Chipotle queso cheats cheese science


(Illustration by Liam McFadden | Staff Illustrator)

By Bianca De | For The Pitt News

You’re in line at Chipotle, going over your order in your mind. Imagining your perfect burrito bowl, you consider several qualifications: how spicy you want your salsa, skipping the guac unless you really want to pay extra and — until recently — being forced to forgo queso altogether.

For years, Chipotle rebuffed customers’ requests for the creamy cheese dip — forcing queso fans to turn to competitors such as Qdoba and Moe’s for their fix. But at long last, Chipotle announced with much fanfare early last month that they’d finally cracked the recipe for delicious queso made from natural, unprocessed ingredients.

“Although queso was the number one requested menu item, we never added it to our menu before now because we wouldn’t use the industrial additives used in most quesos,” Chipotle chief executive Steve Ells bragged in a statement. “Our queso may vary slightly depending on the characteristics of the aged cheddar cheese used in each batch, but using only real ingredients is what makes our food so delicious.”

But despite Ells touting the cheese’s supposed authenticity, the company’s new condiment is disappointingly subpar. The dip’s grainy lumpiness is noticeable even on a texturally diverse burrito next to countless other delicious food consistencies. Its acidity also clashes unpleasantly with the restaurant’s intensely lime-flavored chips. Food critic Rick Munarriz memorably called the dip a “pungent, veggie-speckled cheese soup” in a review for USA Today.

It’s easiest to explain Chipotle’s queso failure as an unfortunate consequence of cheese chemistry.

Cheese is an emulsion of milk fat droplets suspended in water. Alone, the fat and water won’t stay mixed for long, so the emulsion is stabilized by a network of milk proteins. As it melts, the protein network relaxes and the fluid components can flow more freely. This also increases the risk of the cheese breaking or curdling, as fat can escape the emulsion, forming pools of grease.

The familiar super-smooth texture that defines good queso depends on the inclusion of artificial stabilizers and emulsifiers. These elements in the mixture — usually citrates and phosphates — force the fat and water to play nicely for optimum mouthfeel.

Though this mixture doesn’t contain many elements with names that ring out as organic, trendy or even particularly healthy, it’s authentic to queso’s historical origins. In fact, queso’s culinary roots can be traced back to highly processed, government-subsidized cheese in the American Southwest.

Government-subsidized food typically isn’t as healthy or high quality as pricier food products, but one of its strengths is its mass production possibilities. Low-income Texans looking for ways to use up extra cheese product invented the dip to take advantage of its excellent melting ability, an unintended side effect of the preservative process. To improve its shelf life, the cheese was heated, whipped and mixed with plenty of stabilizers.

Queso recipes first appeared in regional cookbooks as early as 1949. By 1976, the substance had gained enough prominence that former first lady Lady Bird Johnson included it in a recipe for the prestigious San Antonio Symphony League cookbook. To this day, Velveeta, a company known for producing processed cheese, still includes a super-reliable queso recipe on its label — and plays a central role in making good queso.

The recipe page on Chipotle’s website brags of its queso’s lack of artificial ingredients — and also provides some insight on why it’s so terrible. Instead of some old-fashioned, industrially produced citrates and phosphates, Chipotle uses cornstarch and tapioca starch to keep the cheese sauce emulsified.

Starches are fine for keeping the cheese smooth in saucy dishes like mac and cheese, but they fall short in stand-alone cheese dips. Unlike artificial stabilizers, they don’t dissolve completely — leaving a grittiness that’s impossible to miss in Chipotle’s rendition of the condiment.

For most of its history, Chipotle recognized that good queso’s reliance on artificial stabilizers was fundamentally at odds with its mission to provide unprocessed food. But eventually, the company caved to incessant consumer pressure. The commercial introduction of this sad excuse for queso should serve as a reminder that the customer is not always right.

When the queso craving hits, you’re still better off going across the street to Qdoba, or even swinging by Rite-Aid for a jar of cheesy dip. If you really want to pay extra on your Chipotle order, just stick to getting the guac.

Write to Bianca at [email protected].

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