Game day is not complete without a big plate of chicken nachos by your side. This recipe makes for an easy meal to share and customize with flavorful toppings like sour cream, guacamole, and salsa.
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There is something very satisfying about a stack of nachos piled high with colorful ingredients. This recipe is a cheesy, protein-packed dish to serve as an appetizer or meal on game day. Grab your sheet pan, and let’s get started!
Consider these vital things for a delicious crunch-worthy nacho: The type of tortilla chip is essential. You don’t want a soggy, floppy mess. The cheese selection is critical for optimally coating the chips and seeking stringy pulls. Pan-seared chicken adds tons of depth from the browned surface flavors.
The best chicken for nachos is lean white meat from boneless, skinless chicken breast. Once cooked, the poultry is easy to cut into cubes or shredded to top the chips. If you’re in a pinch for time, use leftover rotisserie chicken for convenience. Trim the excess fat to prevent a greasy coating if you use chicken thighs.
For even cooking, flatten the pieces to about ½-inch thickness. You can also cut them in half horizontally into cutlets, especially if they are thicker than 1-inch. For a flavorful crust, I use a mixture of salt, pepper, cumin, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, and chili powder for a bit of heat. You can substitute cayenne or chipotle if you want it spicier.
I reserve some of the spice blend to toss with the cooked chicken for extra flavor. To change the flavor profile, you can try using my homemade taco seasoning instead.
Pan sear the chicken
Grab a skillet and cook the chicken on the stovetop. The pan sear technique develops a flavorful crust while keeping the meat tender and juicy. I use medium heat to brown the chicken while not burning the spices. The process takes about 10 to 14 minutes, depending on the thickness.
Target an internal temperature of 160 to 165ºF (71 to 74ºC) for fully cooked pieces. Now you can chop them into cubes or shred them, so they better layer on the chips. Don’t forget to toss in the extra seasoning mix before topping.
Ways to switch up the flavor
- Toss with salsa for a zesty tomato flavor
- Coat in a spicy and tangy buffalo sauce
- Make it sweet and tangy with homemade barbecue sauce
Choosing the right tortilla chips
There are a lot of options at the grocery store. Select thick chips like restaurant-style varieties because you want a sturdy base to hold the heavy toppings. I prefer the taste and width of corn tortillas, especially when freshly fried from our local Mexican market.
Avoid super thin chips as they get soggy and are too fragile to handle the weight of the toppings. Alternatively, if they are too thick, they will be unpleasantly hard, especially after baking. For shape, classic triangles or rounds work well for grabbing and scooping.
The meltier, the better! Choose firm grating cheese that’s young and higher in moisture, like cheddar, Monterey jack, pepper jack, or queso asadero. I like to use a combination of two, such as a sharp cheddar with a melty and spicy pepper jack with pieces of red and green jalapeno peppers.
If you like a more robust taste from parmesan, or crumbly cotija, sprinkle some extra on top right before serving.
Freshly grate the cheese
If you have time, freshly grated cheese is best, as pre-grated products are coated with anti-caking agents to absorb moisture to prevent sticking. They include potato starch, cornstarch, cellulose, calcium sulfate, or a mixture. These ingredients won’t affect the taste, but they will keep the shreds separate instead of melting together and yield a stretchy cheese pull.
The layering process
The key to layering the nachos is to first cover the chips with cheese. As the cheese melts, the fat will rise to the surface, creating a moisture barrier so that the chips don’t get too soggy. The shredded chicken is relatively dry, so that goes on top of the cheese. Proceed with another layer of chips, cheese, and chicken.
This process ensures that the chips get evenly covered, with no bare pockets. We want flavor on each bite—Cook the nachos in a 400-degree oven until the cheese melts, locking the ingredients together. Do not overcook the cheese! Too much moisture loss will make the texture less gooey and harden quicker.
Add extra toppings
Nachos must be enjoyed hot for the best taste, so you have two options. In small amounts, you can quickly add the wettest toppings like sour cream, guacamole, and pico de gallo to the cheesy areas so that the chips don’t get too wet. Or serve them on the side in small bowls for people to add themselves.
Serve this with
Firm, grating cheeses that are higher in moisture. I recommend cheddar, Monterey Jack, or queso asadero. Mix it up with a variety of cheeses.
The goal is to prevent the chips from getting soggy. Place the chips down first, then top with cheese, followed by meat or beans. Those ingredients are relatively dry and will stick to the cheese when melted. After baking, you can now add the remaining toppings or serve them on the side.
Queso asadero is a semi-soft, creamy Mexican cheese known for its extreme melt-ability. It’s more white in color and mild in flavor. It’s most often used in nachos, quesadillas, and enchiladas. Pepperjack is an excellent substitute for a hint of spiciness.
Yes! Split the recipe into two batches to fit on a microwave-safe dish. Spread the chips in an even layer, sprinkle the shredded cheese on top, then repeat with the second layer of chips and cheese—microwave on high heat in 30-second intervals until the cheese melts. Don’t overcook, or the chips will get chewy instead of staying crisp from the steam, and the cheese will harden. Top with the chicken and remaining toppings right before serving.
Instead of chicken, try ground beef with taco seasoning, carne asada, or chorizo.
Why cheese hardens after melting
Cheddar cheese melts around 150ºF (66ºC), liquifying the fat and breaking the solid structure created by casein proteins. Once cooled, the fat sits on top, and the proteins compact together and solidly, making it hard to pull the chips away from the mound. If you plan on having the appetizer sit out longer, you’ll want to make a creamy, pourable nacho cheese sauce instead. The added starches prevent the ingredients from clumping together.
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- Preheat the Oven – Set the oven rack to the middle position and the temperature to 400ºF (204ºC).
- Flatten the Meat – Place one of the chicken pieces between two plastic sheets or in a plastic bag. Flatten to an even thickness, about ½-inch. Repeat with the remaining pieces. Alternatively, cut in half horizontally for pieces 1-inch thick or larger to make two cutlets.
- Toss with Seasonings – In a small bowl, combine kosher salt, cumin, paprika, black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, and chili powder (if using)—Reserve 1 teaspoon of seasoning mix, then with the remaining, evenly coat both sides of the chicken.
- Cook the Chicken – Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil. Once hot and shimmering but not smoking, add the chicken. Cook until golden brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Flip and cook until the internal temperature reaches 160 to 165ºF (71 to 74ºC), about 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a clean plate to rest for 5 minutes.
- Shred – Use fingers or forks to shred the chicken into smaller pieces. Alternatively, dice into ½-inch pieces. Add the reserved 1 teaspoon of the seasoning mix and combine until evenly coated. Cover and set aside.
- Layer the Nachos – Line a 13-by-9 inch rimmed baking sheet or casserole dish with foil. Lightly grease with vegetable oil. Evenly spread about half of the chips on the baking sheet. Top with half of the cheese, followed by half of the chicken. Layer with the remaining chips on top, the rest of the cheese, and chicken. Sprinkle more cheese on top if desired.
- Bake – Cook the nachos until the cheese melts, about 6 to 8 minutes.
- Load up the Nachos – Top with dollops of sour cream, guacamole, pico de gallo on the cheesy areas to prevent sogginess. Garnish with jalapenos, green onions, and cilantro. Serve immediately while still hot.
- Cheese Substitutions: Medium cheddar, Monterey Jack, or queso asadero.
- Use Rotisserie Chicken: Add 3 cups of pre-cooked shredded chicken.
- Using a Cast iron Skillet: A sizeable 12-inch skillet is recommended.
- Double the Recipe: Double the ingredients and bake on a ½ sheet pan (18-by-13-inch).
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