Anthony Kuhns of Scarlet Betch faced a week on an all-queso diet in the name of finding out if the most popular Pinteret copycat recipe for Chili’s Skillet Queso is even worth the cheese it’s printed on.
What is Chili’s Skillet Queso? (And Why Do We Love It?)
Chili’s: a place for we go with friends, family, and any co-workers we don’t hate. It’s a place where life happens. And in life there are only two things for certain: tortilla chips and opinions about dip. There are Salsa people, Guacamole people, and Queso people, sure, but there’s another kind of person out there. A more refined person, a more worldly person, a person who looks at queso and demands more! That person is the Chili-Queso person.
In ancient times, this person was up the proverbial creek. The awful truth is that chili does not make a great dip. It’s all chunky and it breaks your chips when you try to scoop it up… The only way to eat chili on chips is to smother them in it. But remember all those co-workers you like? Well it only takes one order of chili chips for Queso Karen from Compliance to turn on you!
Thankfully, Chili’s heard the Chili-Queso cry for help and their food scientists created the perfect solution: a flawless integration of chili and cheese that they call Chili’s Skillet Queso!
(Seriously guys, this is the creamiest chili you have never had. OMGood.)
The Process of Queso Qreation
As you may have gleaned from my intro, this was my first exposure to Chili’s Skillet Queso. The usual process for cooking up this delicacy is to:
- Drive to your nearest Chili’s and…
- Order up an appetizer of chips, salsa, and some smoky skillet queso.
This method is pretty fast, aside from the whole getting-to-Chili’s part, and the experience is one of the most authentic American cultural experiences you can have. When your cousin Berthier is visiting, take her to Chili’s!
But for those of us who live the authentic American experience everyday, going to Chili’s is a production! It’s enough to leave us wishing for a faster, easier, cheaper, and more delicious way to get that Skillet Queso experience. And that, my friends, is where this copycat recipe comes to the rescue.
Skillet Queso is essentially highly processed cheese melted into some highly processed canned chili, and spiced to cover up the taste of everything being processed. In short, it is DELICIOUS HEAVEN. And it’s hecka easy to throw together! If you’ve got the right spices lying around your kitchen, it’s easy to grab some Velveeta, chili, and chips. Then you just thwack it all into a heated saucepan and stir two or three times. And you are literally done at that point. If you prefer, you can keep stirring and get a truly smooth and homogeneous queso. Either way, you can throw together a culinary crowd pleaser in less time than it would take you to flag down a waitress.
The Final Showdown!!! Chili’s vs. Copycat
This copycat a very good copycat. It is almost exactly the same as the queso you get from Chili’s. Certainly the initial flavor palette is the same: creamy, spicy chili.
That said, there are some differences in the details. The queso you make at home will always be fresher because you can (and should!) eat it straight from the saucepan. Chili’s queso is slightly spicier than the copycat, but you can easily address this with more chili powder, so I’m not de-meriting the recipe for that.
The biggest shock to me was how little either version of this recipe tastes like cheese! The chili and chili spices make up almost the entire experience of this dish. The one moment they don’t touch is the aftertaste. The copycat leaves your mouth with a cheesy blast while the actual Chili’s Skillet Queso leaves only a lingering simulacrum of that initial chili blast. It’s not cheesy, and also not good. Why this difference exists is beyond me (preservatives? GMOs? PaleoAtkinsHomeopathy?), but it is definitely there. To me this was a welcome difference, but it was a difference. In the similarity category, that’s a demerit.
The last point of dissimilarity between the two recipes was the texture of the meat. The side of the Hormel chili I used did not inspire confidence in me that I was eating anything beyond a processed ball of beef, pork, and tofu. However, no matter how far removed from an animal the Hormel was, the Chili’s “meat” was weirder. Do you remember those meatballs in Chef Boyardee? That’s what’s in the Chili’s dip. If that’s your thing, then awesome! Just be warned that this recipe does not reproduce that signature food-feel.
The copycat kinda has Chili’s beat. Unless there is a Chili’s on your way home and not a grocery store, it’s just as fast to pick-up the ingredients for this recipe and stir them in a pan as it is to wait at the bar for someone to notice you. Now, a key part of that equation is using pre-shredded Velveeta. The recipe calls for using a block of Velveeta and slicing it into cubes. I say, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” This is a processed food, so don’t make yourself work any more than needed.
The other convenience of this recipe is that it makes four times as much queso, so you won’t have to make a run to Chili’s for at least one whole day!
Given that the recipe makes four times as much queso as Chili’s gives you, the prices are actually pretty comparable. I had to buy all the spices and the total bill was about $24. Note that I bought all No Name brand spices, so that kept my costs low. Chili’s set me back about $6, without tip. If you happen to have some chili powder in your pantry, then this copycat is going to start getting cheaper pretty quickly. If you demand only the finest spices in your food… Then why are you eating at Chili’s?
As discussed in the Similarity section, I think this recipe does the job with a cheesier taste and a better meat texture. The one downside is that the recipe was slightly less spicy than the Chili’s version, so feel free to spice it up.
The Verdict: Is It Worth It?
YAS, Gaga. YAS. It’s convenient, gives you the same taste in the queso ( with only minor differences), and has some very nice efficiencies of scale as you stock your pantry. To me this recipe is a great copycat that you will likely end up liking more.