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This bacon macaroni and cheese recipe is the ultimate comfort food. There isn't just bacon sprinkled into the mac; bacon is incorporated into every part of it! From the garlic panko breadcrumbs to the smoked cheddar-gouda cheese sauce, this is the best bacon mac and cheese, period!
Just call me the mac and cheese queen, y'all. My southern baked mac and cheese went viral, so I knew I had to bring you guys my family's all-time favorite non-holiday-specific mac and cheese: the ultimate bacon mac.
This is the good stuff, the stuff people fight over. Thick cut bacon, three cheeses (smoked cheddar, gouda, and gruyere?! Delish!), and crispy panko topping, all made easy!
Thick-Cut Bacon. This gives us plenty of fat to use in our sauce and breadcrumbs and plenty of bacon to chop up and sprinkle through the mac.
Panko Breadcrumbs. This is very different from regular breadcrumbs; panko is Japanese breadcrumbs that have been process in a special way that makes them lighter and crispier than your everyday breadcrumb.
Herbs. You can use fresh, chopped thyme, rosemary, and oregano or you can use dried Italian herbs.
Fresh Garlic. This fries up with the breadcrumbs and herbs in bacon fat. Bland? Never heard of her, we don't know her here.
Short Pasta. I like rotini, shells, elbows, and other short pasta shapes for macaroni and cheese.
Whole Milk. You can also use heavy cream, half and half, or evaporated milk.
Cheeses. I used smoked cheddar, gruyere, and gouda, but other great cheeses are sharp and mild cheddars, Emmental, brie, colby jack, and even American!
Spices. Garlic and onion powders, smoked paprika, and dry mustard seed powder really give so much flavor here.
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How to Make Bacon Mac and Cheese
It's grown up and sexy, y'all! First I slow-rendered thick-cut smoked bacon in the 12-inch Tramontina Fry Pan. It's a big girl that can handle plenty of bacon strips with a heavy bottom that holds heat evenly, so the bacon came out evenly cooked and crisp and the fat ready for our diabolical usage.
What, you thought I was going to throw it away? I said this was the ultimate bacon mac, didn't I?
Half of the bacon fat will stay in the frying pan because it'll be used for both frying up the garlic-herb breadcrumbs, and the 12-inch fry pan is nice and wide enough to toast up all the breadcrumbs with ease. The other half will go in that rich cheese sauce.
To make this decadent sauce I'm using the Tramontina 7 qt Dutch Oven, which is big enough to handle as much mac and cheese as you want, perfect for big families or dinner parties.
Or for a very greedy mac and cheese queen to eat as much of this goodness as she wants, I'm just saying.
We mix the bacon fat with all-purpose flour to make a roux. A roux is a mixture of fat and flour, usually in equal parts, used to thicken sauces and soups.
Then we add cold milk, a little at a time. At first, it will seize up every time you splash in some milk, looking strangely like a big dough clump. Push past that honey and keep adding milk, whisking constantly until it becomes a smooth and liquid sauce. Whisk the rest of your milk in at that time, then let it come to a simmer until thickened.
Now we need to season our bechamel sauce!
Seasoning Mac and Cheese
If you're just putting salt and pepper into your mac at the end of putting it together, you're seriously missing out. The spices in mac and cheese add depth of flavor and elevate plain ole mac into something people beg you to make once a week.
I keep it pretty simple, but these few spices pack a punch:
- Dry Mustard Powder. This is super important to me because its flavor amplifies the tangy brightness in cheddar cheese.
- Smoked Paprika. I love, love, love smoked paprika. I put it on my eggs benedict, mix it into dry rubs for ribs, and I love it in anything rich and saucy. Unlike the average paprika you find in the grocery store (which many people say has no flavor!) this has a smokiness that enriches anything you put it in.
- Garlic and Onion Powders. These are must-haves for me! They add depth and savoriness, giving your sauce some oomph.
People also add in a tiny bit of nutmeg, but be careful: nutmeg is an extremely powerful spice and can overpower everything.
Let's Talk Cheeses
Our bacon-bechamel sauce needs to become a cheese sauce, y'all. I used smoked cheddar gruyere, and gouda; cheddar is bright, zippy, and tangy with classic 'mac and cheese' flavors, gruyere is the melting cheese for a rich, creamy sauce, and gouda is the grown-and-sexy cheese.
Gruyere is a Swiss cheese that is classic in fondue, so you know it's a smooth, melty, creamy cheese. I use it to make my favorite Sunday brunch sandwich, the croque madame (essentially a ham and cheese sandwich but made with gruyere cheese sauce in the sandwich and on top of the sandwich with a fried egg on top and if you've never had it OMLSBJH you need to make one and change your life!), and love it in mac and cheese.
Gouda is almost like the brown butter of cheese with a rich caramelly, sweet, nutty flavor and melts extremely well..at least the young gouda does. Aged gouda is hard (therefore is difficult to melt) and is labeled as 'aged' while young gouda is the kind you'll find with the red wax.
This is a grown and sexy mac, y'all. It's got the fancy cheeses.
These three are considered semi-hard cheeses so to melt them you need to do these three things to ensure smooth and creamy sauce:
Grate your cheeses fresh. The pre-shredded stuff is coated with cellulose dust so it doesn't stick together...which also makes it more difficult to melt.
Take the entire pot off your hot stove range. I learned a few years ago while making my stovetop mac and cheese that too much heat will cause harder cheeses to separate, causing them to become oily, gritty, and grainy.
Add a small handful of cheese to the sauce at a time. It's easier to add a small amount, melt it down, and continue until all the cheese has melted than try to melt down a huge amount of cheese in a short amount of time using only residual heat.
After making your sauce, add in your cooked pasta and chopped bacon, then sprinkle the crispy bacon-garlic-herb breadcrumbs on top. Pure heaven.
Storing and Reheating
Leftovers are easy. Keep the leftover bacon mac and cheese in an air-tight food storage container for up to five days.
To reheat, splash a little milk into a bowl with your leftovers, reheat in the microwave until hot, and give a stir. Boom, creamy bacon mac and cheese with no problem.
Love Mac and Cheese? Check out:
- Southern Baked Soul Food Mac and Cheese
- BBQ Pulled Pork Mac and Cheese
- Easy Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese
- Panera Bread White Cheddar Mac and Cheese Copycat
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- 12 ounces thick-cut bacon
- 16 ounces uncooked short pasta
Garlic-Herb Panko Breadcrumbs
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
- 2 tsp dried Italian herbs
- 1 cup panko bread crumbs
- 4 tbsp flour
- 4 cups whole milk
- 3 tsp chicken bouillon base, optional
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp onion powder
- ½ tsp smoked paprika
- ¼ tsp ground mustard seed powder or ½ tsp dijon mustard
- 1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
- 2 cups gruyere cheese, shredded
- 1 cup smoked cheddar cheese, shredded
- 1 cup gouda cheese, shredded
- Place the bacon in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Cook until crispy, about 4-5 minutes. Remove the bacon from the pan and drain on paper towels. Once cool, chop the bacon into bite-sized pieces.
- Pour half of the bacon fat into a large dutch oven pot and leave the other half in the frying pan. Over medium heat, toast the garlic, Italian herbs, and panko bread crumbs until the breadcrumbs turn toasty brown and the mixture is fragrant. Put the breadcrumbs into a medium serving bowl and set aside.
- In the large Dutch oven with the bacon fat, turn the heat on to medium heat and add the all-purpose flour. Whisk the flour in and let it cook, whisking constantly, for about a minute to get rid of the raw flour taste.
- Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the pasta in while cooking the bechamel and cook to package directions.
- Splash in the milk, a small amount at a time, whisking constantly. It will thicken and clump up, but keep adding a small amount of milk (like ¼ cup) at a time until the mixture becomes smooth and liquid. Then pour in the rest of the milk and chicken bouillon base, if using, and whisk to incorporate it.
- Let the bechamel come to a simmer and thicken, whisking occasionally so the sauce doesn't burn at the bottom, for about 5-7 minutes. It'll be the perfect texture when you can dip a spoon in and run a finger down the back of the spoon and the sauce stays separated.
- Add in your kosher salt, garlic and onion powders, smoked paprika, black pepper, and ground mustard seed powder. Taste and add seasoning as desired.
- Take the pot off the heat and whisk in the shredded cheeses, one small handful at a time. Make sure the cheese is melted in before adding the next handful. Repeat until all cheeses are melted into the sauce.
- Stir in bacon and pasta until thoroughly combined.
- Serve hot with panko breadcrumbs sprinkled generously over the top of each individual serving.
- Store in an airtight food storage container for up to 5 days in the fridge.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 10 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 532Total Fat: 31gSaturated Fat: 15gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 14gCholesterol: 88mgSodium: 1223mgCarbohydrates: 32gFiber: 2gSugar: 6gProtein: 30g
All nutrition facts are estimations. Please see a physician for any health-related inquiries.
Eden Westbrook is the recipe developer, writer, and photographer behind Sweet Tea and Thyme. A classically trained chef, Eden has inspired home cooks into the kitchen with cultural comfort foods, easy family-friendly eats and sweets, and glorious spreads for date night and entertaining since 2015.