The secret to creating the perfect nachos

Whether it's game day or you're just casually having friends over to hang out, you can't go wrong with a huge platter of nachos. How could you when you've got this universally beloved dish of baked tortilla chips smothered in cheese on your side? Sure, nachos are the food of the people — magically egalitarian and guaranteed to please — but keeping in mind a few key tips can turn your version into a unicorn in a field of mediocre nachos.

Incredibly versatile and surprisingly right for almost any occasion, nachos are hard to mess up. That said, there's still a giant spectrum when we start to talk about the nitty-gritty. Think quality of ingredients, crispiness level of chips, ratio of add-ins, etc. I can't be the only person to have ever encountered weird lumpy cheese, soggy chips, or strange extras.

I'm here to let you in on the nachos lowdown — what separates the good from the great. From choosing the right type of tortilla chips and using the ideal layering techniques to making your own bean dip and garnishing your platter, this guide is actually less about telling you how to make your nachos and more about empowering you to make the best nachos you are capable of making.

Psst! The real secret to creating the perfect nachos is not about throwing away everything you ever learned about nacho-making. No way! Take what you love about nachos — gooey cheese, crunchy chips, and toppings galore — and turn them into your dream party dish.

Let's start with the chips

The best nachos are top heavy, so you want to get your dish off to a strong start by using sturdy tortilla chips that are up to the demands of the job. Delicate, thin varieties might be acceptable for dipping into salsa or even guacamole, but nachos require thicker, mightier chips to form the foundation. They cannot go limp beneath a mountain of heavy toppings. They cannot wither under copious amounts of melted cheese. They cannot break into crumbs when you try to grab one. I like to use Tostitos original tortilla chips. As a fundamental nacho building block, these have yet to fail me.

Use cheese, not cheese products

Nothing kills a good plate of nachos faster than processed cheese products. Sometimes referred to as "queso," these fake cheeses are used because they are pourable and make assembling nachos easier. I personally find this characteristic disturbing ... I mean, pourable? Geez. You get infinitely better flavor, taste, and texture overall when you opt for real cheeses that happen to melt well. Think cheddar and Monterey Jack.

Make a delectable little bean dip like it's no big deal

Beans are commonly added to nachos whole, but I always find it frustrating trying to scoop them up with my chips as they willfully roll off anyway. Using a simple but flavorful homemade bean dip ensures even flavor throughout the dish and no rolling. Yay! This is also a great way to personalize your nachos while adding tons of rich flavor. I like the subtly spicy notes and creamy texture of this recipe from Taste of Home. Since it's made in the slow cooker, you can get this dip going while you prep other ingredients for your nachos — and for your gathering. I love recipes that buy me time to do other things. Give it a go or use your favorite recipe.

Foil is your friend

Make nachos that are big on flavor and short on cleanup. Line your baking sheet with foil before layering the ingredients. This tiny step means you can simply toss the foil when your meal is over. I love melted cheese as much as the next person, but it's just no fun stuck to your baking sheet.

Meticulous layers make all the difference

You can buy subpar nachos at a ballpark with cheese and toppings carelessly heaped on top, but that's not what homemade nachos are about. Trust me. Taking the easy route and throwing everything on top might save you a few minutes, but the results will be annoying for you and your guests. Think of the effort just to get a bit of each topping on a single chip. To ensure there's a little bit of everything in each bite, take the time to create layers using the chips and toppings.

Spread out your tortilla chips

As you're assembling your nachos, you may discover the layers increasing in height as you go along. If you're anything like me, you like a lot of toppings on yours. In order to ensure your cheese melts evenly over all of the tortilla chips, don't be afraid to spread them out a little and divide them between two baking sheets as needed. Doing so ensures an even bake that produces perfectly crispy chips and smooth melted cheese.

Discern what to bake and what to add later

Assemble the tray of nachos with all of the toppings, then bake the whole thing, right? Well, no. To prevent the soggy chip calamity, bake only the tortilla chips, the cheese, the bean dip, and the jalapenos, if using. Cold garnishes like sour cream, guac, salsa, and herbs don't need to go into the oven. Baking them with the core ingredients needlessly weighs down the chips. Say no to soggy chips.

Load up on the extras

Take your nachos to the next level when you bring your own personal touch to the extras. Traditionally delicious toppings include tangy sour cream, creamy guacamole, vibrant salsa, and bright cilantro. I've been known to add strips of marinated grilled steak or chicken for a dose of protein and even sweet kernels of corn. Whatever you decide to add to your nachos, be sure to enjoy while the chips and cheese are still warm from the oven. (Not like I need to tell you!)

A few nacho recipes to get you going

My hero and Brooklyn neighbor Sam Sifton has a nacho recipe that makes me happy just to think about. It's loaded with everything I want to eat on any given day. Perfectly seasoned and generously topped with beef, bacon, and veggies, these nachos feel perfectly indulgent in all the best ways. Fresh-tasting, decadently rich and cheesy, and brimming with flavor, I could eat this at least every other day.

This recipe from Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen blogging fame is one I love for its undeniable weeknight ease. Her Southwestern take on nachos brings together the usual suspects along with black beans, sweet corn, poblano pepper, and creamy avocado. I like the way it feels totally loaded with good stuff, yet it doesn't taste heavy or greasy at all. Genius.

Joy the Baker's recipe for vegetarian nachos, like Deb's, satisfies the hankering for nachos without leaving you feeling bloated. Thanks, ladies. Hers combines crispy tortilla chips with sharp cheddar cheese, briny olives, raw corn, beans, avocado, and pickled jalapenos. This veggie-forward take on loaded nachos is filling, perfectly savory, and as healthy as tortilla chips covered in cheese will ever be.

Well, that's it, nacho lovers. I'm sure you've made this crowd-pleasing favorite dozens of times, so I can only hope these simple considerations help you achieve the ultimate nacho glory you've been craving. At the risk of sounding sentimental, I have some feels about our shared love for this special dish of cheese-laden tortilla chips. Endlessly versatile and full of potential, nachos truly represent the essence of the human spirit. Go out there and create your best nachos yet. I know I will.