One Pot Chili Mac
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Blending the best of both worlds, Chili Mac combines the smoky and spicy flavor of chili with the rich and creamy texture of mac & cheese. It’s an all-American camping classic and using this recipe, you can make it using just a single pot!
Chili mac holds a special place in our hearts. It is one of the meals we remember best from childhood camping trips and really captures the vibe of the outdoors for us. A little spicy, a little creamy, and so many toppings! Seriously, what’s not to love?
While the version from our childhood might have just been box mac & cheese with a can of chili poured on top, for this recipe we wanted to develop something with a few more wholesome ingredients. But, still true to form, we developed to be made using only one pot!
We build up lots of robust flavor making then chili, then add just enough to boil the macaroni. Once the noodles are done, we mix in the shredded cheese, and voila: it’s chili mac time!
So if you’re looking for a sure bet camping meal to cap off the evening, put this Chili Mac and Cheese on the menu!
Why We love this One Pot Chili Mac
- Lots of complex flavors and textures that come together really quickly.
- Cooking the pasta in with the chili saves you an extra pot, plus the hassle of trying to strain off the boiling water at a campsite.
- It’s hard to express just how stick-to-your-ribs hearty this meal feels.
- Toppings allow you to customize each bowl. A few sliced jalapenos for the adults, some extra cheese for the kids.
Onions: Red, yellow, or white will all work equally well.
Pepper: Depends on your spice tolerance, but green bell for no spice, Anaheim for just a little something, and poblano for a more assertive spice. (Remember you can always add more spice with the toppings)
Ground Beef or Plant-Based Substitute: You can either use ground beef (we prefer 80/20 lean to fat ratio) or something like Impossible Burger. We have made this chili with both, and honestly think the Impossible Burger is every bit as good.
Beans: Dark red kidney beans are our favorite for chili. Be sure to drain and give them a quick rinse.
Macaroni: Either elbow pasta, small shells, or ditalini will work great.
Broth: You can use water, but using a beef or vegetable broth can really had a great depth of flavor. Avoid chicken broth otherwise it’ll taste a little like chicken noodle soup.
Cheese: We like to use a Mexican cheese blend that typically has a mix of cheddar, Monterey jack, Asadero cheese, Queso quesadilla cheese. A cheese blend will get you a lot of different flavors that will give the chili mac much more depth.
Cook pot: A large cookpot or a 10” Dutch oven will work for this recipe.
Camp stove: This is the best camp stove we’ve used so far. It offers great simmer control and does a good job blocking wind. Alternatively, this meal can be made over the campfire!
How to make Chili Mac
Making the Chili
Start by dicing an onion and adding it to a pot with some oil over medium heat. Saute for a few minutes until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the ground beef, tomato paste, and spices. Use your spatula to break up the beef. Cook until the beef has browned, stirring frequently.
Cooking the Macaroni
Now, add the elbow noodles and a can of drained kidney beans. Add the broth and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and cover. The cooking time will depend on the specific noodles you use, so check the package for the cooking time. Ours usually takes 5-6 minutes. While the noodles cook, you can prep all your toppings.
Adding the Cheese
Once the noodles are cooked through, remove the lid and stir in the cheese. Serve the chili mac in bowls and let everyone customize with their toppings of choice.
Similar to nachos, chili mac really lends itself really well to different toppings. You can really personalize each individual serving, so everyone is happy. Here are a few ideas for inspiration:
- Diced Red Onions
- Pickled jalapenos
- Hot Sauce
- Fritos or tortilla chips (for some crunch)
- Extra cheese
- Sour cream / greek yogurt
While there isn’t a ton of prep work to be done ahead of time with this recipe, you could premix the spices at home so you don’t have to bring the chili powder, cumin, and smoked paprika with you. But definitely bring along the salt!
One Pot Chili Mac
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 1 onion, diced
- ½ pound ground beef, or Impossible plant-based ground
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons chili powder*
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 8 oz elbow noodles
- 1 (14.5oz) can kidney beans, drained
- 1 ½ cup broth, beef or vegetable
- ½ cup shredded cheddar cheese
- To serve: minced red onion, jalapeno, scallions
- In a Dutch oven or other large pot with a lid, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until translucent, 3-5 minutes.
- Add the ground beef, tomato paste, chili powder, cumin, smoked paprika, and salt. Using your spoon or spatula, break apart the meat and stir to coat with the tomato paste and spices. Once browned, add the garlic and saute for 30-60 seconds.
- Add the noodles, kidney beans, and broth and stir. Cover with the lid and cook for 5-6 minutes (unless the noodle packaging denotes a different cooking time).
- Remove the lid and stir in the cheese. Serve with your favorite chili toppings.
Have you tried dehydrating this one?
We haven’t yet. Although due to popular demand we are absolutely planning to! It would definitely need modifying. The ground beef would need to be mixed with bread crumbs (to help it rehydrate later), precooked in a skillet (to make sure it reaches 165 F), thoroughly padded to remove as much grease (i.e. fats) as possible, and then dehydrated separately. As for the mac & cheese, we would recommend a store-bought mac & cheese with a powdered cheese packet. Shredded cheese doesn’t dehydrate well and can potentially turn rancid. But a $2 box of Annie’s Mac & Cheese comes with a trail-ready powder cheese packet.
My family made this over a fire this weekend and we all loved it! Really easy and delicious meal.
My family loved this! Because I used chile powder instead of chili powder, I added a couple of tbsps of milk. Easy – will make this again!
Started off following the recipe exactly, but it was soon apparent that 3 cups broth would not be enough liquid to cook noodles thoroughly. Had to add water because didn’t have more broth at campground. This cooled it down so had to increase cooking time. It was way too spicy for my kids and almost for me. Also, for a Dutch oven recipe for camping, I couldn’t find any directions on number of coals to use on top and bottom. However, it was good and after tweaking spices and liquid we will try it again.
To preface, we’re vegetarians so we made this without beef (I know, I know…). Wasn’t thrilled about the flavor of this recipe, and yes, it’s probably because beed would make it tastier. I think there was too much paprika for my liking because it left a bitter taste. I will say the cheese cut that down a bit. I would add more garlic, a bit more salt, more veggie broth and definitely more beans. Will try it again because it was super easy to make and I love getting to use the dutch oven over the fire.
Thanks for the feedback. We will definitely need to develop a vegetarian version of this recipe. (Already working on a backpacking version) The fat from the ground beef definitely would have helped smooth the flavors out. All your additions though seem like they would work, so you’ll have to let us know how it goes if you make it again. You may also want to check out this dutch oven chili & cornbread recipe. It’s a good vegetarian chili base, so if you just add some more liquid and the noodles it could easily be adapted to make veg chili mac! You could skip the cornbread top or keep it. Hope that all helps!
Made this last week while camping and it was delicious. It was super easy to make. We’re vegetarian so I left out the beef and replaced with sweet potatoes and it was just as good. Leaving again for a trip in two days and definitely making this. Love your recipes!
This looks excellent! I would love to try this with gluten-free lentil macaroni. Do you think I need to change the amount of broth to get the texture right with GF noodles? (I noticed that there’s a lot more liquid in the one-pot recipe for Protein Pasta,but that one is not covered during cooking, so some water evaporates…) Thanks for sharing these yummy-looking camp dinners!
Very do-able, and it hits the spot after a long day. This doesn’t take long to make, and it’s a forgivable recipe – I neglected to add any tasty toppings besides shredded cheese and Tabasco and it was still very good (I even left out the beans, b/c I only needed two servings worth of food).
Thank you for this site – it has saved me a bunch this summer when last minute camping adventures came up!
We made this recipe last month camping and our kids loved it! We are going again this weekend and they said that they want it on the menu again. So easy to make and yet quite a hit- two thumbs up from Minnesota.
This recipe is amazing! Made it first time on our camping trip this weekend, absolutely yummy!! Little spicier than we wanted.. And it made 3 servings, not 4. Or may be we overate because it was so damn good.. 😀
Great recipe, but definitely on the spicier side for my two toddlers. I made it again with half the spice and my very picky nephew went back for thirds!