I'm a Cheese Snob But I Still Love Velveeta—Here's Why
No Asiago can compare to the bright orange, processed stuff when it comes to macaroni and cheese.
While dining at one of the hottest restaurants in Sedona this October, I excitedly ordered the triple queso macaroni and cheese. The moment the bowl was placed in front of me, I lunged at it with my fork. I mean, it had three cheeses! I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into the gooey, cream-laden pasta. One bite, though, and I was immediately disappointed. The macaroni and cheese was bone dry. It needed Velveeta.
Yes, I love Velveeta. And if you’re being honest, so do you. The century old cheese product that so many of us food enthusiasts are quick to eschew is actually a wonder product. I have room in my heart for other cheeses, cheeses that come from wheels instead of orange blocks in the grocery store, but Velveeta beings something special to the table. The cheese product makes macaroni and cheese and queso dips undeniably creamier. It’s also a staple of American pantries, and our food culture wouldn’t be the same without it.
First, a little historical context. Velveeta was invented in 1918 by Swiss cheesemaker Emil Frey. He created the product in upstate New York and eventually the brand Kraft purchased the name Velveeta, so they could rebrand their existing processed cheese. While many of us associate Velveeta with its melting abilities, it was actually developed as a way to preserve cheese. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the addition of emulsifying salts and whey (a byproduct from cheesemaking) gave cheese a longer shelf life. Unsurprisingly, the product remained pretty popular with consumers through the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.
Today,Velveeta is regarded as a low-brow ingredient; something that a food snob wouldn’t be caught using. In today's health conscious world, where food should be “clean” and wholesome. Velveeta, a cheese product (which means it's not a real cheese) made with preservatives and byproduct (whey), is unarguably not that. Some even snark that Velveeta makes great bait. Do a quick search for queso dip recipes, and there are plenty of lists that tell you how to make it without Velveeta.
There was a stretch of time where I, too, wouldn’t be caught using Velveeta. Never mind the fact that I grew up gleefully scooping Velveeta and Rotel dip straight out of the crockpot at Christmas gatherings. Then, when I made macaroni and cheese, it had to be the one that called for four different cheeses—and they had to be shredded by hand — and after spending a small fortune on cheese and too much time in the kitchen, it still didn’t come out creamy enough. “Could have just used Velveeta,” my husband would tease. Now I’m in my 30s and have gotten over my own personal obsession with making everything from scratch. I think there’s a time and place for that in my kitchen, and I admire those who make it a priority in theirs, but for me, I’m happy to return to the joy of peeling back the crinkly foil packaging and watching the block melt into a comforting orange puddle.
Kelsey Barnard Clark, winner of Bravo’s Top Chef Season 16 and owner of KBC in Dothan, Alabama, shares my love of Velveeta. “To me, it’s sort of a nostalgia-type thing. I was born in 1989, so it’s a ‘90s kid thing of having Velveeta everywhere and Rotel dip,” she shared with me on the phone. Growing up in the South where college football Saturdays are holy, Velveeta queso dip is like a religious offering at tailgates. “Even to this day, when I have people over for the game, someone will bring that. I had a baby shower on Sunday, and somebody made it for that.”
Queso dip is where Velveeta really shines. Making cheese dip without it is possible but challenging because cheese separates when it gets heated. You can do it with some variation of cheddar, corn starch, and milk, but the dip is still prone to get gummy after sitting out for a bit. For the dip we ‘90s kids grew up with, you only need Velveeta and a can of Rotel diced tomatoes with green chilies. You can also add ground beef or sausage if you want something heartier.
Clark, who got her start at high-end Manhattan restaurants including Cafe Boulud and Dovetail, has no qualms about letting Velveeta mingle with gourmet ingredients. On her sandwiches, for example, you might find French’s onion rings alongside pickled mustard seeds and a French sauce. “That balance is always kind of where you get this element of surprise,” she says. One of her personal favorite treats is a classic diner burger with Velveeta smothered in traditional burger toppings.
I know not everyone shares my love of the melty orange cheese product. According to Bloomberg, processed cheese sales were on the decline in 2018. Even fast food restaurants are using fancy cheeses like Asiago. Plenty of naysayers are happy to point out Velveeta’s ingredient list and high chance of survival in the apocalypse. To which I say: everything in moderation! On the rare occasion that I do eat macaroni and cheese, I don’t want it to be so dry that it falls apart; I want it to have a neon orange hue and a velvety smooth texture.