This kimchi mac and cheese has everything you'd want in a classic mac and cheese. It's rich, creamy, smooth, but with a Korean twist that adds just enough tang and spice so that you can enjoy more. We've simplified this recipe so that it takes only 30 minutes without compromising the exploding flavors of kimchi. Try our beef bulgogi with vegetables for the perfect pairing!
Mac and cheese is a must at gatherings and especially holidays. But why not swap your classic mac and cheese for this kimchi mac and cheese?! It elevates and adds a lovely Asian flair, which helps to balance the richness and cut the extra heaviness, so you can enjoy more.
What is kimchi?
Kimchi, or kimchee, literally translates to pickled vegetables. So you can technically turn any vegetable into kimchi, like our quick cucumber kimchi (oi kimchi)!
But when we hear kimchi, most of us are usually referring to classic napa cabbage kimchi Korean BBQ restaurants and other Korean restaurants offer as part of their banchan (side dishes). Or you might be thinking about the red fermented cabbage used in kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew)! You'll usually also see napa cabbage kimchi available at the refrigerated aisles in Korean and most Asian markets.
Why kimchi and mac and cheese works
In our opinion, the best mac and cheese should be rich and creamy but well balance in flavor so that you can eat more than a few spoonful. To do that, mac and cheese needs a little bit of acid and spice to help cut the richness. Fermented kimchi does just that!
Fermented kimchi has a little bit of funk, so it may be an acquired taste. But the savory flavor, the tang, and the spice is the perfect combo to season the mac and cheese, keep the flavor well balanced.
Please scroll down to the recipe card for the ingredient quantities!
- Pasta - Dry elbow macaroni is the classic pasta for mac and cheese. Personally, we prefer cellentani pasta, which is like the elbow but with an extra loop or two. So feel free to use any small, dry tube shaped pasta you prefer.
- Bacon - To add extra flavor to the kimchi mac and cheese.
- Fermented kimchi and kimchi juice - The main ingredient that differentiates this mac and cheese from other mac and cheeses. Make sure to use fermented kimchi. You can use store bought ones or your own homemade napa cabbage kimchi.
- Onion - To add some extra flavor and sweetness into the sauce, which also helps to balance out the kimchi.
- Unsalted butter and all-purpose flour - For making the roux. Make sure the butter is unsalted, so that you can better control the overall saltiness of the dish.
- Milk and heavy cream - The duo helps to give the mac and cheese a rich and creamy sauce without being overly heavy.
- Sharp cheddar - The classic cheese for mac and cheese. We recommend getting a block and grating it yourself for the best flavor and texture. Pre-shredded ones have anti-caking agents which can make your mac and cheese grainy or too thick. You can also use some gruyere or harvarti if you want to add some additional flavors.
- Salt - Just a little to finish seasoning the mac and cheese.
- Panko - To give the mac and cheese some crunch and texture.
- Green onion (optional) - To add some color to the dish.
How to make this kimchi mac and cheese
Please scroll down to the recipe card for the full recipe and instructions!
1. Boil the pasta. Cook your pasta of choice in a pot of boiling water according to the package instruction. Drain well. If making this kimchi mac and cheese ahead of time, cook the pasta about 1 minute less than package instruction.
🌟 Pro tip: Don't rinse the pasta! The starch on the pasta helps the sauce stick onto it. The pasta should unstick from each other once added to the sauce. Also, adding about 1 teaspoon of salt per 2 quarts of water will help season the pasta.
2. Render the bacon and sauté the onion. Cook the bacon in a pan until most of the fat is released and the bacon is just starting to crispy up. Then, add the onions and sauté until just limp.
3. Add the kimchi and kimchi juice. Cook the kimchi and kimchi juice until most of the moisture is cooked out. Then remove everything from the pan and set aside.
4. Make the roux and sauce. Into the same pan, melt the butter then add the flour to make a roux. Cook the roux to blond stage. It will look bubbly and foamy and have a slight nutty smell. Add the milk and cream and bring to a simmer while stirring frequently. Once the mixture is starting to simmer, add the kimchi mixture back into the pan. Mix until combine and add ¾ of the cheddar. Stir until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth.
5. Taste and season. At this point, taste the sauce and season with salt to taste.
6. Add the pasta and finish. Mix and fold until the cooked pasta is evenly coated. Stir in the green onion to finish.
7. Broil. Transfer the mac and cheese to a 9 by 13 inch baking pan and top with the remaining cheddar and panko. Broil the mac and cheese on high until the cheese is melted and the panko is golden brown.
🚨 Caution! Be careful and keep an eye on the kimchi mac and cheese! The broil function can turn the cheese and panko from perfect to burnt in seconds.
Make this ahead of time
If you want to prepare this kimchi mac and cheese ahead of time, we recommend cooking the pasta a minute less than what the package instructions to or just until al-dente. This will prevent the pasta from becoming too mushy. Then, follow the recipe as is, including topping with cheese and panko. Let the mac and cheese cool until room temperature, then wrap and store in the fridge until ready to bake.
On the day of, remove the wrap and bake the mac and cheese at 325°F for about 20 minutes or until the cheese on top is melted and the panko is golden brown and crispy.
- Don't boil the sauce. Keep the sauce no hotter than a low simmer. This is especially important when the cheese is added. Having the heat too high could curdle the sauce, making it chunky, not smooth, and may even appear broken.
- Use fermented kimchi. Freshly made kimchi does not contain enough acidity in it to balance out the rich, creaminess of the mac and cheese.
- Season to taste. Every brand of kimchi and every homemade kimchi will taste different and vary a bit in flavor. So make sure to taste the sauce after adding the cheese and sautéed kimchi mixture to adjust your seasoning if necessary.
- Cut the kimchi in a bowl with kitchen shears. Kimchi will inevitably stain anything it touches. Unless you have a designated cutting board for kimchi, we recommend cutting the kimchi using kitchen shears in a glass bowl.
Storage and reheating
Leftover kimchi mac and cheese should be allowed to cool completely before covering and refrigerating for up to 4 days. If you cannot finish the leftover in 4 days, portion and freeze the mac and cheese in airtight containers. The mac and cheese will stay good for up to 2 months frozen.
To reheat, you can microwave from thawed or frozen in a microwavable container. You could also reheat the mac and cheese on the stovetop if it is thawed. If reheating on the stovetop, stir occasionally but not too often to prevent the pasta from becoming mushy. Also, you can add a tablespoon or two of milk or cream to help thin out the mac and cheese if needed.
If your mac and cheese is grainy and not smooth, it's most likely because the heat was on too high. We highly recommend against boiling your mac and cheese sauce. The sauce is especially prone to curdling once the cheese is added. So try to keep the heat around medium and medium low so the sauce stays around or under a low simmer.
Yes! Mac and cheese is great for making ahead of time. Please refer to the "Make this ahead of time" topic to read more.
Half and half is a good substitute in this recipe. However, if using half and half, to substitute for the heavy cream, we recommend just swapping the milk for half and half as well. This is so the sauce stays creamy.
Fatty pork pairs really well with fermented kimchi, which is the roll of the bacon for this kimchi mac and cheese. Plus, the bacon adds a lot of flavor. However, if you are trying to keep this recipe vegetarian friendly, you could omit the bacon and use some neutral oil to sauté the onion and kimchi.
Yes. We do recommend making a roux to help thicken the mac and cheese sauce to the proper consistency. If you are not using a roux, you would have to add a lot more cheese to thicken the sauce.
Although you could, we highly recommend against using pre-shredded cheeses because they are usually coated with anti-clumping agents which could give the sauce a grainy texture or over thickens the sauce.
Absolutely! Gruyere is a great cheese to use with cheddar and a great cheese for making mac and cheese! It's got a slightly nutty and smoky flavor that complements everything really well.
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Kimchi Mac and Cheese
- 16 ounces dry elbow pasta or cellentani pasta
- 5 ounces thick cut bacon cut into ½ inch pieces (regular thin bacon is okay too)
- ½ large yellow onion thinly sliced
- 2 cups fermented kimchi cut into small pieces
- 4 tablespoons kimchi juice from the fermented kimchi
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 1¼ cups whole milk
- 1¼ cups heavy cream
- 16 ounces sharp cheddar grated and divided
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt or to taste (if using fine salt, use a little less)
- ½ cup panko or as needed
- 2 stalks green onion just the green parts thinly sliced (optional)
Cook the pasta:
- Bring a pot of water to a boil and add the dry pasta. Cook the pasta according to package instruction. Then, drain well.
- While the elbow pasta is cooking, make the sauce. In a large, deep nonstick sauté pan over medium high heat, add the cut bacon and cook until most of the fat on the bacon is rendered and the bacon is slightly golden brown and starting to crisp up.
- Then, add the onion and sauté for about a minute or until the onion is limp. Add the kimchi and the kimchi juice and sauté until most of the juice is gone. Remove everything from the pan.
- Into the same pan over medium heat, add the butter. Once the butter is melted, add the flour and cook for about 30 seconds to 1 minute, until the mixture looks foamy, bubble, and has a light nutty aroma.
- Add the milk and heavy cream into the pan and increase the heat to medium high to bring the mixture to a simmer. Stir the mixture frequently.
- Once the mixture is hot and starts to simmer, add the sautéed kimchi mixture and stir until well combined. Then, reduce the heat to low and add ¾ of the grated cheddar. Stir the sauce until the cheese is melted and evenly combined.
- At this point, taste the sauce and season with 1 teaspoon of salt, or to taste.
- Add the cooked elbow macaroni to the sauté pan and mix well to evenly coat the past with sauce. Then stir in the sliced green onions (save some for garnish if you wish).
Bake the mac and cheese:
- Transfer the mac and cheese into a 9 by 13 baking dish. Level out the pasta. Then, sprinkle the remaining grated cheddar evenly on top along with the panko.
- Position the baking rack about 8 inches from the top heating element, but no closer than 6 inches. Preheat the oven's broiler on high.
- Broil the mac and cheese on for about 1 to 3 minutes or until the cheese is melted and the panko is most mostly golden brown. Make sure to keep an eye on it!
- Remove from the oven and sprinkle some green onions on top as garnish if you wish. Enjoy while warm!
- Make ahead of time - This mac and cheese great for making ahead and baking for when you need it. Please refer to the post above for full detail.
- Small batch - If you wish to make a smaller recipe, this mac and cheese recipe can be cut in half with no issues.
- Flavor - The flavor of this mac and cheese will largely depend the kimchi you use. This recipe was created using a popular store-bought kimchi as the baseline, but still taste and adjust the seasoning as you see fit. Also, if you use your own homemade fermented kimchi, the sauce will be much more flavorful and redder in color.
- Bacon - Bacon adds a lot of flavor the this mac and cheese, but if you want to keep this mac and cheese vegetarian friendly, you can omit the bacon. Just use some neutral oil to sauté the onion and kimchi.