Between the jumbo lump crab and bubbly, creamy cheese sauce, it’s not easy to decide what your favorite part of Crab Mac and Cheese is, so good thing you don’t have to. This Christmas casserole is a fancy family favorite that’s loaded with enough crab meat, melty cheese, and tender pasta to make any holiday meal just a bit more special.
This one goes out to everyone who came from a family full of blended culture. Not so much those that celebrated in separate, distinct ways (not that there is anything wrong with that), but those who just took the best of both worlds, threw ’em in a pot, and let it all melt together to create new traditions. Crab Mac and Cheese is the ultimate celebration of my maternal and paternal Christmas traditions.
On my dad’s Italian-dominated side, we always had seafood for Christmas Eve. (Feast of the Seven Fishes, anyone?) Granted, that tradition in and of itself had morphed by the time it got to my generation, and for us kids, it was usually just some Captain Gordon Fish Sticks. But as we got older, shrimp cocktail, crab dip, seafood salad, crab cakes, and crab stuffed mushrooms were welcome additions to the table.
Now, my mom’s deeply Southern roots dictated that homemade macaroni and cheese was king at Christmas – and not something “fancy” like butternut squash mac and cheese, but classic oven baked mac and cheese with a pound of butter and four hand-shredded cheeses (as it should be).
So what’s a family to do? Well, when mom and dad got married, so did many of their traditions – and this baked crab mac and cheese is one of our favorite “babies.” I could go on about the parallels – that pasta is also an Italian thing; that crabs and Old Bay are a particularly Southern seafood combo – but the bottom line is, the marriage of crab meat and mac and cheese isn’t likely to fizzle anytime soon.
The best crab mac and cheese is made with jumbo lump crab meat, but if you can’t find jumbo, lump will do. What you cannot compromise on in this baked crab mac and cheese recipe is the actual cheese sauce – do not use pre-shredded cheese, do use more than one kind for the maximum allowable amount of melty goodness, and for the love of Christmas, whatever you do, don’t burn your roux!
How to Make Crab Mac and Cheese
Need the perfect savory side for Christmas dinner or brunch? Crab Mac and Cheese has you covered (and smothered and absolutely drenched) in a tangy, Old Bay-laced cheese sauce with lots o’ lumps – of jumbo crab meat, that is. This baked crab meat mac and cheese recipe is simple, but precise, so keep your eyes on the crabby prize!
- Cook the pasta in heavily salted boiling water (at least 1 tbsp) according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
- Saute a diced onion in butter until soft. Sprinkle on the seasonings and “toast” for about 1 minute to bloom the spices.
- Make the roux. Sprinkle flour over the onion and butter mixture and cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly, until the roux turns golden brown and thickens a bit.
- Add the chicken broth to deglaze the pot, stirring to scrape up any browned bits. At this point, the mixture should become very, very thick.
- Gradually pour in milk and heavy cream, whisking gently. Simmer for 5 minutes until the sauce thickens.
- Stir in hand shredded cheeses, half a cup at a time; whisk after each addition until very smooth.
- Add the cooked pasta to the cheese sauce and stir until well combined. Then add the crab meat and fold in gently with a rubber spatula.
- Transfer the mac and cheese to a lightly greased casserole dish, then sprinkle the topping evenly over the top.
- Bake 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown and bubbling. Garnish with fresh parsley and a sprinkle of Old Bay. Serve immediately.
- My grandmother would tell you 2 things about making baked mac and cheese: nail that roux, and add way more cheese than you think you need. The roux should be a medium golden brown – a properly made roux will add flavor, and immediately thicken once the deglazing liquid (in this case chicken stock) is added.
- Grate the cheese by hand. Pre-shredded cheese certainly has a place in my kitchen, but it’s not in mac and cheese. Store bought shredded cheeses often have additives (usually a starchy coating) to prevent the shreds from sticking. Unfortunately, this also prevents them from getting super melty.
- Use a combo of cheeses! Sharp cheeses that melt well are your best bet to balance out the mild, sweetness of the crab. You could go for a gouda or taleggio if cheddar, gruyere, or fontina don’t suit your taste, but your safest bet if you want to swap is to play with different cheddars – just not aged, as those are too hard.
What Kind of Crab Meat Should I Use?
Depending on where you live, it may not be crab season and there is no shame in choosing meat that’s been canned fresh during peak season. Do not fear canned crab meat from the seafood counter, but do avoid crab that’s not refrigerated or found in the tuna aisle.
- For this crab mac and cheese recipe, we always splurge for the holidays and go with jumbo lump meat for the biggest, meatiest bite. Is it more expensive? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes.
- That being said, if you’re on a strict budget, lump crab meat will more than suffice for this recipe.
- Avoid using or combining claw meat, special and/or back fin meat – while they’re less expensive, they’re all usually comprised of smaller flakes or chunks that are better suited to soups, stews, and stuffing. Plus, claw meat can be much tougher.
- Do not use imitation crab meat for this crab mac and cheese recipe.
Best Mac for Crab Mac and Cheese
We use large shells, and let me tell you ALL about why they’re the best macaroni for this recipe: they make for the perfect little “cup” to capture crab meat in every single bite.
If you’re not a fan of shells, elbow, rigatoni, and penne also work. But really – go for the shells! They’re pretty perfect.
Make it Your Way
- Sprinkle with crumbled bacon before adding the breadcrumb topping for a smoky finish. A little smoked paprika wouldn’t hurt either.
- Use half crab and half lobster – steam the lobster meat before adding, but there’s no need to cook the crab meat first.
- Top with green onion instead of parsley.
More of Our Best Crab Recipes
- Crab Stuffed Mushrooms
- Maryland Crab Cakes
- Crab Meat Omelet with Avocado
- Black Bean Salsa with Crab and Mango
- Maryland Style Hot Crab Dip
Did you make this crab mac and cheese? I’d love to know how it turned out! Leave a comment and a rating below.
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- 1 lb large shells
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- ½ c butter
- 1 small sweet onion, diced
- 2 tsp Old Bay seasoning
- 1 tsp dried chives
- ½ tsp garlic powder
- ½ tsp ground mustard powder
- ½ tsp ground pepper
- ½ c all purpose flour
- ½ c chicken broth
- 2.5 c whole milk
- 1 c heavy cream
- 2 c shredded sharp white cheddar
- 1 c shredded shredded gruyere cheese
- 1 c shredded parmesan cheese
- 1.5 lb jumbo lump crab meat
For the Topping
- ½ c panko breadcrumbs
- 2 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- old bay seasoning, to taste
- chopped parsley, to taste
- Heat the oven to 375°F. Lightly mist a casserole dish with olive oil cooking spray, or grease with softened butter.
- Cook the pasta in heavily salted boiling water (at least 1 tbsp) to 1 minute below al dente; check cooking times on package directions. Drain and set aside.
- While the pasta cooks, prepare the cheese sauce. Heat a dutch oven over medium heat. Add the butter and heat until it melts, then foams. Add the onion and saute, stirring occasionally, until softened. Sprinkle the onions with the old bay, chives, garlic powder, mustard powder, and ground pepper. Cook 1 minute, stirring constantly, to bloom the spices.
- Sprinkle the all purpose flour over the butter and onion combination. Cook, stirring constantly, until the roux turns golden brown and thickens, 2-3 minutes.
- Pour in the chicken broth to deglaze the pot, whisking and absorbing any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. The mixture will become very thick.
- Gradually pour in the milk, followed by the heavy cream. Increase the heat to bring to a simmer, then reduce to medium low. Simmer 5 minutes, whisking occasionally, until the sauce thickens and easily coats the back of a spoon.
- Stir in the cheeses, half a cup at a time, whisking between each addition, until very smooth.
- Add the cooked pasta and stir until well combined. Add the crab meat and stir until just barely folded in.
- Transfer the mac and cheese to the greased casserole dish and spread into an even layer. In a small bowl, combine the panko breadcrumbs, grated parmesan cheese, and olive oil. Stir until the breadcrumbs are evenly moistened, then evenly sprinkle the topping over the mac and cheese.
- Transfer the dish to the oven and bake 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown and bubbling. Garnish with chopped parsley and a sprinkle of old baby. Serve hot or warm.