It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
Things I give up as a vegan: all animal-based food products.
Things I don't give up as a vegan: giving in to the occasional craving for salty, fatty, decadent...Okay, let's just call it what it is. Junk food. Just like everyone else, some vegans like to pig out on junk food every once in a while, and is there any better way to do it than with a giant pile of fully loaded nachos?
I've said it in the past: there is no dish that is better designed for sharing than a pile of nachos, but here's the thing: most of my friends are not vegan. So where does this leave me? I could take the hard-core route and decide that I need new friends, but that's a) crazy, b) stupid, c) classless, d) mean, e) snooty, and other adjectives as well. No. A much better solution is this one: Make vegan nachos so damn good that everybody will want to get in on the action, vegan or not.
Luckily, what with the Vegan Nacho Sauce I developed last week, we're already in pretty darn good shape.
Nachos are a lot like pizza. Even the worst—and I'm talking the open-a-bag-of-fritos-and-press-the-button-to-dispense-salty-cheese-like-substance-from-a-nozzle-at-the-back-of-a-7-Eleven kind of nachos—are still tasty on a basic "here's something crispy and salty covered with something gooey and salty" level. That said, the difference between poor (but still tasty!) nachos and awesome nachos comes down to a few factors, starting with the quality of the chips.
As soon as you start layering your nachos, you're in a desperate race against time. Nacho sauce, beans, chili, salsa, or whatever wet ingredients you choose all begin to eat away a chip's crispness. It's inevitable that the last few bites of a nacho pile are going to be a bit soggy—almost chilaquiles-like in texture, but we can do our best to minimize it.
You can start with store-bought chips (check out our taste test here), but I find that no matter what brand you use, their crunch disappears unacceptably fast.
If there's one surefire way to instantly improve your nachos, it's this: start with freshly fried chips.
It's actually much simpler than it may seem, particularly if you use a wok for deep-frying. There's minimal splatter, you don't need a ton of oil, and frying store-bought fresh corn tortillas is a very clean process, leaving you with oil that's nearly as good as new when you're done.
The trick is to use moderate heat (no higher than 350°F), and to constantly agitate the chips with a wire mesh strainer or a metal spider as they cook. Tortilla chips have a tendency to bubble and puff, creating irregular surfaces that poke up above the level of the oil. Your job is to keep all of the chips submerged, like an extreme version of whack-a-mole.
With your chips fried and seasoned (remember to season them the moment they come out of the fryer for optimal salt adhesion), it's time to start thinking about the toppings.
Here's the deal: the very first nachos consisted of nothing more than tortilla chips topped with melted cheese and slices of jalapeño. But the dish has moved a long way from these traditional routes. These days, it's common to find nachos with everything from pulled pork to chorizo to chili to beans, and to be frank, so long as there's a good balance between flavors and texture—rich elements mixed with fresh ones, crunchy mixed with tender, crisp mixed with creamy—there's no right or wrong way to top a nacho.
I can imagine a world in which it's possible that a plate of nachos suffers from too great a variety of toppings, but I've yet to see any that have come close to this hypothetical limit. We're pushing the boundaries this time with a whopping 13, nearly all of them existing recipes from our archives.
Here's what we've got:
- Vegan refried beans (rich and spicy)
- Guacamole (creamy and tangy)
- Sliced black olives (tender and briny)
- Black beans (creamy and filling)
- Sliced radishes (crunchy and fresh)
- Vegetarian bean chili (rich, hot, and spicy)
- Cilantro leaves (cooling and herbaceous)
- Chopped tomatoes (sweet, juicy, and fresh)
- Vegan nacho sauce (gooey, rich, and salty)
- Charred tomato salsa (smoky and tangy)
- Sliced scallions (pungent and grassy)
- Sliced white onions (sweet and crisp)
- Sliced pickled jalapeños (hot and bright)
Let's go through the ingredients one by one.
1. The Beans
I used my Spicy Vegan Refried Beans, which are made with dried pinto beans simmered with onion and bay leaf, then fried with garlic, jalapeño, and some canned chipotle chilies.
2. The Guacamole
The key to the Best Basic Guacamole is to pound your aromatics (in this case chilies, onions, and cilantro) in a mortar and pestle with salt to draw out their flavors for perfect incorporation into your chunky avocado base. It seems like a small difference from simply folding in chopped aromatics, but it makes a world of difference.
3. Sliced black olives
So what if tinned black olives are really underripe olives artificially turned black? So what if they don't have the full flavor or complexity of a high quality brined or oil-cured olive? In this application, the mild brininess of a canned black olive is ideal for the job.
4. Black beans
I use whole canned black beans simply rinsed and scattered.
Some folks get persnickety about putting whole beans on their nachos. Some folks also don't get invited to parties.
5. Sliced radishes
In my search for The Best Nachos in New York, I came across a couple of trays that came topped with sliced radishes. They're a common enough snack at a taqueria, but putting them on nachos is sort of a stroke of genius, their uniquely crisp, refreshing bite perfectly complementing the richer ingredients. For the crispest slices, slice them thin with a mandoline or sharp knife and store them in ice cold water.
You don't see radish slices topping nachos all that often, but here's to hoping that it'll become a trend.
6. Vegetarian bean chili
I use my Best Vegetarian Bean Chili, or actually, a slightly modified version—I halved the recipe and omitted the kidney beans, which gives the finished chili a much easier-to-scoop texture that makes more sense for toppings chips. As with all great chilies, using whole dried chilies in lieu of powder is key.
7. Cilantro leaves
A must for their clean and refreshing herbal notes, not to mention that they make the plate look all pretty-like.
8. Chopped tomatoes
More often than not, chopped tomatoes are an afterthought. Pale, insipid, out-of-season junk that you push to the side because it just distracts from all the other full-flavored toppings. But it doesn't have to be that way. If you're making your nachos in the summer, use the best farmer's market tomatoes you can find. In all other situations, use cherry or plum tomatoes cut into quarters or eighths. The smaller tomatoes are universally sweeter and more intensely flavored than their larger supermarket brethren.
9. Vegan nacho sauce
This Vegan Nacho Sauce is the carpet that ties the whole nacho-shaped room together. Rich, tangy, gooey, and spicy, we use a base of aromatics cooked in shortening, along with ground toasted cashews for body, and puréed potatoes for that gooeyness that most vegan nacho sauces lack.
10. Charred tomato salsa
Charring the tomatoes, onions, and jalapeños in this Roasted Tomato Salsa give the salsa a hit of smokiness that elevates it beyond your typical fresh pico de gallo.
11. Sliced scallions
As with radishes, sliced scallions taste their best when they've been stored in ice cold water for 10 minutes or so, which tames their onioniness and adds a crisp bite.
12. Sliced white onions
White onions are milder in flavor than any other type of onion. I like to add them in not-too-thin slices so that you get a bit of almost apple-y crunch when you bite into them.
13. Sliced pickled jalapeños
There's debate around whether you should be using fresh or pickled jalapeños on nachos. I can't tell you which is more traditional, but I can tell you that I vastly prefer the pickled kind for their good balance of heat and acidity.
Next key to great nachos? Picking the right vessel and layering them properly. There's nothing worse than working your way to the bottom of a nacho pile only to discover cold, bare chips. To prevent that, you want to build your nachos in a vessel that's very good at retaining heat—a cast iron skillet or a stone baking dish work well*—and you want to build up your nachos in layers, making sure that every chip gets at least a bit of the toppings.
*It seems trendy these days to build nachos on a thin aluminum rimmed baking sheet, but it's a bad idea: you get more space to spread out your chips, but they lose heat so rapidly that you'll be eating cold chips before you're even a quarter of the way done with the tray.
Start with hot ingredients
I build my nachos up in three layers, topping the bottom two layers with my chili, refried beans, nacho sauce, and black beans—all ingredients that do well in the heat of the oven—and baking them before adding the final layer of fresh toppings.
When baking the nachos, you want to bake them until the edges of the chips take on color. I even like some of the corners to be nearly burnt, adding another dimension to their flavor.
Finish with fresh ingredients
Once your nachos are baked, it's time to finish them off with the remaining fresh/cool ingredients. I go for a look I call the "artful scatter." Sort of like a fussily-arranged bed-head. I start with my chopped tomatoes, black olives, jalapeños, and scallions, applying them rounds by sprinkling them evenly on top, then following up by tucking them into nooks and crannies inside the layers of chips.
Next, I spoon over some of the salsa, making sure to dollop—never douse or cover up everything. You want just enough salsa to remind people that it's there, and that there's a whole cup of it being served alongside the chips.
Finally, I finish with a big dollop of guacamole (using the same application principle as the salsa), then top it off with the white onions, radish slices, and cilantro leaves, using the same scatter-and-place principles. The resulting pile should not only look amazing, with a great contrast of colors, textures, and shapes, but this visual contrast should translate into a flavor contrast as well, packing each bite with a different combination of ingredients.
Who knows—you might even get lucky enough to score that one perfect 13-toppings-on-a-single-chip bite.
I've yet to see it happen, but it's not outside of the realm of possibility. Careful observation and many more nachos are in order.