The keys to our ideal nachos are a house-made bean dip, evenly layered chips, and a killer roster of add-ons.
By Matt Duckor
Tortilla chips and cheese on a tray, baked together in perfect harmony within the confines of a hot oven until melted, garnished with any combination of ingredients you want.
That's the basic formula for nachos, also known as the best party snack food on the planet. Can you think of anything more versatile? It's appropriate for nearly any occasion--sporting event, housewarming, graduation, heck, we could even envision a spiffy version served at a wedding (with plenty of cloth napkins, of course).
You may be thinking, "But how can you go wrong with nachos?" It's true, you can't really go wrong with warm chips topped with oozing cheese. But regardless, there is an incontrovertible truth: All nacho trays are not created equal. You know what we're talking about--we've all tasted nachos that were smothered in clumpy cheese, over-accessorized with add-ons like shredded lettuce, or made with chips too brittle to support the weight of their own nacho glory.
To spare you from that bitter fate, the Epicurious test kitchen developed a little something we're calling the Ultimate Nachos.
For the details on the recipe, we consulted our food editor Rhoda Boone, a Texan whose history with nachos runs deep, like a orange, dairy-filled river. Needless to say, the woman has some opinions on the subject of nachotecture.
Go with the thick chip
While thin chips are great for salsas and dips, you're going to want to find as thick a chip as possible when making nachos. We love some of the smaller brands as much as the next gourmand, but when it comes to nachos, Boone says it's hard to do better than Tostitos.
Make a homemade bean dip
Rather than adding loose beans to your tortilla tower, make a homemade pinto-bean spread to layer on your nachos. "It gives the nachos a really rich flavor," explains Boone. "Plus it's consistent--every bite will have that rich bean taste." Our ideal pinto-bean spread skews pretty classic--red onion, garlic, chili powder, and oregano.
Use real cheese, not the processed stuff
Making nachos with cheese is like cooking with wine: The end result is only going to taste as good as what you put into it. Our Ultimate Nachos are topped with a mix of grated sharp cheddar and Monterey jack for flavor and meltability.
But what about queso nachos? "If you're just pouring queso on top of nachos, then you don't really need the baking process," says Boone. "I think of that as more of a ballpark nacho."
It's all about the layers
"You're not just tossing a bunch of ingredients on a pile of chips," explains Boone. Layering chips with the other elements ensures each chip gets covered with every ingredient you're using. It's a bit more meticulous, but worth it.
Maximize surface area
You're not looking to impress your guests with your Jenga stacking skills--instead of building a teetering nacho tower, assemble your nachos on two baking sheets. That way, chips will bake evenly and you won't end up with uneven melting when it comes to your cheese.
Keep garnishes out of the oven
Chips, bean dip, jalapenos, and cheese. That's all you should be putting in the oven. "If you try to bake more than those four essential ingredients," says Boone, "you will end up with soggy nachos." To avoid this cardinal sin of nacho making, add all the ingredients that don't need extra heat (like sour cream and guacamole) after the nachos leave the oven.
Load up on the extras
Our nachos aren't complete until they get topped with chopped tomato, thin slices of red onion, a good amount of sour cream, and a layer of cilantro leaves. As for protein, opt for a marinated meat that brings its own juiciness to the party. Boone loves chicken with a chili-lime marinade.
Then, go the extra mile by adding either our next-level guacamole with aleppo pepper or one of Boone's classic salsas--tomatillo or spicy tomato with cilantro and chiles.
All that's left to do is devour your nachos. And you'll want to do it quickly--Boone says the optimal consumption period for nachos is about fifteen minutes. Luckily, just as nachos wait for no man, no man waits for nachos. Once the crowd descends, they'll disappear in a flash.
Get the recipe: The Ultimate Nachos