Some of our favorite recipes are the kind that can be endlessly riffed on to suit your tastes, the occasion, or what's in your fridge on a given night. One such dish is most definitely addictive, melty queso, and if you learn how to make queso with all our tried and true tips, you never have to go without it.
Let’s begin with the classic cheese sauce we have all made at some point. This old school queso dip recipe is made with a block of Velveeta and can of Rotel tomatoes. This may not be the queso you'd order at a Mexican restaurant, but it is the one you've probably eaten at parties of all kinds. This queso consists of just these two ingredients you can pick up at any grocery store (or even convenience store) which are combined in a pot over low heat, microwaved in 30-second increments until melted through, or even be made in a slow cooker to stay perfectly warm throughout a party—it couldn't be simpler.
This molten heap of cheese is beloved, indeed—and in the Southwest, it's a prerequisite to parties. There simply is no party without queso.
But as with all venerated dishes (especially dishes involving hot, melty cheese), variations abound. Lisa Fain, "The Homesick Texan," had an original recipe list of 250 quesos for her book, Queso (yes, there’s a whole book on the topic). During her road trip around queso country, she discovered versions that called for ingredients like Indian chutney and plant-based cheese. Even so, Fain writes, “...although this Tex-Mex bowl of gold, as it’s often called, is widespread throughout the rest of the state and beyond, there is still much room for innovation.”
Best Cheeses For Queso
As the name implies, the star of any queso dip is the cheese. The challenge is finding the ideal combination of melting abilities and flavor. By now we all probably realize that Velveeta is technically not a cheese, but it melts amazingly—so well that it doesn’t need any stabilizers to keep it creamy when melted. While its superpowers are not lost on us, our master recipe instead uses white American cheese and Monterey jack for a few reasons (but mostly flavor). Because American cheese is a mix of cheddar and Monterey jack, it has a stronger, more pronounced flavor than Velveeta. Monterey Jack has a mild, milky creaminess, making it a nice counterpart to the American cheese.
While we all want to use “real cheese” whenever possible, the truth is the properties of Velveeta or American cheese just can’t be beat. That’s why our baseline recipe splits the difference and allows for both. The result is a beautiful creamy white queso dip, rather than the unnatural yellow-orange hue of the Velveeta version.
They’re also easy to shop for and work with: American cheese is a processed cheese you can find at the deli counter; they’ll even slice it fresh for you, making prep a little easier. It has a low melting point, but does need some additional liquid to hold together in a smooth sauce (hence a mix of milk and heavy cream in the recipe). Monterey Jack is also fairly easy to find and melts well. You can even swap in the equivalent amount of evaporated milk for the whole milk in the baseline recipe. It's a shelf-stable alternative that is richer and creamier than what you can find in the refrigerated dairy case.
If you want to switch up the cheeses in the recipe, pick ones that melt smoothly, like Gruyère, pepper jack, cheddar, or muenster. We suggest always keeping some quantity of American cheese in the mix so your queso is silky-smooth no matter what. Be sure to grate your cheese at home, as some pre-shredded cheese mixes often don’t perform the same way. When cheese is sold pre-shredded in a bag, it is often tossed with potato starch or powdered cellulose, which have desiccating and anti-clumping properties that help keep cheese shreds separate. The problem is, these same properties will cause the cheese to resist melting together while cooked, the same way they resist melting together in the bag. If you decide to use more of a crumbly cheese, like feta or cotija, use it as a garnish instead.
More Queso Tips
When it comes to queso, it’s really the cheese, and then everything else. For a more adaptable baseline recipe, we decided not to include chiles—though you can add chiles to yours in many forms: rehydrated dried chiles; charred, chopped fresh chiles; powders; canned chiles; and so on. Here are some other combination ideas:
Queso aficionados and diehards will be unenthused by these variations. They likely will see no point in them, when there’s absolutely nothing wrong with old faithful (which is true). But if you open your heart to all that cheese dip can be, you might find a version for every and all occasions. A pimento cheese variation garnished with chopped pimento; a rarebit version with mustard powder, Worcestershire, and stout; a buffalo version with hot sauce, shredded chicken, and ranch powder; an Italian sub iteration with Italian meats and pepperoncini. Those sound good, huh?
How will you spin your queso dip recipe? Let us know in the comments!.