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Elevate your mac and cheese with this creamy & spicy Salsa Mac and Cheese tossed with salsa, and topped with crushed tortilla chips and lots of cheese. This dish is made with milk instead of cream, and it’s still creamy, cheesy, and melts in your mouth. Everyone will be singing your praises with this crowd favorite.

Baked Salsa Mac and Cheese with a large spoon scooping some up, garnished with chopped scallions.
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Mac and Cheese is my all-time favorite American comfort food. I fell in love with it when I moved to America at 9 years old. At the time, my family moved in with my maternal aunt and her family. She would make many pasta dishes, including the cheesiest mac and cheese, and it was the first time in my life I had pasta.

As I got older, I eventually started making the boxed mac and cheese for myself. Kraft mac and cheese! Remember those? I’ve come a long way since then so now sharing with you an adult version of mac and cheese.

This time of year, one of my favorite things to make is Mac and Cheese. With the cooler temperatures, a hot and comforting bowl of mac and cheese is exactly what I want, and need.

More Creamy Mac and Cheese Recipes

If you love mac and cheese, you must try this Indian Fusion spicy & creamy Masala Mac and Cheese recipe – it’s insanely good. If you love jalapeno poppers as much as I do, try this spicy Jalapeno Popper Mac and Cheese. For my mushroom lovers, this Truffle Mac and Cheese is decadent. And who doesn’t love some classic Broccoli Mac and Cheese?



What is Salsa Mac and Cheese?

So what could be better than pasta tossed in a creamy and cheesy sauce? Well, I know one better thing, and that’s Salsa Mac and Cheese.

This dish is like your good ol’ Mac and Cheese, but elevated with salsa – store-bought salsa works just fine. My version of this baked pasta dish also uses whole milk instead of cream because you don’t need heavy cream.

Finish off your salsa mac and cheese with crushed tortilla chips and lots of freshly grated cheddar cheese. It’s so good and it’s always a huge hit!


Why You’ll Love This Recipe

  • Spicy & Flavorful – Elevated adult mac and cheese that’s spicy, creamy, and loaded with so much flavor.
  • No Heavy Cream Used – This dish is made with milk, not heavy cream. With that said, there is a little butter and lots of cheese.
  • Perfect for Gatherings – Salsa mac and cheese is an excellent choice for gatherings and potlucks. It’ll earn you many compliments and it’s a crowd-pleaser.
  • Make Ahead – This dish offers a make-ahead option. Assemble the mac and cheese a day ahead and refrigerate. The next day, bake it just before serving.

Ingredients

Ingredients for salsa mac and cheese.
  • Pasta – For this recipe make sure you use medium shells or elbows. These are the best pasta shapes when making mac and cheese.
  • Salsa – I love Whole Foods 365 Organic brand Salsa. For heat level, I recommend using mild or medium. Also, feel free your favorite store-bought red salsa – you’ll need 16 ounces total.
  • Cheddar Cheese – I highly recommend using medium or sharp cheddar for the best flavor. I used sharp. Cheddar cheese is what makes mac and cheese so delicious. Also, DO NOT use pre-shredded packaged cheese, it does not melt well and has a higher chance of curdling. Believe me, I’ve done this to myself.
  • Milk – I used whole milk, however reduced-fat 2% milk will also work. Do not use 1% or skim. Also, you do not need heavy cream.
  • Tortilla Chips – You’ll need about 1/2 cup of corn tortilla chips. Crush them in a ziplock to top over your mac and cheese.
  • Taco Seasoning – I love Trader Joe’s Taco Seasoning which is on the spicier side. I recommend using medium to hot taco seasoning in this recipe.

*See the recipe card below for full information on ingredients and quantities.*


Substitutions

  • Whole Wheat Pasta (healthier) – Use whole-wheat shells or elbows for a healthier mac and cheese.
  • Gluten-free – Use gluten-free pasta and flour in this recipe. The remainder ingredients are likely gluten-free, but double-check the salsa, chips, and taco seasoning.
  • Vegan – Use nondairy milk and cheese. Also, use vegan butter. I haven’t tested this, but these are my recommendations.
  • Cheddar Cheese – Feel free to use any cheese that melts well such as Gruyere cheese, Pepper Jack cheese, or Colby Jack cheese. Do not use pre-shredded cheese.
  • Milk – If you don’t want to use whole milk, you may use reduced fat 2% milk. Don’t use low-fat or skim milk.
  • Ground Meat – If you’d like to add meat, feel free to add ground beef, turkey, or chicken to this dish. Cook the ground meat in a separate pan with some oil and a tablespoon or two of taco seasoning. Add it after the cheese has been added – again, add a little bit at a time. I also recommend using about 1/2 a pound of meat, no more. Feel free to add more if you prefer.
  • Tortilla Chips – Instead of crushed tortilla chips you may use bread crumbs or panko breadcrumbs.

How to make Salsa Mac and Cheese?

Step 1 – Prep

TIP: Prep all your ingredients in advance since it’s very easy to curdle mac and cheese. Chop your scallions and cilantro. Grate all of your cheese ahead of time.

1. Start by heating a large pot of water for the pasta. (Image 1)

2. Add the uncooked pasta shells to the boiling water. Season with salt. Follow the package directions. (Image 2)

Boil water and add pasta.

Step 2 – Preheat the Oven & Cook Mac and Cheese

TIP 1 – Preheat. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

TIP 2 – Oven-Friendly Pan: Use a pan/pot that is oven-friendly so you can make mac and cheese in one pot.

TIP 3 – Avoid Curdling: Make sure the milk and cheese are at room temperature. When adding the milk and cheese, add them slowly and whisk them in slowly to avoid curdling. Additionally, if your salsa is cold, bring it to room temperature before adding it to the sauce.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat a Dutch castiron or large skillet (preferably any oven-friendly pan) on low-medium heat. Once hot, add butter. (Image 1)

2. Once the butter melts, add flour. (Image 2)

3. Use a whisk and mix for a minute so the mixture is smooth, there should not be any lumps. The flour needs to be cooked. (Image 3)

4. To avoid curdling, slowly add the milk and whisk at the same time. You don’t want to add the milk too fast else it will curdle. Whisk until well blended. Increase the heat to medium and allow the milk to heat up. This process will take about 10 minutes, keep stirring occasionally. (Image 4)

Make the roux and slowly add the milk.

5. Once the milk is heated through and slightly thickens up, add black pepper, garlic powder, taco seasoning, and 1/4 a teaspoon of salt. Don’t go overboard on salt since the taco seasoning and cheese contain enough salt. Mix well. (Image 5)

6. Now add the salsa – a little bit at a time, especially if the salsa is cold. (Image 6)

7. Whisk the salsa in until the sauce is smooth. (Image 7)

8. Reduce heat to low. Add 1 1/2 cups of cheese – a little bit at a time to avoid curdling. Keep whisking in between. (Image 8)

Add spices, salsa, and cheese, then stir.

9. Check on your pasta. Your pasta should be boiling and perfectly al dente. (Image 9)

10. Drain the pasta and rinse lightly with cold water. (Image 10)

Boil and drain your pasta.

11. Now slowly add the warm pasta to the salsa cheese sauce. Again, add a little bit at a time to avoid curdling. Stir in all the pasta well. Turn off the stove. (Image 11)

12. Top pasta with crushed tortilla chips. Use a Ziploc bag to smash the chips. (Image 12)

13. Now top with the remaining 2 cups of cheddar cheese. Place the baking dish in the center of the oven and bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes. You can bake for an extra 5 minutes if you need to. (Image 13)

14. Garnish with chopped scallions and cilantro. Serve after 5 minutes and enjoy hot! (Image 14)

Add pasta, stir, top with crunchy tortilla chips and cheese, then bake and garnish.

Expert Tips

✓ Prep & Measure Ingredients before Cooking – When making mac and cheese, prep all your ingredients ahead of time – grate the cheese, have the flour and butter ready to go, and have the milk measured out. You need to work quickly so measure out all the ingredients before cooking.

✓ Room Temperature Ingredients – Make sure the milk and cheese are at room temperature. This will help prevent the mac and cheese from curdling.

✓ Tempering / Avoid Curdling – To avoid curdling, you must slowly add the milk to the roux (combination of butter & flour). Additionally, add the cheese a little bit at a time, and then whisk the sauce. Any drastic difference in temperatures will cause your mac and cheese to curdle, so add these ingredients slowly.

✓ Pasta – Again, for the pasta, add the pasta a little bit at a time so there is no drastic temperature difference between the hot sauce and the pasta.

✓ Cheese – Make sure you use block cheddar cheese and grate it. Do NOT use any pre-packaged cheese because they have a ton of additives that may cause your mac and cheese to curdle. Additionally, freshly grated cheese tastes a thousand times better.

✓ Spicier Mac and Cheese – For spicier mac and cheese, you may add red chili powder or cayenne pepper along with the taco seasoning. Note: Trader Joe’s Taco Seasoning is already spicy, and salsa may be mild-medium spice.


Make Ahead Option

Save yourself some time and make the mac and cheese a day in advance. Assemble the dish (without baking) and cover the baking dish tightly with plastic wrap. The next day, leave the mac and cheese out about 30 minutes before baking. Bake before serving.


Recipe FAQs

Which brand of Taco Seasoning should I use?

I highly recommend Trader Joe’s Taco Seasoning which is spicy. Otherwise, use your favorite Taco Seasoning – one that has a heat level of medium-hot.

Is this recipe gluten-free?

No. For a gluten-free option, use gf pasta and flour. The remaining ingredients are naturally gluten-free.

Is this recipe vegan?

No. For a vegan version, use nondairy milk, butter, and cheese.

How should I store salsa mac and cheese?

Place the mac and cheese in an airtight container in the refrigerator. The mac and cheese will last up to 4 days in the fridge. When you’re ready to eat, microwave the mac and cheese for a minute.

Creamy salsa mac and cheese being added to a serving bowl with an large spoon.

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5 from 1 vote

Crunchy Tortilla Salsa Mac and Cheese

By: Nisha
Elevate your mac and cheese with this creamy & spicy Salsa Mac and Cheese tossed with salsa, and topped with crushed tortilla chips and lots of cheese. This dish is made with milk instead of cream, and it's still creamy, cheesy, and melts in your mouth. Everyone will be singing your praises with this crowd favorite.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 55 minutes
Servings: 6 servings

Ingredients 

FOR SALSA MAC AND CHEESE

  • 12 ounces medium shells, elbows work too
  • 3 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 3 tbsp all-purpose white flour
  • 2 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 2 1/2 tbsp taco seasoning, I love Trader Joe's brand
  • 3 1/2 cups medium cheddar cheese, grated & divided, 1 1/2 cups for the sauce + 2 cups for the top
  • 16 ounces salsa jar, mild or medium, I love organic Whole Foods brand
  • small handful tortilla chips, crushed in a ziploc bag

FOR GARNISH

  • few scallions, chopped
  • few cilantro, chopped
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Instructions 

Step 1 – Prep

    TIP: Prep all your ingredients in advance since it’s very easy to curdle mac and cheese. Chop your scallions and cilantro. Grate all of your cheese ahead of time.

    • Start by heating a large pot of water for the pasta. Add the uncooked pasta shells to the boiling water. Season with salt. Follow the package directions.

    Step 2 – Preheat Oven & Cook Mac and Cheese

      TIP 1 – Preheat. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

        TIP 2 – Oven-Friendly Pan: Use a pan/pot that is oven-friendly so you can make mac and cheese in one pot.

          TIP 3 – Avoid Curdling: Make sure the milk and cheese are at room temperature. When adding the milk and cheese, add them slowly and whisk them in slowly to avoid curdling. Additionally, if your salsa is cold, bring it to room temperature before adding it to the sauce.

          • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat a Dutch castiron or large skillet (preferably any oven-friendly pan) on low-medium heat. Once hot, add butter. Once the butter melts, add flour. Use a whisk and mix for a minute so the mixture is smooth, there should not be any lumps. The flour needs to be cooked.
          • To avoid curdling, slowly add the milk and whisk at the same time. You don't want to add the milk too fast else it will curdle. Whisk until well blended. Increase the heat to medium and allow the milk to heat up. This process will take about 10 minutes, keep stirring occasionally.
          • Once the milk is heated through and slightly thickens up, add black pepper, garlic powder, taco seasoning, and 1/4 a teaspoon of salt. Don’t go overboard on salt since the taco seasoning and cheese contain enough salt. Mix well.
          • Now add the salsa – a little bit at a time, especially if the salsa is cold. Whisk the salsa in until the sauce is smooth. Reduce heat to low. Add 1 1/2 cups of cheese – a little bit at a time to avoid curdling. Keep whisking in between.
          • Check on your pasta. Your pasta should be boiling and perfectly al dente. Drain the pasta and rinse lightly with cold water.
          • Now slowly add the warm pasta to the salsa cheese sauce. Again, add a little bit at a time to avoid curdling. Stir in all the pasta well. Turn off the stove. Top pasta with crushed tortilla chips. Use a Ziploc bag to smash the chips.
          • Now top with the remaining 2 cups of cheddar cheese. Place the baking dish in the center of the oven and bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes. You can bake for an extra 5 minutes if you need to. Garnish with chopped scallions and cilantro. Serve after 5 minutes and enjoy hot!

          Notes

          This recipe was first published on April 15, 2013, and has since been updated and republished.
          • Prep & Measure Ingredients before Cooking – When making mac and cheese, prep all your ingredients ahead of time – grate the cheese, have the flour and butter ready to go, and have the milk measured out. You need to work quickly so measure out all the ingredients before cooking.
          • Room Temperature Ingredients – Make sure the milk and cheese are at room temperature. This will help prevent the mac and cheese from curdling.
          • Tempering / Avoid Curdling – To avoid curdling, you must slowly add the milk to the roux (combination of butter & flour). Additionally, add the cheese a little bit at a time, and then whisk the sauce. Any drastic difference in temperatures will cause your mac and cheese to curdle, so add these ingredients slowly.
          • Pasta – Again, for the pasta, add the pasta a little bit at a time so there is no drastic temperature difference between the hot sauce and the pasta.
          • Cheese – Make sure you use block cheddar cheese and grate it. Do NOT use any pre-packaged cheese because they have a ton of additives that may cause your mac and cheese to curdle. Additionally, freshly grated cheese tastes a thousand times better.
          • Spicier Mac and Cheese – For spicier mac and cheese, you may add red chili powder or cayenne pepper along with the taco seasoning. Note: Trader Joe’s Taco Seasoning is already spicy, and salsa may be mild-medium spice.

          Nutrition

          Calories: 634kcal | Carbohydrates: 58g | Protein: 27g | Fat: 32g | Saturated Fat: 18g | Cholesterol: 93mg | Sodium: 1125mg | Potassium: 341mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 10g | Vitamin A: 1099IU | Vitamin C: 0.5mg | Calcium: 606mg | Iron: 1mg

          Additional Info

          Course: Main Course
          Cuisine: American, Mexican/Fusion
          Diet: Vegetarian
          Tried this recipe?Mention @honeywhatscooking or tag #honeywhatscooking!

          Hi, I'm Nisha!

          I'm a foodie who is passionate about healthy-ish living and mindful eating. You'll find a bit of everything here. I use mostly organic real ingredients and incorporate seasonal produce in my cooking. I believe food is medicine. Join me on this soul-searching journey as I share my love for good food, and I hope I inspire you to eat better somewhere along the way.


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          34 Comments

          1. Hahah LOVE your narration in this post! And I've been craving Mexican dip or Mac 'n Cheese. This is a perfect combo of the 2! 🙂