Being transplants to Texas, my husband and I have discovered that Mexican restaurants are often selected solely on the quality of their queso and salsa.
My hubby was crestfallen after asking the waiter at his favorite Mexican restaurant to slip him their “famous” queso recipe and the guy simply answered, “What recipe? Just go pick up a can at the store."
I laughed, while at the same time, realizing this meant that I was going to have to create a Mexican queso that was better than the canned stuff he’d grown to love. It wasn’t hard to do.
What Makes a Great Homemade Queso?
For me, a great queso dip is smooth and creamy with a slight tang. Let’s be honest, there are days when we must feed our families (or ourselves), but we just can’t muster up the effort to make something elaborate. This homemade queso saves the day.
Not a lot of prep is involved and – when topped with a cooked protein like taco meat or chorizo and served with chips or warm tortillas – it becomes a complete meal.
What Is the Best Cheese for Queso?
When it comes to crave-worthy queso, the key is to use cheeses that have a sharpness to them. Extra-sharp cheddar accomplishes that wonderfully. To balance the sharp cheddar, I added full-fat cream cheese to provide additional tang and smooth out the dip’s texture.
If sharp cheddar isn’t your thing, you can use other cheeses. In fact, most restaurants actually use Velveeta or American cheese to make their queso. If you decide to use either of these, use the same amount as you would for the cheddar. Because both of these cheeses are made for melting, you can dice them instead of shredding.
What Are the Best Peppers for Queso?
Believe it or not, the best peppers for queso come in a can!
Rotel is a great brand of canned diced tomatoes with diced green chilies. It makes quick work of queso. Some grocers carry a store-brand, so keep your eyes peeled for that, too.
What I like about using canned peppers is that it can be stored in the pantry for queso in a hurry. With it, my prep time is cut down significantly as there’s no need for more chopping – just open the can, drain, and add it to the dip. The spiciness of canned chilies is usually listed on the label. Keep it mild, or go ahead and get spicy if you want too!
If you don’t have access to Rotel, you can use either fresh chilies and tomatoes or canned tomatoes and canned chilies.
- To use fresh peppers and tomatoes: If you opt for fresh, just use one minced jalapeño and half a poblano pepper with one cup diced fresh tomato. Make sure you sauté them with the onions and garlic in step one.
- To use canned tomatoes and chilies: If Rotel isn’t available in your area, you can substitute it with one 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes and a small four-ounce can of diced green chilies. Drain both the same as you would if you were using the Rotel.
The Secret to Smooth Queso
The bane of every queso-makers existence is curdling. The use of cream cheese in my queso guards against this common issue. The stabilizers in the cream cheese work to prevent the cheese from curdling when heated. This works to our advantage in the queso dip because, unlike hard cheeses like cheddar which can separate when heated, the cream cheese will melt and make the dip homogeneous.
More tips for super smooth queso:
- In addition to the cream cheese, I use evaporated milk as the base for the cheesy dip.
- Reducing the amount of water in the sauce also prevents that dreaded curdling.
- Pay close attention to the temperature of the sauce after the cheese has been added. This is crucial in achieving a smooth queso. Maintaining a low temperature and a wee bit of patience will set you up for success. No bubbles should break the surface of the dip once you’ve added the cheese.
What to Do If Your Queso Separates
If the dreaded does occur, first wipe those tears. The balance of liquid to fat needs to be readjusted to smooth the sauce back out. To do this keep the sauce over low heat and whisk whole milk, a tablespoon at a time, into the sauce.
Tips for Making Queso Even Better!
Queso is a great base for creating all sorts of dips. Here are some ideas:
- You can switch up the yellow cheddar with a pepper jack or white cheddar to create white queso.
- Bulk up your queso by adding a pound of cooked, crumbled chorizo or taco meat.
- Steamed sweet corn, bacon, or even brisket (told ya I’m a Texan now) are also great stir-ins.
For this recipe, I’m just topping my queso with a vibrant pico de gallo.
How to Serve and Store Queso
Queso dip begins to thicken as it sits. To keep it smooth, transfer it to a slow cooker with the heat setting on warm.
Queso will naturally form a skin as it sits. While it isn’t the most sightly thing the behold, it is still edible. Stir the queso frequently to prevent scorching. I like to use a rubber spatula so I can scrape down the sides of the slow cooker preventing that queso crust from forming.
Should you find your queso is getting too thick, stir in a couple of tablespoons of whole milk to thin it out.
Leftover queso may be stored in the refrigerator so long as it hasn’t been left out for more than two hours. Keep the dip in a food storage container for up to 72 hours. Reheat the queso in the microwave or on the stove until warmed through.
Need More Dip?
- 7 Layer Bean Dip
- Grilled Tomatillo and Corn Salsa
- Spicy Three-Chile Guacamole
- Pineapple Tomato Salsa
- Buffalo Chicken Dip
- 1/2 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup minced white onion (1/4 of a medium onion)
- 12 ounce can evaporated whole milk
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon chili powder
- 8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, finely shredded
- 8 ounces softened cream cheese, diced
- 10 ounce can Rotel tomatoes with green chilies, drained
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
- 2-4 tablespoons whole milk, to thin the sauce as needed
- To serve:
- Pico de gallo, for topping
- Corn tortilla chips
- Pretzel bites
Sauté the garlic and onion:
Set a large skillet or pan with sloping sides over medium-high heat and add the oil. Once the oil begins to shimmer, add the garlic and onion. Cook, stirring frequently, until both are glossy, and the garlic has begun to take on a light brown color, about 3 minutes.
Add the milk and spices:
Add the evaporated milk, salt, cumin, and chili powder to the pan. Whisk continuously until steam rises from its surface and very tiny bubbles appear near the sides of the pan.
Add the cheese:
Reduce the heat to low and slowly, but continuously, whisk in both the cheddar and cream cheese for a full 10 minutes. The cheese will go from stringy to a smooth, velvety texture. It’s okay if minuscule bits of cream cheese remain; they’ll continue to melt as the sauce warms.
Finish the queso dip:
After whisking the cheese for 10 minutes, add the drained Rotel and chopped cilantro. Whisk to combine. It’s okay if the Rotel is a bit wet, this will help to thin the sauce.
Top and serve:
Once the vegetables are fully incorporated and warmed through, about 5 minutes, transfer the queso to a slow cooker. You can also serve it straight from the pan. Top with a generous serving of pico de gallo accompanied by warm corn tortilla chips or pretzel bites.
Thin as needed:
The queso will thicken as it sits. If you find it’s getting too thick, whisk in a couple of tablespoons of whole milk to thin it. Serve it straight from the pan kept over low heat on your stove or transfer the queso to a slow cooker set on warm. Stir the queso frequently to prevent a skin from forming on the surface of the dip.