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Making the Best Quesadillas

Crisp on the outside, melty on the inside—a few tricks guarantee perfect results

Fine Cooking Issue 79
Photos: Scott Phillips
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When I was in college, I discovered that quesadillas were pretty much the perfect food. They were easy to make, cheap, and best of all, oozing with melted cheese, which I craved, particularly when final exams rolled around. My college version of a quesadilla was soft and floppy because I cooked it in a microwave. But I’ve since discovered a few simple tricks that make quesadillas golden, crisp, and completely irresistible.

Use a nonstick skillet. The best quesadilla is one with a perfectly crisp tortilla, a texture that comes from pan-cooking. I like using a nonstick skillet, which will turn out perfectly golden quesadillas every time. (A well-seasoned cast-iron skillet will work well, too.) Be sure to cover the quesadillas during the first half of cooking, which ensures that the cheese melts and the filling heats through.

The filling should be cheesy, but don’t limit yourself to just one cheese. A combination like the one in the Three-Cheese Quesadillas is as good as it gets. Grating the cheese will yield better results, as it melts faster, which means you’re less likely to burn the tortilla before the filling is heated through.

tip: Grate the cheese to help it melt quickly.

For a snack-time quesadilla, I use cheese plus one or two other ingredients to keep it from becoming too filling, but if I’m having quesadillas as a meal, I go to town, combining many ingredients. The possibilities are limitless, so feel free to experiment.

tip: Fold to encase the filling and keep the ingredients from overflowing.

Stick to flour tortillas. Flour tortillas are more pliable than corn tortillas, so they’re easier to fold once filled. Also, size matters. Nine-or ten-inch tortillas, sometimes labeled “burrito size,” are small enough to flip easily in the pan but large enough to make into a meal or cut into appetizer-size portions.

tip: Use 9- or 10- inch flour tortillas, often labeled “burrito size.”

Use butter, not oil. Rather than cooking quesadillas in oil, I spread butter on the tortillas for a richer flavor. As a rule, I use salted butter, which provides the best flavor boost. But sometimes I mix the butter with a little grated hard cheese, and in that case, I use unsalted butter so the quesadilla doesn’t get too salty.

tip: Spread butter on the outside of the tortillas to add flavor.

do ahead:

You can assemble the Mushroom & Fontina Quesadillas and Three-Cheese Quesadillas about 2 hours before cooking; the Mozzarella, Tomato & Basil version  can be made 30 minutes ahead. Lay the quesadillas in one layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment, cover with plastic, and refrigerate.

Above: Three-Cheese Quesadillas with Garlic Butter. At right: Mozzarella, Tomato & Basil Quesadillas with Parmesan Crust

Creating your own quesadillas

The best base cheeses for quesadillas are good melters—those that are relatively high in moisture, rather than drier, aged ones. Fresh cheeses like ricotta and goat cheese also work well in combination with melting cheeses. Once you’ve chosen your cheeses, try adding some of the other ingredients here. (Remember that raw seafood and meat must be cooked before becoming part of the filling.)

Choice cheeses:
Good melting cheeses Asiago (not aged), Blue, Brie, Colby, Cheddar, Fontina, Gouda (not aged), Gruyère, Havarti, Manchego, Monterey Jack, Mozzarella, Pecorino (not aged), Provolone, Queso Oaxaca, Swiss, Teleme.
Fresh cheeses to use
in combination with
melting cheeses
Goat cheese, Feta, Fromage blanc, Ricotta
Filling ideas:
From the produce aisle Baby Arugula, Baby Spinach, Eggplant-diced and cooked, Fresh Corn, Cooked Mushrooms-sliced and cooked, Tomatoes-diced
From a jar or can Black Beans, drained Chiles (canned, or fresh and roasted), chopped Oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes-drained and thinly sliced, Olives-pitted and slivered, Roasted red peppers-thinly sliced
Cooked meats (cut in ½-inch-wide pieces or shredded) Chicken, Pork tenderloin, Steak (flank or skirt).
Cured meats Bacon or pancetta, cooked and crumbled or diced Prosciutto-thinly sliced.
Cooked seafood Crabmeat- in pieces, Shrimp, chopped Squid-sliced
Aromatics, herbs and spices Crushed red pepper flakes,  Fresh herbs, chopped Garlic, chopped and sautéed Leeks, chopped and sautéed Onions or shallots, chopped and sautéed Scallions, chopped Smoked paprika


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