This cheesy gratin is comfort food for the whole family
Chili. Cheese. Pasta. Bring ‘em on!
And this dish does, in delicious combination. It’s a quick-bake casserole that makes a perfect cold-weather meal. It even gives you an excuse to use leftover chili.
You can have this dish on the table in about 30 minutes, so it’s great for weeknight dinners. But it’s tasty enough for company, too.
So take this along to your next pot-luck event. Like maybe your neighbor’s annual Super Bowl party. Who cares which team wins the game? You’ve won the meal.
Recipe: Real-Chili Chili Mac Casserole
Our chili recipes tend to yield large quantities, more than we can possibly consume at a meal (or even three). So we generally have leftovers in the freezer. We put some of those leftovers to good use in this Chili Mac – which is why we call it “Real Chili.”
Don’t have chili on hand? No worries – we’ll tell you how to make a quicky version (see the Notes).
We like to use beef chili in this dish, but feel free to use your own favorite recipe. If you don’t have one, you could try our Basic Chili or our Slow Cooker Homestyle Chili. Both of those recipes include beans, which you can leave out if you prefer (we like to pair pasta with beans, but not everyone does.)
Prep time for this dish is about 15 minutes, assuming you have chili on hand. Baking time adds another 10 to 15 minutes. So plan on half an hour from start to finish.
This dish will serve 4 hearty appetites. Leftovers keep well for a few days if refrigerated in an airtight container.
- ~4 cups leftover chili (see headnote)
- 8 ounces dried pasta (we prefer macaroni, but use any shape you like)
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt (for seasoning the pasta water; use about half that if using regular table salt)
- 8 ounces shredded cheddar cheese, divided
- ~1 tablespoon butter or oil (for greasing the casserole dish)
- garnish of diced or sliced jalapeño peppers (optional; may substitute minced cilantro or parsley)
- garnish of additional grated cheddar cheese (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- Pour the leftover chili into a 2-quart saucepan, then reheat it over medium stovetop heat. (You don't want the chili too watery for this dish, so if the chili is too "wet" let some of the liquid boil away as the chili reheats.)
- Fill a large soup pot or saucepan with water (use one that holds at least 4 quarts). Bring the water to a boil.
- When the water is boiling, add the kosher salt to season it. Add the pasta, and cook until al dente (see package instructions – this usually takes 7 to 9 minutes).
- Meanwhile, grate the cheese and set it aside. Grease a 2-quart baking dish with the butter or oil.
- When the pasta is done, drain it into a colander or strainer. Pour the drained pasta back into the cooking pot. Add the chili (from Step 2) to the pasta, then stir to combine. Add about half the grated cheese and stir again to combine.
- Scrape the chili/pasta mixture into the greased casserole dish. Using a spatula or spoon, smooth the top. Cover the mixture evenly with the rest of the grated cheese. Place the baking dish in the preheated oven, and bake until the cheese is nicely melted and beginning to brown (10 minutes should do it, 15 tops). If you want to fully brown the cheese, you can run the dish under the broiler for the last 2 or 3 minutes of baking.
- When the casserole is done, remove it from the oven and let it sit for 5 minutes so the juices have time to be absorbed into the pasta. Use this time to dice or slice some jalapeño peppers for garnish (if using).
- Dish up the chili mac and add the garnish, if using. Enjoy!
- Many recipes for Chili Mac direct you to make chili as part of the recipe. That works OK, but those recipes take longer to prepare. And the chili may not be the best, since it doesn’t cook for long. So we always use leftover chili when we make this dish.
- But if you don’t have chili on hand, here’s a quick version you can prepare: Brown 1 pound of ground beef in a frying pan (season to taste with salt – about 1 teaspoon kosher salt for us). While the meat is browning, sauté 1 diced onion in 1 tablespoon of oil (use a Dutch oven or a soup pot, one that holds at least 4 quarts). After 5 minutes of sautéing, add 1 or 2 garlic cloves (minced or thinly sliced) to the onion. When the meat is browned, add it to the cooking pot with the onions. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons commercial chili powder (to taste; we vote for 2). Add 2 teaspoons each of ground cumin, coriander, and oregano. Add one 28-ounce can diced tomatoes. If you’d like to add beans to the mix (we do), drain 1 can of kidney beans, rinse them off, then add them to the cooking pot. Bring the chili to a simmer and cook for 20 to 30 minutes (it’ll taste better if you double that amount of cooking time, but you may not want to for chili mac). After the chili has been cooking for a few minutes, you can proceed with the chili mac recipe above, starting with Step 3. (BTW, this chili recipe will make more than 4 cups, so you might want to increase the size of your baking dish to 3 quarts.)
- We like to use sharp cheddar cheese for this chili mac, but mild or medium works well too.
- Or you could substitute another cheese, if you like. Use whatever you think will go well with chili (we’d suggest Monterey Jack).
- We like to use regular elbow pasta (i.e., macaroni) in this dish. But any small-shape pasta works. Shells might be a fun variation. Or corkscrews.
- You can easily double the size of this chili mac recipe if you’re serving a crowd. In that case, you’ll want to use a larger baking dish. A 9x13-inch Pyrex dish would be perfect.
- Beef chili tastes great in this dish, but almost any chili will work. We haven’t tried pork chili, but the idea sounds good to us.
- We use jalapeño peppers as a garnish in this recipe, but you could mix them into the chili, too. Or substitute a milder pepper if you don’t want too much heat.
“Wow, delish,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “It’s been years since we had chili mac.”
“Yup,” I said. “But I thought of it when I saw how much leftover chili we had in the freezer. And remembered how much we both like cheesy gratins.”
“Also known as casseroles,” said Mrs K R. “Staples of our childhood.”
“True,” I said. “Everybody’s mom was casserole-crazed back then. I think it was a law or something.”
“Speaking of which, I’m laying down the law,” said Mrs K R. “We need to have this again. Soon.”
Indeed. I can’t appeal that ruling.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Slow Cooker Homestyle Chili
Texas-Style Chili con Carne
BBQ Beef Brisket Chili
Pulled Pork Green Chile Chili
Old-School Macaroni & Cheese
Green Chile Cauliflower 'n Cheese
Bacon Macaroni and Cheese
Or check out the index for more recipes