The ultimate guide to nachos

Published November 26, 2012

| The Daily Meal

Nacho perfection, like other kinds of cooking perfection, isn't difficult to achieve. In fact, any home cook can achieve nacho nirvana. It just requires care and attention to detail — in selecting the right ingredients, in preparing them properly, and in constructing the overall dish. It really is one of those things where you only get out of it what you put into it. With the exception of a few lucky accidents, few cooking masterpieces are ever created by throwing everything into a pot or casserole dish and sending it to the fire.

Such is the case with nachos. A proper plate of nachos has to be constructed. It has to have the right number of ingredients. It can't have the wrong proportion of toppings to chips, and it certainly can't be soggy. And it requires a bit of advance planning and thought. So how do you do it right?

To find out, The Daily Meal teamed up with Marlon Braccia, author of The Enlightened Cook: Protein Entrées, for some serious nacho advice. Braccia, an avid nacho fan, was passionate and opinionated about the topic and certainly had plenty to say.

What Is a Nacho?
The bare minimum when it comes to ingredients, says Braccia, is "a great nacho chip and a great piece of cheese that melts easily." And if that's all you have, there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, if you're a bit of a purist, you'll probably agree.

But, if you would like to have more to munch on, that's great, too. Check out what Braccia had to say about some of the most popular ingredients in the slideshow.

Chips: What Color?
Braccia prefers white corn tortilla chips over blue or yellow because white cornmeal can be ground more finely, resulting in a thinner chip with a more delicate crunch, which will make for a more pleasurable eating experience when it comes to texture. Store-bought is just fine since there are so many good brands out there, she says.

Cheese: Why Pre-Grated Is Bad
If you're in a pinch and a sudden, uncontrollable urge for a plate of nachos sets in, you may be tempted to use pre-grated cheese. But Braccia finds that manufacturers often don't start with the best-quality cheese when it comes to pre-grated, which is why there often isn't a whole lot of flavor (if any).

Cheese: Best Choice
Instead, start with a block of sharp white Cheddar, which generally has a little bit more of a bite than yellow. If you're using white corn tortilla chips, it's also more pleasing from an aesthetic standpoint, if you care about that sort of thing. But the important takeaway is: Don't use pre-grated cheese, and whatever you use, start with something high-quality.

Salsa
Nothing beats homemade salsa and it's really not that hard to do, but Braccia says that if you absolutely must use store-bought, opt for the salsas in the plastic containers in the refrigerated section rather than the jarred ones in the condiments aisle. They'll taste fresher, have superior texture (jarred versions often have the consistency of tomato sauce), have more flavor, and likely contain fewer preservatives. Fire-roasted is a nice twist as well.

Beans: Canned Versus Dried
Braccia prefers dried beans mainly because of texture. Canned beans often have a mealy, slimy texture, says Braccia, whereas dried beans still have a bit of a bite.

Meat
Braccia is a fan of chicken, but whatever meat you use, you'll have to cook it separately, of course. When it comes to chicken breast especially, Braccia says that hand-shredded is the way to go. That's because if you cut it with a knife, she says, you'll probably end up cutting it across the grain, and that's not great from a textural standpoint because it will end up being the last thing to break down in your mouth when you bite into the nacho.

Building the Nacho: Bite-Sized
If you're looking for nachos that are individual, bite-sized portions, Braccia says that the last thing you want to do is to throw everything into a casserole dish in a pile of multiple layers. You'll just end up with mush, she says. (If that's what you're looking for, though — nachos meant to be eaten with a spoon rather than with your hands — go right ahead. The nacho police aren't going to stop you.)

Building the Nacho: Air It Out
Braccia says to first preheat the oven to 450 degrees — and if you have a convection oven, use it, because the circulating air will only help the chips stay nice and dry as they bake. Arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet, making sure they have room away from each other, kind of like when baking cookies. Again, this helps promote air circulation and prevents the nachos from turning soggy.

Building the Nacho: Cheese as "Glue"
If you're just doing cheese, grate it, sprinkle it on, and you're home free. If you're doing multiple layers, she likes to start with about half the cheese, followed by the beans, salsa, sliced jalapeños, and any other ingredients you're using, followed by the remaining cheese. This way, the cheese acts as a "glue" that helps anchor all of the ingredients to the chip, preventing them from sliding off when you take a bite.

Building the Nacho: Parting Advice
If you're using salsa, it's OK to put a little bit on the chip before it goes in the oven, but make sure to dry it thoroughly by letting it drain in a colander first.

Most importantly, though, resist the urge to pile on too much stuff on each chip — nobody wants to be playing Jenga with their nachos.

Dig In!
At last, it's time to serve. Braccia does it simply with a side of salsa and guacamole, but feel free to experiment.

See the entire ultimate guide to nachos here

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