When I was growing up, during the holidays my mom would make a garlic salted party mix with unsweetened cereal, nuts and other random little snack type foods. It was so good that when people came over for dinner (and to exchange gifts during Christmas), a huge bowl of it wouldn’t last the entire party.
Mama eventually started making it in mass quantities — and by “mass quantities”, I mean like 5 gallons or more at a time! She would package it up as gifts for people at work and any family members that came over during the holidays. Not only was there more than plenty for everybody at the party, but they also got to take quart sized zipper bags of it home with them.
Anybody that ever tasted my mom’s party mix would first rave about how good it was, then immediately ask her what all was in it. Her universal answer every time — “Just a bunch of junk!” Thus, the “Junk” tradition in my family began.
A Little History on Chex Mix
In all honesty, “Junk” is just Chex party mix, but my mom was making it way before they were bagging it.
Chex is a dry breakfast cereal that was first made in the 1930’s by the Ralston Purina company. It is named after the checkerboard pattern of the cereal.
In the early 1950’s, recipes for Chex party mix began to appear on the cereal boxes. The recipes included things like Rice Chex, Corn Chex, Wheat Chex, mixed nuts, and pretzels as well as the seasonings — in fact, I just learned you can buy pre packaged spice mixes for Chex party mix.
By the late 1980’s, Ralston Purina began to bag the mix and sell it commercially.
The Chex cereal brand was sold in the late 1990’s to the company that now manufactures it — General Mills.
Fun Fact: Did you know Chex cereal was featured in a series of video games? I didn’t until now!
The Real Story of “Junk”
So you know how Junk actually came to be, but the story is a little deeper.
After mama made it a time or two, people (usually my dad and I) would say “I bet it would be good if you put [insert some new type of snack here] in it.” To begin with, I’m pretty sure she just started with Chex and Cheerios. But we always had chow mein noodles in our pantry because we ate chicken chow mein on a fairly regular basis. So mom started adding chow mein noodles to the mix. It was actually one of my favorites, because I used to like to find a really long chow mein noodle and thread the Cheerios on it, then eat the whole thing. (Truth be told, I still like to do that.)
Junk always had its variants — the recipe was never the same, and mama never actually used a recipe. But then, she — and my dad, for that matter — always took other people’s recipes, tweaked it to fit her taste, added what she wanted, took out what we didn’t like (or didn’t have) and made it her own.
Everybody in the family had their favorite parts of the mix. Some of us like parts of it that other family members didn’t particularly care for, so most of it all worked out. There were sometimes even fusses and fights (nothing physical) over who got the last pecan in the bowl or who was eating nothing but the Crispex (Kellog’s version of Chex was much cheaper back then) and not leaving any for the rest of us. It was a real memory making event when mom whipped up a batch of Junk.
There were so many times before she passed that I would ask to see her recipe for different things, and she would say, “son, I don’t have a recipe — I just make it… but I can write a recipe down for you.” She had been asked her recipe for different things so much, she had started writing them all down in a little three ring folder that she kept in the kitchen, and when she did pass away, the whole family had something very special to share.
Her recipe for Junk was in that folder.
How to Make “Junk” (aka “The Best Chex Mix Recipe Ever”)
- 10 Cups “goodies” – Chex, Cheerios, Pretzels, Pecans, Chow Mein Noodles, Cheese-Its, etc… anything you want to put in it.
- 1 Stick of Butter (preferably unsalted)
- 1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 2 Tablespoons Garlic salt
- Preheat oven to 250º F. (Yes, 250 — not 350.)
- Melt butter over low heat in a small saucepan or in a small bowl in the microwave. Add Worcestershire sauce.
- Mix together your “goodies”, drizzle the butter/Worcestershire mixture over it, and mix until evenly coated. I use my hands throughout the mixing process, but if you don’t want to use your hands, you can use a ladle, large spoon, or some of Rachel’s “spoonulas”.
- Sprinkle Garlic salt over the mixture and mix again until everything is evenly coated with butter and salt.
- Spread mixture on 2- 11 x 17 sheet pans. Be sure mixture is in one thin single layer — no heaps or piles.
- Bake at 250º F for 60 to 90 minutes, stirring every 15 to 20 minutes until mixture is crispy and no pieces are soggy.
Chex Mix Recipe Notes
I have seen recipes on Pinterest and Facebook touting that you can do this in a slow cooker. I tried it, and it failed miserably. I have a slow cooker similar to this one, so I’m not sure if a more standard one like this would do the job or not.
This is one of those recipes that you can put in whatever you want and make it your own. I love putting the rye bagel chips in my mix, but I always end up eating them first, so I typically just eat them separate instead.
I have decided to try different flavors of Junk. The most recent one I tried was “hot -n- spicy”. Instead of Worcestershire sauce, I used hot sauce, and for the spices I used 1 Tbsp cayenne pepper, 1 tsp chili powder, 1 tsp paprika and 1 tsp garlic salt — though I will probably put 1 Tbsp garlic salt and 1 tsp cayenne next time — it was a little too hot and wasn’t salty enough.
Other recipes around the net say to mix the spices with the butter mixture and then pour it over the Chex mix. I tried that a long time ago, and I got some parts of the mix with way too much salt, and other parts with none at all. You’re bound to have a piece here and there like that anyway, but with the method I do it (toss the Chex with the butter, sprinkle salt, toss again), you’re less likely to have one piece of cereal with half a teaspoon of salt on it — trust me, that’ll make you pucker.
My Favorite Things to Put In “Junk”
- Corn Chex — Yummy and crispy — the standard-bearer for this whole recipe… although you can substitute Crispex or another generic brand.
- Rice Chex — A little softer than the Corn Chex.
- Wheat Chex — Not gluten-free, but I’m fairly certain you’re not looking for a gluten-free recipe if you’ve made it this far.
- Pretzel Sticks — Can use regular pretzels, but I like the sticks better.
- Chow Mein Noodles — Again, one of my favorites because you can use these to thread the Cheerios onto.
- Cheese-Its — Can substitute Cheese Nips or Goldfish.
- Pecans — Since we’re in Georgia, they are easy to find for MUCH cheaper prices.
- Cashews — A little expensive, but man these are the Cadillacs of nuts!
- Rye Bagel Chips — This is probably my favorite part of any party mix!
- Cayenne Pepper — I like things a little spicy, plus cayenne has a lot of health benefits like joint pain relief and appetite suppression.
- Garlic Salt — I’ve had Junk with other salts, and I just keep coming back to garlic, although celery salt is a pretty good addition, too.
I don’t always measure how much salt and spices I’m adding to the mix — like my mom, I have learned to eyeball things a bit. I use the same size mixing bowl every time, so I know how much cereal and other goodies to put in, and I always use a stick of butter (though I sometimes omit the Worcestershire sauce). When I take it out of the oven to stir it every 20 minutes or so, I actually pour it all back into the mixing bowl to stir it. I taste it, too, and if it needs more salt, I add a little more. By the time it’s done, it’s perfect.
When we make batches just to keep around and snack on, we usually dole it out in quart sized zipper bags. That way it’s easier for us to grab a bag to snack on instead of messing up a clean bowl or digging it out of a bigger container. When we make it as gifts, we put it in spaghetti sauce jars or pickle jars we’ve saved and washed, but you could use colored Mason jars, too, to make them “prettier”.