Upgrade your comfort food game with the ultimate smoked mac and cheese! Made with cheddar, Gouda and Gruyère and topped with crispy panko crumbs, this cheesy pasta is the perfect side dish for your summer barbecues and holiday celebrations alike. Everyone will happily come back for seconds when this mac and cheese is on the dinner table.
Why You’ll Love This Recipe
That extra smoky flavor boost: The smoked cooking technique infuses such a wonderful hickory flavor that makes for a more complex dish. Oven-baked mac and cheese is divine, but smoking takes it to a whole new level. Don’t be surprised if this is your new favorite way to make this beloved pasta.
Frees up the oven: Whether you want to avoid the oven during the summer months or your appliance is overbooked during your Thanksgiving feast, this mac and cheese only requires the stove and a smoker.
Ultra versatile: Want to swap another cheese? No problem. Prefer a mac and cheese with different mix-ins? You got it. While the base of this creamy smoked mac and cheese recipe is perfect as is, you can absolutely customize it to suit your own tastes. Plus, you can serve it as a side or vegetarian main dish.
Make-ahead option for your convenience: For those big celebrations, more make-ahead recipes always make hosting duties easier. This is perfect for that.
Dried macaroni: For the traditional pasta shape, go with elbow macaroni. That said, you’re welcome to use another shape for something different. Cavatappi, bowties, rigatoni, rotini or penne all make for a nice alternative.
Cheeses: We use a three-cheese blend of cheddar, Gruyère and Gouda. These three cheeses melt nicely and all pair well with smoking technique.
Heavy cream and whole milk: Mac and cheese is all about indulging in a special treat. So let’s do this dish right by using heavy cream and whole milk rather than half and half or a lower-fat milk. The sauce won’t be as rich and luscious without those.
Seasonings: We keep it simple here and use salt, black pepper and smoked paprika. Make sure you use smoked paprika rather than sweet paprika to play up our cooking technique.
Toasted panko crumbs: For a crispy topping, you’ll love the texture these Japanese bread crumbs add. While you can use traditional breadcrumbs instead, they’re much finer and not quite as crispy.
Step 1: For our first step, we rapidly boil a large pot of salted water and cook our macaroni for a minute or two less than directed by the package. After boiling, we drain the macaroni and reserve on the side (photo 1).
Step 2: As the pasta cooks, we melt some butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat, stir in the panko bread crumbs and cook until golden brown (photo 2). Panko crumbs won’t get nearly as brown in the smoker as they do on the stove, so I don’t recommend skipping this step.
Step 3: We’re now ready to prepare our delicious cheese sauce by making a traditional roux. To make a roux, we melt some butter over medium heat and add garlic gloves at the end, constantly stirring for about 30 seconds (photo 3).
Tip: Cut down on dishes and use the pasta pot to make the cheesy sauce.
Step 4: Now we whisk in all-purpose flour to thicken the sauce and keep whisking for about three minutes to eliminate the raw flour flavor (photo 4).
Step 5: For our next step, we pour in the milk and heavy cream and whisk right away to remove any clumps (photo 5). To season the sauce, we add the salt, black pepper and smoked paprika along with some spicy brown mustard and then bring the cream mixture to a simmer.
Step 6: Once the cream sauce thickens, we turn off the heat and stir in the cheddar, Gouda and Gruyère until they melt (photo 6). We now have our rich and creamy cheese sauce.
Step 7: Next, we stir in the reserved macaroni so that it’s fully coated (photo 7).
Step 8: We’re ready to assemble our mac and cheese. For this step, we layer half the cooked pasta in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet or 9-inch-by-13-inch aluminum pan (photo 8) and top with half the cheese mixture (photo 9). We then top the first layer with the remaining macaroni (photo 10) and sprinkle the rest of the cheese and panko crumbs on top (photo 11).
Step 9: Our last step is to simply place the pan of mac and cheese in a 225-degree smoker and let it smoke (photo 12).
After one hour, we’ll have the absolute best smoked mac and cheese. Now dig in and enjoy every bite of cheesy goodness.
Note: This recipe was tested with a vertical pellet grill, but it will work with any type of smoker.
As promised, you can prepare this recipe ahead of time to make entertaining a breeze. That said, please follow these important tips for best results.
- Make this recipe through the step of stirring the cooked macaroni noodles with the roux-based cheese sauce. Allow it to cool and then tightly cover with plastic wrap or aluminum foil, and store in the refrigerator for up to two days.
- When it’s 30-60 minutes before smoking time, remove the macaroni and let it sit at room temperature to encourage more even cooking.
- While the pasta sits in the refrigerator, it will inevitably absorb some sauce. If it seems too dry, add enough milk or cream to create a saucy consistency. Then, assemble as directed.
Complementary Serving Ideas
As mentioned, this recipe works well for both summer barbecues and the holidays. Depending on the occasion, you have two different routes for complementary dishes. Here are some tasty recipe ideas for turning this dish into a complete meal.
Summer barbecue recipe ideas
Holiday recipe ideas
- Christmas roast duck
- Maple-braised turkey legs
- Brown butter mashed potatoes
- Homemade green bean casserole
- Brandy cranberry sauce
- Sweet potato soufflé
My favorite wood is hickory. It’s bold enough to deliver a noticeable smoky flavor without overpowering the dish. A more mild wood, such as apple, cherry or pecan, also works well.
While I love mesquite, I’d be cautious using it with this dish because it could be too strong. If you happen to be smoking meat with mesquite and want to try it, I recommend significantly reducing the smoking time — just enough to extract the smoke flavor and then finish it in the oven. This will require a little taste testing and experimenting along the way.
One hour is perfect. You get a wonderful smoke infusion without overcooking or drying out the pasta.
Make sure you keep the leftover mac and cheese in an airtight container in the refrigerator. As long as you store it properly, you should be able to enjoy leftovers for three to four days, and you can reheat it in the microwave. If necessary, stir in some milk or cream as you reheat.
Of course, it won't be as saucy as freshly cooked, so I don't recommend this for company. But if you enjoy leftovers, it makes a nice lunch or dinner.
Enhance the flavor with smoked cheese. You can buy commercially smoked cheddar, Gouda and Gruyère, or you can take it a step further and smoke these cheeses yourself before shredding.
Swap different cheeses. Monterey Jack, Colby Jack, havarti, fontina and mozzarella are also nice melting cheeses. Some people even like to use cream cheese — just make sure it's at room temperature to ensure it melts well.
Stir in your favorite mix-ins. Just like my brisket mac and cheese, you can stir in your favorite additions. Some options include smoked chicken, Hatch green chiles, short ribs, crumbled bacon, pulled pork shoulder, smoked duck, caramelized onions, hot sauce or shrimp.
Bake in the oven. While this may sound like a silly variation for a smoker recipe, this dish works just as well in the oven. This can come in handy if you love the recipe but need to cook inside on a particular day. Simply bake at 325 degrees F for 15-20 minutes.
Don’t fully cook the macaroni to al dente: The macaroni will continue to cook in the smoker. To avoid overly mushy pasta, we should cook the macaroni a minute or two under the package directions.
Let the milk and heavy cream sit at room temperature: If the liquid is too cold, the roux can seize. Set the two at room temperature for 30 minutes before cooking or give them a quick 1-minute trip to the microwave.
Don’t overheat the roux: If the roux gets too hot, it can break the milk and leave you with a grainy sauce. Never boil the mixture — just keep it to a simmer and no hotter.
Shred the cheese yourself: Bagged shredded cheese is coated in a substance to prevent clumping, so it doesn’t melt as well as freshly grated cheese. Grating your own cheese makes for a better texture.
For a beer, you’ll love a German doppelbock with this homemade mac and cheese. A doppelbock is the perfect all-purpose beer as it pairs well with each cheese. We get a caramel-like malt that complements the nutty cheeses while offering a contrast to the smoked hickory.
If you prefer wine, I love an oaked chardonnay. The oak barrels give the chardonnay a toasty quality, which is nice with the smoke infusion, and its buttery body works beautifully with that creamy cheese sauce.
When only the best comfort food will do, I hope you make this smoked mac and cheese. Every bite is pure indulgence.
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The Ultimate Mac and Cheese
- Smoker any type
- Wood pellets or chunks preferably hickory
- 12-inch cast-iron skillet or 9-inch-by-13-inch disposable aluminum pan
- 1 pound dried elbow macaroni
- ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon salted butter divided
- ½ cup panko crumbs
- 4 garlic cloves minced or grated
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 2 cups heavy cream room temperature
- 2 cups whole milk room temperature
- 2 teaspoons spicy brown mustard
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
- 2 cups cheddar cheese divided
- 2 cups Gouda cheese divided
- 2 cups Gruyère cheese divided
- Heat smoker to 225 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the elbow macaroni one to two minutes less than what the package directions dictate. Drain and reserve in a large mixing bowl.
- While the water boils and the pasta cooks, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the panko crumbs and stir to coat. Continue to cook, stirring every so often, until the panko crumbs turn golden brown. Remove from heat and reserve.
- Melt the remaining ½ cup butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Whisk in the flour. Continue to whisk constantly for about three minutes.
- Slowly pour in the heavy cream and milk, whisking constantly to create a smooth mixture. Season with spicy brown mustard, salt, black pepper and smoked paprika. Bring to a simmer, whisking frequently. Do not boil as that can cause the milk to separate and leave you with a grainy sauce.
- Turn off the heat. Stir in 1 cup cheddar, 1 cup Gouda and 1 cup Gruyère until the cheese melts and becomes one cohesive mixture.
- Pour the cheese sauce on top of the reserved macaroni and stir to coat.
- Pour half the mac and cheese into a greased 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish or 12-inch cast-iron skillet. Layer half the remaining cheese on top. Pour the rest of the macaroni on the cheese layer and top with the last of the cheese. Sprinkle the browned panko crumbs on top.
- Place in the smoker with a water pan and close the lid. Smoke for one hour. The sides should be hot and bubbly when ready. Enjoy!
- Let the milk and heavy cream sit at room temperature. If the liquid is too cold, the roux can seize. Set the two at room temperature for 30 minutes before cooking or give them a quick 1-minute trip to the microwave.
- For the best texture, shred the cheese yourself.
- For 2 cups of grated cheese, you'll need about 8 ounces of each cheese.
- Store leftovers in an airtight container for three to four days. You can reheat in the microwave. Feel free to add a little additional milk or cream.
- Nutritional information is only an estimate. The accuracy of the nutritional information for any recipe on this site is not guaranteed.