2019 Updates: Since publishing this recipe, I’ve made a few tweaks. I’ve increased the Cheeto quantity (a frequent request), slightly reduced the pretzel quantity, and learned how to gently speed up roasting time. I’ve also received questions about what a “big” bottle of Worcestershire sauce is, so I’ve tried to clarify below. Amusingly, I just received a gift of a very old Merry Mix recipe card my father once gave to my brother. I can tell it’s old because it uses only one kind of Chex, no Cheez-Its, only 3/4 cup butter, and a paltry 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce (gasp!). Also, all the seasonings were salts (celery salt, garlic salt, etc.). I’ve verified with Papa that he makes his Merry Mix the way I describe below now, and it’s how I’ve been making it for years. What can I say? Never stop improving.
As far back as I can remember, my Papa involved me in cooking projects. He’d arm me with a paring knife so I could help prep, or he’d drag a chair to the stove so I could stir. I loved squishing meatball mixture through my tiny, chubby fingers. I got really good at pleating gyoza. One of the all-time favorite recipes we made as a family was Merry Mix.
He’d pull out the enormous, commercial-kitchen-size stainless-steel mixing bowl and plunk it on the table. (When I say this bowl was enormous, please understand I could sit in it and sled down a hill. And I did. We had to take all the racks out of our oven and bake it with the door slightly ajar because it scarcely fit.) I’d open all the bags and boxes and dump everything in, mixing gently with my hands.
Papa always claimed Merry Mix was “an old Moore family recipe,” but I know he’s modified it over the years. I think his original recipe was inspired by a Nalley’s snack mix from his youth. In the ’80s, we sometimes included Bugles. My brother, Matthew, has had good success experimenting with new ingredients, including one notable version using wasabi peas. I tend to make it with the same ingredients every year, just as we did in that giant steel bowl when I was really little, but I have some suggested modifications down below in the notes.
Oh, and don’t make the mistake of calling this Chex Mix. The “Official” (barf) “Original” (lies) Chex Mix recipe from General Mills doesn’t call for nearly enough flavoring agents and it leaves you with half a dozen partially eaten boxes of cereal and snacks (hisssss). Merry Mix completely eliminates the waste and most of the measurement required in the corporate-sanctioned recipe. It goes like this:
- Use the whole box/bag of each component. Why have leftovers?
- Use a whole pound of butter (melted). Yeah. Four sticks.
- Use a whole bottle of Worcestershire sauce (the biggest bottle you can find)—maybe even more—because it’s delicious.
- Use plenty of seasonings (granulated garlic, granulated onion, celery seed, paprika—optionally, seasoned salt of your choosing).
- Bake on low heat (250ºF) until even the most saturated pieces are crispy and dry.
- Approximately every 30 minutes while the Merry Mix bakes, gently fold the mixture with a wide, flat spatula, coming in from the edge of the baking dish to avoid breakage. This accelerates the drying process and prevents burning at the edges.
Yes, it takes forever. Yes, your house will smell absolutely amazing. Yes, the yield is a little more than three gallons. Yes, you may have to use multiple baking dishes to contain all of the magic. It’s worth it.
The recipe can easily be modified to be gluten-free (leave out any ingredients that contain wheat—Wheat Chex, pretzels, Cheez-Its, some brands of Worcestershire).
In my house, Merry Mix is a Christmas necessity. Merry Mix is a great thing to make in the fall/winter when houseguests are plentiful, but it also makes a killer road trip snack in the summer. I hope you’ll give Merry Mix a try (please tell me if you do!). You won’t regret it.
Active time: 15 minutes | Total time: 3 to 8 hours | Yield: ~3.5 gallons
One normal-size box Rice Chex
One normal-size. box Corn Chex
One normal-size box Wheat Chex (omit for gluten-free mix)
One normal-size box Cheerios
Two normal-size bags Crunchy Cheetos (if desired, try swapping one bag with Flamin’ Hot)
Approx. 14 oz. pretzel sticks (see note below if using gluten-free pretzels)
One normal-size box Cheez-Its (omit for gluten-free mix)
One canister Spanish peanuts (red-skinned)
1 lb. salted butter
10 to 15 oz. Worcestershire sauce (you cannot go wrong increasing this amount)
1 TBSP. granulated garlic
1 TBSP. granulated onion
2 to 3 tsp. ground celery seed
2 tsp. paprika
Seasoned salt (such as Lawry’s or Johnny’s), to taste, if needed
- Preheat oven to 250ºF. Toss all cereals and snacks into a very large vessel or two for mixing. (Those aluminum foil roasting pans from the grocery store work well.) Using your hands, toss gently to combine.
- Melt butter. Stir the dry spices together in a small dish.
- In three to four additions, top mixture with the melted butter, several liberal glugs of Worcestershire, and a generous pinch of the spices, stirring gently to combine between additions. Continue until you run out of wet ingredients and spices. Taste, and if it needs more of any of the spices, sprinkle a bit extra on or add some seasoned salt (Worcestershire sauce varies in saltiness, as will your dry ingredients).
- Spread the now-wet mixture into as many baking vessels as your oven will hold. A shallower vessel (such as a baking sheet) roasts much faster than a deep vessel (such as a roasting pan). The downsides of using shallow vessels is you’ll need to stir more frequently to avoid burning, and folding the mixture can be precarious. These days, I’m doing a half-batch of Merry Mix at a time and that fits on two half-sheet pans (rimmed baking sheets).
- Bake in oven, folding gently with a wide spatula to bring the wetter ingredients at the bottom of the pan up to the top every 30 minutes. Merry Mix is done when all pieces are dry and crisp, which will take less time in shallow dishes than it does with deep ones. A half batch baked on two baking sheets takes about three hours. A full batch in roasting pans could take as long as eight hours. You’ll have to taste some of the most well-saturated pieces to be sure. Note that one pan may finish faster than the other. Allow to cool completely, then store in gallon-sized zip-top bags.
- Optional mix-ins: Crispix cereal, mixed nuts, Goldfish or Bunnies crackers, pretzel Goldfish or teeeeeny twists in place of pretzel sticks, wasabi peas, sesame sticks, broken pita or bagel chips, Fritos, Bugles, red pepper hot sauce (such as Frank’s Red Hot). If you add a bunch of extra stuff, think about leaving something else out to compensate (or increasing the butter/Worcestershire/seasonings and loving your life).
- Gluten-free modifications: Omit all ingredients that contain wheat and check your Worcestershire sauce) and consider increasing other Chex quantity (or adding other mix-ins) to compensate for loss of bulk. If substituting with GF pretzels, wait to add them until after the mix has baked and cooled. I’ve read that, due to their composition, GF pretzels do not hydrate and crisp up again the same way traditional pretzels do.
- What’s a box/bag/bottle/canister?: I didn’t note a size for the cereal boxes, Cheetos bags, or even peanuts canister. That’s because sizes vary within stores, brands, and regions. The goal here is ease and the recipe is flexible. In general, if you have a choice, use the “normal” box for all the cereals, not the giant “family size” boxes. For the Worcestershire sauce, that’s personal preference. I like to use the largest bottle that Lea & Perrins makes (which in my area is 15 ounces), but sometimes I can’t find it so I use one-and-a-half 10-ounce bottles. I’ve used smaller bottles before from all sorts of other brands (like Whole Foods’ 365 or Annie’s or Kroger’s) and the Merry Mix has come out fine. If you dig Worcestershire like I do, get the bigger bottle (or a couple of littler ones).
- Think of your vegetarian friends: Some Worcestershire sauce, such as Lea & Perrins, is not vegetarian because it contains anchovies. If you’re feeding any vegetarians, use an appropriate bottle of Worcestershire sauce so they can partake (or at least warn them so they can make an informed choice). Many inexpensive grocery-store house brands are vegetarian.
Confession: Hot dogs are directly responsible for me quitting vegetarianism after more than 15 years. You guys, I love hot dogs. My brother, Matthew, and I used to split a package of Lit’l Smokies when we came home from school (for the record, that’s four servings each; it’s a miracle we’re not dead). I like a hot dog off the grill, I like a boiled dog, I like a dog charred in the flames of a campfire, I like sliced dogs stirred into stovetop mac and cheese, I like pigs in a blanket…I even like tofu dogs, but when I was faced with a hot dog at my first Mets game in Shea Stadium, I folded like a cheap suit. Folks at my old magazine caught wind and asked if I’d eat meat for a week and write about it. The rest is history. Sweet sweet sustainably-and-humanely raised animal-eating history.
Truly, I don’t eat much meat these days, particularly red meat, but I just can’t resist a hot dog. That said, I had never known the glory of a Chicago-style dog until I moved East, and once my eyes were opened, they were opened wide. Now, I’m a fan of condiments. The more, the merrier, I say. I like my burgers overflowing with stuff. I’m the guy at Subway who orders a sandwich “with everything. No, seriously, all of it.” A Chicago dog speaks to this innate need for a well-dressed weenie. In the Chicago style, when a beef dog is “dragged through the garden,” it’s placed in a steamed poppyseed bun and topped with yellow mustard, pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, fresh tomato, pickled sport peppers, diced white onions, and celery salt. Sometimes, a cucumber slice or two are added; the occasional inclusion of ketchup is a hotly contested issue. This colorful dressing takes a simple dog and elevates it to a full, colorful meal.
There’s one problem: Chicago dogs are messy, y’all. The tomatoes always end up slapping against my nostrils, the onions fall off, and the sport peppers, when they’re not squirting spicy brine, are torpedoing out the tail end of the bun. We make these babies fairly frequently in our house, so I’ve been tinkering with the method. Boiled dogs are fine, but Mike prefers ’em grilled (“chardog”), so I’d been splitting them in half and slapping them on our Griddler. They curl up like crazy, though, and the charring isn’t that fantastic. I also often eliminate the sport peppers because they’re a bit much when you bite into a big one. I tried out a few methods of steaming the bun (a soft bun is essential), none of which were satisfactory. And then? I had a brainwave. I saw a video about spiral-cutting hot dogs. How cool is that method? That’d prevent the curling issue I’d been experiencing. A spiral-cut dog is perfect for holding chunky condiments like relish…waitaminit! What if I turned the toppings into a sort of chunky salsa?
I set to work and suddenly we found ourselves eating the greatest (and least messy) Chicago dogs I’ve ever made. We’ve had them this way three times since then. Y’all, this is a winner. To those of you from the great state of Illinois, I ask your forgiveness for messing with a classic. Don’t hate until you try it, though. I think you’ll really enjoy it.
Better Chicago Dogs
Active time: 25 minutes | Total time: 25 minutes | Serves: 4
4 all-beef hot dogs
4 potato hot dog buns (poppy seed if possible)
1 medium tomato, cored, seeded, and finely diced
1/3 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
1/4 medium white onion, finely diced
1 dill pickle (or 3 baby dills), finely diced
2 sport peppers, finely diced (optional)
1/8 teaspoon celery salt
mustard, for serving (and ketchup, if you don’t mind being noncanonical)
- For the relish: Combine tomato, cucumber, onion, pickle, sport peppers (if using), and celery salt in a glass bowl.
- For the dogs: On a cutting board, lay a hot dog front of you, parallel to the long edge of the board. Position your knife on top at a slight angle. Slowly and carefully rotate the hot dog, cutting about halfway through in a spiral. [For a video of this preparation process, visit Chow, but note that it’s just as easy to do it without the skewer if you hold your knife in the same place (height, angle) while turning the dog.] Repeat for remaining hot dogs. Heat a medium skillet over medium, coat with cooking spray, and cook dogs until warmed through and slightly charred on exterior, about five minutes, turning often.
- To assemble: Wet two paper towels and then wring out any excess water. Wrap two buns in one damp paper towels, set on a plate, and microwave 30 seconds to steam. Repeat with remaining buns and paper towel. In each steamed bun, place one cooked spiral-cut hot dog, a stripe of mustard (and ketchup, if using), and one-quarter the Chicago Dog salsa.