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queso and chips
Credit: Photo by Karin Lau via Getty Images

Tex-Mex-style chili con queso is everywhere these days. National chains have started offering it (with, um, varying degrees of success) and there’s even an entire queso cookbook dedicated to it. While there are many ways to make a classic queso, at its core this cheesy dip / sauce / way of life is a combination of processed cheese, tomatoes, and chiles, melted together. I can’t quite explain the magic that happens when these ingredients are combined, but I can, hopefully, shed some light on the components of queso.

Processed Cheese

A controversial ingredient, to be sure! Love it or hate it, processed cheese is a necessary ingredient in queso. Each brand is formulated slightly differently, and some contain more actual cheese than others. There are also different varieties of processed cheese available: some are yellow, some are white, some are flavored with chiles or spices, and some are low fat.

What they all have in common, though, is supreme meltability, a necessary characteristic for creating queso’s famously smooth texture. This is achieved by using emulsifiers, which prevent the cheese from separating as it melts.

If you’re a little leery of storebought processed cheese, you can make it at home pretty easily—believe it or not. You’ll need to acquire a powder called sodium citrate, which is easy to find online. Then it’s just a matter of figuring out what cheese you want your queso to taste like, and whisking it all together, along with some water, over heat, a la Modernist Cuisine. But storebought is totally fine.

Tomatoes with Chiles

To make queso from scratch, you’d need to roast, peel, and chop the chiles; and skin, deseed, and chop the tomatoes. Which is great if you have time for it. Otherwise, a can of tomatoes with chiles is likely your best shortcut to queso, and the most common brand of canned tomatoes with chiles, as far as queso goes at least, is Ro-Tel. It seems like a simple proposition—chopped tomatoes, chopped roasted green chiles—but this handy can saves you a ton of time.

There are, of course, much more complicated ways to make queso, but basic queso is just processed cheese and canned tomatoes with chiles, combined and melted. And while there are plenty of ways to fancy it up—with cilantro, taco meat, avocado, hot sauce, other types of cheese—there is no beating simplicity. In fact, some might say this is queso at its best.