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Building Better Nachos

nachos with toppings

Though nachos sound so simple – chips + cheese + toppings – properly constructing them actually takes a bit of finesse. You can’t just throw a bunch of stuff on a tray and expect epic results. Without the proper architecture, nachos can easily become soggy and droopy, burnt and dried out, or unevenly distributed with toppings, so that after the first layer has been eaten, there’s just a big tray of unadorned chips leftover. Here are Spoonful’s tips for building better nachos:

The Proper Foundation: Chips

If you assume that the thick, hand-cut, super deep-fried tortilla chips you can get from a tortilleria or a higher-end market are best for nachos, you are mistaken. These kinds of chips are fried in tons of oil to achieve that wonderful, multi-layered crunch. While that’s great for dipping in guacamole, when heated up, they tend to release some of that oil, resulting in a greasy, soggy base for your nachos. Save those beauties for chip and dip purposes, and go for the unfussy restaurant-style tortilla chips found in the chip aisle of every grocery store.

More Chip Tips

    • Blue or yellow corn is of no consequence, and a lower-salt variety is better if you can find them, as the toppings added later will be plenty seasoned. And don’t even think about nacho, “cool ranch,” or any other type of flavor-dusted chip – that’s just sacrilege.
  • “Dippers” and other funky shapes need not apply. The key here is to get the most straightforward, thin and crispy, triangular shaped chips you can find. They are the canvas on which you’ll paint a delicious picture with cheese and toppings.

The Glue Holding it All Together: Cheese

Please, save the fancy stuff for a different, and more appropriate, purpose. For nachos, unpretentious block cheddar, Monterey Jack, pepper jack, or a blend of all three is the way to go. Sure, you can get a bag of the pre-shredded stuff, but there is something oddly satisfying about shredding down a massive block of cheese.

The goals here are even coverage, supreme meltiness, and a medium-sharp flavor profile that can stand up to the other toppings without overpowering them. Cheese sauce in place of shredded cheese is a controversial topic. While toasted chips topped with freshly made cheese sauce are tasty, the eating experience is inferior to baked nachos. When we think nachos, we want to see gooey melted cheese pulling away from the chip pile, a la a slice of pizza or grilled cheese. That exaggerated cheese stretch moment can really only be achieved with melted shredded cheese.

nachos with cheese

Spill the Beans…But Not Too Many

When it comes to beans, you have one of two options: plain black beans or spicy refried pinto beans. Though we enjoy kidney beans in other dishes, they are too bulky to be added whole and not as creamy as pintos for refrieds.

Either of the proper choices requires a disciplined hand when applying: refried beans are distributed in small dollops across the chip array, and black beans are sprinkled sparingly. You want to avoid gloopiness with the refrieds or an annoying overabundance of black beans. Think of them as half way between a topping and a garnish.

Meat vs. Veg Nachos

There is no harm in keeping your nachos vegetarian. There’s already so much happening on the nacho field, ground beef or chicken could get lost in the chorus of other flavors. With all of the other snack prep you’re likely doing, it might not feel worth it to dirty another pan to brown meat crumbles. However! If you’ve recently made tacos and happen to have leftover steak, carnitas, chicken tinga, or a similar protein in the fridge, by all means, layer it in.

Acing Nacho Architecture

  • To feed a crowd, use the biggest baking sheet you’ve got. Not only is one huge pile versus two smaller piles far more of an impressive presentation, but it will allow for lots of layering up and out, which is essential to achieve proper coverage without sogginess.

 

  • Use far more cheese than you think you should. Like, an uncomfortable amount cheese. This is how bars and restaurants do it, and why theirs are always so decadent and satisfying. Even a huge pile of cheese shrinks down to a fraction of its original volume once melted, so shred, and then shred some more. We’re talking three cups, minimum.

 

  • Build a base layer of chips, add half the cheese mixture, layer on a second layer of chips (less than the first round), then the remainder of the cheese and the beans and/or meat. You ideally want guest to be able to pull up from the bottom, getting lots of cheese with a nice mix of toppings on top.

 

  • Structure the chip pile into a low mountain shape. The chips around the edges will brown, so you want to minimize that.

 

  • Other toppings that can be applied before the oven: pickled jalapenos and jarred salsa (if you prefer it to fresh pico de gallo).

 

  • Toppings that go on after the oven: chopped scallions, fresh cilantro, fresh pico de gallo or chopped tomatoes, sour cream, chunks of avocado or guacamole. Be generous with these.

 

  • Topping we don’t believe in: sliced olives, shredded lettuce, chopped onion, cucumber, or other such vegetable foolery.

 

nachos with toppings

To Bake or Broil?

We find that nachos cook best in an oven set at 450°F degrees for between 7 and 10 minutes. Especially after 5 minutes, it’s best to stand near the oven and keep an eye on things. Broiling only takes a fraction of the time, true, but your margin of error is much slimmer. Literally ten seconds too long under the broiler, and your nachos can become scorched to the point of ruin. Also, we’ve found that when the heat is too high, the top layer gets blasted but the bottom is still room temp. A slightly lower temperature and longer cook time lets all the ingredients meld more fully, and allows the cheese to melt without the chips burning.

There you have it. Good luck with all your Super Bowl hosting duties this weekend. We hope that your nachos (and all the other snacks on the docket) turn out beautifully, the beer spillage is at a minimum, and the team you’re rooting for wins!

Photos by Rachel Bowman


Emily Kovach is the Web Editor at Spoonful Magazine. She’s a fan of oysters, dumplings, nearly every kind of cheese, hoppy beers, and gin cocktails. While she’s intrigued by the incredible food scene in her hometown of Philadelphia, her favorite meals are at home, shared on the back porch with her cozy little family and their dog Jacket.

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