Are you ready to dig into a superbly cheesy 3 cheese pasta bake? With a creamy, tasty and seriously cheesy pasta sauce, accompanied by a perfectly crispy topping made of mozzarella, Parmesan and breadcrumbs. Thoroughly tested by a self-confessed cheese fanatic to ensure the sauce, seasoning, and cheese selection are spot on with plenty of suggestions on how to adapt this versatile dish along the way.
Like my other baked cheesy pasta recipes including this pesto lasagne, tuna pasta bake, and baked gnocchi this recipe is uncomplicated, making it the perfect dinner option for any night of the week. All this easy cheesy awesomeness can be whipped up and served in just 30 minutes. It's an ideal family meal that's sure to please everyone around the table.
The post contains additional information and helpful tips to ensure the recipe turns out great the first time. Please use the jump to the recipe card button above if you are in a hurry!
✅ 5 reasons why you'll love this recipe:
- Packed with ooey gooey three-cheese goodness (with gruyere, mozzarella and parmesan)
- Comfort food at its finest
- Quick and easy
- A crowd pleaser
🛒 Ingredients and variations:
The best cheese for cheesy baked pasta
After testing this recipe with several cheeses, I settled for Gruyère with a small amount of Parmesan. The Gruyère melts well and adds a slightly sweet nutty flavour and a bit of depth and Parmesan adds a hint of sharpness.
For the topping, I found that mozzarella and Parmesan provide a lovely blend of soft melted cheese texture and sharp nutty flavour. I often opt for grated mozzarella for convenience, but you could use fresh mozzarella if you prefer. I've also suggested adding some panko breadcrumbs to make it nice and crispy.
That said, there are many different types of cheese that can work well in this recipe. Other hard cheeses that melt well like cheddar, Gouda or Monterey Jack will do nicely so feel free to experiment or simply use what you have available.
Which pasta to use
There are many types of short pasta that will work well. I often go for conchiglie (pasta shells) because the concave shape creates a little pocket for the sauce to sit in. Fussilli, penne and rigatoni are also good options. Plus, if you're a macaroni cheese fan then normal or elbow macaroni are also solid choices.
While cheese is undeniably delicious, it can lack complexity when left unaccompanied. To boost the umami flavour and tanginess of the sauce, I have incorporated garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, mustard powder, and smoked paprika. If you don't have all of these, don't worry. Adding a few will still add depth and flavour to the sauce. You can also leave them out if pure and simple cheese flavour is what you are after, but I recommend you keep the mustard powder and black pepper.
🧑🍳 Recipe steps
1. Make a roux
Cook the pasta according to packet instructions in a large pan of generously salted water. Place a frying pan on a medium heat and add the butter. Stir in the flour when the butter starts to sizzle.
2. Add milk, cheese, and seasoning
Stir in the milk gradually until the sauce starts to thicken. This usually takes around 5 minutes. Then reduce the heat add the cheese, onion powder, garlic powder, smoked paprika, mustard powder and black pepper.
Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the cooked pasta.
Add the pasta and sauce mixture to a baking dish and top with mozzarella, grated Parmesan, breadcrumbs and optional dried chives.
Which baking dish to use: I have tested the recipe in a 27 x 16cm (11 x 6 inch) cast iron baking dish. Alternatively, if you have an oven-safe cast iron pan, you could use that instead, resulting in a convenient one-pot meal with fewer dishes to wash.
5. Grill / broil
Place under the grill for approximately 5 minutes until the topping is brown and bubbling. Serve immediately.
🍽️ Serving suggestions
I usually serve cheesy pasta with a simple green salad and a zesty dressing to balance its richness. Here are some other suggestions:
- A slice of garlic bread
- Bruschetta topped with tomato and basil
- A side of green veg like broccoli or spinach
- Grilled vegetables like bell peppers or aubergine/eggplant
- A fresh tomato salad with basil, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar
Looking to shake things up a bit? There are lots of options to play with::
- Vegetables: veggies like spinach, broccoli, and zucchini add flavour and texture as well as making the dish a little more nutritious. Plus mushrooms are great for adding more tasty umami flavour.
- Meat: add pancetta or sausage for more savouriness.
- Spice it up: add hot sauce, cayenne pepper or jalapenos.
- Citrus: add lemon zest and juice to the sauce for a hint of citrusy freshness
👍 Expert tips
- Be generous when salting the pasta water - it should be as salty as the ocean. If this makes you feel concerned about your sodium intake, remember that most of the salt will be poured away when you drain the cooked pasta.
- Cook the roux on a medium heat - it might be tempting to crank up the heat to speed things up, but you also risk burning the flour.
- Add milk slowly and stir continuously - to prevent lumps from forming.
There are lots of cheeses that go well with pasta. Parmesan and pecorino are great for adding salty, nutty flavour. Mozzarella has a mild flavour and soft texture when melted making it perfect for a baked pasta topping. Ricotta and mascarpone are mild and creamy and perfect for adding richness to pasta sauces.
Adding pasta water to cheese sauce is not always necessary, but it can be a helpful technique. When you add a small amount of pasta water to the sauce, it can help emulsify the cheese, butter and milk, resulting in a creamier and more cohesive sauce.
There are several reasons for this including using cheeses that don't melt well like feta or goat cheese, adding the cheese too early and overheating the sauce. Ensure you use cheeses that melt well like cheddar, Monterey Jack, Gouda or Gruyere and wait for the sauce to thicken and become hot before adding the cheese. However, if the sauce is too hot the cheese can become grainy, so it's best to reduce the heat to a low level when you add the cheese.
If the cheese is heated too quickly or at a temperature that is too high, it can cause the proteins to break down too quickly, resulting in curdling. You can prevent curdling by keeping the heat at a low simmer or removing the pasta sauce from the heat before adding the cheese, and adding the cheese gradually while stirring constantly.
If your cheesy pasta sauce is too runny there are several ways to thicken it including adding more roux or a cornstarch slurry or adding more cheese, and/or cream. You can also simmer the sauce on a low heat for a few minutes, but be careful not to overheat it as this can cause the cheese to curdle.
📦 Storage & freezing instructions
The best cheesy pasta is fresh cheesy pasta served straight from the oven. That said you can refrigerate or freeze any leftovers and they'll still taste good. I often find the sauce dries out a little in the fridge/freezer, which is why I wouldn't recommend it for a make-ahead meal.
You can store the cheesy pasta in the refrigerator for up to 3 days and freeze it for up to 3 months. Just allow it to cool, cover with plastic wrap or transfer it to an air-tight container before you refrigerate/freeze.
You can reheat the cheesy pasta in the microwave, oven or air fryer. The oven and air fryer are best for keeping the topping nice and crispy. You can reheat frozen cheesy pasta or defrost it in the fridge overnight first.
Transfer the pasta to a baking dish, covering it with foil to prevent it from drying out and bake at 350°F (175°C) until hot and bubbling. This will take 20-30 minutes from chilled and around 90 minutes from frozen.
This is one of my favourite ways to reheat leftovers as you get that freshly-baked quality in a fraction of the time. Preheat your air fryer to 350°F (175°C) and transfer the pasta to an oven-safe container that is suitable for your air fryer and cook until hot and bubbly. This will take 5-8 minutes from chilled and 10-15 minutes from frozen.
Microwave from chilled: the quickest method for those who are short on time. Just cover it with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out, microwave for 1-2 minutes, stir and then microwave for a further 1-2 minutes until hot.
Microwave from frozen: I recommend defrosting frozen cheesy pasta in the fridge overnight before microwaving as it can be tricky to get frozen cheesy pasta to heat evenly. If you do use your microwave for frozen pasta make sure you start on a defrost setting for 5-7 minutes to prevent it from getting hot on the outside while still being frozen on the inside. You can then continue to microwave on the standard setting until hot.
😋 Check out my other cheesy bakes
Or for tasty pasta dinner recipes that aren't baked try my sausage pasta with broccoli, tuna pesto pasta or prawn and harissa pasta.
Did you try this recipe? It would be really great if you could leave a comment and a star rating ⭐️. I would love to receive your feedback and know that other readers find it helpful too.
Don't forget to tag #knifeandsoulrecipes on Instagram or @knifeandsoul on Pinterest!
Easy Three Cheese Pasta Bake
- 2 saucepans
- 1 baking dish (Note 1)
- 320 g (11 oz) short pasta (Note 2)
- 250 g (2.5 cups) grated/shredded hard cheese Gruyere recommended (Note 3)
- 50 g (½ cup) Parmesan (Note 4)
- 4 tbsp butter
- 4 tbsp flour
- 600 ml (2.5 cups) milk
- 1 tsp mustard powder
- 1 tsp black pepper
- ½ tsp onion powder
- ½ tsp garlic powder
- ½ tsp smoked paprika
- 50 g (½ cup) grated mozzarella (Note 5)
- 20 g (½ cup) grated Parmesan (Note 6)
- 2 tbsp panko breadcrumbs Optional (Note 7)
- dried chives optional
- Bring a large ban of generously salted water to boil and cook the pasta according to packet instructions.
- Meanwhile, place a frying pan on a medium heat and add the butter. (Note 8)
- Stir in the flour when the butter has melted until you get a smooth paste.
- Pour on the milk slowly and stir continuously for around 5 minutes until a smooth and thicker sauce forms, using a whisk if required to remove any lumps.
- Reduce the heat to low and stir in the cheese and season with mustard powder, black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder and smoked paprika.
- Remove the sauce from the heat, add the cooked pasta, and transfer the mixture to a baking dish.
- Sprinkle grated mozzarella, Parmesan, breadcrumbs and dried chives on top and place under the grill/broil for 5-10 minutes until the topping is brown and bubbling then serve immediately.
- Baking dish: I have tested the recipe in a 27 x 16cm (11 x 6 inch) cast iron baking dish. You can use an oven-safe cast iron pan, instead, for a convenient one-pot meal.
- Pasta: I like to use conchiglie (pasta shells) because the concave shape creates a little pocket for the sauce to sit in. Fussilli, penne and rigatoni are also good options.
- Cheese for the sauce: Choose a hard cheese that melts well. Cheddar, Gouda and Monterey Jack are all good options.
- Parmesan for the sauce: You can use the same volume of the main cheese for the sauce if you need to.
- Mozzarella cheese for the topping: you can also use fresh mozzarella.
- Parmesan for the cheese topping: you could also use another nutty stronger tasting cheese like mature cheddar.
- Panko breadcrumbs: are larger than normal breadcrumbs and make the topping extra crispy. You can use normal breadcrumbs instead.
- Making the roux: make sure you use a medium heat. A higher heat can cause the flour to burn.
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