Queso translated from Spanish is simply “cheese.” But to many Americans, particularly those with roots in Texas, it is shorthand for chile con queso, a cheesy dip with chile peppers that is a staple at social gatherings of all types. While recipe variations abound, “the common Tex-Mex version can be prepared in a microwave in a matter of minutes, with a block of process(ed) yellow cheese and a can of tomatoes and peppers,” Tim Carman and Shelly Tan wrote in The Washington Post.

Based on the name alone, queso sounds like an import, which to a certain extent it is. However, as Carman and Tan explain, it has “morphed and adapted to its new environment, transforming into something uniquely American.”

The dip’s origins can be traced to Northern Mexico’s chile con queso. Print references have been found in Mexican literature as early as the 1800s, but the first published recipe using the phrase appeared in the United States. “An 1896 article about Mexican cuisine in the magazine ‘The Land of Sunshine’ included a dish called Chiles Verdes con Queso, which was a mixture of long green chiles, tomatoes, and cheese,” reads an excerpt from cookbook author Lisa Fain’s aptly title cookbook, “Queso!”

This early recipe was still meant to be served as a side. On the road to its destination as a dip, Fain credits the influence of Swiss fondue and Welsh rarebit. “Then, in the early 1920s, a recipe with the name Chile con Queso appeared in the ‘Woman’s Club Cook Book of Tested and Tried Recipes’ published by the Woman’s Club of San Antonio,” Fain wrote. This recipe, as many did at the time, called for powdered chile peppers instead of fresh ones because of seasonality. Another important distinction is that “it was the first chile con queso recipe to call specifically for American cheese. A truly American queso in both name and style had arrived.”

However, as referenced in the quote from Carman and Tan, modern American queso is Velveeta (marketed as a “pasteurized prepared cheese product”) and Ro-Tel (which calls itself “a signature blend of vine-ripened tomatoes and zesty green chilies and a savory mixture of secret spices” in a can). That recipe, if one can even call it that, is popular for a reason: It’s easy and it tastes good. It is unparalleled when it comes to the effort-to-reward ratio.

But for superior queso, more is required.


The recipe I’m sharing here replaces the can of Ro-Tel with fresh chile peppers, onion, fire-roasted tomatoes, ground cumin and cayenne pepper. Yes, you’re still opening a can for the tomatoes, but this blend of ingredients adds layers of spice to the finished dip. For the cheese component, after much experimentation, I stuck with Velveeta, which stays smooth and creamy for as long as you’re scooping.

While some might scoff at not using “real cheese,” Velveeta has a texture and meltability that is unmatched compared to unprocessed cheeses. Yes, there are other options to achieve similar results – such as calling for sodium citrate to use with unprocessed cheese to get the same texture – but I thought calling for a block of Velveeta – which already contains sodium citrate – would be more accessible.

Lastly, borrowing an idea from one of Fain’s recipes, cilantro and sour cream are stirred in at the end for freshness and a hint of tang. This recipe makes a sizable quantity, but you shouldn’t be fazed, as the result is a delicious dip that will make you want to keep reaching for another scoop.

Queso in progress. Photo by Scott Suchman for The Washington Post


30 minutes

8 to 12 servings (makes about 4 cups)


Queso is delicious – full stop. One classic version of the Tex-Mex dip – a block of Velveeta combined with a can of Ro-Tel diced tomatoes with chiles – is unparalleled when it comes to the effort-to-reward ratio. But for better queso, more is required. This recipe takes inspiration from blogger and cookbook author Lisa Fain, who literally wrote the book on queso, for replacing the can of Ro-Tel with fresh chiles as well as adding cilantro and sour cream. This recipe sticks with the classic Velveeta, for its superior texture and meltability compared with unprocessed cheeses. The result is a dip with layers of flavors and spice that remains smooth and creamy for as long as you’re scooping.

Storage: Refrigerate leftovers for up to 3 days.


2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 small yellow onion (5 ounces), diced

2 serrano chile peppers, seeded and diced


2 jalapeños, seeded and diced

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste

2 cloves garlic, minced or finely grated

One (14.5-ounce) can diced fire-roasted tomatoes


1 pound Velveeta, cubed

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Tortilla chips, for serving


In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion, serrano and jalapeño chiles, cumin, cayenne and salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion starts to soften and become translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes for the flavors to meld.

Add the Velveeta and cook, stirring occasionally, until melted, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the sour cream and most of the cilantro, reserving some for serving (if desired). Taste, and season with more salt, if needed. Transfer the queso to a bowl, sprinkle with the remaining cilantro, if desired, and serve warm with tortilla chips.

Nutrition information per serving (1/3 cup), based on 12 | Calories: 142; Total Fat: 9 g; Saturated Fat: 4 g; Cholesterol: 23 mg; Sodium: 623 mg; Carbohydrates: 7 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 2 g; Protein: 6 g

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