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Macaroni and cheese is one of those comfort foods that is so easy to cook outdoors. All you need is a cast iron skillet, a grill grate and a few pre-organized ingredients.
This campfire skillet mac and cheese recipe has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and on BBQ Brawl on the Food Network. It’s one of my go-to recipes because it’s so easy to make, yet so deliciously creamy.
What is skillet mac and cheese
Most macaroni and cheese recipes are made by mixing noodles and a cheese sauce in a sauce pot on the stove or by mixing the two in a casserole dish and baking it in the oven.
Skillet mac and cheese is a little bit different. The ingredients are all cooked and combined in a skillet, preferably cast iron.
It starts with browning bacon and adding great aromatics like onion and jalapeno. Then, the milk is heated and cheese is added right to the skillet. There’s no need to make a roux or a special cheese sauce.
It all melts beautifully into a creamy sauce and is ready in just a few minutes.
Why this recipe is great for camping
I don’t believe in sacrificing at the campsite. In fact, I’ve been known to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner while camping.
To make cooking easier at the campsite, I like to prep a lot of ingredients at home. For this recipe, pre-cook your noodles by following the package directions. That way you don’t have to worry about boiling water and bringing another pot.
Also, go ahead and chop the bacon and vegetables and shred the cheese.
Once it’s time to cook, heat that campfire, until the coals or wood start to ash over, and add the grill grate on top. Place the cast iron skillet on the grate, and start browning the bacon. Add the veggies until they’re softened.
This next step is pretty important. Move the skillet to a cooler part of the fire, and add the milk and cheese at the same time. If you add the milk by itself over direct heat, you might scald it. By moving the skillet and including the cheese, you’ll cool down the pan to keep that from happening.
You’ll love this recipe so much, you’ll probably want to make it even when you’re not camping. Don’t worry, it can be made on a grill or stove top, too.
- Bacon: 4 slices of bacon chopped up adds enough fat and flavor.
- Onions: White or yellow onions diced up.
- Jalapeno: For a little heat, use 1 jalapeno. Remove the seeds to make it less spicy or use a mini sweet bell pepper for a really mild flavor.
- Milk: Whole milk will create a rich, cheesy sauce, but you can also use a lower fat milk. Or add more fat with a dash of heavy cream.
- Sharp Cheddar Cheese: For classic mac and cheese, I like sharp cheddar. But honestly any good melting cheese will work with this recipe.
- Cooked Macaroni Noodles: Pre-cook your noodles before going camping to save time and pots and pans. Cook them until they are al dente, which means they’ll have a slight bite to them. If they’re too soft, the dish may become soggy.
- Salt and Black Pepper
Substitutions: Instead of bacon, you can also use 1 tablespoon of oil, butter or another meat like ground sausage or diced kielbasa. In place of elbow macaroni, you can use shells or orecchiette noodles.
See the full recipe card below for servings and a full list of ingredients.
Once you master the recipe, which you’ll get on your first try, you can play around with the flavors by adding other seasonings like onion powder, garlic powder, chili powder or even dry mustard powder or Dijon mustard.
How to cook skillet mac and cheese on a campfire
- STEP ONE: Light the campfire. Place a grill grate on top of the campfire ring, over the fire. Then, place a 12-inch cast iron skillet on the grate.
PRO TIP: You can also make this recipe without a campfire. Just place the skillet over medium heat on a stovetop or grill.
- STEP TWO: Add the bacon to the skillet and cook until crispy. Add the onions and jalapeno and cook for about 1 minute, stirring often.
- STEP THREE: Move the skillet to the edge of the grate further from the coals to reduce the heat (or turn your burner to medium-low heat). Add a cup of milk and the cheese. Stir until the cheese melts. Add the cooked noodles and cook until warmed through. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
PRO TIP: When moving the skillet to indirect heat, be careful not to tip over the grate. Sometimes they can be a little wobbly and the shift in weight can make them unstable.
How to serve skillet mac and cheese
Skillet mac and cheese can be brought straight from the campfire to the table. Just set it on a hotpad or trivet and be sure to have a towel or napkin on hand, because the handle will be hot.
Serve it right away. As it cools, the cheese will start to harden.
To make this dish even more fun, use mini 6 1/2-inch cast iron skillets and let everyone make their own around the campfire. For the creamiest skillet mac, plan on 2 parts cheese and 2 parts cooked pasta for every 1 part milk.
Make a mac and cheese bar by offering different kinds of cheese for people to choose from.
Campfire skillet mac and cheese can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for five days. It can also be frozen for up to six months. If you freeze it, let it thaw in the refrigerator before reheating for best results.
To reheat, either warm in a microwave or return the leftovers to a skillet or pot. Add a little more milk and shredded cheese to bring back the creaminess.
GCG Pro Pitmaster Tips
- Pre-cook your noodles and keep them refrigerated
- Add flavor to your mac and cheese by mixing in bacon, onions and jalapeno
- Add the milk over indirect heat so it doesn’t scald.
How I made this on BBQ Brawl
When I was on BBQ Brawl on the Food Network, we were given a challenge that required us to make a quick dish using banana leaves.
I made this easy mac and cheese recipe in a skillet right on the campfire. Instead of bacon, I used longanisa sausage, which is a ground Filipino sausage. Once browned, I added onion, pepper and jalapenos.
Then, I added the milk along with shredded Oaxacan cheese. I used orecchiette for the noodles. They are ear-shaped shells that hold the cheesy cream sauce really well.
I made a crisscross shape with my banana leaves. Then, I mixed some panko bread crumbs and melted butter in a small bowl and added some to the bottom. I piled on the creamy mac and cheese along with more breadcrumbs.
I folded the banana leaves on top of the mac and placed the pouches over the campfire.
Judge Carson Kressley said it was so creative, and Chef Brook Williamson said, “It holds the flavor of that banana leaf so beautifully.”
Frequently Asked Questions
For a nice creamy texture, you want to use cheeses that melt well. The recipe calls for sharp cheddar. You could also use mild cheddar, medium cheddar, Monterey jack, colby jack or Oaxacan cheese.
The main health benefit of macaroni and cheese is that it’s made with milk and cheese, so it provides a generous amount of calcium. However, it’s also made with bacon. That and the cheese both contain a high amount of fat, so it should be consumed in moderation.
Instead of bacon, you can use a healthy oil to sauté the vegetables. You can also use low-fat milk. While you can try making this with reduced-fat cheese, it won’t melt as well. So I recommend using the higher-fat cheese, but maybe changing out the macaroni noodles and using spiralized veggies instead.
More macaroni recipes
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Campfire Skillet Mac and Cheese
- 4 slices bacon, chopped
- 2 tbsp onions, chopped
- 1 jalapeno, chopped
- 1 cup milk
- 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- 2 cups cooked macaroni noodles
- salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat: Light the campfire. Place a grill grate on top of the campfire ring, over the fire. Place a 12-inch cast iron skillet on the grate. If cooking indoors, place the skillet on the stove over medium heat.
- Cook Bacon: Add the bacon to the skillet and cook until crispy. Add the onions and jalapeno and cook for about 1 minute, stirring often.
- Make Sauce: Move the skillet to the edge of the grate to reduce the heat or reduce the stovetop heat to medium-low. Add the milk and cheese. Stir until melted. Add the pre-cooked noodles and cook until warmed through. Season with salt and pepper.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.