This Smoked Mac and Cheese recipe is pure comfort with a creamy blend of three types of cheeses and crispy bacon, all infused with a rich, smoky flavor. Tuck into a warm bowl of this savory, indulgent dish and enjoy the moment.
Brace yourself for a dish that captures the essence of cozy evenings by the campfire, infusing classic comfort food with wood-fired flavor. This smoked mac and cheese recipe has what you expect: creamy cheese sauce using different types of cheeses such as sharp cheddar, Gouda, and Monterey jack. Plus, maybe a topping of crispy bacon to add texture and flavor.
Yes, it’s actually very creamy. Smoked mac and cheese can be tricky to make. Adding a cheese sauce to the smoker tends to get oily or clumpy because the cheese sauce can break with the higher heat.
My goal was to make this recipe cheesy and creamy, with plenty of smoke flavor. You won’t find Velveeta, American cheese, or cream cheese in this recipe either!
Why This Smoked Mac and Cheese Works
There are so many recipes out there for smoked mac and cheese, and I’ve been testing for well over a year to find the creamiest and BEST mac and cheese I could come up with.
- Silky Cheese Sauce. That’s right, this smoked mac n cheese stays creamy after it’s cooked. The secret is the mornay sauce recipe, which combines 3 delicious cheeses in a way to keep it creamy without having to use processed cheeses. There are tips and tricks to help you make the smoothest sauce every time.
- Versatile. Don’t want to use Gouda? We’ve got suggestions. Read along to learn the base recipe for this smoked mac and cheese and you’ll discover how to personalize it to your taste by including bacon, scallions, chiles, and anything else you’d like to add.
- Prep ahead of time. Hosting a big party tomorrow but you won’t have time to whip this up? No problem, you can reheat it before adding it to the smoker. We’ve got advice for that.
- PELLET GRILL. This recipe doesn’t take very long to smoke, so the ideal grill for this recipe is to use a pellet smoker. Low and slow indirect heat will provide just enough smoke flavor for an hour, without causing the cheese to clump or split.
- FOIL PAN OR SKILLET. This recipe is perfect to fill a disposable aluminum pan at 9×9″ or 7×11″. You may also use a large cast iron skillet, either 8″ or 10″ wide. Using a smaller skillet will result in a creamier smoked mac, and the larger skillet will spread it out more.
Key Ingredients for Smoked Mac and Cheese
I’ll share my favorite combination, but read along for tips to customize the pasta, sauce, and mix-ins.
Elbow macaroni is classic for a reason, it just works. The small size and tubular shape have an optimal bite-to-sauce ratio and cook fairly quickly. If you’re going to venture out, make sure you choose any shape of pasta that is smaller, with tube-like shapes, or shells. The main key is making sure the pasta can hold the cheese sauce (and bacon) so avoid longer types such as spaghetti, fettucini, or linguine.
Top Cheese Choices
These are my favorite combination of cheeses to maintain a creamy sauce, provide full-bodied flavor, and pair well with wood-fired smoke. If you’re looking for substitutions, I have a breakdown below.
NOTE: Do not use pre-shredded cheese for this recipe. It will cause the cheese sauce to be grainy instead of smooth and may clump during the smoking process.
- Sharp Cheddar: The signature sharp and rich flavors are key to this smoked mac n cheese recipe. This cheese has a flavor that complements BBQ dishes. It melts easily into the mornay sauce and provides a nice color when it emerges from the smoker. Purchase a high-quality sharp cheddar and shred it by hand.
- Gouda: Adding this cheese is worth the cost, trust me. It has a milder flavor than cheddar with notes of an aged smoke flavor. The most important part is that Gouda cheese melts perfectly, adding the ooey-gooey creaminess that this sauce really needs. Don’t bother with smoked Gouda, as this will get smoked for an hour and tends to be overwhelming with flavor.
- Monterey Jack: This mild cheese has the softest texture and melts the best of the three. It has a slightly tangy flavor while providing most of the creaminess for the cheese sauce.
Sharp cheddar cheese is the foundation for this smoked mac and cheese, but don’t let that stop you from experimenting. Generally, you’ll want to pick one of the foundational cheeses, and two of the melting cheeses to complement it.
These are essential for building the flavor:
- White Cheddar: The flavor is pretty spot-on to the orange Sharp Cheddar, minus the color. This will be the closest substitute for texture and taste.
- Gruyere: Probably my favorite substitute for cheddar would be Gruyere cheese, which is nutty, salty, and creamy. Even though it’s a firm cheese, it melts incredibly well. It could also fall into the Melty Cheese category below.
- Colby: This orange-colored cheese is similar to cheddar cheese in texture and flavor, having a subtle nutty note.
These cheeses will ensure the sauce melts well:
- Pepper Jack: This is the spicy cousin to Monterey jack and tastes incredibly delicious. I’d highly recommend substituting this for a nice kick.
- Brie: Talk about a wild substitute. Brie cheese is nutty, fruity, incredibly creamy, and buttery rich. Make sure the rind is removed, and the cheese is cubed or sliced into smaller pieces when adding. It’s generally far too soft for grating.
- Havarti: This cheese is similar to Monterey jack but with more flavor. Flavors can vary based on age, which could make it more sharp.
- Muenster: Similar to brie cheese, this melts extremely easily. It has a buttery, mild flavor. When using Muenster, I highly recommend pairing it with a stronger cheese such as cheddar.
- Colby Jack: Extremely melty, and mild in flavor, this cheese is a safe bet when looking for a mellow cheese to use in the cheese sauce.
Homemade mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food, so why not push it a little further? Let’s add flavor to the top of the mac.
This base recipe uses extra shredded cheese from the cheese mixture on top before being placed in the pellet grill, but there are plenty of other additions you can use.
- Parmesan cheese. Savory, salty, and nutty flavors elevate every bite.
- Panko bread crumbs. Toast them for a few minutes with unsalted butter and sprinkle on top of the shredded cheese for a crunchy bite. The golden brown topping takes it to a whole new level.
- Crumbled bacon. Bacon mac and cheese is a delicious thing, and you’ll see in the recipe card that we’re already using bacon…. so why not cook a little extra for the topping?
How to Make Smoked Mac and Cheese
Now that you’ve read through the foundations and substitutes, it’s time to make the meal! There are a few main steps:
- Cook the pasta. Start by cooking the pasta until al dente. Use the package instructions for timing, and don’t forget to salt the water. This means the pasta will just barely be fully cooked, to where it still has a little bite.
- Make the roux. Melt the stick of butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Once melted, add in the flour and whisk to incorporate. Continue to whisk for about 4-5 minutes, cooking out the raw flavor of the flour, and make a golden, smooth roux.
- Add the milk, cream, and seasonings. Keep the cream and milk warm in a small saucepan on the side. Slowly pour the warmed dairy into the roux using 1/2 cup at a time, whisking to thicken the sauce. Add in the spices and whisk constantly while the sauce is simmering, just until thickened.
- Whisk in the cheeses and melt. Once the sauce has just started to thicken, turn off the heat. Set 1 cup of the shredded cheese to the side for topping at the end. Slowly add in the cheese about 1/2 cup at a time and whisk to melt.
If the cheeses aren’t melting completely, return the pan to LOW heat on the stove and keep whisking until the sauce is smooth.
- Mixing in add-ins. Here’s the chance to add bacon, scallions, or anything else you’d like to mix in. Add the cooked pasta, and the add-ins, then pour in the cheesy mornay sauce in a large foil pan, about 9″ x 13″. Mix everything together gently to make sure the pasta is completely coated.
Don’t forget to TASTE and adjust as necessary. Perhaps you need more salt, pepper, or spices. This is your last chance!
Options for Add-ins
This is where things can get really fun with layering flavors to the smoked mac and cheese. The key is to add ingredients that don’t have a lot of liquid or grease. Make sure to drain off any excess liquid before stirring in, otherwise, the sauce may not stay creamy.
- Bacon – This is at the top of my list. Prepare it in the oven, or even add a handful of Smoked Bacon Crumbles for an extra pop of flavor.
- Hatch Chiles – Typically these will come in cans or jars when it’s not in season, and they add a rich buttery flavor which is perfect with cheese. Try a few spoonfuls of the Roasted Hatch Chile Jam for a sweet heat.
- Jalapenos – Fresh chiles will be quite spicy, so dice them up finely. Pickled jalapenos add a nice tang, just make sure to drain the liquid. The Smoked Pickled Jalapenos are amazing in this smoked mac and cheese.
- Scallions – Green onions or chives have a nice subtle pop of herby flavor which helps cut through the richness.
- Blue cheese – Crumble in the good stuff and you’ll be surprised with every bite. Try it with some added cayenne for a throwback to buffalo sauce flavors.
- Top with remaining cheese and seasonings. Use the reserved 1 cup of mixed cheeses and sprinkle evenly across the top. You may have added the seasonings in the last step, but a little dash of BBQ seasoning such as the Signature Sweet & Smoky Rub will add a nice crust for the top.
- Smoking the mac and cheese. Set your smoker to 250°F and place the pan inside. Allow the mac and cheese to smoke for 45-60 minutes. You’ll notice the top starts to darken slightly, it’s not going to be dark and crispy. There should be very little grease on the top as well.
Tips for Creamy Mac and Cheese Sauce
- Use cooked macaroni noodles. This recipe will not work if you add uncooked pasta to the cheese sauce, they must be al dente when combined and smoked.
- Use a combination of cheeses. Read the guide above, and make sure you use a blend of cheddar with creamy cheeses such as Gouda, Pepper jack, or Monterey jack.
- Shred your own cheese. Pre-shredded cheese is coated with chemicals or cornstarch and will create a funny texture in the sauce that can turn grainy. Take a minute and shred your own cheese.
- Don’t add too many greasy mix-ins. It might be tempting to throw big chunks of pork belly or brisket in there, but the fat will cause the cheese sauce to break apart and be greasy. Keep those cuts of meat for Smoked Baked Beans, stick with crispy bacon for this recipe.
- All-purpose flour is key. Other flours can cause the mornay sauce (cheese sauce) to be grainy. AP flour tends to be more finely ground and is very consistent.
- Use warm milk and cream. When it’s time to whisk in the dairy, make sure it isn’t added straight from the jug. Measure out the cream and milk and warm them in a small saucepan on the stove on low.
- Don’t use non-fat milk. Creamy cheese sauce requires fat, so I recommend 2% or whole milk if possible. The same goes with the heavy cream, don’t use half & half.
- Don’t boil the sauce. Using medium-low heat should allow the sauce to lightly simmer, which is all you need. Boiling the sauce can form a skin on the surface, thicken the sauce too much, or cause the solids to clump together.
- Use room temperature cheese. Shred the cheeses and set them aside while you prepare the rest. Cold cheese added to a hot sauce will affect the creamy texture.
- Remove sauce from heat before adding cheese. Whisk the room-temperature cheese in slowly, otherwise, the heat from the sauce can break down the proteins and create a clumpy sauce.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I prepare the smoked macaroni and cheese ahead of time?
Yes, you can prepare this the day before. Cook the pasta and prepare the cheesy sauce and mix them together first. Place the mac and cheese in the fridge covered.
The mac and cheese will need to be warmed up on the stove at a low temperature, adding a little warm milk to loosen it up. Once it’s creamy and warm, add it to the foil pan and top with the layer of cheese. From there, follow the normal instructions for smoking.
NOTE: The smoked mac and cheese will not be as creamy if you prepare it ahead of time. I highly recommend making and serving it on the same day if possible.
Can I smoke the mac and cheese in a skillet?
Yes, you can use a cast iron skillet for smoking the mac and cheese. Make sure you use a 12″ or 14″ skillet to do so, as a 10″ skillet will be too small for this serving.
More Side Dishes to Love
- Smoked Beef Shots with Beef Bacon
- Loaded Baked Potato Jalapeno Poppers
- Nashville Hot Pickle Potato Salad
- Smoked Buffalo Chicken Dip
- Grilled Broccoli Crunch Salad
- Southern Macaroni Salad
- 1 pound macaroni pasta
- 2 cups whole milk
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 stick unsalted butter (1/2 cup)
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon mustard powder
- 1 tablespoon Signature Sweet & Smoky Rub
- 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar
- 2 cups shredded Gouda
- 2 cups shredded Monterey jack
- 1/2 pound thick-cut bacon (optional)
- Salt to taste
- Cook the macaroni. Boil water and cook the pasta until just al dente, according to the package directions. Make sure to salt the water. Strain the pasta and rinse with cold water to prevent them from cooking further. Set aside.
- Warm the milk and cream. Pour the two into a small saucepot on low heat and allow them to warm up. The dairy cannot be cold when mixed into the sauce.
- Prepare the roux. Melt the stick of butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Once melted, add in the flour and whisk to incorporate. Continue to whisk for about 4-5 minutes, cooking out the raw flavor of the flour to make a golden, smooth roux.
- Add the warmed dairy and seasonings. Slowly pour the warmed dairy into the roux 1/2 cup at a time, whisking to thicken the sauce. Once all of the milk and cream have been poured in, add in the spices and keep whisking constantly while the sauce is simmering, just until thickened. Make sure the sauce does not start simmering rapidly.
- Whisk in the cheeses and melt. Once the sauce has just started to thicken, turn off the heat. Mix the cheeses together, and reserve 1 cup to the side. Slowly add in the shredded cheese 1/2 cup at a time and whisk to melt. Continue to do so until all of the cheese has been used (except the reserved cup). If the cheeses aren’t melting completely, return the pan to LOW heat on the stove and keep whisking until the sauce is smooth. TASTE and adjust for seasoning.
- (optional) Cook the bacon. Place the pieces of bacon on a foil-lined baking sheet and cook for 20 minutes at 400°F, flipping halfway through. Cook until they are just crispy. Break the bacon apart into small pieces for mixing into the mac and cheese.
- Assemble the macaroni and cheese. Add the cooked pasta, bacon (or other mix-ins), and the cheese sauce to a 9″ x 13″ foil pan. Stir gently to make sure the cheese sauce is evenly coating all of the pasta. Sprinkle the remaining cup of cheese over the top and add additional BBQ seasoning if desired.
- Smoke the mac and cheese. Heat up the smoker to 250°F and place the pan, uncovered, in the smoker. Allow the mac and cheese to smoke for 45-60 minutes. Do not stir!
- Remove and serve. This mac and cheese is best served after it’s had a couple of minutes to rest and cool down.
- Use room-temperature cheese. Shred the cheeses and set them aside while you prepare the rest. Cold cheese added to a hot sauce will affect the creamy texture.
- Don’t add too many mix-ins, especially smoked meat. The fat from smoked meat can cause the creamy sauce to break, so I recommend sticking with bacon, scallions, herbs, or other aromatics.
- See the article for many more tips!
- Prep Time: 20 minutes
- Cook Time: 1 hour
- Category: Side Dish
- Method: Smoking
- Cuisine: Pasta
Keywords: smoked mac n cheese, smoked mac and cheese, macaroni and cheese, side dish, cheese sauce