Meaty Macaroni and Cheese with Ground Bison
My Meaty Macaroni and Cheese with ground bison is essentially an elevated version of homemade Hamburger Helper. Loaded with lean meat, apple smoked cheddar, crunchy peppers, sweet onions, and tomatoes, this cheeseburger mac and cheese is just in time for blustery weather.
Best of all, it’s made with just 10 ingredients in 25 minutes!
Why I Love This Recipe
In search of a quick, hearty, and cheesy dish that’s perfect for busy weeknights or when you need a comfort meal? Stop your scrolling. As a working mom, I totally understand how hard it can be to get dinner on the table. That’s why I love this healthy hamburger helper recipe; it’s super easy to make, oh-so-satisfying satisfying, and versatile.
If you have the Muy Bueno cookbook, you’ll notice that the base of this dish is my mom’s Mexican Macaroni and Cheese, but heartier. The ground bison (buffalo) takes this dish from being just a side to a whole meal, adding a hefty dose of lean protein to your pasta dinner.
However, what sets this dish apart from every other mac and cheese recipe is the apple-smoked cheddar cheese. The smoky flavor pairs beautifully with the slightly sweet bison meat and the cheese itself melts into the pasta water to create a silky, creamy sauce that is pure magic.
Ingredients & Substitutions
As promised, you need just 10 simple ingredients to make this meaty mac and cheese recipe. Here’s what to grab:
- Water – You’re not actually going to drain the pasta for this easy cheeseburger helper, so make sure it’s filtered for the best taste.
- Salt – For seasoning.
- Elbow Macaroni – Feel free to sub in any other short pasta shape you prefer.
- Unsalted Butter – You can also use olive oil if you want to be a little healthier.
- Yellow Onion – You can also use white onion, but I like the sweetness of yellow onions. Feel free to use green onions to shake things up!
- Green Bell Pepper – For a bit of earthy sweetness. You can also use any type of pepper you prefer.
- Garlic – Fresh is best, but you can swap in 1/2-1 teaspoon of garlic powder if needed.
- Ground Bison – I love using ground bison because it’s so lean. Once it’s cooked I rarely have to drain any fat making it a healthy alternative to ground beef. Feel free to swap in your preferred ground meat here — beef, turkey, chicken, or plant-based “ground meat” alternatives.
- Tomato Sauce & Tomato Bouillon – Doubling down on the tomato flavor gives you ketchup vibes for the cheeseburger mac without adding any refined sugar. Feel free to swap in tomato paste for the bouillon.
- Apple Smoked Cheddar Cheese – Any melty cheese will work here, but if you can get your hands on some applewood smoked cheddar, I strongly suggest you give it a try.
How To Make Meaty Macaroni & Cheese
Making Hamburger Helper from scratch is much easier (and healthier) than you might think. Here’s how it’s done:
Step 1: Cook Noodles. Bring water and salt to boil in a medium saucepan. Add macaroni and boil uncovered for 12 minutes. Remove from heat, and set aside. DO NOT DRAIN.
Step 2: Sauté Aromatics. In a large skillet, sauté onion, green pepper, and garlic in butter or olive oil for 2 minutes. Once the onion is translucent, transfer sautéed ingredients to a plate and set aside.
Step 3: Sauté Bison. In the same skillet, brown ground bison over medium heat. Drain fat.
Step 4: Mix. Combine ground bison and sautéed ingredients. Add macaroni with the water to the skillet. Add tomato sauce, bouillon, and bring to a boil uncovered.
Step 5: Add Cheese. Once the mixture is boiling, turn off the heat. Sprinkle cheese on the top and cover until the cheese melts. Enjoy!
This homemade cheeseburger helper is an utter delight, but there’s plenty of room for customization. As for the versatility of the recipe, it’s easy to experiment with different combinations. For example, here are a few variations to consider:
- Make it Gluten-Free. Swap in your favorite GF noodles.
- Spicy Tex-Mex Mac & Cheese. Instead of using green bell peppers, try substituting with roasted poblano peppers and pepper jack cheese for a spicy southwestern flavor.
- Enchilada Hamburger Helper. Swap in red bell peppers for the green and use red chile sauce in place of the tomato sauce.
- Taco Hamburger Helper. Add taco seasoning to the bison and stir in a handful of chopped cilantro before serving.
- Lasagna Hamburger Helper. Use Italian sausage instead of bison and swap in mozzarella cheese.
- Use a different protein. Feel free to swap in extra lean ground beef, chorizo, ground turkey, or ground chicken. You can also make it vegetarian by using meatless crumbles or Impossible-style ground “meat,” or by grating a pressed block of extra firm tofu.
- Grate your own cheese. While it might seem tempting to grab a bag of pre-shredded cheese to cut down on your prep, resist. Pre-grated cheese shreds are coated with a starchy substance that prevents them from melting properly, which can result in a grainy mac and cheese sauce.
- Keep dishes to a minimum. After sautéing the aromatics, don’t bother cleaning the pan before adding the meat. Also, consider using one of the bowls you’ll use for serving individual portions to hold the aromatics in the meantime to keep cleanup to a minimum.
- Check the frozen aisle for time-saving shortcuts. For example, you can often find an onion/bell pepper blend that’s already chopped and ready to cook.
Frequently Asked Questions
Bison is typically leaner than beef, and the same is true in ground form. You’ll see when you cook it — there will be very little (if any) fat to pour off. Overall, bison is often considered the “healthier” option over ground beef because it is lower in calories, saturated and overall fats, is higher in protein, and it is rich in many vital nutrients like iron, zinc, and B12.
Absolutely! Feel free to swap in olive oil or non-dairy butter as needed.
Yep! Just make sure to use low-sodium broth or stock, and adjust your seasoning accordingly.
Feel free to omit but you might need to add a bit more salt.
More Ground Bison Recipes
- Bison Steak Tatanka Tacos
- Easy Homemade Beef Taquitos (Chico’s Tacos Copycat) – Just swap in bison for beef!
- Mexican Picadillo Tacos (Tacos de Picadillo) – Again, bison is a great lean substitute for beef here.
Macaroni and Cheese with Ground Bison
- Bring water and salt to boil in a medium sauce pan. Add macaroni and boil uncovered for 12 minutes. Remove from heat, and set aside.
- In a large skillet, sauté onion, green pepper, and garlic in butter or olive oil for 2 minutes. Once the onion is translucent, transfer sautéed ingredients to a plate and set aside.
- In the same skillet, brown ground bison over medium heat. Drain fat.
- Combine ground bison and sautéed ingredients. Add macaroni with the water to the skillet. Add tomato sauce, bouillon, and bring to a boil uncovered.
- Once the mixture is boiling, turn off heat. Sprinkle cheese on the top and cover until the cheese melts.
- No bouillon? Feel free to omit, but you might need to add a bit more salt.
- Want to spice it up? Substitute the bell pepper with a roasted poblano pepper.
- Cheese option: Use pepper jack cheese for a spicy south-western flavor.
Photography by Jenna Sparks
Originally published: February 2019.