Smoked Mac and Cheese: Complete Guide (And Amazing Recipe)

September 4, 2023
Written by John Smits

Macaroni and cheese is a side dish superhero: head to any backyard gathering, and there’s a good chance someone brought some mac and cheese. I’m here to let you in on the best secret ingredient you can add to your mac and cheese recipe – smoke. My recipe is a bit of work, but the results are a crowd-pleaser.

Smoked mac and cheese is my favorite side dish to whip up. The cheese mixture is gooey and rich and knocks the socks off the boxed version. The breadcrumbs add a delightful crunch. It’s buttery. It’s decadent. And my friends and family rave about it.

Ready to level up your mac n cheese with the smoky flavor that only comes from a live fire? I’m spilling the noodles on cooking temperature, techniques (we’ll be making a roux), and more! Let’s get to cooking some creamy smoked mac and cheese.

Smoked Mac and Cheese

Smoked Mac and Cheese Recipe

Let’s get right to it. Here’s my recipe. But stay tuned for some absolute MUST-KNOW info later in the article, including some fun ideas for mixing the recipe up.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Smoking time: Around 1 hour on the pellet grill or other smoker at 350°F

Total time: 1 hour 20 minutes, approximately

Serves: 12-16 as a side


  • 1 pound pasta (I’m a rebel. I like cavatappi instead of elbow macaroni. Use your favorite pasta noodles. More on the best noodles to use in a bit.)
  • 8 tablespoons butter (1 stick. I like Land-O-Lakes brand butter. It’s one of those ingredients that I don’t cheap out on. Your butter should smell buttery!)
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 cups whole milk (You can sub in heavy cream for part of the milk. Healthy? Not so much. Delicious? Oh yeah.)
  • 3 cups shredded cheese. I like sharp white cheddar cheese. It makes a nice melty, gooey cheese sauce. I’ve listed other good melting cheeses after the recipe.
  • 1 cup (2 oz) finely grated hard cheese, such as parmesan
  • Four slices of good bread cut into 1″ squares
  • 2 tbsp your favorite BBQ seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • To serve: salt and pepper, to taste.
  • Optional: hot sauce, to taste when serving.

Preferred Wood Species

  • Mild wood like apple, cherry, and pecan are ideal. The soft noodles and melted cheese absorb A LOT of smoke. One hour of smoke might not seem like much time, but I promise you smoky cheese and noodles.
Bowl Filled with Macaroni and Cheese with Other Ingredients

Cooking Instructions

  1. Preheat your smoker to 350°F. I like to make Traeger smoked mac and cheese. A pellet smoker is awesome for mac n cheese because they’re so easy. You set the temp and the smoker does the rest of the work. You are free to use whatever smoker you like, or your charcoal grill, to make smoked mac n cheese. Set up for indirect cooking and add a handful of wood chunks to the coals.
  2. Cook the elbow macaroni or cavatappi. Follow the package directions (mostly). Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Add the pasta and boil over medium heat for two minutes less than the instructions say for al dente – the pasta will cook more when you smoke it. You don’t want the noodles getting too soft.
    Drain the noodles in a colander and rinse them with cold water to stop the pasta from continuing to cook. Pour the cooked macaroni noodles into a greased baking dish (use one that can go on your smoker). Or use a greased disposable aluminum pan.
  3. While the noodles are boiling, melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a cast iron pan. Toss the cut up bread in the melted butter. Mix melted butter and bread (stir gently with a wooden spoon) until the butter has been completely absorbed. This will be your breadcrumb topping. Set aside in a bowl.
  4. Make the roux. Don’t let the fancy French word intimidate you! Rouxs are easy to make. They’re simply a 1:1 mix of flour and fat. (Butter, in this case).
    Add butter (the remaining four tablespoons) to a large cast iron skillet or saucepan over medium heat. Melt butter. Once it starts to bubble, whisk in the flour. Whisk constantly for around 2 minutes, until the mixture is smooth and begins to bubble. Add the milk and all the seasonings. Cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, again whisking constantly.
  5. Add the cheeses to the roux to make a cheesy sauce. Use pre-shredded cheese or shred the cheese yourself. Or, you can cut the cheese into cubes. Just don’t add huge blocks of cheese to the sauce. It’ll take forever for the cheese to melt uniformly.
    Cook over low heat and stir with a whisk until the cheese melts completely. You should now have a creamy cheese sauce. There shouldn’t be any lumps. It will coat the back of a spoon when dipped in. Give it a taste. Add more seasoning if you think it needs a bump of flavor.
  6. Pour the cheese onto the cooked pasta. The cheese sauce should cover the cooked pasta noodles completely, and almost reach the sides of the pan.
  7. Top with the breadcrumbs. Add the cut-up pieces of bread to the top of the mac and cheese.
  8. Smoke mac and cheese for about an hour. Time to add that smoke flavor. Smoked mac and cheese takes around an hour on the smoker. When the cheese sauce is bubbly and the breadcrumbs are starting to brown, the smoked mac and cheese is done cooking. The noodles will now be fully cooked, too.
  9. Let it cool for 5 minutes before serving. Bring the mac n cheese to the dinner table, and wait a few minutes before diving in. It’s piping hot when it’s right off the smoker. The cheesy sauce is basically molten lava. Don’t burn your mouth. Let it cool down before eating. Remember to use potholders when handling the aluminum pan!
  10. Eat. Are you ready to taste your smoked mac and cheese? It’s creamy. It’s got great smoked flavor. The shredded cheeses melted together are divine. It’s pure cheesy goodness in a bowl! Add some salt and pepper or hot sauce, if desired. Smoked mac and cheese is guaranteed to be a huge hit with your whole crew.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Mix It Up

Recipes are meant to be played around with. Here are some of my favorite alternate versions of this recipe.

Add Toppings or Mix-Ins

My go-to is bacon. Crumbled bacon makes everything taste better, right? I line a baking sheet with parchment paper before putting the bacon on. Then I bake the bacon in the oven for around 12 minutes at a temperature of 400°F. Crumble the bacon, then add bacon to the top of the mac and cheese. Top with breadcrumbs and stick the whole thing on your cooker.

Green chiles are another great option that really punches up the flavor. Your kids might not agree! (Mine won’t touch a green chile.) They add a nice pop of color, too.

Smoked pulled pork is another game-changer. Add 1 pound of the (fully cooked) pulled pork before the breadcrumbs before the mac and cheese goes on the smoker. You’ll get a stronger smoke flavor because the pulled pork is already smoked.

Grilled chicken, cut into bite-sized cubes, is another fantastic addition. It’s a tasty protein that vibes perfectly with the smokiness of the mac n cheese. Use 2 fully-cooked breasts or 4 fully-cooked chicken thighs if you’re adding them to the mac and cheese. Around 1 pound of chicken total. Sprinkle the chicken on top of the macaroni noodles, after the cheese sauce has been added, but before the breadcrumbs.

Add chicken and the right hot sauce (like Frank’s) for buffalo chicken macaroni and cheese.

Jalepeños add a nice pop of color and a rush of heat. Again, they’re not particularly kid-friendly, so omit them if you’ve got young eaters. Slice up half a dozen or so and add them after the breadcrumbs. They roast up nicely.

Combine multiple mix-ins (like both bacon and green chiles) for smoked mac and cheese nirvana.

Use Different Cheeses

For a double blast of smoke, use a cheese that’s already smoked. Smoked gouda mac and cheese is absolutely next level. Gouda is a little pricier, so expect to pay a bit more for the cheese. Use the smoked gouda as a 1 to 1 substitute for the sharp cheddar. Most grocery stores now have massive cheese selections. Play around with different soft-smoked cheeses.

Regular gouda cheese (not smoked) is also delightful for smoked mac and cheese. Gouda cheese melts beautifully. Pepper jack is another good melting cheese, and adds a kick of jalepeño heat.

Sharp cheddar cheese, gruyere cheese, Monterey jack, and Colby jack are other good melting cheeses that can be used. Feel free to blend several different cheeses. See what happens!

Stick with one of these cheeses, and I promise you’ll end up with a gooey cheese sauce and buttery soft noodles.

Use More Cheese

Cheese it up! Add a couple more ounces of cheese to this recipe for even cheesier mac and cheese.

Use Panko Breadcrumbs

If making your own croutons isn’t in the cards for you, go ahead and top the mac and cheese with breadcrumbs instead. I like panko bread crumbs. You are free to use whatever brand or variety of breadcrumbs you like (or have in your pantry). Panko bread makes a delightfully crispy topping, which nicely contrasts the creamy mac and cheese.

Homemade Spiced Panko Breadcrumbs

Use a Different Pasta

I like cavatappi because the noodles are long, and they’re shaped like a spring, so there’s a ton of surface area for the cheese sauce to cling to. It’s an elegant noodle. (Yes, I just called a noodle elegant. I’m officially a food snob.) Elbow macaroni noodles are a classic choice if you’re looking for mac and cheese that looks like it came from a blue box. It’s more appealing if you’re feeding kiddos.

No need to stop with cavatappi or macaroni noodles, though! Penne, ziti, rigatoni, and fusilli are all good candidates. Any variety of shelled noodles will work nicely, too.

Avoid noodles that are long strands, like spaghetti. The cheese sauce won’t stick. The same goes for smaller noodles, like orzo.

How to Make It Ahead of Time?

Let’s say you’ve got a bunch of people coming over tomorrow, and you want to get the mac and cheese dealt with today. You can make the recipe ahead of time, stopping at step 7. Don’t top the mac and cheese with the breadcrumbs overnight – they’ll get soggy.

Stick the aluminum pan filled with the mac and cheese in the refrigerator overnight. Put the breadcrumbs in a plastic baggie and stick them in the fridge, as well.

Fire up your smoker the next day. Put the breadcrumbs on the mac n cheese and toss the whole thing on the pellet smoker for around an hour for a delicious smoky flavor. Boom! It’ll taste fantastic, and no one will know that you did the bulk of the work the day before.

You can make the mac and cheese 3 to 4 days before you plan to smoke it. Make sure to refrigerate it after you prepare it. But for best results, I’d make it no more than a day ahead of time.

How to Store Leftover Smoked Mac and Cheese?

In the highly unlikely event that you’ve got leftovers (again, this dish is too darn good), store them in an airtight container in the fridge. They should stay good for up to 4 days. Leftovers keep indefinitely in the freezer, but taste best if used within 2 to 6 months. Again, use an airtight container to store leftovers in the freezer. I like to use a gallon freezer bag with a zipper. Push as much air out as possible.

How to Reheat Leftover Mac and Cheese?

First, only reheat the amount of smoked mac and cheese you’ll be eating. The quality of the mac and cheese degrades every time it’s reheated. You can reheat smoked mac and cheese in a saucepan on the stove, in a bowl in the microwave, or even on a foil pan on your pellet grill if you want another blast of smoke.

Reheat the smoked mac and cheese until the temperature reads 165°F for best results, per the USDA.

Cooking times will vary based on the amount of mac n cheese you’re reheating. Use medium heat on the stove, and 350°F on your smoker. The mac and cheese should be steaming when it’s done heating up.

Baked Mac and Cheese in a Cast Iron Pan

Don’t Cover the Smoked Mac and Cheese When It’s Smoking

You may find some recipes on the internet suggesting you cover the mac n cheese with aluminum foil. This is a mistake. You won’t get any smoke flavor in the mac and cheese if you cover it up! If you find a smoked mac and cheese recipe that tells you to cover it, close that tab. It’s not a good recipe card. You want your smoker mac and cheese recipe to taste smoky!

Don’t Add Cream Cheese

Here’s another one of my pet peeves about some other recipes: they call for cream cheese. Cream cheese doesn’t melt right, and the texture isn’t right for smoked mac and cheese. The cheese sauce will be too thick, and it might be lumpy unless you really whisk the cream cheese down (and heat it up). Cream cheese also doesn’t taste cheesy enough.

I say ditch cream cheese and use a classic melting cheese instead. Just use shredded cheese or cubed cheese so it melts nicely into the cheese sauce.

Why You’ll Love This Smoked Mac and Cheese?

A bit of wood smoke absolutely elevates mac and cheese. It’s a decadent and rich dish, thanks to the generous use of melted butter and a heavy hand of cheese. That makes this the perfect side dish for a get-together with friends or family. It’s probably too heavy to be a main course. (Unless you’re really craving smoked mac and cheese!)

I’ll admit, it’s a bit of a chore to cook up the macaroni and the cheese sauce. You’ll be scrambling around your kitchen for 20 minutes or so, darting between dishes, and giving various pots a stir. But the results are 10 out of 10, absolutely worth it, and the hour spent on the smoker is easy. Once you’ve got the cheese sauce made, smoking mac and cheese is easy. Just let the wood smoke do all the work.

Wrapping It Up

If you’re looking for the best mac and cheese recipe on the internet, you just found it. Okay, bold statement, I know. It’s really good smoked macaroni and cheese, that’s sure to become a family favorite for decades. Macaroni and cheese is my go-to comfort food. When paired with a kiss of wood smoke, it’s absolutely delicious.

Play around with this recipe! Add the protein of your choice, experiment with different cheeses, or add your favorite veggie. The possibilities are endless.

Smoked macaroni and cheese is the perfect side dish all summer long (it’s great in the winter, too). Cook the macaroni to the package instructions, make a roux, toss everything in a foil pan, throw some breadcrumbs on top, then let it sit on a 300°F smoker for around an hour. Once the cheese sauce is bubbling and the breadcrumbs are golden brown, it’s ready!

By John Smits
John bought his first home in 2012 and bought his first grill shortly afterward: the ubiquitous Weber kettle grill. He’s been hooked since the first time he fired up some coals. Now, after over a decade spent making countless delicious meals, John is a passionate advocate for live-fire cooking.
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