mac and cheese.
Fortunately, there are several substitutes for milk in mac and cheese.
Water As a Substitute For Milk in Mac and Cheese
If you have nothing else, you can use water to make a sauce for mac and cheese. However, you are going to lose out on flavor and texture. Preferably use the cooking water from your macaroni to have some starch and flavor in the water.
Chicken Broth As a Substitute For Milk in Mac and Cheese
For those who are lactose intolerant, chicken broth is a suitable replacement for milk in a roux. Chicken broth also adds a protein boost to your pasta.
There will be an immediate difference in taste and texture in your mac and cheese, as you will have a less creamy sauce – chicken stock is thinner and more savory than milk.
However, you can thicken the sauce with cornstarch, if necessary, and add extra cheese for more flavor.
Chicken broth is a good choice if you want to make mac and cheese with a chicken element, like a twist on a chicken and broccoli pasta bake.
Dairy-based Substitutes For Milk in Mac and Cheese
The most accessible substitute for milk in your mac and cheese is another dairy product.
Half And Half
If you don’t have ordinary milk, use what you put in your coffee. Half and half will create a creamier, richer sauce because half and half can have up to double the fat or ordinary milk.
For a less rich sauce, use ¾ half and half to ¼ milk to replace a cup of milk in your cheese sauce.
Another one-to-one substitute for milk is cream: double cream, heavy cream, whipping cream, or cooking cream will work. Dessert cream is often thin and has been sweetened, so it is not an ideal choice.
Using any cream will make for a more luscious sauce but will not influence the flavor of your mac and cheese and can be used in the same amount as milk.
Another simple substitute is to use sour cream directly instead of your milk (or make up the amount of milk you need). Sour cream creates a deliciously tangy sauce that goes well with strong cheese.
Buttermilk is the fluid that remains after churning butter and tastes rich and sour. You can use buttermilk instead of milk in equal ratios. Like sour cream, buttermilk will give your macaroni cheese a delicious tang.
Another easy and effective milk substitute is yogurt, which has a similar consistency to cream and sour cream, replacing milk in equal amounts.
The only challenge with cooking with yogurt is that it can separate at high temperatures, meaning that the water and fats separate. If you want to use yogurt rather than milk, keep your heat low and gently add the yogurt to the roux. If you’re nervous, heat the yogurt slowly in a separate pan before adding it to your sauce.
Plain, thick Greek yogurt is the best milk substitute, as it creates a gorgeous, creamy sauce. However, if you’re keen on reducing fat, you can use fat-free yogurt – but be aware that you are losing flavor and texture along with the fats
A delicious dairy substitute is cream cheese, which will add to the cheesiness of the mac and cheese – the more cheese, the better! You also get several cream cheese flavors if you want some variety in your pasta – the garlic and herb flavors work very well.
Cream cheese has a much thicker texture than milk, though, so it is best to melt it gently in a separate pan before adding it to your sauce as the milk element. You can replace the milk with an equal amount of cream cheese, but be aware that your sauce will be thicker.
Leave out the butter and the milk for a very quick macaroni cheese and make a sauce with melted cream cheese and grated cheese.
If you’ve run out of fresh milk, you may have a tin of evaporated milk, which is precisely what the name says – milk with much water removed by heat, but not as much as creating powdered milk.
Evaporated milk has a sweet, caramel flavor, which you may enjoy and want to use as-is instead of milk, as it creates a tasty, creamy sauce. However, you can also reconstitute evaporated milk by mixing equal parts of evaporated milk and water – it then tastes more like ordinary milk.
Be aware that evaporated milk is not the same as condensed milk, which is milk from which water has been removed but usually has sugar added. Condensed milk is extremely sweet and suitable for desserts rather than savory dishes like macaroni cheese.
Other Dairy Milks
People who struggle with lactose sensitivity or allergies can often tolerate other dairy milks, such as goat, sheep, or camel milk.
Any dairy milk can be used in equal ratios as cow’s milk. However, these kinds of milk often have a robust and unique flavor, so be aware that the flavor of your usual mac and cheese may differ somewhat.
Plant-based Substitutes For Milk in Mac and Cheese
There are so many plant-based milk substitutes available to us, and many are suitable as milk substitutes in mac and cheese. Apart from the old favorites of coconut milk and soy milk, there are new kinds of milk based on quinoa and hemp seed.
Unfortunately, many plant-based milks are prone to separate when heated, especially rice milk, which means they are not ideal for making a white sauce and should only be added at the end of the cooking process.
Check whether your choice of milk contains an emulsifier, which prevents separation during cooking – the usual emulsifier used is lecithin or soy lecithin.
To thicken white sauces using plant milks, you can add cornstarch or cornflour mixed to a paste with a bit of water.
Coconut Milk Or Cream
Probably the best of the plant-based substitutes, coconut milk or cream has a similar texture to milk and imparts the same creaminess to a white sauce. The full-fat coconut cream gives the most decadent result, and you can use it in equal amounts to milk.
Coconut milk also has a delightful flavor that creates a pleasant change to the usual mac and cheese, mainly if you include some garlic and herbs. Think Thai Curry meets macaroni cheese.
Another plant-based milk that you can use quite successfully as a milk substitute in mac and cheese is oat milk, which has a thick, smooth texture and a slightly sweet natural flavor.
So long as you use unflavored oat milk, you can use it in a one-to-one substitution ratio for milk: for one cup of milk, use one cup of oat milk.
Soy milk is a classic milk substitute and can be used happily in coffees, so it will work in a mac and cheese, which will also mask the slightly odd flavor, primarily if you use a strong cheese.
Substitute equal amounts of soy milk for ordinary milk. Use the unflavored, unsweetened version for the best results.
There are nut milks made from just about any nut available, including hazelnut milk, macadamia nut milk, cashew nut milk, and almond milk.
These kinds of milk can be costly and have strong, nutty flavors which are not suitable for mac and cheese. Hazelnut milk, for instance, has an unusually bitter flavor.
Most nut milks have a runny consistency which is not ideal for the creaminess you need in a mac and cheese. For example, almond milk has a strong, nutty taste but is thin and insubstantial, so you need to add a thickener to your sauce.
The best nut milk substitutes are:
- Cashew Milk: Cashew milk is a helpful substitute for milk with a neutral taste and a smooth, silky consistency. You can replace milk with equal amounts of unsweetened, unflavored cashew milk in mac and cheese, and most people won’t notice.
- Macadamia Milk: Macadamia milk is thick and luxurious, so it works well as a milk replacement in equal parts. However, it does have a more robust flavor than cashew milk, so use only if you like a bit of nuttiness.
Which Substitute Will You Pick?
It is possible to make macaroni cheese using substitutes for butter or milk. The most effective substitutes are other dairy products, like cream, yogurt, or cream cheese. However, plant-based alternatives are also helpful, ranging from margarine to coconut cream.