Nacho cheese and queso are two beloved cheese dips that are staples of Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine.
Both can be used for dipping tortilla chips and other finger foods, but they have distinct differences in ingredients, texture, flavor, and best uses.
What is Nacho Cheese?
Nacho cheese is a smooth, creamy yellow or orange cheese sauce that is a popular dipping accompaniment for tortilla chips, veggies, and more. It has a tangy, spicy flavor and is made by combining real cheese like cheddar, Monterey Jack, or pepper jack with milk, spices, and other ingredients.
While true, authentic queso is made only with simple ingredients like cheese, milk, and chilies, most commercial nacho cheese dips and sauces are highly processed and made withstabilizers, thickeners, and emulsifiers like sodium citrate. This helps create the smooth, scoopable texture that is signature to nacho cheese.
Nacho cheese was originally created in 1940 by Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya in Piedras Negras, Mexico when he invented the dish known as "Nachos Especiales" - fried tortilla chips topped with melted cheddar cheese and jalapeño peppers. The spicy, cheesy dip quickly became popular on both sides of the Mexico-Texas border.
Today, nacho cheese remains a favorite at sporting events, movie theaters, and backyard barbecues in the U.S. Its flavor is distinctly tangy, salty, and spicy.
What is Queso?
Queso (meaning "cheese" in Spanish) is a creamy, smooth cheese dip that is served warm or at room temperature. It is a staple of Tex-Mex cooking and is traditionally made by combining melted cheese like Monterey Jack or cheddar with hot peppers, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and spices.
Unlike nacho cheese, queso is not highly processed - it's made from simple, real ingredients. Good queso gets its texture from fully melting down fresh cheeses until they are silky and scoopable. Queso can range from mild to very spicy depending on the type and amount of peppers used.
Queso is believed to have originated in northern Mexico and then became popularized in the state of Texas. It's still most commonly found in Tex-Mex restaurants as an appetizer served with warm tortilla chips for dipping. Queso can also be used as a sauce or topping for tacos, enchiladas, fajitas, and more.
Compared to nacho cheese, queso has a richer, fresher dairy flavor with more prominent spicy and herbal notes. The texture is also smoother.
Nacho Cheese vs Queso Ingredients
The primary ingredients in nacho cheese and queso are different, which affects their flavor profile.
Nacho cheese is typically made from:
- Cheddar cheese
- Butter or oil
- All-purpose flour
- Spices like chili powder, cumin, garlic powder
- Sodium citrate (emulsifying salt)
Queso is traditionally made with:
- Monterey jack, cheddar, or pepper jack cheese
- Whole milk or evaporated milk
- Fresh green chilies like jalapeño or serrano
- Onion, tomato, cilantro
- Spices like cumin, chili powder
So while both are cheesy dips, nacho cheese relies more on thickeners and emulsifiers to create its smooth texture, while queso gets its silkiness from fully melting the cheese itself.
Queso also highlights fresh chilies and herbs rather than spice blends. This gives it a brighter, fresher flavor.
Nacho Cheese vs Queso: Flavor Profiles
When you taste nacho cheese and queso side-by-side, some clear flavor differences emerge:
- Sharp, tangy cheese flavor
- Spicy from chili powder
- Rich, indulgent mouthfeel
- Processed flavor from emulsifying salts
- Fresh, milky cheese flavor
- Herbal notes from cilantro
- Bright spice from fresh chilies
- More complex flavor with onion, tomato
- Light acidity from cheese breakdown
So in summary, nacho cheese delivers that nostalgic tangy cheddar flavor with some heat from chili spices. Queso has a fresher, brighter dairy flavor with piquant chilies and herbs.
Nacho Cheese vs Queso: Texture
The textures of nacho cheese and queso also differ:
- Nacho cheese is smooth, thick, and scoopable even when cold. It can be thin and drizzly when hot.
- Queso is thin and runny when cold but thickens to a smooth, velvety dip when heated. The melted cheese gives it more body than nacho cheese.
Sodium citrate is mainly responsible for the thicker, scoopable texture of nacho cheese. Queso relies on fully melted cheese for its silkiness.
Heating and stirring also helps integrate the ingredients in queso, while nacho cheese is emulsified into a uniform sauce.
Nutrition Face-Off: Nacho Cheese vs Queso
When it comes to nutritional value, neither nacho cheese nor queso are healthy options. But one does have a slight edge.
Nacho cheese is highly processed and high in saturated fat from the cheese, milk, and emulsifying salts used to make it. An average 2 tablespoon serving provides around 150 calories, 13 grams of fat, and 350mg of sodium.
Queso is also high in saturated fat since it contains a lot of melted cheese. But because it uses simple, whole food ingredients, it does contain a bit more protein. A 2 tablespoon serving of queso has about 110 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 250mg sodium.
So while both should be enjoyed in moderation, queso made with real ingredients is slightly more nutritious than heavily processed nacho cheese. But neither can be considered a health food.
Best Uses for Nacho Cheese vs Queso
Nacho cheese and queso work best in slightly different applications based on their texture and flavor.
Nacho cheese is the perfect dip for sturdy tortilla chips, crackers, pretzels, or fries. It also makes a great topping for burgers, chili dogs, baked potatoes, and tacos when you want that nostalgic cheese flavor. The thicker texture helps it cling.
Queso is ideal served warm alongside tortilla chips, cut veggies, or bread as a snack or appetizer. Drizzle queso over enchiladas, tacos, burritos, chili, and Mexican stews to add a cheesy, spicy punch of flavor. The smooth texture also makes it a tasty sandwich spread.
So reach for nacho cheese when you need a thicker, sharper cheese dip, but go for queso when you want a smooth, spicy cheese sauce to drizzle over Tex-Mex dishes.
How to Make Nacho Cheese vs Queso at Home
Want to save money by making your own nacho cheese or queso at home? Here is a quick overview of the process for each:
Homemade Nacho Cheese
- Make a blond roux by cooking butter and flour together
- Whisk in milk slowly and simmer until thickened
- Add shredded cheese like cheddar and pepper jack
- Season with chili powder, cumin, garlic powder
- Finish by emulsifying in sodium citrate
- Combine chopped peppers, onions, cilantro
- Cook in oil to soften vegetables
- Add shredded cheese and stir constantly until fully melted
- Thin with milk or cream and season with spices
- Adjust consistency by simmering or blending
With homemade nacho cheese, it's important to fully emulsify the cheese into the sauce for a smooth texture. For queso, gently cooking the vegetables before adding the cheese helps build maximum flavor.
Is nacho cheese actually cheese?
Most nacho cheese contains real cheese like cheddar or pepper jack, but it has added thickeners and emulsifiers that alter the texture. The FDA doesn't consider it "cheese" since it contains additional ingredients beyond just dairy.
What cheese is used in queso?
Traditional queso is made by fully melting Monterey Jack or a combination of Jack and cheddar cheeses to form the base. Pepper jack can also be used for added spice.
Can you freeze nacho cheese or queso?
Yes, both nacho cheese and queso freeze well for long-term storage. Allow them to cool completely before transferring to airtight containers. Thaw in the refrigerator before reheating gently on the stove or in the microwave.
Is bottled nacho cheese gluten-free?
Most bottled and canned nacho cheese sauces are gluten-free, but always check the label since some contain wheat flour. Homemade nacho cheese can easily be made gluten-free by using corn flour.
Can I use queso as nacho cheese?
Queso can work as a substitute for nacho cheese in a pinch, but the texture won't be quite as thick and scoopable. Add a small amount of flour or cornstarch when heating the queso to help thicken it.
While nacho cheese and queso are both cheesy dips for tortilla chips, they have distinct differences. Nacho cheese is smooth, scoopable and tangy with spice from chili powder. Queso is a melted cheese sauce with fresh chilies and herbs for a brighter taste.
Nacho cheese works well as a dip and topping for its thick texture. Smooth queso makes an ideal drizzle for Tex-Mex dishes. Both can be made at home but require slightly different techniques.