Whip up a batch of homemade nacho cheese sauce in just 10 minutes! You only need five ingredients to make this smooth, flavorful dip.
Table of Contents
Crispy tortilla chips coated in hot melty cheese are hard to resist. This recipe takes the mundane out of typical appetizers and is a must on game day. Nacho cheese sauce using real cheddar and everyday pantry items tastes way better than grabbing a jar of bland store-bought stuff.
I use jalapenos to maximize the flavor by providing tanginess and a kick of heat. This condiment is a great dipping sauce for chips, fries, and tater tots. But don’t stop there. I love to use it as a topping on burgers and hot dogs too.
Cheddar cheese is the base flavor in this recipe. It’s firm and grates easy, with just enough moisture and fat to help it melt and liquefy. The longer the aging, the stronger the flavor and lower the moisture. I recommend sharp cheddar cheese. It has a more developed, nutty, tangy flavor.
Mild and medium cheddar will give a creamy, sweeter taste because it’s only aged 2 to 7 months. Extra sharp cheese can be used, for a more intense bitter flavor, due to its long aging process of 24 months or more. If you prefer a more buttery taste, Monterey Jack is a great choice, or try pepperjack for extra spice.
Freshly grate the cheese
Avoid the pre-shredded cheese as manufacturers coat them with an unknown amount of anti-caking agents like cellulose, cornstarch, or potato starch to prevent sticking during shipping and storage. It doesn’t affect the flavor, but the cheese won’t melt quite as well. Instead, grab a block of cheddar and your favorite grater.
The role of cornstarch
The biggest hurdle when melting cheese is preventing it from turning into a hard clump once cooled. It needs a stabilizer to keep the sauce smooth and emulsified. I prefer to add a controlled level of cornstarch to create a physical barrier. Coating the shreds prevents the protein and fat from clumping back together and tasting greasy.
During cooking, the starches absorb the moisture in the cheese sauce, causing the granules to swell and thicken the loose liquid. The result is a shiny, smooth, stable, and dippable consistency.
Can you add flour instead of cornstarch?
Yes, however, the texture will be slightly grainy and not as thick. All-purpose flour is more coarse and contains proteins and starches. The proteins like to form gluten bonds, which thicken the sauce but not be as smooth as purified cornstarch. Use the same amount of flour as cornstarch. If you add too much, the taste will be very gritty.
Add evaporated milk
The cheese needs liquid o make a pourable sauce. Canned nacho cheese sauce is very viscous and pudding-like before heating due to the addition of thickening agents and stabilizers. Those aren’t common ingredients to buy for home cooks. Instead, to give a similar consistency, I use evaporated milk.
The concentrate has 60% less water, which means it’s higher in milk solids, protein, and fat. It also has cellulose, a thickening agent already added. These contribute to a more velvety texture compared to using fresh milk. I even use it in my Instant-Pot macaroni and cheese instead of adding a flour roux for thickening.
Can I use whole milk instead of evaporated milk?
Yes, although the sauce will have a much thinner consistency because fresh milk is lower in fat, milk solids, and protein. It also doesn’t contain thickening agents like carrageenan that give a velvety texture. The difference is that when the cheese sauce cools down, the whole milk version will not thicken as quickly for a slightly longer dipping time.
Add flavor and spice
What makes nacho cheese sauce so popular is the gooey texture, savory taste, and just the right amount of lingering heat. For zing and spice, add hot sauce. The tomato, chile peppers, and vinegar give a pleasant pungency. You can use your favorite brand to customize the taste.
Canned pickled jalapenos add extra spiciness and hot pepper flavor. I chop it up until very fine so that it easily mixes into the sauce. You can also use green chiles or chipotle chile in adobo to switch up the flavor. For a chunkier consistency, add salsa.
The best serving temperature
Because cheese solidifies around 90ºF (32ºC), it’s best to enjoy the sauce while still warm, above 110ºF (43ºC). The texture will be more dippable, with a thick coating, but not heavy like pudding. Consuming within 30 to 40 minutes has the best taste.
It takes about 1 hour for it to get closer to room temperature. You’ll notice the sauce firm up more due to starch retrogradation, where the gelatinized starches realign to create a gel-like texture. At that point, if you have any dip left, give it a quick reheat.
Reheating the sauce
If the sauce gets too thick, no problem! It’s safe to reheat one time in the microwave until it’s smooth again, about 130 to 150ºF (54 to 66ºC). The gel formed by the cornstarch in the sauce will break down with reheating and stirring and lose its thickening power, preventing it from tasting clumpy and grainy.
Serve this with
- Tortilla chips to make nachos
- Top on steamed or roasted broccoli
- Stovetop burgers as a cheesy topping
- Drizzle on top of potato wedges or baked potatoes
Firm, grating cheeses that have a higher moisture level to help with melting. Cheddar, Monterey Jack, American, or queso asadero are the best melting cheeses.
It’s often a mixture of water, cheddar cheese, soybean oil, modified food starch, cornstarch, tomato paste, chile peppers, sodium phosphate as an emulsifier, salt, mono-diglycerides, and yellow coloring. The ingredients create a smooth and pourable consistency that’s ready to heat and use from the can.
No, Velveeta is a solid processed cheese mixture made from milk, canola oil, whey and milk protein concentrate, sodium phosphate and citrate, modified food starch, maltodextrin, calcium phosphate, sodium alginate, enzymes, coloring, and cheese culture. When melted, these ingredients create a very smooth, thick, and almost plastic consistency. Nacho cheese can use Velveeta as the base, plus hot peppers for a spicy taste.
Why evaporated milk makes the sauce more creamy
Evaporated milk contains two ingredients that may be unfamiliar. Dipotassium phosphate prevents the milk from turning into curds when heated. Carrageenan helps stabilize, emulsify, and thicken milk products. During testing, I noticed a more creamy smooth texture when using evaporated milk than whole milk, which gave a thinner consistency. It made the difference! You can substitute milk, but the sauce will be runnier.
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Nacho Cheese Sauce
- 8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, freshly grated, 2 cups
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 10 ounces evaporated milk, 1 ¼ cup
- 1 tablespoon hot sauce
- 1 tablespoon finely minced pickled jalapeno, canned
- Prepare the Cheese – In a medium bowl, toss together the cheddar cheese shreds and cornstarch until evenly coated, and the powder is barely visible.
- Make the Sauce – In a medium saucepan, add the cheese mixture, evaporated milk, hot sauce, and minced jalapenos. Cook over low heat, with gentle, continuous whisking until the cheese is completely melted, glossy, and just starts to thicken, about 4 to 5 minutes. Do not overcook! The sauce should reach between 150 to 160ºF. Immediately take the pan off the heat.
- Serve – Quickly transfer to a serving bowl or top on desired food like nachos. The consistency will thicken more once cooled. Serve hot for the best taste. The sauce can be reheated once. See instructions in the notes section of the recipe.
- Recipe Yield: About 2 cups
- Serving Size: ¼ cup sauce
- Cheese Options: Mild, medium, or extra-sharp cheddar cheese, Monterey Jack, or pepper jack cheese.
- Substituting Cornstarch: All-purpose flour can be used in exact amounts. The sauce will be slightly thinner and may taste somewhat grainy.
- Substituting Evaporated Milk: Whole milk can be used. It will be a much thinner consistency.
- Storing: Cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
- Reheating: Reheat in the microwave on high, covered with plastic, in 15 to 30-second intervals, stirring in between until hot and dippable. The sauce should become smooth and hot, between 130 to 150ºF (54 to 66ºC). Only reheat once, as it will become more grainy and clumpy.
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12 Comments Leave a comment or review
Denis Netto says
As with every other recipe from Jessica that I’ve tried, this was delicious and very easy to follow (especially for a novice cook like me). Thanks very much Jessica.
Jessica Gavin says
YOu’re welcome, Denis! What did you serve the sauce with?
I was hoping to use this for my a large crowd for my daughter’s graduation. She wanted a nacho bar and I don’t prefer canned cheese sauce. Can this be made in a crock pot so that I can make a large quantity of this?
Jessica Gavin says
I would recommend making the nacho cheese sauce on the stovetop, then adding it to the slow cooker and keep on the warm setting during the party.
This was so easy and incredibly delicious to make. I don’t know why I thought I couldn’t make this at home and even better than store bought. 🙂
Jessica Gavin says
You rocked the cheese dip, great job!
Hi, Jessica. Could you make this in batches and can it? Thank you.
Jessica Gavin says
Hi Danielle! I haven’t tried canning the cheese sauce. I think it would taste the best enjoyed the same day. Cornstarch starts loosing it’s viscosity when reheated.
This was so good & very easy! I’ll definitely be making again.
Jessica Gavin says
So easy to make and turned out perfectly! Delicious. Everyone loved it and it reheated well.
Jessica Gavin says
Great to hear! Thanks for your feedback!