How We Made Nacho Cheese Powder

We lift the lid on the CHOW.com Test Kitchen to see what our recipe developers are working on.

The CHOW.com test kitchen develops a lot of practical recipes (Easy Weeknight Vegetarian Main Dishes, for instance), but from time to time we turn our efforts to junk—as in, putting a CHOW spin on our favorite junk foods. We recently tried to create homemade versions of nacho cheese, Cool Ranch, and Creole shrimp "powders" to coat nuts with. We thought they'd be good beer-drinking snacks for March Madness.

Commercial nacho cheese powder is readily available, and even though it's neon orange, it doesn't contain that many weird things. It's mostly just dehydrated cheese and a little whey powder: How hard could it be to re-create? Associate Food Editor Christine Yue Gallary set out to learn, sprinkling grated cheddar on a baking sheet to dry it out in a low oven. Somebody called the process the act of making "ghetto frico."

Turns out that cheese oozes a lot of oil as it bakes, making blotting essential. Once we'd mopped up the cheese grease and returned the grated cheddar to the oven for a few hours, it really did dry out enough to be grindable (a spice grinder worked best). At first we tried to jam the rather coarse powder that resulted through a fine sieve, but our efforts to achieve the powdery texture of the commercial product epically failed. Sieving got the ax—it seemed way too fussy, plus we ended up liking the idea of a rustic, more textured nacho powder. In the end, four ounces of cheddar yielded about a half cup of powder.

The experiment's other fail? Tossing our DIY nacho cheese powder with peanuts. The flavor was waaaay too strong, and the sweetness of the peanuts seemed totally unappealing. We ended up doctoring it with a little cumin, chile powder, and touch of dried buttermilk for extra tang. Then we homed in on pumpkin seeds, which have a mild flavor and a lot of crunch. That was exactly what we were after: a neutral-tasting vehicle for getting as much nacho cheese powder into our mouths as possible.

Look for the recipe in March, part of CHOW's March Madness feature. And check back here for more Test Kitchen Notes!

Photograph by Roxanne Webber

Roxanne Webber is the former senior features editor at CHOW.com.