Seven-layer dip is the quintessential party snack. Vaguely Tex-Mex in flavor with layers ranging from beans to guacamole to cheese, it has something for everyone. It's fairly healthy, the ingredients are cheap and readily available, and the end result is visually pleasing. It can be served in Corningware, a casserole dish, or even mason jars if you're feeling artsy, and you can make it in a vessel of literally any size. It's also always completely meatless, one of the few foods vegetarians like me could count on at football parties in the ‘90s, when this dip came into vogue at a time in the South when all other finger foods were wrapped in bacon, wrapped around tiny hot dogs, layered with deli meats, or involved some part of a chicken.
This dip, all seven layers of it, is great because of its simplicity. The ingredients can all be bought ready to go, but they can also be fancied up if you want to, say, grate the cheese yourself or make your own guac and salsa. Where seven-layer dip can fail is if the layers are poorly assembled: A good dip has to come in the right order and have a proper ratios of all the ingredients, and 1:1 seven times over — the traditional layering — is not the right move. You're doing it wrong. Here's how to make the perfect dip for real, from the bottom up:
Beans: Beans are the most important part of the dish. They anchor the rest of the dip, bringing the disparate elements — spicy tomatoes, sharp cheese, pleasingly creamy guac — together, and should always be the bottom layer, and the thickest one. Some circles even call this “seven-layer bean dip,” which is a little misleading because only one layer is made of beans, but semantics aside, the point is right: every bite should have beans. And the beans should be refried, always. Not black beans, and definitely not the weird cheffy recipe you found for homemade refried black-eyed peas. Refried pinto beans. Beyond that, you can’t go wrong, so buy the can that looks the most interesting, whether that means it has added chiles or is pure vegetarian. Ideal percentage: 30%.
Lettuce: The lettuce adds an important crunch to this dish, but bad lettuce will get limp, fast. Buy a good bag of pre-shredded stuff or chop up the leaves yourself. It may be controversial to bury the fresh produce so far down in this dip, but it works. Include a fairly thick layer, loosely scattered. Ideal percentage: 10%.
Sour cream: Sour cream is literally only used to add a pretty layer of color, IMO. If you look at this dish from the side you get a clean white line, but do you really need the tanginess to balance out this dish? Not really. Dollop on a few big spoons and spread them out until the lettuce is just covered, and move on. Ideal percentage: 10%.
Olives: Okay, how did olives even get into this dish in the first place? Olives have their place in, say, martinis, but they do not belong in seven-layer dip. There must be people who think otherwise, since the majority of recipes include chopped black olives, but they are wrong. My advice to you is to put up with just the bare minimum here — a small handful, thinly spread — and to do everything you can to think of a better alternative for the game in 2018. Ideal percentage: 5%, at most.
Guac: Guacamole is the best! But this is a bean dip, not a fancy version of guacamole, and so we don’t want to see too much. Picture the topping consistency of your favorite avocado toast and go for that. Ideal percentage: 15%.
Salsa: Any food drawing inspiration from Tex-Mex cuisine needs salsa, and seven-layer dip is no exception. Jarred or fresh, any salsa will do unless it’s too watery. Pick something more red than green for color, but be sure to go for an actual salsa instead of just chopped tomatoes (unlike the bowl below), because this is the layer that brings the heat to the dish. You could even add in extra chile, if you’d like. Ideal percentage: 10%.
Cheese: The cheese here is VERY IMPORTANT. Think about Italian restaurants that grate parmesan onto your pasta in front of you: You know how sometimes you wait until the very last possible still-acceptable second before you tell them to stop? Do that, but with cheddar and maybe some mixed-in pepperjack, as sharp as you can find. Ideal percentage: 20%.
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