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Taste Test: Salsa Con Queso and Cheese Sauce

[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

The Winners!

Salsa Con Queso: Ro*Tel and Block Velveeta

Cheese Sauce: Utz Mild Cheddar Cheese Dip

As I remember it, the world of dippable snacks was simpler when I was a kid. There were perhaps a half dozen brands of salsa on supermarket shelves. Your options were pretty much limited to mild, medium, or hot. Tostitos if you like it sweet and tomato-sauce-y, or Newman's Own if you prefer black pepper, charity, and mustaches. Want cheese sauce? Unless you were willing to drive out to Fuddruckers, that'd either be Velveeta or Cheez Whiz. Take your pick.

Sure, the occasional intrepid-type or Texan would mix together a can of Ro*Tel and a block of Velveeta to make salsa con queso, but for most of us, the concept of a faux-Tex-Mex cheese dip was so foreign that you'd still routinely hear the stuff referred to as "queso cheese."

It wasn't until my teens that I was first introduced to the concept of a spicy, Mexican-ish cheese dip (I believe it was Tostitos that produced the first mass-market jar of the stuff), but I can tell you that I was hooked at first taste. To this day I still love gooey, glossy, salty, fatty cheese dip (almost as much as my wife), even having gone so far as to figure out the best way to make it at home.

Well times have changed, and almost all of the major brands now offer their own version of the stuff. But whose is the gooiest, cheeziest best?

The Contenders

Scanning the internet and the supermarket shelf, we realized that the cheese sauces are divided into two basic categories: Queso Dips, which include some amount of heat, spices, and other flavorings, and Cheese Dips, which are cheese and little else. We decided to keep the two separate.

Queso Dips:

Cheese Dips:

We'd originally included a few other flavored varieties of Velveeta in our lineup, but they were so different from the classic queso dips that we didn't bother including them in the official taste off (and frankly, they weren't very good). Similarly, Desert Pepper was eliminated because of the difficulty in locating it nationwide.

To set the standard (and to jog our memories), we also included a batch of Ro*Tel tomatoes melted down with Velveeta in the microwave which, honestly, is just as quick and easy to heat up as any of the pre-mixed dips.

Tortilla chips and soda water were served on the side as palate cleansers.

The Criteria

With cheese dips, good creamy, gooey texture is of utmost importance. When you dip your chip into the sauce, it should flow through it like a luxury cruise liner from Port Nacho headed for the open seas of snackdom. The sauce should gently coat the chip with a glossy, smooth sheen, neither so thick that the chip runs the risk of cracking, or so thin that it drips off into a puddle.

Flavorwise, we like our dips sharp and tangy. If it's a queso dip, spices and aromatics should be prominent, but not dominant. Small chunks of tomatoes or chili peppers are a welcome sight in the dip bowl. Cheese dip is drinking food, and as such should be highly seasoned.

The Results: Queso Dips

As it turns out, the brands with the highest saltiness ratings from tasters also ended up ranking highest. Real chunks of diced tomato were also appreciated. The Ro*Tel version of the sauce had the largest chunks, while both the Tostitos salsa and Newman's own featured diced tomatoes prominently on their ingredients lists. The loser, Velveeta, contained only dry tomato. We didn't like that.

It seems counterintuitive, but we actually liked the sauces which had a lower ratio of cheese to other ingredients. In the case of the Ro*Tel, the cheese in the block Velveeta was diluted by the juice from the diced tomatoes. With the Tostitos and Newman's Own, water was the first ingredient on the list. Velveeta's Salsa Con Queso, on the other hand, featured Cheddar Cheese as the very first ingredient. It sounds good, but in practice, the texture suffered. Velveeta's Salsa Con Queso simply did not melt right.

#1: Ro*Tel and Block Velveeta (5.4/10)

Price Per Ounce: 17¢
Sodium Per Serving: 420mg
Fat Per Serving: 5g

The standout winner, it had the biggest chunks of tomatoes and peppers and a smooth, saucy consistency. "Fuller chili flavor," and "nice chunks" were common descriptions.

True, it took a little more work to put together, but not much more. Essentially we opened a can or Ro*Tel tomatoes, added a pound of diced velveeta, and microwaved it in a bowl, stirring occasionally, until completely melted and hot. We'd put this up against any homemade salsa con queso. Not only that, but ounce for ounce, it comes out to about 2/3rds the price of the next most inexpensive brand.

#2: Tostitos Salsa Con Queso (4.7/10)

Price Per Ounce: 25¢
Sodium Per Serving: 280mg
Fat Per Serving: 2.5g

If convenience is what you're after, Tostitos is the way to go. It boasts a smooth meltability with minimal gloppiness, and a nice spicy, salty flavor. It's also got the lowest amount of fat of all brands tasted, if you are concerned about such things. "Tastes exactly like I'd expect grocery store queso to taste" was one comment.

#3: Newman's Own Salsa Con Queso (4.3/10)

Price Per Ounce: 25¢
Sodium Per Serving: 200mg
Fat Per Serving: 3g

An odd pickle-y tartness divided tasters, as did its slightly grainy, gloppy texture. "Kind of tart, which I like, but not really cheesy or even 'queso'." It seems that the mustachio'd Newman had a bit of trouble getting his emulsifiers to work right, leading to a mildly greasy tasting sauce. Not terrible, but not our top pick. "Tastes like a minor league baseball game," as one taster described it. We'll leave it up to you to figure out what that means.

#4: Velveeta Salsa Con Queso (3.3/10)

Price Per Ounce: 25¢
Sodium Per Serving: 320mg
Fat Per Serving: 5g

A clear loser in this category, the Velveeta Salsa Con Queso lost mostly by virtue of its awful texture. "Gummy, gluey, ew! Not dippable," as one taster put it. Flavorwise, it was overwhelmingly sweet up front (along with the Newman's own, it was one of the only two which included sugar in the ingredients), then faded to heat. Despite having "cheddar cheese" as the first ingredient, it was actually one of the least cheesy tasting of the bunch.

Either way, the "texture renders everything else moot. Totally gross."

We mostly agreed with that statement.

The Results: Cheese Dips

Unlike queso dips, with cheese dips tasters were not too concerned about saltiness, preferring their sauce to simply have plenty of real cheese flavor. As it turns out, the order of our preference was precisely in-line with the prominence of real cheese on the ingredients label. Our losing brand—Cheez Whiz—actually contains no cheese at all! It's essentially an emulsification of fat and milk solids with water and a number of other flavorings (Worcerstershire sauce, mustard, amongst others). No wonder it ranked so low on our "cheesiness" scale!

As with the queso, smooth dipability was key as well.

#1: Utz Mild Cheddar Cheese Dip (4.9/10)

Price Per Ounce: 22¢
Sodium Per Serving: 270mg
Fat Per Serving: 3.5g

The cheesiest dip of all the ones we tasted, it had an awesomely gooey texture that was described as "cling[ing] together like alien goo." To some, it tasted reminded them of a better version of a melted American Kraft slice (that's a good thing for cheese dip), though others found it to be lacking in flavor.

#2: Fritos Mild Cheddar Flavored Cheese Dip (4.6/10)

Price Per Ounce: 33¢
Sodium Per Serving: 340mg
Fat Per Serving: 3.5g

"Very weirdly artificial tasting," was said more than once, and indeed, Fritos was the only sample that contained "Natural flavor." What that means, we're not sure, but it had a distinct aftertaste of Chinese food with a little too much MSG (not that MSG in moderation is a bad thing). "Reminds me of Kraft Handi-Snacks," said one taster.

#3: Cheez Whiz Original Cheese Dip (3.78)

Price Per Ounce: 25¢
Sodium Per Serving: 440mg
Fat Per Serving: 7g

"Bland, like bowling alley cheese dip." The texture of Cheez Whiz is classic dip texture somewhere between clingy and runny with an intense dippability, but it was flavor—or lack thereof—that brought this one down. Tasting primarily of salt and spices, it lacked any distinct cheesiness. "Tastes the most artificial, like eating 5 slices of American cheese instead of just reminiscent of it."

Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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