Why It Works
- Using a thick cheese sauce creates a flavorful, gooey center.
- A mixture of panko breadcrumbs and cornflakes gives the exterior a great crunch with a mildly sweet flavor.
- Double breading with both flour and breadcrumbs creates a thicker shell that keeps the cheese inside.
- Briefly freezing the uncooked poppers tenderizes the jalapeños, resulting in more tender and juicy popper once baked.
Jalapeño poppers are almost certain to make an appearance at any party I'm hosting. But since I don't want to deal with the mess of deep-frying, I always baked or grilled mine, and instead of breading them, I wrap them in bacon.
Those are great, but I'll admit I have a soft spot for the breaded ones, too. So when Kenji challenged me to get all the crispiness and gooeyness of fried jalapeño poppers without the oil, I was only too happy to oblige.
Setting Boats to Sail
I follow Daniel's lead from his deep-fried popper recipe and cut my peppers into even-sized rings. The classic boat shape of split and stuffed whole chiles means different-sized poppers, which cook at different rates.
Boats are easier to prep, but rings do cook more evenly, and they're not too hard to prepare. Once you slice the peppers, run a tiny melon baller or paring knife around the inside to scrape out the ribs and seeds.
I typically use cream cheese in my poppers, and if you're frying, that's the best option, as cream cheese won't blow out into the oil like a more gooey cheese might. But baked poppers are a good opportunity to play with some other cheeses, something I've been meaning to play around with.
I thought back to the green chile chicken nachos recipe I developed, which included a cheese sauce that's gooey and spoonable when warm but cools into something like American cheese. As-is, it'd be too thin to use as popper filling, but a thicker sauce solves that problem. I bump up the cheese and dial back on the evaporated milk for a goo that's too thick for queso dip but perfect for popper filling, and it remains smooth and creamy, the way cheese sauce should be.
After the sauce cools to room temperature, it's still soft enough to move around with a spoon, but firm enough to stay in place when stuffed in the jalapeños.
The Best Breading
The biggest challenge of making baked food taste like fried is making a convincing crust. I tried a variety of breadings for my poppers, from homemade breadcrumbs to panko to tortilla chips and finely ground cornflakes, all in search of a coating that'd stay crisp and feel fried-tasting after a trip through the oven.
Alone, none of the breadings tasted quite right. The only two that were crispy enough were panko, which was pale and flavorless, and cornflakes, which were too sweet on their own. But a combination breading of panko and pulverized cornflakes is perfect—craggly crunch with just the right amount of flavor and sweetness.
In order to keep the poppers' cheese contained and coating intact, you need a heavy coat of breading. That means double dipping, and in my tests, I found the best way to do so was to dip the cheese-filled peppers first in buttermilk, dust them with flour, then dip them in beaten egg before finally coating them with the panko-cornflake breading. That flour and the layer of egg helps form a sturdy shell that keeps the filling contained, which prevents this from happening:
It's also important not to over-stuff the poppers; leaving just a bit of space in each one gives the cheese room to expand as it heats without blowing out.
After additional testing, it became clear that a short 30-minute rest in the freezer made these poppers even better. The quick freeze firms up the cheese before frying so it melts more slowly in the oven, ensuring the center is just hot enough right when the exterior has crisped and browned. But freezing has an additional benefit: it forms ice crystals in the jalapeño, which rupture cell walls and tenderize the chiles, a technique sometimes called cryo-blanching. This ensures a more fully cooked final texture after baking.
The 'Fried' Effect
After 25 minutes at 425°F (220°C), you'll have crisp-edged poppers with oozy insides. They'll taste pretty good, but a little on the dry side, the way baked crispy things often taste less satisfying than their fried counterparts.
So why not bring that "fried" taste to the baked poppers? A quick brush of fat on the surface of the breaded poppers before baking enhances browning and adds more "fried" flavors. A test batch proved it: Fat-brushed baked poppers may not completely pass for fried, but they taste great.
I tried both melted bacon fat and canola oil on my poppers. Bacon fat adds a delicious smoky, salty, meaty flavor that's hard to beat, but the canola oil works well too. Feel free to go with either.
And there you have it: a kick-ass baked jalapeño popper that hits all the right notes. The outsides are crunchy and flavorful, the insides full of all the cheesy gooeyness you'd want, and the rings are perfect for, well, popping. Are they exactly the same as fried? No, but they're just as delicious in their own right. And having no pot of oil to clean goes a long way.
After a new round of cross-testing in 2022, we have updated this recipe to ensure even better results. It now makes it clear not to over-fill each popper with cheese to reduce the chances of a leakage; adds an egg wash to the breading for a crisper, sturdier, more flavorful coating; and very briefly freezes the poppers to "cryo-blanch" the jalapeños for even more tender results.
8 ounces (227g) Monterey Jack cheese, grated on large holes of a box grater
3 ounces (85g) sharp cheddar, grated on large holes of a box grater
1 tablespoon (8g) cornstarch
1/2 cup (118ml) evaporated milk
2 teaspoons (10ml) hot sauce, such as Frank's RedHot
1 pound (454g) jalapeños (about 12 jalapeños), stemmed, sliced into 1/2-inch rings, and seeded
3 cups cornflakes (2 1/2 ounces; 75g)
1 cup panko breadcrumbs (2 ounces; 57g)
1 cup (237g) buttermilk
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (6 3/4 ounces; 191g)
2 large eggs, beaten
1/3 cup (79ml) bacon fat or canola oil
1 batch roasted tomato salsa or your favorite salsa, for serving
In a medium bowl, toss Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese with cornstarch until evenly coated. Transfer cheeses to a medium saucepan and add evaporated milk and hot sauce. Place over low heat and cook, whisking constantly, until melted and thickened, about 5 minutes. Let stand until cooled to room temperature.
Arrange jalapeño rings on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Spoon cheese sauce into jalapeño rings, filling about 2/3 full and patting down with fingers.
Place cornflakes and breadcrumbs in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse until cornflakes are finely processed. Transfer breading mixture to a shallow bowl.
Place buttermilk, flour, and eggs in separate shallow bowls. Working one at a time, dunk a jalapeño slice into buttermilk and then roll around in flour until completely coated. Dunk jalapeño slice into eggs and then roll around in breadcrumb mixture until completely coated. Transfer to a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet. Repeat with all jalapeño rings. Transfer baking sheet to freezer and freeze until firm, about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425°F (220°C). Remove baking sheet from freezer. Brush breaded jalapeños all over with bacon fat or oil. Transfer baking sheet to oven and cook until cheese is heated throughout and outsides are browned and crisp, 15-18 minutes. Remove from oven and transfer jalapeño poppers to a tray. Season with salt. Serve immediately with sauce of your choice.
Food processor, wire rack, rimmed baking sheet
Make-Ahead and Storage
The stuffed and breaded jalapeño slices can be frozen on a baking sheet, then transferred to a zipper-lock bag and kept frozen for up to 3 months. Fry directly from frozen.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 24g||31%|
|Saturated Fat 9g||47%|
|Total Carbohydrate 29g||10%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||12%|
|Total Sugars 7g|
|Vitamin C 70mg||351%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|