Nacho Cheese Sauce
Homemade Nacho Cheese Sauce is easy to make yourself from scratch, and is the perfect melty sauce to pour over crispy tortilla chips or Homemade French Fries. This is made with only five all-natural ingredients, and takes 10 minutes to make.
My very first experience with nacho cheese sauce was of the Velveeta variety. I was about 8 years old and had no concept of what processed food meant. It was always the default snack at my friend Angelina’s house: a box of Velveeta popped into the microwave, then mixed with a can of rotel.
It was good at the time, but now I generally stay away from things called “processed american cheese product.” It’s perfectly possible to make smooth, creamy nacho cheese with natural ingredients, which is what we work with here.
The 5 Ingredients You’ll Need:
- Cheddar Cheese
- Ground Cayenne pepper
In my recipe testing, I have found no benefit to adding extra ingredients like heavy cream, cream cheese, sour cream, or evaporated milk. So long as you’re not using a reduced fat cheese, the amount of richness from the cheese should be perfect.
While this creamy nacho cheese sauce is a very simple recipe, you can certainly jazz it up with your favorite toppings. You can add tomatoes, jalapeños, scallions, ground beef, and whatever else strikes your fancy.
Serve it alongside some Chicken Wings, Buffalo Chicken Dip, and Soft Pretzels and you have a full spread perfect for game day and having friends over. No need to go to the movie theaters for this delicious snack!
This recipe method takes less than 10 minutes, and riffs on how you’d make a roux and a béchamel sauce for mac and cheese.
Because the ingredients are natural and chemical-free, know that the nacho sauce firms slightly as it cools. It has a luscious, smooth and melty texture as long as it’s warm, but if you let it cool, you’ll need to reheat it to get that flowy texture again. It does reheat just fine though and I’ll include instructions for that after the step-by-step.
Tips for Best Results
Grate the cheese yourself – Nearly all pre-shredded cheese has cellulose or anti-caking agents added to them in order to keep the shreds from sticking together. These are a disaster for your sauce. You must grate a real block of cheddar yourself for a smooth consistency.
Don’t overcook the cheese – Just like when you make mac and cheese, if you overheat the cheese, it will get grainy and have a horrid texture. Add the cheese off the heat and let it melt with the residual heat.
Serve immediately or keep it warm – Because this is made with all-natural ingredients, as the nacho cheese sauce cools, it will lose its melty texture. If you’re not eating it right away, I recommend keeping it warm in a crockpot, a fondue pot, or a saucepan over a warming plate, especially if you’re serving this at a party.
Step by Step Overview:
Start by melting some butter in a skillet over medium heat, either salted or unsalted:
Whisk in an equal amount of flour until combined. This is called a roux, and it will thicken our sauce.
Next whisk in some milk, and season with salt and ground cayenne pepper. The cayenne is subtle and gives a little spice to the cheese, but you can add as much or as little as you prefer.
Also, I recommend using whole milk here, as that milk fat will give more richness than skim.
Once the milk heats through, the mixture should be thick and bubbly.
Now turn off the heat and add freshly grated cheddar. Remember I told you above that freshly grated is important, because pre-shredded cheeses in bags usually have things like powdered cellulose that are there to prevent caking. Those will make your sauce grainy, so make sure you actually buy a block of cheddar and grate it yourself.
Not All Cheddar Is the Same!
Cheddar cheeses vary HUGELY in taste and melt-quality depending on brand.
My absolute favorite cheddar is made by Cracker Barrel, and it’s what I used here. Any cheddar made by them, whether White or Yellow Sharp, Extra Sharp, Vermont Sharp, or Marbled Sharp, is excellent. Tillamook and Cabot are also decent.
Cheddars I find that don’t work as well texture-wise are Kraft, Organic Valley, Target’s brand, and TJ’s brand. Also don’t use really high-end artisanal cheddars, because they usually don’t melt well.
Other Cheeses to Try
Stick with only melty cheeses for your nacho cheese dip, but know that you can change it up from just cheddar.
The typical 3-cheese Mexican shredded cheese usually has Monterey Jack Cheese, Sharp Cheddar, and Colby. Feel free to substitute the Monterey Jack or Colby Jack for part of the cheddar. Pepper Jack cheese is another great addition.
Whisk gently until the cheese melts and smooths out into a creamy, wonderful, pourable sauce:
It should have a flowy texture that runs and drips off the spoon in an even ribbon:
If at any point the nacho cheese gets too thick and doesn’t “run” off the spoon, just add more water or milk, and whisk to combine.
This happens naturally as the sauce cools down toward room temperature. Just add liquid, see if it smooths out again, and if it doesn’t, heat it gently over a low flame for a minute or two until you get a smooth sauce again.
When you cook the warm cheese dip on the stovetop, you run the risk of cooking too much moisture off, so you just have to add more if that happens. No big deal!
(Since I’ve been asked so many times, this is the mini-cast iron skillet picture above).
How to Serve It:
Ideas for Flavor Enhancements
If you’re using a really good quality, flavorful cheddar, the nacho cheese sauce should be very flavorful even with these few ingredients. However, if you wish to add other ingredients, here are my suggestions.
- Stir in a large spoonful of Jalapeño Tomato Salsa
- Top with spiced Ground Beef from Ground Beef Tacos
- Add 2 tsp Taco Seasoning or Fajita Seasoning, or even just a good quality chili powder
- Add 1 tbsp of your favorite hot sauce
- Saute 1 tbsp minced jalapeno and 2 tbsp minced onion at the beginning with the butter
- Stir in a can of diced green chiles.
Tips and FAQ
Store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, in an airtight container.
Heat the leftover nacho cheese in a skillet over low heat until melted and warm. Add 2 tbsp of water or milk and whisk until the cheese looks smooth and creamy again (adding moisture should restore that creamy smooth texture). If the sauce is still too thick and doesn’t “flow” well, add more liquid and whisk again. Do not reheat nacho cheese in the microwave.
Yes, for up to 2 months, but it will definitely separate, so you’ll need to reheat and whisk again to smooth it out, and probably add moisture. Follow the instructions above.
Nacho Cheese Sauce
- 2 tbsp butter (salted or unsalted)
- 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper (or to taste)
- 8 oz block sharp cheddar cheese* grated
- Melt the butter in a medium size skillet over medium heat.
- Once the butter is melted add the flour.
- Whisk until it combines into a smooth blond paste and starts to bubble around the edges.
- Add the milk to the skillet and continue whisking.
- Once the milk is incorporated, raise the heat to high and bring to a boil.
- Once the milk has reached a boil, quickly lower the heat and reduce to a simmer. Allow the sauce to thicken slightly, about 30 seconds.
- Add the cayenne pepper and salt and whisk to combine.
- Turn off the heat, and remove the skillet from the stove**. Add the cheese and gently stir, allowing the cheese to melt.
- When the cheese is completely melted and the mixture smooth in consistency, the nacho cheese sauce is ready to serve. Enjoy immediately, as the sauce will get firm as it sits.
Nutrition is estimated using a food database and is only intended to be used as a guideline for informational purposes.