Chili mac is as retro a dish as it sounds. It was Tuesday lunch served by hairnetted lunch ladies in the school cafeteria, a satisfying meal at the neighborhood potluck, and a quick dinner for the babysitter to make when mom and dad took the night off.
Every spoonful offers tender noodles and spiced meat and beans dressed in a rich, cheesy tomato sauce. This hearty combination of meaty tomato chili and creamy mac and cheese has been filling empty bellies for decades, making chili mac a #MiracleMeal before hashtags were a thing.
One Pot Chili Mac: Watch the Video
It Takes a Can to Master Chili Mac
Chili mac is a classic mid-century stovetop casserole, and although it might not be as front and center as it was back in the 1950s, a classic like this never truly fades. We updated this school-lunch staple with smart pantry picks without relying on a certain neon block of cheese.
For this weeknight casserole, skip the roux-based cheese sauce and lean on the creaminess of evaporated milk. Evaporated milk is shelf-stable milk that has had 60 percent of its water removed. This results in a thicker, creamier sauce than one made with regular ol' milk, but without adding the moisture and fatty bulk from heavy cream.
Know Thy Canned Milk
You may find low-fat varieties of evaporated milk, but whole or Vitamin D evaporated milk is the most common one I come across. It adds just the right amount of creaminess to marry the cheese and chili.
One word of caution: Read the label carefully and don't open a can of sweetened condensed milk for this recipe. Although this shelf-stable milk also has had water removed, it has also been significantly sweetened. Reserve this sticky-sweet milk for your dessert to serve after all the chili mac is consumed. (Key lime cupcakes, anyone?)
Canned Milk 101: What's the Difference Between Condensed and Evaporated Milk?
For Your Information
- You'll need 1/2 pound (8 ounces) lean ground beef. Lean ground beef gives chili mac big, beefy flavor without the excess grease.
- Elbow noodles cook right in the pot so the liquid from the tomatoes and chicken broth soak right into the noodles, cooking the pasta and using the pasta starch to create a thick and silky sauce.
- 1/2 cup of canned evaporated milk makes the sauce thick and creamy without the fuss of building a roux or the weight of heavy cream.
Lean Ground Beef Is the Best Choice for Chili Mac
Pick up a half-pound of lean ground beef at the grocery store. I choose beef with a 93% lean to 7% fat ratio here for two reasons: you get a nice beefy flavor without overwhelming the other elements of the dish, and you can skip the extra hassle of draining the meat after browning, which would certainly need to be done if using a fattier ground beef.
If all you have in the fridge is ground chuck, certainly use it, but drain off the fat after browning so that the final dish isn't greasy. Deeply brown ground beef to develop a rich, beefy flavor before seasoning as you normally would for chili with garlic, chili powder, cumin, oregano.
Tricks for Making This a One-Pot Meal
Finding the right ratio of liquid ingredients to dry noodles takes a bit of wizardry when making a one-pot pasta dish. Instead of filling a large pot with a few quarts of water and tossing a box of dry noodles in to cook, let's regulate the amount of liquid ingredients so that each bowl is full of tender noodles and crumbles of beef in an abundant cheesy tomato sauce.
A can of crushed tomatoes will provide some of the cooking liquid, with chicken broth filling in the gaps. Cooking uncovered means we can keep a close eye on the liquid level and monitor the noodles, as there will inevitably be some evaporation. You'll want to give the pasta a stir every once in a while — especially toward the end of cooking to make sure the noodles are evenly submerged and soaking up the sauce. After the noodles are tender, whisk in the evaporated milk and cheese to finish this homestyle supper.
Key Steps for Maximum Chili Mac
- Sauté the onion and brown the beef. Get the onion started in a bit of oil before adding the ground beef. A little salt draws moisture from the onion and lingers during the beef browning step. The beef needs to brown, rather than steam, so let it sizzle for a minute or so to develop the savory backbone of the chili mac.
- Season the beef. Here's where you add the chili to the chili mac. Instead of reaching for an over-salted packet of chili seasoning, pull a few jars from the spice cabinet. The classic chili trio of chili powder, cumin, and oregano, plus a bit of fresh garlic, is all you need.
- Stir in tomatoes, broth, noodles, and beans. Elbow macaroni noodles and beans simmer in a sauce of crushed tomatoes and chicken broth. Canned or cartoned beef broth always tastes tinny and artificial to me, so I reach for chicken broth instead.
- Finish with evaporated milk and shredded cheese. A combination of evaporated milk and shredded cheese rounds the edges of an otherwise classic chili. Using evaporated milk adds a creamy body to the sauce, marrying the tomato base and sharp cheese.
Serving Chili Mac
Ladle it into bowls and grab a big spoon, but not before you take full advantage of topping options. Some chopped red onion, a spoonful of diced avocado, more shredded cheese, or a sprinkling of green onions finish this dish.
How To Make Chili Mac
Serves 4 to 6
What You Need
yellow onion, diced
kosher salt, divided
lean ground beef (7% fat)
freshly ground black pepper
1 (28-ounce) can
1 1/2 cups
low-sodium chicken broth
dried elbow macaroni (8 ounces)
(15-ounce) can kidney or pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1 1/2 cups
shredded cheddar, Monterey Jack, or a combination (6 ounces), plus extra for serving
scallions, thinly sliced
Measuring cups and spoons
Fine mesh strainer
3 1/2- to 4-quart Dutch oven
Wooden spoon or silicone spatula
Heat the pan and coat with oil. Heat the oil in a 3 1/2- to 4-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onion and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and light golden-brown, about 5 minutes.
Brown the meat, then add seasonings. Add the ground beef, break into smaller pieces with a wooden spoon or spatula, and cook for about 3 minutes. When only a few pieces of pink ground beef remain, add the garlic, chili powder, cumin, oregano, black pepper, and remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Cook for 1 minute more.
Add the tomatoes, broth, noodles, and beans. Pour in the tomatoes, broth, macaroni, and beans. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the macaroni is tender, about 15 minutes.
Stir in milk and cheese. Stir in the evaporated milk and cheese until melted. Ladle into bowls and top with more cheese and scallions.
Storage: Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container for up to 4 days.