Smoked Mac and Cheese – The easy, straightforward, delicious side dish
Mac and cheese is a classic side dish enjoyed by kids and adults and everyone in-between. However, throwing the skillet onto the smoker to make smoked mac and cheese can take it to the next level. This slight kiss of smoke plays really well with the cheese and makes a great side dish to go with any bbq or grilled meat.
At the end of the day, mac and cheese is a simple dish because ultimately its made up of three separate ingredients; pasta, cream and cheese. However, just because the ingredient list is simple, doesn’t mean that it’s the easiest dish to pull off. Your technique of combining the ingredients will make or break the end result.
Perfect Pasta For Your Smoked Mac and Cheese
My personal favorite pasta for any type of mac and cheese is a medium shell. They aren’t too big where they become a larger part of the dish than the cheese sauce. And they aren’t too small where they get lost in a sea of cheese. Yet, I will have to admit there is not one right answer as there are plenty of shapes that will work. The choice is yours, but make sure the pasta has some ridges and open area so that it has the ability to hold onto as much sauce as possible.
The biggest area for concern is how you cook the pasta. I don’t want to have to go on a rant about salt again, like I did for my copycat honey hog bbq rub, but you must salt the water before cooking the pasta. The pasta will never taste the same by adding the salt at the end. Salt the water!
While we are still talking about the pasta, you want to cook the pasta super al dente. This will most likely be 1 – 2 minutes before the suggested cooking time on the package. You want the pasta to still have a good amount of bite and chew before adding it to the cheese sauce. The reason for this is because the pasta will continue to absorb liquid and cook inside the smoker. If you cook the pasta too long it will become mushy.
Cheese and Cream in Holy Mac-Trimony
Let’s have a little chat about about the dairy in the dish. First, the cheese. If you have already peeked at the recipe, you should notice that I don’t list any specific kinds. This is because everyone has different tastes and you, the reader, should be able to pick out at least two different cheeses that you like. I have found that a singular cheese type mac and cheese is just a little flat on the taste buds. So mixing up at least two different cheeses will elevate the dish. Obviously cheddar cheese is a great choice for smoked mac and cheese but American, gouda, gruyere, colby jack, pepper jack and meunster cheese are all great options.
Lastly, lets wrap it up by discussing the cream. The recipe calls for heavy cream and whole fat milk but you can use half & half instead. Speaking of fat, you cannot substitute a lower fat content milk and expect to get the same dish. The cheese sauce needs the higher fat content to give that creamy and luscious mouth texture that you get from a great mac and cheese. There is just no other substitute, unless of course, you want sub par smoked mac and cheese.
After making the roux (if you’ve never done it, check this out, it’s really easy) slowly add the cream mixture we just talked about and continue to whisk. This is when the flour will start to thicken the cream. This part can take a long time if you start with cold cream. So I highly recommend warming it up before introducing it to the roux to speed up the process. Then after the cream is thickened, kill the heat and just let it hang out for a few minutes. This step is important because adding the cheese when the liquid is too hot may result in a grainy cheese sauce.
Finally, add the cheese in batches while continuing to mix. If you find that the cheese is struggling to melt put the heat on low. But remember, this is going back on the smoker so it’s okay if it’s not melted completely. Speaking of the smoker, only keep the dish on there for 45 minutes to an hour. It will take on a light smoke flavor but the main reason is so the end result into grainy. No one likes a grainy smoked mac and cheese. Also, remember to make that panko topping as that added crunch really adds a needed texture component.
Smoked Mac and Cheese
- 12 inch cast iron skillet
For the pasta
- 1 pound pasta (your favorite mac and cheese shape)
- 1 gallon water
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
For the cheese sauce
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 2 cups whole milk
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoons onion powder
- ½ teaspoon paprika
- 1 tablespoon mustard (any will do but I like stone ground Dijon)
- 1 pound grated cheeses a prefer at least 2 different cheese. see notes
- 1 salt and pepper to taste
For the crispy topping
- ½ cup panko break crumbs
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Set smoker/grill to 275°
For the pasta
- Bring the water and salt to a boil in a large pot and then add the pasta.
- Cook the pasta for 1-2 minutes less than that package directions. The pasta should still have some chew, aka, very al dente.
- Drain and set aside.
For the cheese sauce
- Optional step. Place the heavy cream and milk in a microwave safe bowl and microwave for 1 – 2 minutes. Slightly heating up the cream and milk mixture will help the cheese sauce come together much quicker.
- Start the roux by melting the butter in a 12 inch cast iron skillet over medium heat.
- Once the butter is completely melted and whisk in the flour. Continue whisking for 1 – 2 minutes making sure all the flour is coated in butter.
- Continue mixing and slowly add the cream/milk mixture into the skillet. Make sure to scrap out all the roux in the edges of the pan.
- Once the cream/milk is fully incorporated, mix every minutes to ensure the bottom doesn't burn. Do not boil the sauce. After about 5-10 minutes (or longer is you are working with cold cream/milk) the sauce should be steamy and visibly thickened. It should coat the back of a spoon.
- Once the sauce is thickened, remove the skillet from the heat and start slowly adding the cheese. Continue mixing and add the cheese in batches until all the cheese has been incorporated.
Let put is altogether
- Once the cheese had been completely incorporated, carefully add the pasta to the sauce and mix to combine.
- Place the skillet in the smoker and smoker for 45 – 60 minutes.
For the crispy topping
- In a small, non-stick skillet, melt the butter and then add the panko breadcrumbs. Mix the panko into the butter to completely coat. Cook for 2 – 3 minutes until the panko is crispy.
- Once the mac and cheese is done smoking, remove from the smoker and sprinkle on the panko topping. Serve immediately.