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Liquid Gold

Five takes on velvety queso, plus chefs' cheesy opinions
Blueprint: Queso
Illustration: Kim Graziano/Tasting Table

When it comes to queso, nacho king Homer Murray, chef at Brooklyn's River Styx, is reminded of other royalty: "Much like later paintings of Elvis, queso is a huge velvet canvas on which to paint."

Yes, at its core, queso is a large bowl of melted cheese. And that's okay. It's a Tex-Mex classic and deserves to be loved as it is, free from starchy linens and fine china. We spoke to some of the country's best melted-cheese masters to bring you tips, plus five variations to make at home.

Embrace the nostalgia. Many early memories of the country's best chefs have a golden bowl of queso at their epicenter. "It takes me back to my childhood in Texas. Every time we had friends over, the first thing we would do was make Ro*Tel dip," Atlanta chef Ford Fry recalls. He's referring to the most classic version of queso: Velveeta and a can of Ro*Tel tomatoes and chiles. Chef Cariño Cortez of Viva Villa in San Antonio agrees, saying one of its best qualities is that it's shared with a group. "Some of the best conversations happen around a bowl of queso."

Master the basics. A good queso has three basic ingredients after cheese, which is a given: Cornstarch keeps it smooth and clump free even once it cools, evaporated milk to get that velvety consistency and add-ins to make it interesting.

Play around. San Antonio chef Zach Garza of Nao says to start with a base, and then add a couple of ingredients that go together. Adi Anand, founder of the annual Quesoff competition, says he has yet to meet a queso he doesn't like. "Most things taste great when doused in melted cheese"—and he's had everything from queso gelato to lobster queso. Not every experiment has proven successful for some chefs though. Jesse Perez of NYC's Oxido now steers clear of dried shrimp ("it was funky"), and Murray doesn't touch blue cheese ("dumb idea").

Switch up the vehicle. Tortilla chips are the tried-and-true method for the bowl-to-mouth conduit. But since you're switching up the contents, why not tag out the chips as well? Bagel chips are a fitting alternative for our breakfast version, and we went bar style with pretzels for beer cheese. Crunchy vegetables like carrots (case in point) or broccoli also work well—life is a balancing act.

Now that you've passed Queso 101, dip into these five variations.

In a nod to cumin's heavy presence in Tex-Mex food, NYC chef Alex Stupak serves berbere-spiced queso at Empellón Cocina. But at home, it's Velveeta and a can of chipotle chiles. And he's not alone: Everyone we spoke to seemed to set down their James Beard Awards to agree. Fry says that it's integral to true, authentic queso: "Nothing but Velveeta and Ro*Tel." Because of Velveeta's unique melting properties (for better or for worse), you won't need evaporated milk and cornstarch.

8 oz Velveeta + ½ tsp Tabasco + ¼ tsp chipotle powder + kosher salt, to taste + ¼ c scallions, chopped

Melt the velveeta in a medium saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes. Raise the heat to medium high and cook until bubbling and a thick sauce has formed, stirring constantly, 1 to 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the Tabasco, chipotle powder and salt. Garnish with the scallions.

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Fry wood-roasts jalapeños for his queso ("some kind of heat is nonnegotiable"), but we opted for briny jarred jalapeños instead. To add even more spice to the base of our "real cheese" version, we stirred in ground chile and cayenne powders.

8 oz grated extra-sharp cheddar + 1 tbsp cornstarch + 1 can (1⅔ c) evaporated milk + ¼ c pickled jalapeños, finely chopped + ½ tsp chile powder + ¼ tsp cayenne

In a small bowl, toss the cheese and cornstarch. Transfer to a medium saucepan and add the evaporated milk. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the cheese has melted, 8 to 10 minutes. Raise the heat to medium high and cook until bubbling and a thick sauce has formed, stirring constantly, 1 to 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the jalapeños, chile powder and cayenne.

Though he grew up in San Antonio, queso wasn't really a thing for L.A.-based Bar Amá chef Josef Centeno before he went to college in Austin. "It was always what we ate after drinking. I associate it with that time of life—a time of freedom." Capture that sense of "you do you" with our beer cheese-inspired, Wisconsin-leaning version. As for the dipping vehicle, pretzels are a clear winner.

8 oz grated extra-sharp cheddar + 1 tbsp cornstarch + 1 c evaporated milk + ⅔ c amber beer + ½ tsp Worcestershire sauce + ¾ tsp mustard powder

In a small bowl, toss the cheese and cornstarch. Transfer to a medium saucepan and add the evaporated milk and beer. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the cheese has melted, 8 to 10 minutes. Raise the heat to medium high and cook until bubbling and a thick sauce has formed, stirring constantly, 1 to 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the Worcestershire sauce and mustard powder.

There's a time and place for vegetables, and you may be inclined to say queso is not that time. But after trying this casserole-inspired version, it'll be clear that nostalgia loves company. Save the rest of the broccoli to use as a crunchy (and virtuous) chip alternative.

8 oz grated extra-sharp white cheddar + 1 tbsp cornstarch + 1 can (1⅔ c) evaporated milk + 1 smashed garlic clove + ½ c grated broccoli florets (from 2 bunches)

In a small bowl, toss the cheese and cornstarch. Transfer to a medium saucepan and add the evaporated milk and garlic clove. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the cheese has melted, 8 to 10 minutes. Raise the heat to medium high and cook until bubbling and a thick sauce has formed, stirring constantly, 1 to 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the broccoli.

Diners can (and should) add chorizo to their queso orders at places like Bar Amá and Javelina in New York City. Perez, too, cites "straight up, crispy rendered Mexican chorizo" as one of the keys to a standout queso. Serve this version with bagel chips for a bacon, egg and cheese in queso form.

8 oz grated extra-sharp white cheddar + 1 tbsp cornstarch + 1 can (1⅔ c) evaporated milk + 1 egg yolk + 5 oz bacon, fried and roughly chopped

In a small bowl, toss the cheese and cornstarch. Transfer to a medium saucepan and add the evaporated milk. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the cheese has melted, 8 to 10 minutes. Raise the heat to medium high and cook until bubbling and a thick sauce has formed, stirring constantly, 1 to 2 minutes. Pour into a bowl and stir in the egg yolk while still hot. Stir in the bacon right before serving.

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