You probably don’t need a recipe for quesadillas. The quesadilla—like its white-bread counterpart, the grilled cheese sandwich—is a consummate weeknight convenience dinner. It requires very little in the way of time and ingredients; it’s delicious and filling; children will eat it with gusto. And you already know how to make it without measuring out any ingredients: Fold a flour tortilla around some grated cheese, griddle it in butter. There’s no step three.
But let’s go back to step one for a second. Are you sure flour is the right kind of tortilla for a dish that’s, frankly, already on the bland side? Does the type of cheese you’re using possess both superior melting abilities and a pleasingly sharp flavor—or does it congeal into big, tedious gobs? And is butter truly the ideal cooking fat to buffer tortilla from skillet?
When one begins asking questions, challenging assumptions, and experimenting with alternatives, it becomes clear that the conventional wisdom about quesadillas is flawed. You can make crispier, healthier, more flavorful, and more structurally sound quesadillas by ditching old habits and keeping four guidelines in mind.
One: You should always use corn tortillas instead of flour. Whereas flour tortillas usually taste like … flour, corn tortillas have the wonderful aroma and toothsome texture of nixtamalized corn. You probably don’t have access to fresh corn tortillas (unless you live near a tortilleria or make them yourself), but the average store-bought corn tortilla is miles better than the average store-bought flour tortilla. (I confess I’m also fond of half-corn, half-wheat tortillas, but those are hard to find.) Plus, corn tortillas are whole-grain, meaning that they are a decent source of fiber, which makes quesadillas slightly healthier than they otherwise would be.
Two: You should not put too much cheese (or anything else) in your quesadillas. The notion that there’s such a thing as “too much cheese” is counterintuitive, but hear me out: If you cover your bottom tortilla with so much cheese that you can no longer see patches of tortilla in between shreds, you will find that the cheese oozes out and burns while you’re cooking the quesadilla, and you will be faced with an unpleasantly high ratio of gooey cheese to sturdy tortilla. Think back to the Elmer’s Glue of your youth: Did you ever slop glue so liberally on your pieces of construction paper that your artwork ended up with glue smeared all over it? The same phenomenon can occur when cheese and tortillas are your artistic media. Use a thin layer of cheese—just enough to firmly adhere the tortillas to each other.
To make the most of your sparingly applied cheese, consider using a mix of cheeses. Monterey Jack is a superlative melting cheese, on par with mozzarella, but it’s as bland as One Direction. Augment it with some cheddar, which is too greasy to use in quesadillas by itself but adds some much-needed assertiveness to the Jack.
The third rule is to cook your quesadillas in oil instead of butter. I opt for butter over oil whenever possible, but this is one case where oil is better: Butter contains water, which means that your quesadillas will turn out damp and floppy. Oil is pure fat, so it browns tortillas impeccably, resulting in pleasantly crispy spots on the outside of your quesadilla. (One other benefit of a slightly crunchy quesadilla: It’s easier to dip in salsa than a pliable one.)
The final quesadilla-making guideline: If you add other ingredients, make sure they are dry. Wet ingredients will make your quesadilla limp and soggy. Go ahead and add cooked beans or vegetables; just make sure to thoroughly blot them with paper towels beforehand. Cooked meat is usually pretty dry, but a little dabbing to remove excess moisture couldn’t hurt. And make sure there is cheese swathing your add-ons on both sides. Cheese is the glue holding your quesadilla together, and if you fail to sprinkle some beneath and on top of your other ingredients, your quesadilla will fall apart.
Even though you probably don’t need a quesadilla recipe, I offer you one here to help you put the guidelines into practice.
Black Bean and Spinach Quesadillas
Yield: 4 small quesadillas
Time: 25 to 30 minutes
½ cup (about 2 ounces) grated Monterey Jack cheese
¼ cup (about 1 ounce) grated cheddar cheese
Eight 6-inch corn tortillas
¼ cup cooked black beans, drained well
About 1 cup baby spinach leaves
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salsa for serving
1. Combine the Monterey Jack cheese and cheddar cheese in a medium bowl. Sprinkle about 1½ tablespoons of the cheese mixture on one of the tortillas, followed by 1 tablespoon of the black beans, 4 or 5 spinach leaves, and then another 1½ tablespoons of the cheese mixture. Top with a second tortilla to enclose the fillings. Repeat with the remaining tortillas, cheese, black beans, and spinach.
2. Put 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add one of the quesadillas and cook until lightly browned on the bottom, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and cook until lightly browned on the other side, 2 to 3 minutes. Cool on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining quesadillas, adding the remaining tablespoon of olive oil to the pan when it becomes dry. Cut the quesadillas in half or in wedges if desired, and serve warm with salsa.
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