This easy jalapeno popper mac and cheese puts a fresh twist on a classic appetizer! An easy baked mac and cheese with white cheddar sauce, crispy bacon, and toasted bread crumbs.
This homemade mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. It's perfect for game day, date night, or a cozy weekend dinner!
We're taking the classic components of a jalapeño popper appetizer and swirling them into a creamy, cheesy pasta sauce with plenty of white cheddar cheese. Top things off with some crispy bacon, fresh jalapeno slices, and buttery panko breadcrumbs for a rich, creamy pasta that's sure to impress.
Looking for something a little different? Try our rosemary bacon mac and cheese →
A few notes on ingredients
- Prepping your jalapeño. We'll use one large jalapeño pepper in this spicy mac n cheese, but we'll cut it two different ways: First, trim about half of the pepper into thin, round slices (you'll use these slices as a garnish, to top the mac and cheese before baking). Dice the rest of the pepper into small pieces (the diced pepper will go straight into the sauce). Jalapeños can vary quite a bit in size and in spice level - feel free to adjust the amount of pepper you use here to suit your own tastes! We have a few tips on adjusting the spice level of this recipe in the "Riffs & Substitutions" section below.
- Shred your own cheese for best results. Pre-shredded cheese is often coated with preservatives that prevent it from melting smoothly. For a smooth, creamy sauce, we recommend buying a block of white cheddar cheese and shredding it yourself.
- Use a sharp cheddar cheese. Look for sharp or extra sharp white cheddar cheese (or use sharp yellow cheddar if you can't find white cheddar!) You want something with plenty of flavor and a bit of a bite to it to balance out the richness of the cream cheese and bacon in this recipe.
- Don't skip the toasted bread crumbs! It's worth the effort to toast up some panko breadcrumbs to top this pasta - they give the final dish a ton of texture and really make a huge difference. We prefer panko bread crumbs here; they have the best texture.
- Add salt at every stage. Seasoning is SO important (with anything, but especially with mac and cheese). Be sure to generously salt your pasta water. Also, add a pinch of salt to the cheese sauce right after you add the milk. Once the macaroni noodles are all mixed in, give it a taste and add more salt if the flavors still need to "pop" (just keep in mind that the bacon is also pretty salty, so you may need less salt here than you usually would!)
How to make this mac and cheese
There are five main steps to this bacon jalapeno mac and cheese:
- Cook the pasta.
- Crisp up the bacon.
- Build the sauce.
- Toast the bread crumbs.
First, cook the pasta
First things first: Cook the pasta noodles in very salty water until they're a few minutes less than al dente. You can handle this in one of two ways:
- Cook and drain the pasta, then return the same pot to the stove to build the cheese sauce.
- Cook the pasta in a separate pot of boiling water while you fry the bacon and make the cheese sauce. When the pasta is done, use a spider strainer or slotted spoon to transfer it directly to the prepared cheese sauce. *This is our preferred method. Timing suggestion: Fry the bacon while you wait for the water to boil, then build the sauce while the pasta cooks.
Crisp the bacon
Dice the bacon up (this helps it cook more quickly) and fry it in a large pot until crispy. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the bacon to a paper towel lined plate and set it aside for later.
Leave the bacon fat in the pot
When the bacon is cooked, leave the bacon fat right in the pot - don't worry about draining it! We'll use this fat in our roux (a paste that will thicken our cheese sauce).
Fun fact: The roux in mac and cheese recipes is typically made with butter and flour, but since we're cooking up some bacon here anyway, we're using the leftover bacon fat instead of butter to build the base of this sauce. This gives us extra flavor and reduces waste!
Build the cheese sauce
Add some diced jalapeño to the hot bacon fat. Keep an eye on it - the pot is already hot, so the pepper will cook quickly and may spatter a bit (turn the heat down if you need to!)
Once the jalapeño has softened a bit, add a bit of flour and stir everything together to form a loose paste (this is your roux!). Cook the roux for 30 seconds or so to cook out any raw flour taste, then slowly stir in the milk.
Stir well to work out any lumps, then bring the sauce to a simmer and let it thicken.
Once the sauce is fairly thick, stir in a bit of cream cheese. Depending on the brand or style of cream cheese you use, it may not melt perfectly: that's ok! Stir until it's mostly melted, but don't worry if some small chunks remain at this point.
Next, add a few handfuls of shredded white cheddar cheese and stir until the cheese is melted and the sauce is creamy. Throw in your cooked pasta and half of the crispy bacon, then stir everything together until it's evenly coated.
Toast the bread crumbs
Melt a bit of butter in a small skillet. Add panko breadcrumbs and a pinch of salt, then toast for a few minutes until they're golden brown. Stir the breadcrumbs constantly and keep a close eye on them - this process will go pretty quickly!
Tip: If you have extra bacon fat from other recipes, you can use that instead of butter here.
To bake, or not to bake?
We wrote this recipe as a spicy baked mac and cheese: We just love the extra oomph you get from letting all these flavors melt together in the oven. But you have a few options here!
If you'd like to bake the mac and cheese, transfer it to an oven safe dish and add the toppings, then bake until the sauce is bubbling and the bread crumbs are browned. Be sure to undercook the pasta a bit (a few minutes less than al dente - it should still have a bit of crunch to it!) since it will finish cooking in the oven. We like to make the mac and cheese in an oven-safe pot (like this Dutch oven) so it can transfer from stovetop to oven with no extra dishes!
To save time, serve this as a stovetop mac and cheese: Cook the pasta until it's al dente, make the sauce as instructed, and top the creamy macaroni with the remaining crispy bacon, toasted bread crumbs, and jalapeño slices and enjoy!
A quick mac and cheese primer
There are two main styles of macaroni and cheese: The French-leaning version builds a creamy sauce using a basic stovetop béchamel sauce (a flour-and-butter base - called a roux - with lots of milk). Southern mac and cheese is typically baked and sometimes features eggs or evaporated milk in addition to a blend of cheeses and seasonings.
The "right" way to make mac and cheese is different for everyone. Our mac and cheese recipes have plenty of riffs and mix-ins, and they lean towards the French style: excellent right off the stovetop or baked with breadcrumbs or extra cheese on top.
Riffs and Substitutions
This creamy jalapeño mac and cheese is quite forgiving: Mix it up to use whatever you have on hand! A few of our favorite swaps and additions:
- Add extra protein. Stir some cooked shredded slow cooker chicken, andouille sausage, chorizo, or extra bacon into this mac and cheese if you like!
- Swap some or all of the cheeses in this recipe for smoked gouda, havarti, parmesan, yellow cheddar, or fontina with good results.
- Amp up the flavor by adding minced garlic, roasted garlic, diced onion (yellow/white onions, shallots, or green onions are all good) along with the jalapeño when you start building the sauce. You can also stir some diced tomatoes or chopped, canned green chiles into the finished sauce for extra flavor.
- Use any pasta you like! We love twirly cavatappi noodles here, but this recipe also works with rigatoni, shell pasta, or classic elbow macaroni.
- Swap the jalapeño for a poblano pepper or some diced bell peppers. Dial the amount of jalapeño up or down to make this mac and cheese more or less spicy.
- For a milder flavor, remove the seeds from the jalapeño.
- Pro tip: If you want the flavors of a jalapeño popper without the pasta (*gasp*, but it's ok we forgive u), these base ingredients are also excellent in a jalapeño popper dip.
A few FAQs
We think this spicy mac and cheese tastes best the day it's baked, but the leftovers are still good and very easy to reheat! Scoop leftover mac and cheese into a clean, oven-safe dish and bake at 325° Fahrenheit until warmed through (the exact baking time will depend on how much you're heating up: usually 10-20 minutes is plenty for a serving or two).
Yes - this recipe is easy to prep in advance! Make the sauce and pasta as directed, transfer to an oven-safe baking dish, and let it cool completely. Don't add the toppings yet! Cover mac and cheese with an airtight lid and store in the refrigerator (2-3 days) or freezer (2-3 months). If you freeze this mac and cheese, let it defrost overnight in the fridge before baking. When you're ready to bake, remove any lids or wrapping, top with crispy bacon and toasted bread crumbs, then place baking dish in a COLD oven and heat it with the mac and cheese inside. You may need to extend the baking time, so keep an eye on it. Never place a cold baking pan - especially if it's glass or ceramic - into a hot oven, as it can shatter.
You just get much more color and flavor this way! You can skip this step if you're short on time.
PS - Need a little help with your mac and cheese? Get our best tips for perfect sauces, toasty bread crumbs, marvelous mix-ins, and more in Mac and Cheese 101!Print
This easy jalapeño popper mac and cheese has all the flavors of the classic appetizer!
For the pasta
- 1 large jalapeño
- ¾ pound pasta (we used cavatappi)
- 5 strips bacon, roughly diced
- 3 Tablespoons flour
- 2 ¼ cups milk
- salt and pepper to taste
- ¼ cup cream cheese (2 ounces)
- 2 cups shredded white cheddar cheese (8 ounces)
For the bread crumbs
- 1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
- ½ cup panko breadcrumbs
- Pinch of salt
Prep the jalapeño
- Cut about ½ of the jalapeño into thin slices (you’ll use these to top the mac and cheese before baking). Set aside.
- Dice the remaining jalapeño (you’ll use this in the sauce).
Boil the pasta water and cook the bacon:
- Heat oven to 400° Fahrenheit.
- Set a large pot of water on the stove to boil.
- Set another large pot on the stove over medium heat. Add diced bacon and cook, stirring frequently, until bacon is crispy.
- Use a slotted spoon to remove bacon to a paper towel-lined plate. Leave the bacon fat in the pot: This will be the fat that we use to build our roux! You want about 3 Tablespoons of bacon fat left in the pot; if you have quite a bit more than this, feel free to spoon a bit out.
Build the sauce:
- Add diced jalapeño to the pot with your bacon fat. The bacon fat will be quite hot: keep an eye on the jalapeño and stir frequently to ensure it doesn’t burn (you can reduce the heat or turn it off entirely for a minute if you need to). Cook until jalapeño is fragrant and has softened slightly, about one minute.
- Add flour to pot and stir to form a paste. (This is our roux, which will help the sauce thicken. Don’t worry if it looks a bit thin or foamy compared to a traditional flour-and-butter roux!)
- Add milk to roux a little at a time, stirring constantly to break up any lumps. Stir in a pinch of salt and some fresh cracked black pepper.
- Bring sauce to a low simmer and cook, stirring frequently, for 6-10 minutes until it’s thickened to your desired consistency.
- Cook the pasta while the sauce thickens: At this point, your pasta water should be boiling. Add plenty of salt, then stir pasta into the boiling water and cook until it’s a few minutes less than al dente. Drain and set aside or use a spider strainer to lift pasta directly into the sauce in Step 7 (below).
- When the sauce has thickened, stir in cream cheese until it’s mostly melted. Don’t worry if there are still a few large pieces - it will even out later!
- Turn off the heat. Add shredded white cheddar cheese and stir until sauce is smooth and creamy. Then stir in cooked pasta and half of the crispy bacon (reserve remaining bacon for topping the pasta before baking).
Toast the bread crumbs:
- Melt butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add breadcrumbs and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring frequently, for 3-4 minutes until bread crumbs are crispy and lightly browned.
Assemble and bake:
- Transfer pasta to an oven-safe baking dish (see recipe notes). Top with toasted breadcrumbs, remaining bacon, and remaining jalapeño slices.
- Bake at 400° F for 15-20 minutes, until bread crumbs have browned up a bit more and pasta has just started to crisp up around the edges. Serve immediately.
A few notes on equipment. We like building this mac and cheese in a large, oven-safe pot (like a Dutch oven) so it can go from stovetop to oven easily. You can also bake this mac and cheese in small baking dishes or ramekins for individual serving sizes.
Shred your own cheese if you can: Store bought shredded cheeses are often coated with preservatives that prevent them from melting smoothly.
Additions and Substitutions. Use regular yellow cheddar cheese if you can’t find white cheddar, or sub fontina, havarti, goat cheese, gruyere, or smoked gouda for some or all of the cheeses here. Add garlic, roasted garlic, onion, or shallot to the sauce when you add the jalapeño for extra flavor. Add cooked chicken, Italian sausage, or extra bacon for more protein. Substitute up to 1 cup of the milk for chicken stock, beer, or white wine. Use our Magic Cauliflower Cream in place of the flour and milk if you like.
Adjust the spice levels. Remove the seeds from the jalapeño for a mellower flavor, or use less of the pepper if you’d like less spice. For more spice, use additional jalapeño.
Make ahead tips. Make the mac and cheese as directed, then transfer to an oven-safe baking dish and let cool completely. Cover with an airtight lid (or a piece of plastic wrap) and store in the fridge for up to 3 days. When you’re ready to bake, toast the bread crumbs, add the toppings, and transfer the dish to a COLD oven. Heat the oven with the mac and cheese inside, then bake until the cheese sauce bubbles and the top is lightly browned (if the top is browning too much, cover it with an oven-safe lid or a piece of foil). You will need to adjust baking times, so keep an eye on it. Always check the care instructions on your individual equipment before using this technique. Never place a cold baking pan - especially if it's glass or ceramic - into a hot oven, as it can shatter.
Serve this as a stovetop mac and cheese to save some time: Make the sauce as directed, cook the pasta until it is al dente, then top with toasted bread crumbs and extra bacon (skip the raw jalapeños if you like).
- Serving Size:
- Calories: 646
- Sugar: 8.1 g
- Sodium: 969.1 mg
- Fat: 33.6 g
- Carbohydrates: 59.3 g
- Protein: 25.6 g
- Cholesterol: 83 mg
Keywords: pasta, comfort food, side dish