Mac and cheese is one of those meals that you think of when you are tight on time and you need to throw something together quickly. Well, homemade mac and cheese is just as quick and tastes way better. Today, I’m sharing my smoked mac and cheese from scratch recipe.
I grew up on the boxes of mac that had the powder packets in with the noodles. I thought I was on cloud nine when my mom made that. From what I can remember, boxed mac is what I asked for for my birthday meal.
Somewhere along the way my preferences became a bit more polished and I was determined to make my mac and cheese a bit more polished along with it.
For the sake of complete transparency, I need to share that I had eaten homemade mac and it seemed to me to be dry and not at all creamy. That is not what I was going for when I set out to create a delicious creamy mac and cheese.
I wanted a recipe that provided a comfort food. My kids need to go “mmmmm” after they take the first bite. That’s what I wanted.
Is Scratch Mac and Cheese better than Boxed?
Yes! I cannot say it loud enough- yes!
As the weather gets colder here, the warmth of cheesy pasta just seems right.
Let me share a few of the reasons why I love taking the time to make mac and cheese from scratch.
- Real Mac and Cheese is healthier- You are using real cheese that is minimally processed and you can feel good about that.
- It tastes better- The creaminess of scratch mac is so thick and delicious.
- It can be served with company- You cannot serve boxed mac with company, but this can be served and will be devoured with a crowd.
- From Scratch doesn’t take much time- I know it seems like from-scratch recipe would take a long time, but it isn’t much more effort. Just the shredding of the cheese, if I’m honest.
What is Smoked Mac and Cheese?
I will share our regular mac and cheese recipe later, but this smoked version is out of this world.
It pairs so nicely with anything grilled and guys appreciate the full flavor of this mac. If you want to make mac and cheese, but your husband doesn’t usually love it, this is the recipe to make him!
Most people use their smokers to do a recipe like this, which you are welcome to do, but I add a simple ingredient to make the “smoked” flavor and simply bake it in my oven to get it nice a bubbly. Easy, peasy!
Ingredients for Smoked Mac and Cheese
You will combine simple ingredients to pull this recipe together. I know a box seems easier, but this isn’t hard.
The hardest part is shredding the cheese and that only takes a few minutes- tops!
- Noodles– Most people think of elbow macaroni for this dish, but you can absolutely get a bit fancy and use a more substantial noodle to take it up a notch.
- Butter– Use real butter. This will be used to make the sauce.
- Flour– I use all purpose flour.
- Mustard Powder– If you don’t have mustard powder, use a prepared mustard, such as dijon.
- Whole Milk– This is a delicious dish, so don’t skimp on the milk. I think whole milk makes it creamier.
- Half and Half– This will be used to make the sauce rich.
- Cream Cheese– The cream cheese makes the sauce very creamy and keeps it from getting dry.
- Grated Cheeses– You can mix the flavors of cheeses you are using, but my biggest tip is to shred it yourself. If you use preshredded cheese, it won’t melt and marry together like cheese you shred yourself.
- Panko Breadcrumbs– I like putting a crunchy topping on our mac and cheese. I use a cup of Panko breadcrumbs to create that topping. If you don’t have this, crush some crackers or flaked cereal to use in its place.
- Liquid Smoke Flavor– Liquid Smoke is the secret ingredient for this Smoked Mac and Cheese. Most people use a smoker and leave the dish in the smoker for hours. This tiny ingredient gives you the same bold flavor without all of the time and gadgets. You can get this at any grocery store.
5 Easy Steps for Smoked Mac and Cheese
- Cook the Pasta to al dente– Don’t let your pasta get too soft since it will also be baked for a short time.
- Make the Cheese Sauce– This can be made in a saucepan and easily poured over the noodles in a baking dish. I used a 2 quart baking dish.
- Panko Topping– I like to keep this simple. My preference is to combine panko and butter. If you don’t have panko, crushed crackers will work fine.
- Combine the Sauce and Pasta in a baking dish- The sauce will be creamy and coat the pasta as you pour it into the dish. I used a 2 quart baking dish for our mac and cheese.
- Sprinkle Panko on top and bake– This is one of the best parts of this dish. The panko gives the mac a crunch and the buttery flavor adds to the depth of the dish.
Can you make this ahead of time?
Yep! You can make this ahead of time, cover it with plastic wrap, and store it in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours before baking.
What if I just want Mac and Cheese without the Smoke Flavor?
If you want a standard Mac and Cheese without the smoked flavor, simply leave the liquid smoke out of the recipe.
Maybe you want it even simpler. You can serve this dish right after the sauce and pasta is ready. Combine the sauce and pasta and serve it without the panko topping or liquid smoke!
This makes a great basic mac and cheese, too.
Can I substitute the cheeses for other flavors?
The best part about this recipe is that it’s customizable. You can swap out the cheeses for whatever you have in your fridge or whatever you feel like that day.
These are some great options for cheeses with this dish. Just make sure you buy a block of cheese and shred it yourself so you get the creaminess you are wanting.
- Smoked Gouda
- Sharp Cheddar
Substitutions and Variations
- Add crumbled, cooked bacon on top for some extra flavor
- Use shell pasta instead of elbow pasta to trap the cheese sauce in the noodles
- Top it with Fried Onions to give it an entirely different flavor
- Use Italian Panko Breadcrumbs to create an Italian flavor
- Add 1/4 teaspoon of Cayenne for some added heat
Things to serve with Smoked Mac and Cheese
If you are looking for a few main dishes to serve with the smoked mac and cheese, I have a few very good options that our family loves.
- Quick Grilled Smoked Chicken Thighs
- Mini Meatloaf Recipe without Bread Crumbs
- Easiest French Dip Sandwich Recipe with Beef Roast
Beyond Simple Mac and Cheese
If you are a bare-bones, simple kind of cook, then pare this recipe down to the bare bones.
- 1 pound of noodles
- 2 cups of shredded cheese
- 1/2 stick butter
- milk as needed to get it creamy
Smoked Mac and Cheese
- 2 Quart baking dish
- 1 pound Elbow Noodles, or other pasta
- ½ cup butter
- ¼ cup flour
- 1 tablespoon mustard powder, or prepared mustard
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 cup half and half
- 8 ounces cream cheese
- 2 cups Cheddar Cheese, grated
- 1 cup Gouda Cheese, grated
- 1 cup Parmesan Cheese, grated
- ¼ teaspoon Liquid Smoke Flavor
- 1 cup Panko Breadcrumbs, or crushed crackers
- ¼ cup melted butter
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Cook pasta according to the package until al dente
- While the pasta is boiling, make the cheese sauce in a medium saucepan.
- Melt the butter in the saucepan on medium heat. Once melted, add the flour and dried mustard. Whisk until it is smooth.
- Once the butter/flour mixture is smooth, add the milk in slowly, whisking the entire time until smooth.
- Add the half and half to the butter/milk mixture and whisk. Bring to a low boil.
- Turn off the heat and in the cream cheese. Stir until the cream cheese is melted into the mixture.
- Add the shredded cheeses into the sauce mixture one handful at a time. Stir in between each handful of cheese. Add another handful once it is incorporated.
- Once the Cheese Sauce is creamy add in the 1/4 teaspoon Liquid Smoke Flavor. Stir well.
- Once the pasta is cooked, drain off the liquid and combine the pasta to the sauce. Toss them together until coated.
- Add the Macaroni and Cheese to a buttered 2 quart dish.
- Combine the Panko breadcrumbs and 1/4 cup melted butter. Mix together.
- Sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture on top of the macaroni and cheese.
- Bake for 30 minutes or until bubbly.