Jalapeño Popper Mac & Cheese

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This Jalapeño Popper Mac and Cheese is one for the books! Ultra cheesy, slightly spicy, jalapeño and bacon-covered pasta with a crispy buttery topping gets baked to pure cheesy perfection!

Add our original Baked Mac And Cheese to your list of recipes to try next!

Overhead image of the Jalapeño Popper Mac & Cheese

Jalapeño Popper Mac and Cheese

This 3-cheese, jalapeño, and bacon-loaded mac and cheese is rich, creamy, and downright delicious! I love a good mac and cheese just as much as the next person, but when it’s loaded up with a buttery, crunchy topping and then baked to gooey perfection — is there anything better?!

My favorite jalapeño poppers combine cream cheese, sharp Cheddar, and bacon with a crispy and buttery Panko topping. So we’ve channeled all of those elements into the perfect mac and cheese recipe! We combine sharp Cheddar, cream cheese, and pepper-Jack cheese for the ultimate cheese sauce. Then we crisp some bacon and sauté the jalapeños in bacon drippings. And finally, we finish the whole cheesy lot off with a generous sprinkle of buttery Panko and bake. Truly, it does not get much better than this!

Process shots-- images of the bacon being cooked, jalapeño, garlic, seasonings, and butter being added and all sautéed together

Spice Levels

As far as spice levels go, it’s pretty easy to adjust the amount of spice in this dish to your personal preference.

  • Add less jalapeño to personal preference and if desired, replace the pepper-Jack cheese with Monterey Jack or mozzarella to further reduce the spice.
  • On the flip side, increase the amount of jalapeño for a spicer jalapeño popper mac and cheese! You can also add a touch of cayenne pepper to the sauce for a spicer mac and cheese

Process shots of the jalapeño Mac and cheese-- images of the flour, milk, and cream cheese being added and all mixed together

Jalapeño Popper Mac and Cheese Tips

  • Cooks Illustrated shares some great mac & cheese tips. One that we love is to add a small pat of butter or oil to the pasta right after draining. This helps to prevent the pasta from bloating or the sauce from separating which are especially important consideration in a baked mac and cheese recipe.
  • Take time to properly thicken the sauce. Once the milk is added into the roux (butter and flour), take the time to thicken. See the “quick tip” below for how to know if the sauce is properly thickened.
  • Don’t over-bake. To keep the mac and cheese ultra creamy and cheesy, don’t bake it longer than necessary — this will dry out the pasta and sauce!

QUICK TIP

The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Stir the sauce, lift up the spoon and immediately trace a line across the back of the spoon with your fingertip. If the line retains a clear track, the sauce is thick enough. If not, the sauce needs to be cooked a bit longer.

Process shots-- images of the cheese, cooked pasta, and bacon being added to the sauce

Let’s Chat Cheese

The better the cheeses used, the better this Jalapeño Popper Mac and Cheese will taste!

  • Cream cheese. Be sure to use full-fat brick-style cream cheese for best results. Lower fat cream cheeses don’t melt as nicely and the tub-style cream cheese is formulated to be more spreadable–which we don’t want in this sauce. You need a little patience when melting the cream cheese into the sauce. I recommend thoroughly softening the cream cheese in the microwave before adding it to the pot, and then briskly whisking it in until completely smooth.
  • Pepper-Jack cheese. This cheese is nice and creamy with a subtle emphasis of spice — perfect for a Jalapeño Popper Mac and Cheese!
  • Cheddar Cheese. We recommend sharp or extra-sharp Cheddar, which has a richer and more pungent flavor (more on this below). For a whiter cream sauce, use sharp white Cheddar instead! The only difference between sharp white Cheddar and regular sharp Cheddar is the addition of annatto food coloring. Flavors are the same! 🙂 

The more aged the cheese is, the more cheesy the flavor. For a really tasty and Cheddar-y mac and cheese, look for aged cheddar. Most of the Cheddars you’ll find in the grocery store are aged around 3 months. But you can find some brands that age 9-15 months and they are going to give you the most robust flavor.  (Tillamook® sharp or Tillamook extra sharp are two of our favorites — Tillamook’s sharp is typically aged 9 months and extra sharp is aged 15-24 months.)

How do you know how long Cheddar is aged? It will usually tell you on the package or you can peruse online grocery stores where it will typically tell you how long each cheese is aged in parentheses. Just remember: aged = sharp = flavor! That said, not all cheeses need aging to taste good. Some cheeses are used to highlight other flavors or to emphasize creaminess in the mac and cheese. For cheeses like Cheddar, pecorino, Parmesan, or blue cheese — the older the better. As far as other cheeses go, aging is not super relevant for this recipe.

QUICK TIP

Number 1 Cheese Tip: freshly grate the cheeses! Pre-shredded cheese has a cellulose coating that doesn’t melt as well in recipes like this one. To avoid a greasy mac and cheese, take the time to grate your own (or use a food processor with a cheese-grating attachment to do this quickly).

Process shots of the jalapeño Mac and cheese-- images of the pasta all being transferred to a baking dish Process shots-- images of the Panko topping being prepped and added to the dish

Jalapeño Popper Mac and Cheese Topping

The topping for this mac and cheese is so simple — Panko, butter, and a touch of salt

Panko bread crumbs are similar to regular bread crumbs, but they create a much crunchier result. Here’s an article to explain it further. I use panko as opposed to breadcrumbs in pretty much every recipe on this site — you’ll end up with such a crunchier and crispier result! And that’s the main reason I use bread crumbs, so why not?

If you don’t want to make the topping, sprinkle on some freshly grated Parmesan instead — that will melt nicely and create a beautiful topping for the mac and cheese.

Use any leftovers from this package in this Turkey Meatloaf, these Chicken Parm Stuffed Shells, or this baked Chicken Tortellini — delish!

Up close overhead image of the Jalapeño Mac and Cheese freshly baked

STORAGE

Jalapeño Popper Mac and Cheese Storage

  • Do not assemble ahead of time. Once the pasta is combined with the cheese sauce, the pasta will seep up the sauce and bloat– which we don’t want.
  • To prepare ahead of time: Prepare the sauce but don’t add it to the pasta. Refrigerate the two separately and then when ready to assemble, warm the sauce gently over low heat (add a splash of milk if needed to thin) and then toss the two together and bake from there.
  • Store leftovers in an air-tight container.
  • Reheat by placing mac and cheese in a baking dish and cover with foil. Bake for about 15-20 minutes at 375 degrees F or until warmed through. The topping will be soft and pasta a bit bloated, but still cheesy, gooey, and delicious!
  • Mac and cheese is not a great candidate for freezing and thawing — the cheese sauce will likely break and the pasta will become bloated and mushy.

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Jalapeño Popper Mac and Cheese

5 from 1 vote
This Jalapeño Popper Mac and Cheese is one for the books! Ultra cheesy, slightly spicy, jalapeño and bacon-covered pasta with a crispy buttery topping gets baked to pure cheesy perfection!
Print Recipe

Jalapeño Popper Mac and Cheese

5 from 1 vote
This Jalapeño Popper Mac and Cheese is one for the books! Ultra cheesy, slightly spicy, jalapeño and bacon-covered pasta with a crispy buttery topping gets baked to pure cheesy perfection!
Course Dinner, Main Course, Vegetarian
Cuisine American
Keyword Jalapeno Popper Mac and Cheese
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 25 minutes
Total Time 55 minutes
Servings 4 -6 servings
Calories 1072kcal
Cost $15.46

Ingredients

Pasta

  • 3 packed cups (235g) cavatappi pasta Note 1
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Sauce:

  • 4 slices thick-sliced bacon, (or 8 regular slices) diced
  • 3-6 tablespoons finely minced jalapeño pepper Note 2
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic (~3 cloves)
  • 1 teaspoon each: garlic powder, onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup white flour
  • 2 cans (12 oz.; 354mL each) evaporated milk (or 3 cups whole milk)
  • 4 ounces cream cheese full-fat, brick-style
  • 2 cups freshly grated sharp or extra-sharp Cheddar cheese Note 3
  • 1 cup freshly grated pepper-Jack cheese
  • Fine sea salt and pepper

Panko Topping:

  • 2/3 cup panko (breadcrumbs) Note 4
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • Optional: 1 jalapeño for topping

Instructions

  • PASTA: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, generously salt the water and return to a boil. Add pasta and cook according to package directions, subtracting 1 minute. Drain, shake off excess water and immediately add pasta back to pot. Add butter and gently stir until butter is melted. Set aside to cool while making sauce. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  • BACON: Meanwhile, dice the bacon and cook, over medium-high heat, in a large heavy-bottom pot (we'll use this pot to make the cheese sauce) until golden and cooked to desired preference. Use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon onto a paper-towel-lined plate. Drain all but 1 tablespoon of the grease.
  • SAUCE: Reduce heat to medium and add in the diced jalapeños. Sauté for 1-2 minutes and then add in garlic, paprika, garlic powder, and onion powder. Season to taste with salt and pepper; I add 1 teaspoon fine sea salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Sauté for 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add in the butter and once melted, add in the flour. Whisk constantly, cooking for 1 minute. While whisking, slowly pour in the evaporated milk. Add very gradually so it can thicken. Cook for 5-7 minutes or until thickened properly (Note 5).
  • CHEESE: While sauce is thickening, add unwrapped cream cheese to the microwave. Microwave for 10 seconds, flip and microwave for another 10 seconds. Flip and microwave once more or until very soft.
  • FINISH SAUCE: Add cream cheese into the sauce and briskly whisk until completely integrated and smooth. Remove pot from heat and add in the other cheeses -- Cheddar and pepper-Jack. Stir until smooth (it's okay if it isn't fully melted -- we're baking!).
  • PANKO TOPPING: (optional): Meanwhile, melt butter over medium heat in a medium skillet. Add panko and salt to taste (I add 1/4 teaspoon) and stir to coat. Continue cooking until crumbs become golden brown. Remove from heat and set aside for now.
  • BAKE: Pour the sauce, scraping every last bit of it over cooked pasta (it may seem super saucy, but this will keep it from becoming dry after being baked!). Add in the reserved bacon. Give everything a quick stir and then a quick taste test -- add more salt/pepper if needed. Transfer mixture to a lightly greased 9x9-inch pan. Sprinkle panko topping evenly over pasta and if desired, add a thinly sliced jalapeño on top. Bake for 10-15 minutes or until slightly thickened at the edges and light golden brown on top (don't bake too long or the cheese sauce will dry out!). Remove and serve immediately! Enjoy!

Recipe Notes

Note 1: Pasta: If you don't have access to cavatappi pasta, you can try another shape of pasta like rotini or macaroni. Use 8 ounces.
Note 2: Jalapeño: Remove ribs and seeds (or leave them in for lots of heat). Add as much or as little as you'd like to spice preference. When making for my kids, we use 3 tablespoons of very finely diced jalapeño. They can handle a bit of spice, but I'd still say that is fairly mild. To increase spice, add more jalapeño and even a touch of cayenne pepper if you'd like. To reduce spice as much as possible, use less jalapeño and replace pepper-Jack with Monterey Jack or mozzarella cheese.
Note 3: Cheddar: White sharp or yellow sharp Cheddar -- either works and they'll taste the same. Whatever you use, freshly grate the cheeses! For a more Cheddar-y mac and cheese, use Tillamook's extra-sharp Cheddar (it has been aged 15-24 months). Pre-shredded cheese has a cellulose coating that doesn’t melt as well in recipes like this one. To avoid a greasy mac and cheese, take the time to grate your own (or use a food processor with a cheese-grating attachment to do this quickly).
Note 4: Panko: Panko bread crumbs are similar to regular bread crumbs, but they create a much crunchier result. They can typically be found near other bread crumbs or in the Asian food aisle in the grocery store.
Note 5: How to know when cheese sauce is thick enough: The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Stir the sauce, lift up the spoon and immediately trace a line across the back of the spoon with your fingertip. If the line retains a clear track, the sauce is thick enough. If not, the sauce needs to be cooked a bit longer.

Nutrition Facts

Serving: 1serving | Calories: 1072kcal | Carbohydrates: 37g | Protein: 42g | Fat: 85g | Saturated Fat: 48g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 5g | Monounsaturated Fat: 26g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 241mg | Sodium: 1089mg | Potassium: 780mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 20g | Vitamin A: 2337IU | Vitamin C: 18mg | Calcium: 1123mg | Iron: 2mg

We do our best to provide accurate nutritional analysis for our recipes. Our nutritional data is calculated using a third-party algorithm and may vary, based on individual cooking styles, measurements, and ingredient sizes. Please use this information for comparison purposes and consult a health professional for nutrition guidance as needed.

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