When it comes to queso, why processed cheese is your friend (and Velveeta is just OK)

Lisa Fain’s new cookbook, “Queso!: Regional Recipes for the World’s Favorite Chile-Cheese Dip” (Ten Speed Press, $15), is about one of Texas’ most iconic dishes.

Lisa Fain’s new cookbook is all about queso, a dip that’s easy to make at home if you know how to work with melting cheese. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

The author of the popular Homesick Texan blog has published two indispensable books that cover a range of Texas staples, but in this book, she dives deep on queso, a deceptively simple dip that dates back farther than you might think and has as many regional variations as tacos and chili. (Mark your calendars for Nov. 2, which is her book launch event at BookPeople.)

The most common queso in Laredo, for instance, is called choriqueso and is as much chorizo as shredded Monterey Jack cheese browned under the broiler. In Houston, you might have grown up eating the thick, paprika- and cayenne-laced queso at Felix Mexican Restaurant, but just on the other side of the border in Mexico, you might find queso fundido, a gooey dip so thick that it’s best eaten with tortillas, or even queso guisado, which is made with cubes of non-melting cheese stewed in chilies and tomatoes.

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Homesick Texan writer Lisa Fain lives in New York City but grew up in Texas. Her new book is all about queso. Contributed by Homesick Texan.

Fain covers all the Austin variations, from the heavy, spicy queso at Torchy’s Tacos to the thinner diner-style queso you’d find at Kerbey Lane and Magnolia Cafe, and these are the most helpful recipes for most cooks who are trying to break out of the Velveeta rut.

And this is where I found the biggest takeaway for this novice queso maker: Just buy the processed cheese.

Fain clearly distinguishes between brick processed cheese (aka Velveeta, which she does not disparage) and American processed cheese, which is sold in pre-packaged slices and at the deli counter. Here’s how she explains the difference:

American cheese is a blend of cheeses such as Cheddar and Monterey Jack mixed with oils, milk and emulsifiers. It’s a semifirm cheese that has a low melting point, which makes it ideal for Tex-Mex chile con queso, though it does need liquid and/or starch to hold it together in a smooth sauce.

Brick processed cheese is a mixture of various cheeses, oils and stabilizers that doesn’t have enough diary to legally be called cheese, so instead it’s classified as “cheese food.” No matter, because of these qualities, it’s amazing for queso as it doesn’t need any extra stabilizers to melt smoothly.

These are two different American processed cheeses, one is yellow and the other is white. Most yellow cheeses are colored with annatto, so these are nearly indistinguishable in taste from one another, but they taste different from Velveeta, which is processed even further so that it is shelf stable but melts more quickly. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

Those are just two of more than a dozen cheeses that Fain explains how to use in the book, but these are the two that you’ll most likely want to use for everyday Austin queso. I made the diner-style queso this morning, and it does, in fact, taste like what you’d get during happy hour on a number of local patios, and the best thing — to me — is that it didn’t taste like Velveeta.

IMHO, there’s a time and a place for Velveeta, and that’s a big party where you’re serving a bunch of people and there’s a whole spread of food. If queso is the focus of the moment — say, you’re having a friend over for a drink after work — Velveeta doesn’t cut it. Sure, it melts like a dream, but it’s too yellow, too salty, too chemical-y to really savor.

Processed American cheese melts easily in the hot milk and water that has been thickened with cornstarch. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

However, thanks to Fain’s book, I now have a better understanding of how to turn the next best thing (American processed cheese) into that smooth, creamy dip that keeps us coming back to Mexican restaurants in Austin. The key is cornstarch, which she whisks with milk and water or chicken broth in a number of the book’s recipes. The cornstarch dissolves in the liquid and then thickens the dip over heat. (The queso I made this morning was almost thick enough to dip even before I added the shredded cheese.)

Lastly, I wanted to mention how delightful it was to see the creative dishes in the back of the book: chicken fried steak with queso gravy, a green chile queso burger, macaroni and cheese with green chile queso blanco. She even has a recipe for a Frito wedge salad — a chunk of iceberg lettuce topped with black beans, Frito chips, sliced grape tomatoes and a little drizzle of queso — and a cream cheese-based ice cream with green chile jam.

 


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