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 drying, 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 a deep-fried popper recipe and cut my poppers into even-sized rings. The classic boat shape of split and stuffed whole chilies 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 I recently made, 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 in buttermilk, dust them with flour, dip them again, then coat them with the panko-cornflake breading. That flour helps keep the filling contained, which prevents this from happening:
A short rest in the fridge also helps, giving the cheese filling time to firm up so it melts more slowly in the oven. Don't leave your poppers in the fridge too long, though—after more than an hour the breading can start to crack.
The 'Fried' Effect
After 25 minutes at 425°F, 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.