Lindsay Mattison

This Chili Mac and Cheese Recipe is Comfort Food, Redefined

I don't know about you, but I could eat mac and cheese every night. It's my ultimate comfort food: carb-heavy and loaded with cheese. Unfortunately, it's not exactly the healthiest meal, so I can't justify eating it as often as I'd like. That's where a classic stovetop casserole comes in, rescuing mac and cheese by transforming it into a meal that can be enjoyed without as much guilt: chili mac and cheese.

Was it invented by Midwest housewives looking to spice up the dinner table? Or is it a spin on Cincinnati's cinnamon-laced chili served over spaghetti? I'm not sure exactly where it came from, but boy am I glad it exists. Mixing chili and mac and cheese together means you get a hefty serving of protein from the ground beef, and the beans pack in a ton of fiber. Put it all together, and it's a redefined version of comfort food that feels a little healthier than the original.

How to Make Chili Mac and Cheese

Chili Mac and Cheese

Lindsay D. Mattison

Many recipes use a one-pot meal method, cooking the chili and macaroni in the same pot. While that does save time, we've found we enjoy the texture of the pasta much better when it's cooked separately. And using multiple pans does create extra dishes, but it also allows us to make a cheese sauce, making the dish less goulash-like (more on that, in a moment). 

To make the dish, start with making a small batch of chili. If you're short on time, you can save about 30 minutes by using leftover chili. Canned chili works here, too, if there's a brand you like. Once the chili is simmering, cook the pasta and start making the cheese sauce. Our cheese sauce recipe skips the traditional roux and whisks the flour directly into the milk instead. This is a great shortcut, just be sure to whisk well so there are no remaining clumps of flour in the milk.

Then, simply combine the chili and mac and cheese. Top it off with extra cheddar cheese and a few chopped green onions, and enjoy!

Is Chili Mac and Cheese and Goulash the Same Thing?

Remember how we mentioned that making a cheese sauce makes this dish less goulash-like? That's because chili mac and cheese and goulash are very similar dishes. Hungarian goulash is a beef stew made with beef, paprika, and tomatoes, and Midwestern cooks transformed it into American goulash by turning it into a stovetop casserole, omitting the paprika and adding elbow macaroni. It's rich and hearty, and it's sometimes topped with cheese but the flavor is more focused on the beef and tomatoes.

What makes chili mac and cheese different is that it usually contains beans and it has an amplified cheese factor. When made as a one-pot meal, it's hard to make a cheese sauce that shines through all that beef, beans, and tomato sauce. When you make the sauce separately, the dish becomes a true melding of these two fantastic recipes.

What Kind of Pasta is Used for Chili Mac and Cheese?

Chili Mac and Cheese

Lindsay D. Mattison

We usually use shells for our chili mac and cheese, but any shape with ridged edges works well here. You want to make sure the pasta isn't smooth (like ziti) because the ridges cling to the sauce, delivering more cheesy goodness to your palate with every bite. Our favorite options are the classic elbows, corkscrew cavatappi, bow tie farfalle, or tube-shaped pipe rigate. Don't be afraid to try whatever you have on hand in the pantry, but you should avoid flat pasta (like bucatini or spaghetti). It still tastes great, but these noodles take the dish out of the casserole realm and turn it into more of a saucy pasta dish.

What Goes Well with Chili Mac and Cheese?

Chili Mac and Cheese

Lindsay D. Mattison

This recipe is a complete meal by itself. The beef, beans, pasta, and cheese come together to form a very filling dish. If you want to serve it with other dishes anyway, it pairs well with most vegetables, like green salads, creamy coleslaw, or roasted broccoli. Like most pasta recipes, it also works well with a side of garlic bread, and the country-style manner of the dish makes it a good option to go with cornbread, too.

Chili Mac and Cheese Recipe

Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Servings 4 people


For the chili:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion diced
  • 1/2 pound ground beef (85/15 or 80/20)
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 1 14-ounce can kidney beans drained and rinsed
  • 1 14-ounce can pinto beans drained and rinsed
  • 1 4-ounce can chopped green chilis

For the mac and cheese:

  • 8 ounces pasta shells or a similar shape with ridges
  • 1-1/2 cups whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese plus additional for garnish
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • chopped green onions for garnish


For the chili:

  • Heat the olive oil in a large saucepot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.
  • Add the ground beef, salt, and black pepper and cook for 5 to 6 minutes without stirring. Stir and cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes, until the beef is browned. Use a spoon or potato masher to break up the beef into small, bite-sized pieces. Drain any excess grease.
  • Add the tomato paste to the pot and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until it turns deep red and begins to release its oils.
  • Add the chili powder, cumin, garlic powder, and onion powder to the beef mixture. Stir well and cook for 1 minute, until fragrant.
  • Add the canned tomatoes and their juices, drained kidney and pinto beans, and green chilies. Stir to combine and bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for 5 to 10 minutes.

For the mac and cheese:

  • Cook the pasta in a large stockpot in salted water according to the package directions. Drain well and set aside.
  • Meanwhile, in a separate saucepot, heat 1 cup of the milk over medium heat. When the milk begins to steam, whisk the flour into remaining 1/2 cup of milk until there are no lumps. Add the flour-milk mixture to the steaming milk and cook, whisking constantly, for 5 to 6 minutes, until the liquid thickens.
  • Remove the pot from the heat and add the cheddar cheese one handful at a time, stirring until it's melted before adding the next handful of cheese. When all the cheese is added and incorporated, stir in the salt, pepper, and cooked pasta and stir to combine.
  • Add the chili to the macaroni and cheese. Ladle into serving bowls and garnish with the additional cheese and chopped green onions.

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