Bite Club: How to Make Nacho Cheese
Step away from the microwave.
There is a special place in hell for people who make nachos in the microwave.
That shouldn’t brand me as some sort of pretentious drunk food connoisseur: I’m almost indiscriminate in my nacho (and most other food and drink) consumption. It doesn’t matter if they’re from a gas station, ball park, Taco Bell—hell, I’ll scrape liquid cheese out of a Lunchables container that’s been in an elementary school dumpster if I have to—as long as it’s not a pile of store-bought chips haphazardly topped with pre-shredded cheddar cheese and nuked for three minutes.
It’s lazy, negligent, and makes a shitty final product.
Not knowing how the moon works or what an isotope is, I can’t speak to the science of microwaves other than the fact that they’re great at ruining all that is beautiful about nachos. The oil leaks out of the cheese and soaks into the chips, and you have a 10-12 minute window until it all turns into a stale, greasy, congealed mass of semi-edible late-night snack food (or sad, sad office lunch).
As in life, so in munchies: Never settle for mediocrity. Plus, making your own nacho cheese is stupid-easy, and it will improve the quality of your life, and then everyone will be super sexually attracted to you—or something like that, I don’t know.
First, you have to identify what you want in a nacho cheese. For me, it comes down to three factors: texture, spice, and flow. You want it to have a velvety mouthfeel (and yes, I do feel like a douche for writing “mouthfeel”, but I won’t apologize for it) that’s more KY Jelly than béchamel—but, you know, in a good way; you want it to have a good hit of heat and acid that puts its Tex-Mexican roots at the forefront; and you want it to have just that right amount of saucy drip-drop off each chip.
To achieve the perfect state of melty, spicy goodness, you only need four ingredients: Whole milk, cheddar cheese, pickled jalapenos, and the holy grail of patriotic cheese-foods, Kraft American singles.
Squares of violently yellow American cheese are critical for achieving a perfectly textured nacho cheese because all its delicious, generally-recognized-as-safe emulsifiers—sodium phosphate, potassium phosphate, tartrate—prevent the cheese from separating into liquid fat and congealed blobs of yellow. In a traditional cream-based cheese sauce, like a mornay, you would use flour to emulsify the fat, but that can get chalky on you real quick.
What’s more: American cheese brings enough emulsifying power for the whole party, which is why I cut it with equal parts sharp cheddar. If you go all-American all the time, your nachos end up tasting like a can of Easy Cheese exploded in a 7-Eleven chip aisle. But, like, in a bad way.
Now that you have your basic nacho cheese theory, here’s how you put it to practice. Heat a saucepan over medium heat, add in 1 cup of whole milk, and let it come to a simmer. Then, wing in 12 slices of American cheese, 8 oz of shredded sharp cheddar, and 2 Tbsp of the brine from pickled jalapenos‑that’s going to give you the acidic punch in the face you want and need. If you don’t feel like messing with jalapeno juice, add in a few squirts of your favorite hot sauce (yes, you can use Sriracha). Whisk until all the cheese is melted, and let it simmer for 3 or 4 minutes, just until it tightens up.
Lay out a bed of tortilla chips on a large flat surface—cookie sheet, cutting board, Twister mat, whatever—then drown them in liquid cheese. Top with your favorite nacho accouterments (I went with ground beef, sour cream, pickled red jalapenos, and green onions) and then go binge eat them somewhere away from the public eye. It’s better for everyone that way.