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Mmm Bacon. I hate to jump on a bandwagon (More like original member), but man I do love bacon. Now, before I get carried away, I don’t think it belongs on everything, all the time. It doesn’t. I can tell you from personal experiences with bacon popcorn, bacon potato chips, and worst of all bacon chapstick, that it has it’s time and place. I mean chapstick? Honor the ingredient people! In all seriousness though, bacon is one of those save-the-day ingredients. A small amount packs a ton of flavor, and chapstick aside, it pairs with a ton of things. Needless to say, the recipe I’m sharing today, Jalapeno Bacon Mac & Cheese, is one of my many recipes that will feature bacon, desserts included.
More on bacon love later, first let’s talk ooey, gooey, cheesy goodness. I love a good bowl of mac & cheese, and sorry I’m definitely not talking about Kraft and their neon powdered cheese. If you caught my last post How to Make Roux: A Complete Guide, you know I’ve got a thing for sauces, especially the cheese kind. In fact, the weeks I spent mastering roux for that post, was inspired by my desire to share an easy, but perfect creamy mac & cheese. This recipe is quick to throw together for the busy moms, the long commuters, and anybody else wanting something satisfying, but just doesn’t have the steam to make a 2 hour dinner.
Jalapeno Bacon Mac & Cheese was born. Now I’ve made bacon mac & cheese before, and a good blend of cheddar and jack will knock your socks off, but this recipe is special. It’s got the salty, crunchy pork, spicy pops of pickled jalapeno, and a luscious white cheddar sauce. It’s the mac & cheese dreams are made of.
Choosing the Ingredients
If there is one thing I’ve learned through my years of cooking it’s that its all about balance. This isn’t the first or the last time, I’ll say that because it’s so important. A successful dish in my opinion, is one that hits more than one part of your palate. Sweet and spicy, sweet and sour, salty and spicy, etc, etc. It’s often my goal whenever I cook to make sure I hit salty, sweet, and acidic in some part of the meal, and usually, it works out in my favor. It’s all about building depth, and mac & cheese is a great way to practice that.
One of the best things about this post, is that the technique is sound. From here, you can easily substitute your own ingredients and follow the steps to create your own cheesy combo. I may sound crazy for recommending you try something other than my recipe, buuut it’s all about the learning here. Knowing that someone walked away from this knowing how to make mac & cheese any time, is way more important than memorizing my recipe, no matter how tasty.
It’s helpful to know how and why these ingredients came together. Remember, balance. I knew I wanted bacon, easy, done. It’s a great way to add some protien, fat, and kick ass flavor to a dish. The grease from the bacon is also the foundation for the roux that makes the cheese sauce, perfect. I usually have a stockpile of cheeses in my fridge (don’t judge), and I had recently bought a nice block of sharp white cheddar cheese that I was dying to try. It’s sharp and tangy and would cut through the rich fattiness of the bacon. But it needed something else, some acid, to keep your palate awake without saturating your mouth with richness. I always have a jar of pickled jalapenos in the fridge: acidic and spicy. I was off to the testing rounds.
Jalapeno Bacon Mac & Cheese : The Making of Ooey goodness
After my standard three rounds of testing, and one final test done by my original taste tester (little brother) and his cheese-loving girlfriend, Jalapeno Bacon Mac & Cheese was a go. Whether you make this recipe exactly (it’s totally worth it!), or adapt it to your own tastes, there are important tips.
Step one: Mis en Place
As always, I recommend prep work before you get the heat going. This recipe calls for just a few ingredients: 6 slices of thick cut bacon, 1/3 cup of picked jalapenos, 6 ounces of white cheddar cheese, 4 ounces monterey jack cheese, 2 tablespoons flour, 2 cups half & half, and 2 cups of pasta. Start by dicing the bacon and the jalapenos. Next shred the cheeses, you should end up with around 3 cups total of cheese. Finally, I measure out my half & half, flour, and pasta. I recommend using a shaped pasta, elbows, penne, or shells. Believe it or not, the shape actually helps retain sauce. Those ridges you see in some pastas are intentionally put there to help catch sauce!
Half & half, and the combo of cheeses were chosen with intent too. Through my testing I found heavy cream to be too rich, but 2% milk didn’t give me the creamy emulsification I wanted. I needed some fat, but not too much, so half and half ended up being the perfect balance. I wanted white cheddar to be the primary flavor for the sauce, but it was too intense on it’s own. Monterey jack is an excellent melting cheese, and because it’s mild and slightly sweet, it bulked up the sauce and mellowed out the cheddar without being distracting.
You’ll also need a rimmed saute pan, I used a 10 inch, and a stock pot that can hold 6-8 cups of water, I used my 6 quart, and a whisk.
Step Two: Render Delicious Bacon Fat
Turn your burners on for both the pans. I usually turn the burner for pasta water onto high to get it to boiling. For the saute pan, a medium heat will do. Add the diced bacon when your pan is hot. Let the bacon crisp up, until it is fully crisp, and carefully take the pieces from the pan to drain on a paper towel. This usually takes around 8 minutes for me. When you’ve got all the bacon out of the pan, drain all but two tablespoons of fat from the pan if needed, and set the pan off heat. Don’t worry about measuring precisely, just eyeball it.
Step 3: Boil Pasta
While your bacon pan cools for a moment, tend to your pasta water. It should be at a boil, or close to at this point. Once boiling, generously add salt. This is one step I think many people skip when it comes to making pasta or rice. But as I have learned from my food TV obsession, is that it is essential to flavor every step of the cooking process. When it comes to your pasta water, you want it salty. Anne Burrell once said on an episode of Worst Cooks that you want pasta water salty like the sea. I usually add a palmful of salt to this much water. You’re pasta will soak up just enough of that flavor to add another layer to the finished product. It makes a difference, trust me.
Make sure the water is at a boil when you add the salt. It will take a moment to dissolve and return to a boil, then add your pasta.
You do not, however, want to add oil. While it stops your pasta from sticking to each other…it also stops the sauce from sticking to the pasta. That starchy stickiness is something we want to retain, and it will come in handy later. Simply make sure you stir your pasta after it’s first added. Keep it at a rapid boil, and stir it occasionally throughout the process. Your pasta shouldn’t stick if you do.
Step 4: Make Roux & Jalapeno Infused Bechamel
Once you’ve added your salt and noodles to the water, return your bacon fat to medium low heat and quickly add your flour. Whisk until it forms a paste. You should require just about two tablespoons of flour, start there and add a little more if the mixture is too runny. For more detailed explanations of this step, check out my How to Make Roux post. It covers what you’re looking for, and any troubleshooting issues you may have to make sure this sauce is successful.
The roux must be cooked over medium low heat. Too high and the flour will quickly burn, and you’ll have to start over. If it makes you feel more comfortable, reserve the drained bacon fat from earlier so you can do it again if needed. If you didn’t butter will also work in place of the bacon fat. Continue to whisk the roux for 2-3 minutes, or until the mixture begins to release some liquid (looks less like paste). If you go a little past this point, and your roux begins to take on a golden color, that’s alright, but don’t cook it past that.
Once your roux is ready, begin to add in your half & half. Add it in thirds, whisking after each addition. Turn your burner to medium, and bring the half & half to a boil. If you have a few lumps, don’t freak out, dairy is really forgiving. Keep whisking every 30 seconds or so, and when it comes to a boil, the lumps will break down. You’ve just made Bechamel, sort of, though it’s typically made with butter.
When your mixture is boiling and beginning to thicken, add your diced jalapenos.
Step 5: Add Cheese & Bacon – It’s almost Mac & Cheese Time!
Reduce the heat on your sauce again, and allow your bechamel to simmer for a few minutes while you check your pasta. Don’t wander too far, as it still requires some occasional stirring!
If your noodles are al dente, go ahead and drain them. Be sure to leave 1 to 2 tablespoons of pasta water in the pan. The pasta water has some essential starches in it from the noodles, and by using just a little bit of it, it helps your sauce adhere better to the noodles. However, it is better to leave less than more, because it can make your sauce too watery. Return the pasta to the pan, and set it aside for a few minutes.
Your sauce is ready to go now, so remove the pan from heat entirely. Once off heat, add your cheese to the thickened bechamel in thirds. Whisk in each addition until smooth. This is a very important to do in order to keep your sauce from breaking. If cheese is added over too high of heat, especially aged cheeses like sharp white cheddar, or the drier cheeses like parmesan, the protein structure breaks too quickly, and you’ll have a sauce that tastes fine, but looks curdled. It’s easily solved by adding it off direct heat in handfuls. If you’re interested in a fascinating article about the science of cheese melting, I love this article by Serious Eats.
Once the cheese is incorporated, add salt and pepper to taste. Then, pour all the cheese sauce into the pot of pasta. Return the pasta pot to medium heat and stir to incorporate the pasta water into the sauce, and coat the pasta. If you’ve kept too much water, don’t freak out, let your sauce come to a simmer. This will take a little longer if the sauce was thinned out, but it will thicken and cling to the pasta as it simmers. Once your pasta is coated to your satisfaction, add in your bacon, and fold gently to disperse.
Jalapeno Bacon Mac & Cheese Time!
That’s it! All done! Just like that you have a yummy, satisfying bowl of homemade bowl of Jalapeno Bacon Mac & Cheese. Plus, you can now apply this technique to any variety of cheeses, meats, and veggies you like! Recently for instance, I made a sweet and smoky version by using maple sausage, smoked gouda, and some fresh herbs. If you prefer a meatless version, skip the rendering step and replace the fat with butter to make your roux. From there the steps are the same.
There is more than one way to make a creamy mac & cheese, but this technique is simple and quick once you’ve got the hang of it. I can’t tell you how often I use some variation of this technique to throw together dinner from whatever is in the fridge.
Whether you’re new to the homemade mac & cheese world, or an old pro, I really recommend this recipe as one to try. (Well of course I do!). It’s easy, it’s got tons of flavor, and it reheats remarkably well. So go on, make a big pot of it! Let me know how it goes for you, or any cheesy combos you’ve been inspired to try!
- 6 slices thick cut bacon diced
- 8 Cups water
- 2-4 Tbs flour
- 2 cups pasta
- ⅓ cup pickled jalapenos minced
- 16 oz half and half 2 cups
- 6 oz white cheddar shredded
- 4 oz monterey jack cheese shredded
- Salt & Pepper to Taste
- Reserve 2 Tbs pasta water
First, shred your cheese (you’re looking for about 3 cups total), dice pepper and bacon, and measure out half & half, pasta, and flour.
Heat deep saute pan over medium heat. You’ll build your cheese sauce in this so make sure it’s large enough. A large pot works well too.
When saute pan is hot, add diced bacon. Heat 8 cups of water in a second large pot over medium high heat.
Cook bacon until crisp and browned then remove from pan to paper towel. Drain all but around 2 tablespoons of bacon fat from pan.
Give the bacon fat a chance to cool for a few moments off heat*. Check your water, if boiling, add a palmful of salt to the water, and add pasta once salt has dissolved.
When pan has cooled slightly, return the bacon fat to medium low heat. Begin with 2 tablespoons of all purpose flour and add to remaining bacon fat. Whisk, adding more flour as needed until a blonde paste has formed. Cook for 2-3 three minutes, whisking frequently until smooth and creamy. Add half and half in thirds, whisking between each addition.
Add diced jalapenos. Continuing to whisk, return the heat to medium, bringing the half & half to a boil. Simmer and whisk mixture until smooth and thickened about 5 minutes. Remember to keep an eye on your pasta. Drain before next step if it’s cooked, reserving 1-2 Tbs of water, and returning pasta to the pot.
Turn off heat on sauce. Continue to whisk to prevent burning. Off heat, add the shredded cheese in three parts, whisking until smooth between each addition. If it wasn’t done before, your pasta should be done now, follow directions above.
Once all the cheese is mixed in, add salt and pepper to taste. Return pot of pasta to medium heat and pour in cheese mixture. Stir to combine and fold in the bacon pieces. Let mixture come to a simmer, then stir occasionally until thickened.
Serve immediately with extra shredded cheese if desired.