An old favorite gets even more savory
Need to warm up after a cold day—and chase away the winter blues? Well, mac ‘n cheese is your friend. Add some bacon, and this classic comfort food reaches a whole new level.
So mix up some Bacon Macaroni and Cheese, and let your soul escape from winter. At least for a little while.
Recipe: Bacon Macaroni and Cheese
This recipe is a riff off our Old-School Macaroni & Cheese from a few years ago. It’s a pretty traditional recipe (adapted from Craig Claiborne’s Kitchen Primer) that uses two kinds of cheese: Cheddar and Parmesan.
There are several distinct, but easy, steps involved in making this dish. You need to sauté the bacon; cook the macaroni; make a quick roux with flour and butter; add hot milk to the roux to make a sauce, then add cheese; and finally put everything together in a dish and bake.
I usually multi-task when I make this recipe, and the steps in the Procedure reflect that. But you can change things up a bit to suit your own workflow. Do note that when you reach the stage where you heat the milk and make the roux (Steps 5 and 6), you’ll need about 5 distraction-free minutes at the stove.
Hands-on prep/cooking time for this dish is 15 to 20 minutes. Then you’ll need another 25 minutes or so for baking. So figure an hour altogether.
This recipe is sized to fill a baking or gratin dish that holds about 2 quarts. The recipe yields 4 generous servings when the dish is used as a main course (which is how I like to serve it). If you prefer to use it as a side, this recipe will yield 8 or more servings. The recipe is easy to double.
Leftovers keep well for a few days in the refrigerator if stored in an airtight container.
- 8 ounces bacon (or to taste)
- 8 ounces grated cheddar cheese, divided (I prefer sharp, but use what you like; if you don’t want to grate the cheddar, you can cube it)
- 3 ounces grated Parmesan cheese, divided
- 1 ounce butter (for greasing baking dish)
- 1 tablespoon salt (for salting pasta water; table salt is fine)
- 8 ounces uncooked elbow macaroni (or another pasta shape of your choice)
- 2 cups milk (whole milk is best, but skim works too)
- 2 ounces reserved bacon fat (from rendering the bacon; may substitute butter)
- 2 tablespoons flour
- ½ teaspoon Kosher salt (or to taste; if using regular table salt, use about half this amount)
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (or to taste)
- ¼ - ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
- additional grated Parmesan cheese for garnish (optional)
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Cut the bacon into strips of ½ inch or so. Spread the bacon strips out in a cold frying pan, then place the pan over medium heat. Sauté until the bacon is crisp. Remove the cooked bacon strips with a slotted spoon and drain them on a paper towel. Reserve 2 tablespoons of bacon fat.
- Meanwhile, assemble the remaining ingredients and grate the cheeses. Reserve 1 ounce each of both the cheddar and Parmesan. Butter a baking dish (one that holds about 2 quarts), then set it aside.
- Prepare the macaroni. Bring a 4-quart pot of water to boil. Add a tablespoon of salt to the boiling water, then add the macaroni (or other pasta of your choice). Stir briefly so the pasta doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. When the water returns to a boil, lower the heat so the water is just boiling, and allow the macaroni to cook while you complete other tasks. Cook the pasta for 7 minutes, and then start testing for doneness. You want the macaroni almost cooked through—it will soften more in the oven. When you judge the macaroni to be sufficiently done, pour it into a colander and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. (Note: You’ll probably finish cooking the pasta sometime during Steps 7 or 8 below. If this timing seems problematic to you, prepare the pasta first; then cool it and hold the pasta until you’re ready for it in Step 9.)
- While the water is heating for the pasta, begin to heat the milk in a separate pan. Use medium heat, and be careful not to scorch it. You don’t need to heat the milk to scalding point (180 degrees), although you can do so if you like. You just want the milk to be hot enough that it combines well with the fat/flour mixture you’ll prepare in Step 6 (warm liquid helps prevent lumps from forming).
- Add the 2 tablespoons of reserved bacon fat to a 2- or 3-quart saucepan or saucier (a sauce pan with sloping sides, which makes it easier to whisk a sauce); place the pan over medium stovetop heat. When the fat is hot, add the flour and stir it in, using a wire whisk. Continue stirring for the next two minutes (you don’t have to stir nonstop, but keep the mixture moving so it doesn’t overbrown). The mixture you’ve just made is a roux.
- Now begin adding the hot milk to your roux. Using a ladle, add 4 to 6 ounces of hot milk while continuously whisking the roux. The milk will be absorbed into the roux almost immediately. Add another ladle or two of hot milk, continuing to stir with the whisk. The mixture will be liquid but fairly thick. Now pour in the rest of the hot milk and bring the mixture to a boil, whisking vigorously (to keep lumps from forming). Once the mixture comes to a boil, adjust the heat down so that it is just simmering. After 20 to 30 seconds, you can stop whisking continuously, but do whisk every 15 to 30 seconds—the milk will fully combine with the roux and the mixture will thicken, creating a sauce. When the mixture is thick, add Kosher salt, pepper, and optional cayenne pepper (all to taste). Stir to incorporate the seasonings. At this point, you’ve made a white sauce—or if you want to be fancy and French, a béchamel sauce.
- Add 7 ounces of grated cheddar cheese and 2 ounces of grated Parmesan to the béchamel. Stir to incorporate the cheeses. Cook briefly (maybe a minute) until the cheese has melted into the sauce (it's OK if a few bits remain unmelted). You’ve now made a Mornay sauce. Add the drained, cooked bacon strips to the sauce and stir to incorporate.
- Remove the saucepan/saucier from the heat. Add the cooked macaroni to the bacon Mornay sauce (a 2-quart saucepan should be just big enough to hold the whole mixture) and stir to combine.
- Spread the macaroni-and-Mornay mixture into the prepared baking dish, and smooth the top. Dust the top with the reserved cheddar and Parmesan cheese.
- Bake the mixture for about 25 minutes. I usually begin checking for doneness at 20 minutes — Bacon Mac ‘n Cheese is done when the sauce has thickened and the mixture is bubbling hot. If the top hasn’t browned as much as you’d like (it often doesn’t), run the baking dish under the broiler for a minute or two to create a nice brown crust.
- Serve and enjoy! You might wish to add additional grated Parmesan at the table to garnish the dish (I usually do).
- I like to use thick bacon slices for this dish, though thin ones work OK.
- I prefer to use bacon that’s pepper-coated or applewood smoked—though plain old bacon is also plenty tasty.
- Cheddar is the classic cheese for this dish. I always use yellow cheddar because it gives the finished dish great color. (Yellow cheddar is dyed, by the way; in its natural form, cheddar is white). White cheddar is less colorful, but the flavor will be equally good. You can also substitute any other good-flavored cheese that you like (but try this recipe first with cheddar).
- Parmesan adds a nice sharp dimension to this dish, and makes a particularly tasty garnish at table. You can omit the Parmesan if you want (many recipes don’t call for it), but I think it delivers extra flavor.
- For an extremely rich dish, substitute cream for milk (or use half-and-half). This is overkill, in my opinion. But if you crave unbridled lusciousness, go for it.
- I like spiciness, so I always use some cayenne pepper in this dish. But you can omit it, or substitute Tabasco sauce.
- Mac ‘n cheese recipes often include ground nutmeg, and it can be a good addition. I don’t care for it in this particular recipe, but you may think otherwise. If you want to use it, I would suggest a grating of fresh nutmeg—no more than ¼ ounce.
- Many recipes call for mac ‘n cheese to be covered with buttered bread crumbs before baking. I’m not a fan of this, but feel free to add the crumbs if you like. If the bread crumbs don’t brown sufficiently before the Bacon Macaroni and Cheese is done, just run the dish under the broiler for a minute or two (being careful not to burn the crumbs).
“Wow,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs, plying her fork. “The only thing better than Mac ‘n Cheese is Bacon Mac ‘n Cheese.”
“And it’s a perfect dish for the big game,” I said.
“Oh, right, that’s today, isn’t it?” she said.
“Of course it’s today!” I replied. “We’ve only been talking about it on the blog for the past two weeks!”
“Yeah, well, I’m mostly in it for the food,” she said. “All the dishes you’ve made this time are winners, by the way.”
“Thanks,” I said. “But I don’t suppose you’ll be watching the Super Bowl while you’re eating them?”
“No, I don’t enjoy seeing people tackle one another in the snow,” said Mrs K R. “If I wanted that, I could have just shopped the after-Christmas sales.”
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Or check out the index for more recipes