Got crunch? These crispy mac and cheese toppings are the perfect finish for your next bowl of comfort food! They’re an easy and customizable way to elevate any macaroni and cheese, whether you’re making a baked casserole or a stovetop or Instant Pot recipe.
One of my favorite parts of a good macaroni and cheese is a toasty, crispy topping or crust. Mac and cheese is such a rich, creamy dish, my tastebuds crave a crunchy contrast!
Making crispy crusts is one of the easiest and most customizable techniques to have up your sleeve. You can vary the seasonings based on the type of mac and cheese you’re making, as well as for the cooking method itself.
Crunchy toppings are classic for baked macaroni and cheese casseroles, and are a quick way to take unbaked recipes to the next level. In this post, we’ll take a look at some of our favorite ingredients to turn into toppings, and how to adapt them for any mac and cheese recipe.
Ingredients You Can Crush For Crunchy Mac and Cheese Toppings
- Potato Chips. We like to use kettle chips as a macaroni and cheese topping. They’re a little bit thicker/weightier than and crush up well without becoming too fine. When using potato chips, you’ll want to keep the salt content in mind. We often buy lower sodium varieties so they aren’t too overpowering on top of the salty cheeses in the macaroni.
- “Crab” Chips. If you’re making a seafood mac and cheese, “crab” potato chips, tossed with Chesapeake Bay Crab Seasoning are a fun option! They’ll bring a little extra zip to your dish.
- Cheese Sticks and Crisps. When crushed up, the crunchy cheese sticks and crisps that you’d usually serve as a snack or alongside a cheeseboard make a great mac and cheese topping. For classic recipes, I like to use cheddar or cheddar/asiago varieties. For an Italian flair, parmesan and/or garlic are great; and, for a little heat, you can also also find them in flavors like Sriracha. My favorite brands are John Wm. Macy’s and Stonewall Kitchen.
- Butter Crackers. A cozy topping for macaroni and cheese that’s big on comfort and nostalgia. For shellfish-based recipes, try tossing the crushed crackers with a little seafood seasoning (such as Old Bay) and fresh snipped chives. Compared to oyster crackers and saltines, butter crackers add a little hint of sweetness to the topping.
- Oyster Crackers and Saltines. Crushed saltines mixed with melted butter are a classic top layer for many Southern macaroni and cheese recipes. Season them with salt and pepper, add some fresh herbs if you’d like, and even a little extra grated cheese.
- Breadcrumbs. Perhaps the most classic macaroni and cheese topping, buttery toasted breadcrumbs never go out of style. For extra crunch and texture, I like to use Japanese Panko crumbs. You can also use regular plain or seasoned varieties, as well as crumbs you’ve made from slices of stale bread. They’re easy to season with just about any flavors you’d like. Keep it simple with just salt and pepper, or try adding garlic powder, parmesan, or cayenne for a spicy kick.
- French Fried Onions. Toasty. Crispy. Onion-y. We love French fried onions on classic mac and cheese and any recipe with bacon. Fry up your own or use them straight out of the bag from the grocery store. Since they’re already golden and crispy, sprinkle fried onions over the top of your mac and cheese during the last 5 minutes in the oven, just to warm. (You might want to break up any really big pieces, but there’s no need to crush these!)
How to Make the Toppings: Tips and Techniques
The first thing you need to do is crush whatever crunchy topping you’ve chosen. If you’re using potato chips, crackers, or cheese crisps, you can either place them in a zip top bag and roll over the bag with a rolling pin (easy cleanup), or whir them in a food processor. If you’re going the rolling pin route, be sure to push out any air in the bag before zipping it closed.
To make your own breadcrumbs from leftover bread, start by removing any particularly tough or thick crusts. Tear the bread into pieces, place it in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, and pulse until your desired crumb size is reached.
This works best with stale (day or two old) bread. If your bread is particularly fresh and soft, you can dry out the torn pieces in the oven. Place them in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 300-degrees F for 15-25 minutes. Watch the bread closely so it doesn’t toast or burn.
Un-toasted Toppings for Baked Macaroni and Cheese
If you’re using the crumbs to make a crust for a recipe that will be baked in the oven (such as my Creamy Gorgonzola Macaroni and Cheese), they should go onto the casserole without being toasted. Cheese crisps and potato chips won’t need any additional fat added to them, and can be added to the casserole directly after crushing.
If using breadcrumbs or crackers, simply toss the crumbs with melted unsalted butter or olive oil until moistened, and flavor with your desired seasonings (see the recipe card for ideas). Sprinkle over the macaroni and cheese and bake.
For all mac and cheese toppings that will be baked, keep a careful eye on their progress through the oven door. If they start to brown too quickly, loosely cover the casserole dish with foil and continue baking until the macaroni and cheese is hot and bubbly.
Pre-Toasted Toppings for Stove Top or Pressure Cooker Recipes
When using the crumbs to top an unbaked macaroni and cheese recipe, such as those prepared on the stove or in an electric pressure cooker, you’ll need to toast them before serving. As with the un-toasted toppings, cheese crisps and potato chips can be used “as is” once they’re crushed.
For breadcrumbs and crackers, melt butter in a skillet until foaming subsides. Add the crumbs and stir until they’re well coated.
Continue cooking over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the crumbs are evenly toasted. Watch them carefully! They can move from delightfully golden to burned and bitter quickly.
Transfer the crumbs to a bowl and add your seasonings. If you’re adding anything cheesy, like Parmigiano Reggiano, cool the crumbs to room temperature first to prevent melting and clumping. It’s best to add fresh herbs when the crumbs are just slightly warm or at room temperature so they don’t wilt.
Sprinkle over your macaroni and cheese and voila! A crunchy topping without a trip to the oven.
What’s your favorite way to top mac and cheese? Tell us in the comments, below!
Crunchy Mac and Cheese Toppings
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs or crushed cracker crumbs (i.e. Panko, unseasoned dried breadcrumbs, saltines, or butter crackers)*
- 1-2 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil (fresh breadcrumbs and butter crackers will need less butter to moisten than dried crumbs and saltines)
- salt and pepper
- 1/4 cup finely-shredded cheese (such as cheddar or gouda)
- 2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder , to taste
Spicy Garlic Crumbs
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder , to taste
- 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper , to taste
Zesty Crumbs for Seafood
- 1/4 to 1/2 tsp seafood seasoning (such as Old Bay), to taste
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh herbs (such as thyme, rosemary, chives, parsley, or sage)
Chips and Cheese Crisps
- 1/2 cup crushed potato chips (preferably, Kettle), "crab" chips, cheese sticks/crisps.
For Baked Macaroni and Cheese
- In a bowl, toss together un-toasted crumbs and melted butter until evenly moistened. Stir in desired seasonings, plus a pinch of salt and pepper, to taste.
- Top unbaked macaroni and cheese with the crumbs and bake until toasted and crispy, as directed in your recipe. (Keep an eye on the crumbs to make sure they aren't browning too quickly, and loosely cover with a piece of foil if they do.)
For Stovetop or Instant Pot Macaroni and Cheese
- Melt butter in a skillet. Add crumbs and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until evenly toasted. Remove from heat and stir in dry seasonings (i.e. salt, pepper, garlic powder, etc.) to taste. Let cool to just warm before adding herbs, and to room temperature before adding any cheeses.
- Sprinkle over macaroni and cheese before serving.
- To store toasted crumbs: place in an airtight container or zip top bag and refrigerate for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.
For Chips and Cheese Crisps
- No need to add additional fat to these toppings. Simply crush and top your macaroni and cheese with them, baking or serving as desired.