Nacho cheese won’t conform to your standards of identity, man.
What I’m saying is, there is no agreed upon definition for what nacho cheese actually is. Is it cheddar? Does it contain parmesan? Apparently, the answer changes depending upon whom you ask, and even the greatest of cheese yogis don’t have the answer.
The ambiguous nature of nacho cheese was first discovered by Vanessa Wong, a reporter for Bloomberg who covered the launch of Old El Paso’s nacho cheese–flavored taco shells. The marketing team for the new product told Wong that the shells had a bold cheese flavor. But the reporter wanted to know, what exactly does that bold nacho cheese flavor taste like? She found that answer incredibly hard to find. Thus began her journey into the world of nacho cheese and the very first nacho cheese expose.
Nacho cheese wasn’t always such an enigma. According to the Sun Sentinel, a man named Ignacio Nacho Anaya created the popular snack in 1943. Wanting to fix himself some food in a timely fashion, Anaya got a bowl of tostadas, grated Wisconsin cheese on top, and popped the concoction in a broiler. A few minutes later and voilà—we have the birth of a party staple!
Unfortunately, Wong says the simple Wisconsin cheddar trail ends not long after that. She discovered that although the Food & Drug Administration defines 70 different cheeses, there is no mention of nacho cheese. This lead her to conclude that nacho cheese can basically be any cheese that isn’t already on that list.
Experts in the cheese industry also seem unanimous about only one thing: there is no unanimous agreement on what nacho cheese actually is. Even the manager of cheese education and training at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Sara Hill, said there isn’t really a specific nacho cheese. Her statement was backed up by Peggy Armstrong, a spokesperson for the International Dairy Foods Association, who said, “There is no definition or standard for nacho cheese… each company that makes a nacho cheese product has a different recipe.”
Some companies interviewed by Wong felt confident enough to give an answer when asked “What is nacho cheese?” but their definitions were really just based on their company’s personal recipe. For example, the PepsiCo spokesperson said, “The flavor Nacho cheese is made with cheddar and Romano cheeses.” But Old El Paso makes their nacho cheese with blue cheese and cheddar. And Pringles uses a combination of cheddar, parmesan, and romano!
What does all of this mean? There is no one kind of nacho cheese. But maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Let this be a liberating cheese fact that allows you to use your creativity in recreating nacho cheese over and over again. Culture has a few definitions itself! We’ve got a recipe for Plantain Chip Nachos with Grilled Corn, Monterey Jack, and Cotija, as well as a recipe for Pita Chip Nachos with Feta and Citrus Tapenade.
Notice how neither of those include cheddar. When it comes to nacho cheese, the possibilities are endless.
Feature Photo Credit: Barta IV, via Flickr