The Best Nacho Cheese: Is It Made With Velveeta, Roux Or Plain Melted Cheese?
Gatherings for the Super Bowl will look a little bit different this year, but one thing will remain: nachos.
Some people like their nachos sprinkled with straight-up cheese that’s melted in the oven, while others prefer a sauce — either a traditional homemade queso fundido or one from a jar. But what’s the easiest option to make at home? Aside from jarred cheese sauce, here are some answers from cheese experts.
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“All the chefs say it’s processed cheese that does the best job, so who am I to argue?” said Laura Werline, James Beard award-winning author of six books about cheese.The easiest ways to make homemade cheese sauce
Let’s start with preparation methods. There are endless ways to make nacho cheese sauce, starting with traditional methods.
Nacho cheese sauce, of course, is an offspring of traditional queso fundido, which is usually made with traditional Mexican cheeses like asadero or Chihuahua. It’s sometimes made with cream, and it usually doesn’t include cheddar. The Americanized versions of it, however, usually include cheddar or Velveeta.
The chefs we spoke with suggested two particular techniques that they find to be good options for home cooks:
Start with either Velveeta or cream cheese and add some more flavorful cheeses to the mix
Make a roux out of butter and flour, and then add milk and specialty cheeses
And there are plenty of fans of both.
Team Processed Cheese
“All the chefs say it’s processed cheese that does the best job, so who am I to argue?” said Laura Werlin, James Beard award-winning author of six books about cheese.
The Velveeta route is pretty easy ― just melt a block of it, and if you want to add some oomph, add a couple of cups of the shredded cheese of your choice. Or, if you’re a bit snootier, sub cream cheese for the Velveeta.
Sheana Davis, a chef, cheesemaker, caterer and owner of The Epicurean Connection in Sonoma, California, is also a fan of incorporating processed cheese. “I like cream cheese and Velveeta, a 50-50 mix, but made in the microwave,” she said. “The beauty of this mix is that you can reheat it, and it doesn’t break down.”
Davis used to make this in hotel room microwaves when her daughter was on a traveling soccer team. She’d take 1 pound each of cream cheese, Velveeta and cooked ground beef, and then stir in a package of taco seasoning.
Other chefs, however, recommend making a roux, which is a mix of butter and flour. You melt the butter, and then whisk in the flour to cook it into a smooth paste for a minute or so before whisking in milk or cream and then melting in grated cheese (i.e., the base of macaroni and cheese sauce).
“I do have a soft spot for Velveeta, but it’s best for a grilled cheese sandwich, not for nachos,” said Gregory León, chef and owner of Amilinda restaurant in Milwaukee.
For nachos, León prefers making a roux with unsalted butter and flour ― about 4 tablespoons of butter to 2 tablespoons of flour ― and adding 3 cups of cream and then 1 pound of shredded pepper jack cheese and a half pound of shredded cheddar. “If it’s too thick, then I add a little more cream to thin it out,” he said.
“Just keep an eye on the roux ― that’s the secret of it, and keep stirring,” León said. “For a cheese sauce, I don’t want it to get any color. I want it to stay as blond as possible.”
Cheese selection matters
For the cheeses, León chooses whatever pepper jack he finds at the grocery store. But when it comes to cheddar, hands down, it’s Hook’s 5-year-old cheddar. “I like the pepper jack because it adds a little bit of spiciness, and I like the cheddar because it’s a classic, and I feel like it has to be there,” he said.
To finish off his nachos, he adds some green onions, cilantro and guindillas, which are little pickled Spanish peppers. “They’re from the Basque region, and I slice them up really thin and put them on top,” he said.
Rebekah Henschel, fourth-generation owner at Henning’s Cheese in Kiel, Wisconsin, said the question is not whether to use Velveeta or not use Velveeta. The important question, Henschel said, is which cheeses will flavor your nachos. “I think most people want spice so a pepper jack or habanero jack if you want something spicier,” she said. “It just depends on what you’re looking for.”
At Henning’s, which has won several international awards for its flavored jacks and cheddars, there’s a wide variety of cheeses, each with a different level of heat. If you just want a teeny touch, Henschel recommends hatch pepper cheddar, which is a sweet chile pepper that grows in the Hatch Valley of New Mexico.
The next level would be the chipotle cheddar or the pepper jack, but for those who want it spicier, you can keep kicking it up, perhaps to an option with a “fiery habañero finish.”
But if you have an ulcer or kiddos who can’t stand the heat, Henschel recommends going old-school with straight cheddar, Monterey jack or a colby jack. “Colby jack is buttery and creamy, and if I don’t want spice, this is a really good cheese,” she said.
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“I don’t use a roux, I just grate and melt the cheeses and put them right on our chips,” said chef and cheesemaker Sheana Davis.An argument for straight-up melted cheese
Davis sometimes likes to take an entirely different approach to nachos ― in both cheeses and technique.
“In Sonoma, we grew up on Vella and Sonoma Cheese Factory cheese so during the Super Bowl we’d go to Sonoma Cheese Factory and buy a shredded mix,” Davis said. “It was a 1-pound bag, and it was clearly made of leftovers, so the joke was it would never be repeated, but it was always delicious.” Davis said it usually had a mix of jalapeño jack, pesto jack, cheddar and other cheeses.
Fast-forward to today when Davis recreates that eclectic mix herself using pesto jack, jalapeño jack and cheddar. To make the nachos, however, Davis uses the simplest of culinary techniques: She simply spreads the chips onto a cookie sheet and sprinkles the cheese right on the chips. Then she puts it in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit and bakes it for 12 minutes. “I don’t use a roux. I just grate and melt the cheeses and put them right on our chips,” she said. “The pesto jack actually picks up on the flavors of the salsa you add to your nachos.”
Davis recommends supporting your favorite taqueria or Mexican restaurant by getting chips and salsa as takeout to make the nachos even better. “Freshly made chips make the dish,” she said. “Pre-pandemic, restaurants didn’t always want to sell you a bag of chips, but now that everyone has takeout, they’re glad to sell it to you.”
A regular dinner, she says, is nachos with these fixings added: black beans, rinsed and drained, jalapeños, and shredded chicken. She once made this for Sid Cook, an award-winning master cheesemaker who owns Carr Valley Cheese in La Valle, Wisconsin. “He had come to my home after a cheese conference, and he was expecting a bechamel sauce and something fancy,” she said. “It was a life-changing event for him. I could totally see it in his eyes ― he couldn’t believe it.”
A year or two later, Davis went to visit Cook and his family in Wisconsin. “Guess what he made me?” she said. “It was nachos, but he had personally made the pesto jack, the pepper jack and the cheddar.”