Make Ahead

Nacho Cheese Sauce Made with Buttermilk

March 13, 2021
4 Ratings
  • Prep time 40 minutes
  • Cook time 20 minutes
  • Makes 1 pint
Author Notes

While I never had a real fast food worker experience as a kid, I did work for several years at the local movie theater, where in addition to an exorbitant amount of popcorn, we made a lot of movie theater nachos. You know the kind with the little plastic dish with the special cup for the nacho sauce. Trust me on this one, you don’t want to know exactly what is in that cheese sauce, but I’ll tell you that it does come in very large cans and is closer to plastic in texture before it’s heated than anything you should eat. There was nothing nachoy about cheese itself… that effect was created by pouring a bit of the pickling brine from the equally large cans of pickled jalapenos, after first scraping off some weird oily black stuff off the top. You have my sincere apology for ever being involved in serving such crap as food.

And yet. As gross as it was to see how that nacho cheese was made, it still kind of tasted good, and there have been more than a few times that I craved the velvety spicy cheese along side my chips.

This nacho cheese sauce, made with far less scary ingredients, is based on the Chile con Queso recipe in Real Snacks, but with a bit of turmeric thrown in to give it that classic cheese sauce color. It satisfies that craving and is the perfect little snack for the Big Game day or a quiet movie night.

While you might be inclined to use cheddar cheese in this sauce, I’ve found that Monterey Jack gives a much better texture… cheddar just won’t get as smooth. If you really miss the cheddar flavor, try adding half cheddar and half jack instead. —Lara

What You'll Need
  • Nacho Cheese Sauce
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons onion, minced
  • 2 tablespoons green chile, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 tablespoons all purpose flour (or gf flour mix)
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 ounces Monterey Jack cheese
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 dash salt and pepper, to taste
  • Quick Pickled Jalapenos
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 to 2 jalapenos
  1. Nacho Cheese Sauce
  2. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over low heat in a sauté pan. Add the onion, green chile, tomato, turmeric, paprika and cayenne pepper. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes until the onion softens completely.
  3. Add the remaining butter and the flour, and continue to cook on low for another 2 minutes. Add the cream, ½ cup of the buttermilk and cheese and stir to until the cheese melts. Add in the remaining buttermilk a little at a time until you get a velvety sauce, about 10 minutes.
  4. Transfer the sauce to a blender (I use a hand blender) and pulse until completely smooth. Stream in the olive oil and continue to blend. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with chips and pickled jalapenos.
  5. You can make this sauce a day ahead and keep it in a sealed jar. Reheat in the microwave for a minute, stir, and finish heating another minute to serve.
  1. Quick Pickled Jalapenos
  2. Place the salt, water and vinegar in a bowl and heat until the salt dissolves (the microwave is fine for this!) Slice the jalapeno into rounds, and add to the brine. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Leigh Segel
    Leigh Segel
  • darksideofthespoon
  • ozbaker
  • Miachel Pruett
    Miachel Pruett
Lara Ferroni is a former tech geek turned food geek who spends her days exploring the food culture of the Pacific Northwest. As a writer and photographer, you might spy her digging through bargain bins for the perfect prop, or dreaming up delicious new ways to use teff, or eating and drinking her way through Portland's vibrant food culture. Her photos have been featured in websites and magazines such as Epicurious and Edible Communities, as well as over 10 cookbooks, including her own, Doughnuts (Sasquatch Books) and Real Snacks: Your Favorite Childhood Treats Without all the Junk (Sasquatch Books), as well as a food photography how-to book, Food Photography: Pro Secrets for Styling, Lighting & Shooting (Pixiq). You can find more of her tasty photos and recipes on her blogs, and

19 Reviews

Tysiepup March 13, 2021
Made this because my husband loves movie theater nachos and trusted Lara’s knowledge- haha! We also made the pickled jalapeños to add some kick. The recipe is great, big hit.
Heidi D. November 8, 2019
I was nervous about some of the unusual ingredients in this recipe, like buttermilk and turmeric. But it really turned out well. I used a jalapeno for the chopped green chile, so it was a little spicier than I wanted. I adjusted by adding some more heavy cream and cheese, and it was just right. I will make it again, for sure!
Sonalee J. August 15, 2017
Can I substitute a different milk for the buttermilk? Perhaps whole milk? Or do you need it for the tanginess?
mstv December 12, 2015
I have made this several times. I don't like regular nacho cheese or queso but this is fabulous! Good on burritos, too!
KristenS November 1, 2015
Definitely didn't have enough cheese flavor in my
Marc A. February 16, 2014
We have made this three times already. So delicious!!! Its a crowd pleaser!
Constance B. January 29, 2014
It's hard to beat Tostitos Salsa Con Queso and everyone thinks it's homemade!
Leigh S. July 29, 2013
This was very good! I like how the sautéed tomatoes and spices make the cheese sauce yellow-orange in color. Super easy to make. PS JenJack too much cheese would make it separate.
Leigh S. July 29, 2013
PS - I can put my crock pot mini to use at a party with this recipe!
cookinalong July 7, 2013
You are entirely absolved of your movie theater food sins!
dickensthedog February 6, 2013
ONG, it was wonderful on the broccoli !!
dickensthedog February 3, 2013
I made this today for the Super Bowl, and we just love it!! Thanks so much for the recipe. I used scallions in place of onions, and needed to sub light cream for about 1/2 of the buttermilk, all with no ill effect. We look forward to eating the rest of it on broccoli :)
JenJack February 3, 2013
Fantastic. Texture was perfect. I thought 2oz of cheese was too little, but it was wonderful.
darksideofthespoon January 31, 2013
I made this last night and it was SPOT ON! Amazing! I cut the cayenne down to 1/8 tsp and found it perfect for my spice tolerance.
ozbaker January 31, 2013
Only 2 ounces of cheese in a cheese dip? That doesn't seem right.
darksideofthespoon January 31, 2013
I was surprised too, but it tastes wonderful and the texture is spot on.
ozbaker February 5, 2013
I did try it as written, except used 2 oz. of sharp cheddar grated on a coarse Microplane. It worked a treat and was silky smooth. Very good recipe.
Miachel P. January 30, 2013
What a cool idea!
Muse January 27, 2013
Love, love, LOVE Mexican food...thank you for this recipe!