How To Make Perfect Nachos: An Assembly Guide

The do's and don'ts of layering, cheese selection, tortilla chip shape and more.
bhofack2 via Getty Images

Nachos are the ultimate joy-inducing food. They’re the complete package: crunchy tortilla chips, gooey melted cheese and toppings with some bite, all balanced out with creamy-cool factors like sour cream and guacamole (and, since we’re nacho-ing at home, it’s not extra).

According to Time, the beloved appetizer originated in a northern Mexican town in the early 1940s. A group of United States Army wives stopped by a supper club only to discover it had closed for the evening, but the maître d’, Ignacio Anaya, took heart. He threw together a plate of tortilla chips, shredded cheese and jalapeños, and baked them for a few minutes. Anaya named the dish after his nickname, Nacho.

Since their creation, nachos have proved to be endlessly versatile and satisfying as they’ve spread through Texas and beyond. Despite being a relatively simple dish, nachos can be tricky to execute well at home ― who hasn’t wound up with a strange amalgam of burnt chips and unmelted cheese at least once?

To help you get the maximum value out of your tortilla chips and toppings, we spoke with two experts who broke down the do’s and don’ts of nacho-making.

Use round chips for stronger structural integrity.
pamela_d_mcadams via Getty Images
Use round chips for stronger structural integrity.

Do: Use round tortilla chips.

If frying your own tortilla chips brings you joy, then go for it. But don’t feel like you have to when you’re making nachos, a dish that was invented to be an easy meal. “I feel like that would be crazy to be like, ‘Oh, it’s worth it at home to fill up a thing of oil.’ So yeah. I would say use store-bought,” said Rebecca Barron, a chef at Slick’s, a burger bar in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

According to Andrés Figueroa, the in-house chef for grain-free tortilla brand Siete Foods, round chips are ideal for nacho-making. “Round chips have more structural integrity than triangles. So if you’re really loading up nachos and putting meat and other toppings and stuff on there, it’s really easy to just bog down the triangle and crack a corner. So the rounds hold up very well and are usually a little bit sturdier,” Figueroa told HuffPost.

Do: Spread your chips out on a baking sheet.

A mountain of nachos is mouthwatering, but it’s also a recipe for disaster, leaving too many chips undressed and toppings distributed unevenly. Spread those chips out on a baking sheet, Barron advised. “That way you get some toppings on each chip. It’s like making hundreds of little pizzas,” she said.

Don’t: Use fussy cheese.

When it comes to cheese, classic is best. “It’s tempting to try something different and get something that’s a little bit more interesting, but I think the classics are the classics for a reason and they deliver on flavor and nostalgia,” Figueroa said. “So it’s hard to go wrong with a mild cheddar.” There’s an argument to be made for grating your own cheese (more uniform melting, potentially fewer additives), but if you have a bag of shredded cheese on hand it’s totally fine to use that.

Do: Use proteins — including leftovers!

Almost any protein can nacho. Figueroa lives in Texas, where fajita or carne asada is a popular nacho topping. “But, ground beef with taco seasoning is really good, too. That’s the beauty of nachos, is that it’s hard to go wrong when you have a good starting base of beans, cheese, and good chips that can pull it all together,” Figueroa said.

Barron loves to use brisket, but suggests tossing the meat in a sauce first while heating it up. The sauce keeps the meat from drying out, and heating the meat before placing it on the nachos is key because, “You don’t want your chips getting soggy, waiting for the meat to heat up in the oven,” she said.

Don't even think about adding guacamole and sour cream before you put the chips in the oven. Those go on afterward.
3dan3 via Getty Images
Don't even think about adding guacamole and sour cream before you put the chips in the oven. Those go on afterward.

Do: Pay attention to how you layer.

If you’re using grated cheese instead of cheese sauce, sprinkle one to two layers of that shredded cheese on the chips. If you’re using meat (or a meat substitute) and refried beans, they should be heated up and go on next before popping the nachos into the oven. Cheese dip, also warmed up, goes on when the nachos come out of the oven, followed by the toppings meant to be enjoyed cold.

Don’t: Make them in the microwave.

Don’t even bother making nachos in the microwave, Barron said. “If you microwaved your chips, they’d be a little chewy,” she said. If microwaving is all that you have energy for, compromise by warming up some jarred queso for nachos a la movie theater.

Do: Broil the nachos … carefully.

Assuming that you warmed up your denser toppings, Barron suggested putting your nachos on a low rack in the oven set to a low broil. Broilers can burn your food super quickly if you’re not paying attention, so keep an eye on your nachos and plan to pull them sometime between 30 seconds to one minute.

If you’re not comfortable using the broiler, turn the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and bake the nachos for about five to seven minutes, or until the cheese has melted.

Do: Remember the finishing touches!

It’s fine if you want to keep the sour cream and guacamole on the side (most people don’t like them after they’ve been warmed from the heat of the other ingredients), but don’t skip the toppings that give your nachos an acidic boost, like pickled jalapeños. “I like a fresh salsa. It’s something with a lot of lime juice to go against the richness of nachos,” Figueroa said.

Finally, it’s OK to have fun with your nachos. If you’re a ranch fiend, go ahead and add a healthy drizzle on there. Did you use shredded chicken? How about adding a little zest with Buffalo sauce? Bonus points for adding visual appeal (and freshness) with a sprinkle of chopped cilantro.

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