How to BBQ Right Mac and Cheese?

As a barbecue enthusiast, I’m always looking for new and creative ways to infuse smoky flavor into classic comfort foods. Mac and cheese is a staple side dish for any good old fashioned barbecue spread. But why serve it plain out of the pot when you can take it up a notch by grilling mac and cheese to perfection?

In this blog post, I’ll walk you through my foolproof method for how to BBQ mac and cheese so it comes out bubbly, gooey, and perfectly caramelized on the outside. With just a few extra steps, you can achieve the quintessential barbecue flavor we all crave during the summer grilling season. The secret lies in allowing the mac and cheese to cook low and slow on the grill, rather than simply baking it in the oven.

When you BBQ mac and cheese correctly, the results are unbeatable. The pasta soaks up the smoky essence from the grill while the cheese gets ooey-gooey. Trust me when I say this – this will be the best mac and cheese you’ve ever tasted. Once you try grilled mac and cheese, you’ll never go back to the traditional baked version again!

Ingredients for BBQ Mac and Cheese

Great grilled mac and cheese starts with choosing the right ingredients. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Pasta – elbow macaroni is classic, but small shells or cavatappi work too. The key is to use a short, sturdy shape that can hold up on the grill.
  • Cheese – go for a melty cheese blend. I like sharp cheddar, Gruyère, and Parmesan.
  • Milk or cream – this gives a silky base to the cheese sauce.
  • Butter – use real butter for the best flavor.
  • Seasonings – salt, pepper, and smoked paprika are perfect complements.

The exact quantities will vary based on how much mac and cheese you want to make. For a crowd-pleasing 9×13 dish, I suggest 1 pound dry pasta, 1 pound shredded cheese, 1 cup milk or cream, and 4 tablespoons butter.

Prepping the Pasta

The first step in making BBQ mac and cheese is cooking the pasta:

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
  2. Cook the pasta until al dente according to package directions. I prefer shells or cavatappi for how well they hold the cheese sauce.
  3. Drain the pasta well and set it aside while preparing the cheese sauce. Resist tossing butter or oil on the noodles – the sauce will coat them later.

Perfectly cooked al dente pasta is crucial for grilled mac and cheese. Overcooked, mushy pasta won’t hold its shape on the grill. Undercooked pasta will be crunchy in the finished dish. So make sure to cook it just until tender but still lightly firm at the center.

How to Make Smoky Cheese Sauce

The hallmark of great mac and cheese is an ultra-cheesy, creamy sauce. To give it that BBQ flavor, I like to add smoked paprika. Here’s how:

  1. In a medium saucepan, melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat.
  2. Whisk in an equal amount of all-purpose flour (about 1/4 cup) and cook for 2-3 minutes to create a roux. This helps thicken the sauce.
  3. Gradually whisk in 1 cup of milk or heavy cream. Bring to a simmer, whisking constantly.
  4. Cook for 5-7 minutes, continuing to whisk, until thickened to a creamy sauce consistency.
  5. Remove the pan from heat. Slowly stir in 1 pound of shredded cheese mix until fully melted and smooth.
  6. Season with salt, pepper, and 1-2 teaspoons of smoked paprika. This adds that quintessential barbecue essence!

The sauce will thicken more as it cools. You want it thick enough to coat the pasta without being runny. The starch from the pasta will also help thicken it up.

How to Assemble BBQ Mac and Cheese

With the pasta and cheese sauce ready, it’s time for assembly before grilling:

  1. Preheat your grill to medium-high heat, around 375°F. The grill grates should be hot but not scorching. You want indirect heat to gently cook the mac and cheese.
  2. Lightly grease a 9×13 inch baking dish with butter or oil. This prevents sticking as it cooks.
  3. Transfer the cooked pasta to the prepared baking dish. Pour the cheese sauce over top and gently toss together until the pasta is evenly coated.
  4. Try not to overmix or you’ll break the tender pasta. Just lightly combine using a spatula.
  5. Smooth the top evenly and you’re ready for grilling!

Grilling Technique for BBQ Mac and Cheese

Here comes the fun part – transferring that cheesy goodness onto the hot grill! Follow these tips for success:

  1. Place the assembled baking dish of mac and cheese directly onto the preheated grill grates.
  2. Close the grill lid to allow the cheese dish to cook through gradually with indirect heat.
  3. Grill for 15-20 minutes with the lid closed the entire time. Resist the urge to peek or you’ll lose heat.
  4. After about 10 minutes, check for browning by quickly lifting the lid. If the top is browned, continue cooking with the lid closed until finished.
  5. If the top is still pale after 10 minutes, close the lid and cook for 5 more minutes before checking again.

The goal is to gently cook the mac and cheese through while achieving a browned, crusty top. This happens from the grill’s ambient heat. The lid traps moisture so the interior gets hot and melty.

Basting for Added Flavor

Here’s a chef’s tip to take this grilled mac and cheese over the top – baste it as it cooks!

  1. After the first 10 minutes on the grill, start brushing the top with extra cheese sauce every 2-3 minutes.
  2. Use a grill brush or spoon to coat the top with the reserved sauce. Close the lid immediately each time to seal in heat.
  3. Repeat the basting 2-3 times until the mac and cheese finishes grilling.

Basting helps create an incredibly rich, gooey crust. The cheese caramelizes beautifully on the grill. This adds incredible depth of cheese flavor that you just can’t achieve in the oven alone.

Finishing Touches for BBQ Mac and Cheese

When your grilled mac and cheese comes off the barbecue, finish it with these flavorful touches:

  • Sprinkle extra shredded cheese over the top while hot for an instant melt. Aim for high-flavor cheeses like sharp cheddar, Gruyère, or pepper jack.
  • For crunch, add toasted breadcrumbs or crushed crackers like Ritz or saltines. Panko also works well.
  • Fresh herbs brighten up the dish. Chopped parsley, chives, basil, or thyme are all delicious options.
  • For spicy mac and cheese, drizzle with hot sauce or sprinkle on diced pickled jalapeños.
  • Crumble and sprinkle cooked bacon, chopped ham, or cooked sausage for a meaty addition.

With the right mix of textures from creamy pasta, crunchy topping, and gooey melted cheese, every bite will be mac and cheese heaven!

How to Serve Smoky BBQ Mac and Cheese

Pull the finished BBQ mac and cheese off the grill and let it rest 5 minutes before digging in. Here are serving tips:

  • Cut into rectangular portions and serve family-style straight from the baking dish.
  • For picnics or potlucks, spoon into individual cups or bowls to make it portable.
  • Pair your smoky mac and cheese with classic barbecue fare like pulled pork, burgers, hot dogs, chicken wings, ribs, and corn on the cob.
  • Cooler weather cookouts call for hearty sides like baked beans, coleslaw, and cornbread.
  • Offer pickled vegetables, green salad, or fresh tomatoes to lighten the meal.
  • Ice cold beer or lemonade are ideal beverages, or opt for an American red wine.

Your guests will be begging for seconds of this BBQ mac and cheese! The smoky depth from the grill transforms an everyday favorite into an incredible dish.

Storing and Reheating Leftover Mac and Cheese

Like most pasta dishes, grilled mac and cheese tastes even better as leftovers once the flavors meld. Here are tips for enjoying the leftovers:

  • Allow the baked mac and cheese to cool completely before covering it tightly and refrigerating.
  • Store leftovers for 3-4 days maximum. The quality declines after that.
  • When ready to eat, reheat individual portions gently in the oven at 300°F until warmed through. The pasta may dry out in the microwave.
  • Add a splash of milk and stir well if the mac and cheese seems dry. Then continue heating until hot.
  • Leftover mac and cheese pairs perfectly with fried eggs for breakfast or brunch. Talk about comfort food!

With the proper storage and reheating, you can enjoy every last bite for days to come. Just be sure to hide it or the leftovers will go quickly!


I hope this post has inspired you with creative ideas on how to elevate classic mac and cheese to new barbecue heights. Grilling brings out such depth of flavor you can’t achieve through baking alone. The smoky essence from the grill perfectly complements the cheesy richness of everyone’s favorite comfort food.

The next time you host a barbecue cookout or need a potluck dish, skip the shortcuts and go straight to my recipe for how to BBQ mac and cheese like a pro. With my easy instructions, you’ll master the techniques and wow your guests. Trust me, this will be the most requested side dish all summer long!

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