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The Best Smoked Mac And Cheese Recipe

Smoked mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. This simple recipe has creamy cheese, a crunchy panko topping, and just the right amount of smokiness. You’ll love it.

A tray of smoked mac and cheese ready to eat

Who doesn’t love mac and cheese? It’s one of the universal comfort foods that even the pickiest of eaters enjoy. My daughter pretty much lived on it when she was a toddler and refused to eat most things put in front of her.

Now, just imagine taking that delicious pasta covered in ooey-gooey cheese and adding just a touch of smoke flavor to it. Not too much of course, you don’t want to overpower the dish.

You want to add just enough smokiness to add that extra “BAM!” of flavor that will take your homemade mac and cheese from delicious to earth-shattering.

Scroll down to learn how to make the best smoked mac and cheese you’ll ever taste.

What You’ll Need

One of my favorite things about mac and cheese is how easy it is to customize and make it your own.

Let’s look at the basic ingredients:

Ingredients for mac and cheese
After taking this pic I realized I forgot the grated parmesan cheese

Ingredients

  • 1 pound pasta (elbows, shells, cavatappi, etc.)
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 4 oz cream cheese
  • 3 cups sharp cheddar
  • 1 cup monterey jack

Bread Crumb Topping

  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons grated parmesan

Now this is just what I like to use for a basic smoked mac and cheese. You can use different pasta shapes, cheeses, toppings, and fillings to make countless versions of mac and cheese. Feel free to play around and be creative.

Let’s go over some of your options…

Pasta

Traditionally, most people use elbow macaroni. Hence the name “macaroni and cheese”. But I prefer cavatappi for my mac and cheese.

You might see cavatappi referred to as corkscrew pasta or Scooby-Doo pasta for some weird reason. It has a hollow interior, a ridged exterior, and a twisting corkscrew shape. Those three things combined provide plenty of nooks and crannies for the sauce to adhere.

If we’re out of cavatappi, medium sized shell pasta is my next go-to pasta for mac and cheese.

You can use whatever shape you like best, but I suggest staying away from long, thin pasta like spaghetti, linguine, or angel hair. There’s not much surface area for the sauce to stick to and it just doesn’t work.

Cheese

Sharp cheddar is the go-to cheese here but if you ask me the ideal mac and cheese has a mix of different cheeses that gives it a much deeper flavor profile.

You have plenty of options to choose from. Monterey jack, gouda, colby jack, harvarti, swiss, and muenster cheeses all work well.

Pro Tip: skip the pre-shredded bags of cheese from the supermarket. They’re convenient but they contain anti-caking additives (usually potato starch) designed to prevent the cheese from sticking and clumping. The problem is those starches affect the way the cheese melts and can make your cheese sauce grainy. Stick with blocks of cheese and shred or cube them yourself. This will give your cheese sauce a silky and creamy texture.

Toppings

Panko bread crumb is the unofficial topping for smoked mac and cheese. But there other toppings that you and your family might like even better.

Try grinding some Ritz crackers, Corn Flakes, or Goldfish crackers in your food processor and sprinkling them on top of your pasta in place of panko. I like to save a little of the shredded cheddar for the top too. It really gives you a nice gooey layer on top.

Fillings

I have nothing against a basic mac and cheese with nothing in it but the pasta and cheese sauce. It’s a tried and true recipe and it’s both simple and delicious.

Cook some bacon, chop it up and mix it into your mac and cheese before placing it in your smoker.

Some of my other favorite fillings for smoked mac and cheese are diced ham, sausage, caramelized onions, shredded chicken, and leftover pulled pork.

An aluminum of gooey mac and cheese.

How To Make Smoked Mac And Cheese

This recipe for smoked mac and cheese is so simple you’ll be amazed. You can print the full recipe card below, but let’s quickly go over the basic steps.

Cook your pasta in a pot of salted water. You want to cook it to al dente, which means firm with a little bite to it. Remember, it will continue to cook in the smoker and if it’s already soft when you start smoking you’ll end up with mushy mac and cheese.

Next, make the cheese sauce. I usually use a sauce pan but if you’re planning to smoke the mac and cheese in a cast iron pan like this one you can make the sauce in it and then just add the pasta when it’s ready.

Homemade cheese sauce is pretty simple. Just melt down the butter and whisk in the flour. Whisk well and let cook for a minute or so and then add the milk or cream. I sometimes add a pinch of paprika, especially if I’m making the cheese sauce for broccoli. It gives the sauce a rich color and adds a splash of flavor.

Next, add the cheese and stir it in until fully melted and the sauce is silky and smooth. Combine the pasta and sauce and mix until the pasta is fully covered. Then transfer it to whatever pan you’ll be smoking it in and sprinkle on your toppings.

Meanwhile, get your smoker started and at a stead temperature of about 225 F to 250 F using your choice of wood (I prefer cherry, apple, or pecan). Smoke for about an hour and then remove and serve while still warm and gooey.

Common Mac And Cheese Mistakes To Avoid

Smoked mac and cheese is simple to make, but there are a few missteps that you’ll want to avoid.

Mistake One – Not Salting The Pasta Water

As any chef will tell you, pasta water needs to be salted like the ocean. If you don’t add a good dose of salt to your pasta water, you’ll end up with a bland and tasteless mac and cheese that will ultimately disappoint you.

Salting pasta water adds a layer of flavor that you’ll miss if you skip this step. Could you add extra salt at the end when dinner is on the table. Sure, but its not the same.

Mistake Two – Choosing The Wrong Pasta

According to Italy Magazine, there are about 350 different types of pasta, but not all of them are good for mac and cheese. Tiny shapes like orzo of ditalini will just turn to mush. Long, thin pasta like spaghetti or fettucine will stick together and be a mess.

Stick with traditional pasta shapes that work well for mac and cheese such as elbow macaroni, shells, or cavatappi.

Mistake Three – Overcooking The Pasta

My wife is 100 percent Italian and as far as she’s concerned overcooking your pasta is like a crime against humanity.

Ok, I’m exaggerating. But that doesn’t change the fact that no one likes mushy macaroni. Pasta should always have a little bite to it, and this is particularly important when smoking mac and cheese because it will continue cooking inside the smoker. It’s best to slightly undercook the pasta when boiling and letting it finish cooking in the smoker.

Mistake Four – Using Pre-Shredded Cheese

Listen: we’re all busy and sometimes we need to take a shortcut. Many people make their mac and cheese using pre-shredded bags of cheese. Pre-shredded cheese is convenient but it has a powder coating used to prevent clumping. You can see for yourself by checking the ingredients listed on the bag for cellulose or potato starch.

It’s all perfectly safe to eat, but it will make your mac and cheese grainy. If you want a perfectly smooth and velvety cheese sauce you should buy blocked cheese and grate it yourself with either a food processor or hand grater.

FAQs About Mac And Cheese

What goes well with mac and cheese?

Almost anything really. Smoked mac and cheese can be served as a meal itself, or as a side dish. It goes well at any family barbecue. I like to serve it as a side with pulled pork, smoked chicken, or a double-smoked ham. It also goes well with meatloaf, pork chops, chicken cutlets, or a steak. Heck, you can even serve it as a Thanksgiving side dish!

How long is leftover mac and cheese good for?

If stored properly, leftover smoked mac and cheese will last about three to five days in the fridge. Be sure to store leftovers in an airtight container or storage bag to maximize shelf life.

What pasta is not good with mac and cheese?

Stay away from very small pasta shapes like orzo or ditalini as they will turn your mac and cheese into a mushy mess. You should also avoid long, thin pasta like spaghetti, fettuccine, or linguine. Choose a pasta with plenty of nooks and crannies to hold that silky cheese sauce. My personal favorites are cavatappi, shells, and the good old elbow macaroni.

Is it OK to mix pasta types?

Absolutely! Missing different pasta shapes makes your mac and cheese extra fun. Try to use shapes that take the same amount of time to cook (cooking time is listed on the package). If you really want to use shapes with different cooking times you’ll need to stagger the cooking time by giving one shape a head start before adding the second shape.

Smoked Mac And Cheese Recipe

A tray of smoked mac and cheese ready to eat
Yield: Serves 8

Smoked Mac and Cheese

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour 20 minutes

Smoked mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. Served as a side dish or as a meal itself, this creamy mac and cheese has a crunchy topping and just the right amount of smokiness.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound pasta (elbows, shells, cavatappi, etc.)
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 4 oz cream cheese
  • 3 cups sharp cheddar
  • 1 cup monterey jack

Bread Crumb Topping

  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons grated parmesan

Instructions

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook pasta al dente. It should still have a little bite to it and not too soft
  2. Preheat your smoker to about 225 F to 250 F using a mild hardwood like apple, cherry, or pecan
  3. Melt 1/2 cup butter in a sauce pan. Add flour and whisk until incorporated, then add the mustard and whisk
  4. Slowly add the milk and bring to a boil while whisking
  5. Reduce heat and whisk in cream cheese until melted
  6. Whisk in the cheddar and monterey jack cheese until melted and the sauce is smooth
  7. Add the pasta to an aluminum pan and pour the cheese sauce over it. Stir gently until the pasta is fully coated
  8. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and mix with the panko bread crumbs. Sprinkle over the mac and cheese. Then sprinkle the parmesan on top
  9. Place the pan in the smoker and smoke for one hour. If you want additional smokey flavor your can smoke for up to two hours

Notes

Elbow macaroni is the traditional shape in mac and cheese, but I prefer either medium shells or cavatappi. They're both fun shapes and have plenty of nooks and crannies to hold the cheese sauce.

Feel free to mix and match whatever cheese you prefer. Colby jack and gouda are other excellent choices.

Topping options: try replacing the panko bread crumbs and parmesan with some ground up Ritz or Goldfish crackers.

Take your smoked macaroni and cheese up a notch by mixing in some bacon, pulled pork, or caramelized onions.

Instead of an aluminum pan, you smoke your mac and cheese in a cast iron skillet.

Woot!
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