Tacos 101: What Is a Taco Exactly?
Tacos, especially at taquerías, are served with the tortilla and filling, but without any salsas or condiments. Those are spread out along the taco bar, and you get to choose how you want to top your taco. There are often three or more salsas at the bar, the classic three being (1) a crushed tomato and chile-based salsa, (2) a tomatillo salsa, and (3) a smooth-textured guajillo salsa. There is usually a smooth guacamole, lime wedges, pickled onions, pickled chiles, chopped cilantro, and fried chiles de árbol. And that's just the very basic assortment of taco toppings.
About "Authentic" Food
Food the way a culture really experiences it is agile and adaptable to its circumstances. Your kitchen experience should be the same way. Don't feel like you must replicate everything in exactitude unless that process gives you joy in the kitchen.
The History of the Taco: Children of the Maíz
Early tortillas weren't what you would expect to see today. They were thicker than the modern thin tortillas, and they remained this way until relatively recently, when the tortilla press became widely used in the early- to mid-1900s. Before the tortilla press, tortillas were commonly patted out by hand or on banana leaves, which is why they were so thick. People, however, are industrious, and even those thick tortillas could be folded into a "U" shape. As soon as someone spread beans on that folded tortilla or tossed a piece of squash in it, the first taco was invented. Since Mesoamerican societies were primarily vegetarian, chances are the first taco was vegan! If not the first, then perhaps the second or third. Either way, a vegan taco must have been developed early on.
Different regions made their own types of corn cakes, such as sopes, arepas, tlacoyo, and tamales, but we know for certain, through glyphs and drawings in the sixteenth-century Codex Mendoza that the people of the Aztec Empire ate lots of corn tortillas. Some historians speculate that it was the Aztecs that quickly spread the hand-patted precursor of the modern tortilla throughout Central America. In the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, tortillas were commonly topped with cactus fruit, beans, squash, chiles, honey, eggs, and turkey. We definitely have tacos now. And, most of those original ingredients were vegan. The Aztecs dipped their tortillas in chile sauces—for the wealthy, chocolate chile sauces called moles—and we can still see some of these methods used in modern tacos.
Speaking of chiles, these fiery fruits have long played an important part in Mesoamerican societies and are a consistent theme throughout the story of tacos. Chiles have been part of the Mesoamerican diet for at least 10,000 years, and there is evidence of their domestication as early as 6,000 years ago in the Valley of Mexico, but that wasn't the only place wild chiles were turned into crops. It's just the earliest historical record.
A Claim on Tacos
People often claim foods as their own as a way to define themselves culturally. This was particularly important for Mexicans, when they first gained independence from Spain in 1821, later from the French, and then the dictator Porfirio Díaz in the early 1900s. It was important for Catholic priests to claim wheat, not corn, as the food of choice, since it symbolized their religious differences. The upper class claimed European food as their cuisine to set themselves above the peasantry. So, it was important for the lower classes to claim tacos as their own, and then it became fashionable for all Mexicans to claim them.
The taco changed with the coming of the Spanish. Documents describing the Coyoacan victory feast of Hernán Cortés and his native allies (groups who wanted to see their Aztec masters overthrown), and written by Cortés himself, talk about tortillas served with, sadly, pigs brought from Cuba. Decidedly not vegan, but unlike the Aztecs, the Spanish ate meat frequently, and, once they established New Spain, bad food habits trickled through the region. However, speaking from a culinary standpoint, some good also came of it, because they brought with them cilantro, cumin, olives, olive oil, citrus, and certain European and Middle Eastern cooking techniques, adding even more diversity to the food culture of Mesoamerica. You can see this diversity in our tacos today through the common use of lime, cilantro garnishes, cumin, the olives used in certain Veracruz tacos, and even adobo, though Spanish adobo differs from the Mexican version.
The expanding Aztec Empire, like every other empire, brought its food with them, and that helped the precursor of the modern taco to spread rapidly across the region. Without the imperialist Aztecs bringing the filled tortilla to prominence, we might not have tacos today!
From Arquebus to Silver Mine
In fact, the words "tortilla" and "taco" are Spanish. The predominant language spoken in the Aztec empire was Nahuatl, and the Nahuatl word for tortilla was tlaxcalli, with a derivative word taqualli. You'll notice they sound very similar to the word "taco."
Moreover, the story of the taco is wrapped up, pun intended, with the corn tortilla.
When the working class finally won the revolution in 1920, the taco gained even more prominence. Because of that victory and the national sense of the taco as quintessentially Mexican, taquerías can now be found everywhere on the streets of Mexico.
What Is a Taquería?
The word "taquería" used to only refer to a taco pushcart, but now it refers to any restaurant, truck, or cart that specializes in tacos.
With the proliferation of taquerías during the 1900s, a taco explosion occurred.
The taco was also influenced by immigration and tourism in Mexico. For example, with a large influx of Middle Easterners during the early to middle of the twentieth century, Tacos Árabes and Tacos al Pastor were developed. Both of these resulted from the shwarma style of cooking that incorporated Mexican ingredients. A Japanese influence in the cuisine of Baja can be seen with Tempura-Style Tacos. New tacos are continually being carried back across the border from the United States by seasonal migrant workers, as can be seen with Tacos Vampiros, a creation from the south of Arizona that showcases a crispy grilled tortilla that is now served in northern Mexico. Tacos have their classics, but the taco is a living cuisine that continuously evolves. The Mexican Revolution also caused a surge in emigration to the United States.
At the heart of much of Mexican cooking, are chiles and corn, in particular the corn dough called masa, which is used to make tortillas. The most important chiles are anchos, guajillos, and poblanos. For making fresh tortillas, masa is essential. If you acquire only these four ingredients, you will do just fine in making the recipes in this book.
Ancho: The ancho is the dried version of the poblano. It has a slightly caramel, sweet, fruity taste and a low heat. It looks black with red touches, a wrinkled skin, is fairly flat, and wide towards the stem. You will often see bags of dried chiles labeled ancho/pasilla. Anchos and pasillas are not the same chiles, though they are closely related in flavor. You can tell the difference because an ancho is wide towards the stem (in fact, ancho means "wide" in Spanish) and the pasilla is narrow down the entire length of the chile. It is a bit of mislabeling, but don't stress if that's how your dried chiles are labeled.
Substitutions: If you don't have anchos, you can use guajillos or mild New Mexico or California chile pods as a one-for-one substitution.
Guajillo: These long red chiles are the dried form of the mirasol chile. They are low in heat and have a clean, slightly caramel, fruity flavor. Chiles guajillos form the backbone of a vast array of Mexican chile sauces. They are often rehydrated and turned into sauces.
Substitutions: If you don't have guajillos, you can use mild New Mexico or California chile pods as a one-for-one substitution.
Chile de Árbol: This means "tree chile" in Spanish. These are thin chiles about two to three-inches long and are hot. These are often toasted and ground into powder, pureed into sauces, or fried to make chiles dorados, which are used as a topping for tacos.
Substitutions: If you don't have chiles de árbol, you can substitute ⅓ teaspoon of crushed red chiles on a one-to-one basis for powders and sauces, but not for frying them.
Pequin: These tiny, reddish-orange chiles are very hot and are often ground into powder, which is used to spike food with lots of heat. They are also added to salsas, but more importantly, they make a great base for a hot sauce.
Substitutions: If you don't have pequins, you can use chiles de árbol instead. One pequin will require two chiles de árbol. If you want the full heat for this substitution, add a very small pinch of cayenne pepper along with the two chiles de árbol.
Cascabel: Cascabel chiles are round, dark cherry-red chiles that rattle when you shake them. They have a mild, caramel flavor with an undertone of sweetness and not much heat. Not only do they make great sauces, they are excellent for presentation.
Substitutions: If you can't find cascabels, use one guajillo for every four cascabels.
Chipotle: The chipotle is the dried, smoked form of a jalapeño. Chipotles are typically made from jalapeños that have ripened and turned red. There are two primary types of chipotles; the chipotle morita and the chipotle meco. Chipotles morita are dark in color while chipotles meco are tobacco brown and have a less caramelized taste than the morita variety. Chipotles have a back-end heat, so they can be a little deceptive. We don't use just chipotles in this book, but we do use chipotles in adobo, which are chipotles that have been marinated in a spicy, vinegary tomato sauce.
Substitutions: If you don't have chipotles in adobo, you can use a fresh jalapeño on a one-to-one basis to get some of the chile flavor and heat into the dish, though it will be lacking in all the other flavors chipotles in adobo bring to a taco.
Substitutions: If you don't have these, use a pasilla or ancho as a one-to-one substitution and make sure to toast the pasillas or anchos before using them. The flavor won't be quite the same, but you'll still get a great dish.
How to Dry Chiles
You can use dried chiles in sauces a couple of ways. The most common is to rehydrate the chile, then puree it and use this as the base of a sauce. In this case, you want to keep as much flavor in the chile as possible and that requires a gentle rehydration method. Snip away the stems of the chile and shake out the seeds. Place the chiles in a bowl that can withstand hot water. Bring a kettle of water to a boil, and then take it off the heat for a few seconds. Pour this over the chiles. If you have a plate or other object you can place on the chiles to hold them down, so much the better, as this will keep them submerged and cause better hydration. Let the chiles sit in the hot water for about 20 minutes, and you will have nice, soft chiles.
How to Turn Dried Chiles into a Sauce and Chile Powder
If you are using dried chiles to make a sauce, like with the Chile Pequin Roasted Garlic Sauce (here), grind the dried chiles and any accompanying dried spices together in your blender or grinder. This will make a fine powder which will easily become incorporated in whatever liquid you add. If you add the liquid and whole dried chiles at the same time, they won't turn into powder and you'll have large dried chile bits floating around in your sauce. Of course, you can also make chile powders this way, too. Whichever way you want to use them, don't forget to toast your chiles first.
Most markets carry at least a small assortment of fresh chiles, including jalapeños, serranos, and poblanos. When purchasing fresh chiles, make sure the skin is tight and crisp, and you don't see any black spots around the stem—a sure sign the chile is on its way out. Fresh chiles can be stored on a countertop, in a hanging basket, etc., and will retain their freshness for several days. If you want to preserve them longer, store them in the refrigerator. They will typically last up to three weeks. However, make sure you do not store them in a sealed bag. Sealing them in a bag traps moisture inside the bag which will make the chiles go bad. Some chiles will still have a bit of field dirt around the stems. Just give the chiles a quick wash and pat them dry.
If you want to remove the stem and seeds from a chile, slice down the length of the chile starting from one side of the stem. This should slice off a section of the chile. Repeat this three more times, cutting a box pattern down the side of the chile. This will leave four sections of chile and the stem with the seeds still attached to it. This works for chiles as small as a serrano all the way up to large chiles like the poblano.
Going through the process of gaining resilience against capsaicin may seem like an odd culinary adventure, but capsaicin has several health benefits. It increases metabolism, helps regulate blood sugar, reduces joint and muscle pain, and has been shown to kill prostate and lung cancer cells.
Jalapeño: Jalapeños have a medium heat and a heavy flavor, and they are typically sold in their un-ripened, green state. I'm not sure what it is, but there is something about the way the heat of a jalapeño hits your tongue that affects me more than some hotter chiles. Jalapeños are often served minced or as whole roasted chiles. They are most commonly served pickled at taquerías.
Serrano: The serrano is a thin chile that has a medium heat and a very bright flavor. These are typically minced and sprinkled on top of food to add a crisp spiciness.
Substitutions: If you don't have serranos available, you can substitute a jalapeño for them on a one-to-one basis.
Güero: These are also known as banana peppers because of their pale yellow skin and curved shape. They are usually hot, but not super-hot.
Substitutions: If you don't have these, substitute a jalapeño, or even better, half of a long green chile like an Anaheim.
Habanero: These are named after Havana, Cuba, where these chiles were first encountered by the Spanish. These are very hot. If you are not used to eating spicy food, do not eat something with a habanero. Start with a jalapeño, graduate up to a serrano, and then go for the habanero. These small yellow and orange chiles are bell shaped and have a very strong chile flavor, not just heat. They are excellent in salsa and for flavoring sauces. When flavoring sauces, the seeds and veins are typically removed to reduce the heat.
Substitutions: If you don't have access to habaneros, you can substitute two serranos for one habanero.
How to Turn Down the Heat
Contrary to popular belief, most of the heat of a chile resides in the capsaicin glands (or membranes), not in the seeds. Not that the seeds don't have any heat. They grow from the capsaicin glands, so they pick up about thirty percent of the heat of a chile. However, the glands contain most of the remainder of the heat in a chile. That means you can remove most of the heat by using a small knife to trim the glands away from the inside of the chile.
Capsaicin is a compound that binds to a protein found in the membranes of both pain and heat-sensing neurons. The bound capsaicin causes a flood of neurotransmitters to release, which is why it causes a sensation of both pain and heat. Prolonged exposure to capsaicin will deplete the neurotransmitters, which reduces the level of the sensations of heat and pain. What that means for you is that the more chiles you eat, the more heat you can handle. Plus, you can challenge people to chile-eating contests and come out ahead! Also, you can eat more spicy tacos. It's a win all around.
How to Roast Fresh Chiles
You can also use this trick with garlic, onions, tomatoes, and tomatillos. It's one of the quintessential techniques of the Mexican kitchen that we'll talk about later. Finally, this technique will most closely resemble what an open flame or coals will do when roasting chiles, more so than roasting chiles in an oven.
Masa and Hominy
Masa is the basic ingredient for making fresh, homemade tortillas, and hominy is the basis for making fresh masa. Without hominy and masa, we would never be able to eat so many delicious tacos!
If your masa is several days old, but hasn't started to ferment yet, you can make great tostadas from it since tostadas don't need to be pliable. Make sure to keep your masa refrigerated and the bag as tightly sealed as possible to keep it from drying out early. You should purchase masa especially made for tortillas (masa para tortillas), and not "prepared masa." Prepared masa is usually for tamales and has lard added to it. If you do not want to purchase masa or don't have access to it, you can also make your own masa dough from masa harina, which is sold in bags like flour.
Hominy: Hominy is corn that has been nixtamalized. Most often, it is sold fully cooked in cans, but you can find fresh hominy and dried hominy at most Mexican markets. Cooked hominy is fairly large, much larger than a regular corn kernel, and provides substantiveness to a dish. It is used in pozole and some chilis. Partially cooked and soaked hominy is used to make fresh masa. You can freeze hominy, so if you purchase a lot of it and don't know what to do with it, put it in your freezer and pull out what you need to use when you need it. It will lose some texture, but you also won't waste a huge can or bag of it.
Herbs, Spices, and Sauces
Substitutions: Because of epazote's unique flavor, there is no substitute for it. If you don't have it, omit it. If you are feeling particularly industrious, you can grow it. It does not require good or deep soil and is fairly hearty.
Mexican Oregano: Although it is called oregano, Mexican oregano is not related to any of the oreganos that come from the Mediterranean. It is actually part of the same family as verbena, while Mediterranean oregano is related to mint. It is almost always sold dried and can be found in most stores that have a Mexican spice section.
Substitutions: If you don't have Mexican oregano, you can substitute dried savory or marjoram for it, preferably savory.
Mojo de Ajo: Mojo de ajo is a salted roasted garlic oil that is heavily spiked with sour oranges or lime juice. This is one of the treasures of the Mexican kitchen and is used extensively throughout this book. It is very easy to make (here). When you store it, make sure to keep it in a dark jar or out of direct sunlight, since that will degrade the oil. You can add other elements to your mojo de ajo, like chipotles, anchos, and oregano to make mojo variations. (See photo on here.)
Substitutions: This is one of the essential ingredients for the recipes in Vegan Tacos, but if you don't want to make it, you can substitute for a tablespoon of mojo de ajo by using a tablespoon of olive oil, 1 minced clove of garlic, and a squeeze of lime from a small lime wedge.
Substitutions: If you can't get nopales, it would be better to skip those tacos that call for them.
Substitutions: If you don't have chayote available, you can substitute zucchini in the taco recipes and still get a great taco. Because zucchini is softer than chayote, reduce the cook times by about one-third.
Substitutions: If you don't have plantains available, you have two options for substitutions. The first is to use the greenest banana you can find. It should be very firm and not that sweet. The other option is to use two Yukon Gold or other waxy potatoes. The potatoes will give you a similar texture to an unripe plantain while the green banana will give you a similar flavor.
Substitutions: When you see sour orange juice called for in a recipe, do two parts orange juice, two parts lime juice, and one part grapefruit juice. Alternatively, you can do a mix of half orange juice and half lime juice. If you see a recipe that calls for sliced sour oranges, use sliced Valencia or Navel oranges and add a squeeze of lime juice to the dish.
When purchasing fresh mushrooms, make sure they look firm and tight. If they look dried out or have limp, discolored parts, pass on them.
To store fresh mushrooms, a couple of methods that work exceedingly well. If you purchase packaged mushrooms, store them in the original packaging. It is designed to keep those mushrooms fresh. Just cut open a small area of the plastic and remove what you need. These packages usually have containers that are slightly moisture absorbent and have holes in the plastic to allow a modest amount of airflow into the packaging. If you end up taking all the plastic off, you can place the mushrooms and the container into another plastic bag. Leave it partially open. If you purchase mushrooms in bulk, store them in a partially opened plastic bag with a small paper towel in the package. Use them within a week, and keep in mind that the thicker the mushroom, the longer it will last and the thinner the mushroom, the faster it will turn.
Substitutions: You can substitute dried mushrooms for fresh ones, although you may not always end up with the same volume or texture, so be aware of that. Also, the earthy flavor of the mushrooms will be intensified.
To rehydrate dried mushrooms, bring a kettle of water to the point where it steams, place the mushrooms in a bowl, and pour the water over the mushrooms. They should be rehydrated within seven or eight minutes at most. Save the liquid because you can use it as stock to flavor other dishes.
Substitutions: If you don't have these available, any sort of thick mushroom will do.
These mushrooms are prone to wilting, so take care to store them well using the instructions outlined above and do not buy small oyster mushrooms that are dried out.
Substitutions: If you do not have these fresh, you can use rehydrated oyster mushrooms in their place.
Shiitakes: Fresh shiitakes are among your favorite mushrooms. They have a robust, but not overpowering flavor and a medium-firm texture. They cook quickly, but if you cook them for more than a couple minutes, they will lose a lot of volume. Fortunately, that's all the time they need to cook. Look for firm caps with no wrinkles. If the stems are soft, you can use those, too. If they are woody, tear them off and use them to make shiitake stock. You can use dried shiitakes in place of fresh, but be aware that the flavor of a dry shiitake is greatly intensified. You will need to remove the stems from dry shiitakes. Whole Foods often has good quality fresh shiitakes, and they are on the large side. Trader Joe's and Asian markets usually sell smaller caps.
Substitutions: If you don't have shiitakes, rehydrate ¼ cup of dried wild mushrooms in place of 4 small shiitakes.
Huitlacoche: Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on corn. It is a delicacy of the Mexican kitchen that sometimes goes by the name "Mexican truffles," and by the more unfortunate name "corn smut." It also happens to be packed with good nutrition, especially amino acids. It has a gray, bulbous look, but an amazing pungent, earthy flavor. Be warned, though. The texture is slimy. This is a love-it or hate-it ingredient. Fresh huitlacoche is hard to find. Check with a corn grower or at a large farmers' markets in your area. More commonly, it is sold canned at Mexican markets.
Substitutions: There is no substitute for this ingredient.
Seitan is a wheat-based protein created over a thousand years ago by Buddhist monks in China. It is fashioned from the protein strands in wheat and has a strong umami quality. Many of the plant proteins on the market are similar in texture to seitan, though they may be made with different ingredients.
Taco Gear For Tortillas
Finally, there are some very beautiful wooden presses available. These also have a good weight to them for making thin tortillas, but are just as much for show as they are for making great tortillas. A cast iron one will do the job just as well. If you want to purchase a wooden press, look for ones made from mesquite or some other hardwood and make sure the seller is reputable. Ones made from pine are often warped and older ones may be missing pieces.
Metal comal, tortilla press (tortilladora), tortillas in a taco warmer, a molcajete and tejolote, molino, (center) a clay comal, and a cazuela.
Wide Spatula: This may seem like a small thing to list in the equipment section, but a spatula that has at least a 4-inch-wide surface will make tortilla flipping very easy.
Tortilla Warmer: Most of these are made from very thick plastic to trap heat inside them, but you can find some nicer ones made from clay. These are handy because you can place your tortillas in them and keep the lid closed. They do the same thing that wrapping tortillas in cloth will do. They're not necessary, but handy to have around.
Cast Iron Skillet: A cast iron skillet is perfect for pan-roasting chiles, garlic, onions, tomatillos, and tomatoes.
For Guacamoles and Salsas
Molcajete and Tejolote: The molcajete and tejolote are a rough-carved stone mortar and pestle. Traditionally, these are made from basalt, though there are less expensive versions now being made from concrete. The rough texture of the molcajete makes it easy to turn chiles and garlic into pastes. This is also used to make crushed salsas and guacamoles. You will need to rinse your molcajete several times before use to remove any residual grit. Because of the porous nature of the stone, they are impossible to thoroughly clean, so they will season over time. In fact, older molcajetes are said to develop their own personalities in a way, each one unique. You can also keep food warm or even cook it directly in your molcajete simply by heating the molcajete in the oven. When you remove it, it will hold the oven's heat for a very long time. It's a cool presentation piece as well as one of your most used kitchen implements. You can also use a mortar and pestle in place of a molcajete, but it won't be as rough and won't make pastes quite as quickly. Molcajetes usually cost around $40.
Making Tortillas, Masa, & Nixtamal
The tortilla is also loaded with nutrition. While low in the essential amino acids lysine and isoleucine, they have a notable amount of the other essential amino acids. They have a moderate amount of fiber, are 10 percent protein, and are low in fat. A taco-sized tortilla is about 60 calories. When coupled with beans, their amino acid profile becomes very high in all 20 essential amino acids. This combination of ingredients is filling, nutritious, and easy to make. No wonder corn and beans were a staple of the Central American diet.
If you don't have a local source for fresh tortillas, that's O.K., too. Dried, packaged tortillas can be found anywhere. Get a thick tortilla, because it won't fall apart as quickly as the thin dried ones that are commonly sold, especially if you are using them for tacos de cazuela. Trader Joe's makes an excellent thick, handmade tortilla. If you don't have a Trader Joe's near you, check out your local market. They will sometimes have the thicker tortillas. If it comes down to it, the thin yellow or white ones will do.
Make Your Own Masa Dough from Corn Flour
Masa harina is a type of ground corn flour specially made for tortillas and tamales. It's made from corn that has gone through the nixtamalization process, which makes the corn more nutritionally sound and enables it to be turned into a dough. Do not try substituting corn meal, polenta, grits, or corn flour. Masa harina is your one-and-only friend here. At most stores in the U.S., masa harina will be found near the wheat flour or in the Mexican section of the grocery market. Bob's Red Mill makes a great organic masa harina, though Maseca is the most well-known brand.
To make your own masa dough for tortillas from masa harina flour, all you need are:
2 cups masa harina flour
1 ½ cups warm water 1. Place the masa in a mixing bowl.
2. Heat the water until it is just starting to steam. Pour the water into the bowl. Mix it together with the masa harina so it's evenly distributed. Hang out and wait for 5 minutes.
3. The masa harina needs time to absorb the warm water before it can be turned into dough. Once that time has passed, work the wet masa with your hands until you have a thick, smooth dough.
How To Make Your Own Masa Dough from Nixtamal
If you are lucky enough to have a Mexican market near you, chances are you can find fresh nixtamal (usually located next to the bags of prepared masa) and can make masa from nixtamal instead of dry masa harina flour. Tortillas made from nixtamal freshly ground into masa have a depth of flavor unmatched by even tortillas made from premade masa. Nixtamal is corn that has been treated with a highly alkaline solution to remove the outer chaff, break down cellular walls, and make the niacin in the corn more available. Some markets will cook nixtamal to the point where it is fully cooked and ready to grind into masa right away, basically making hominy. They've done all the work for you. You just need to grind.
To make masa from fresh nixtamal, you will need a bowl and a molino (grinder).
4 cups nixtamal
Add the nixtamal to your grinder in two batches and grind it to a smooth dough. Yes, that is all there is to it. Masa made from fresh nixtamal will start to spoil within a couple days, so just make what you need and no more. If you end up with leftover nixtamal, you can freeze it.
Working with Older Masa
If your masa is more than a day old, chances are it has dried out just slightly. It's enough to make the tortilla a little dry, but there is a work-around for it. Before grabbing a chunk of masa, dip your hands in a bowl of water. The residual amount of water on your hands will get into the masa as you form it into a ball, and this will be just enough water to bring your masa back to the right consistency.
Masa Dough from Masa Harina vs. Nixtamal
Important: These recipes assume that you are making masa from masa harina. If you are making them from fully cooked nixtamal or your own homemade nixtamal, omit the water in the recipes. Add in about ¼ cup of masa harina to the mix to make sure it binds with the additional liquid introduced by the flavoring ingredients.
Want to Make Your Own Nixtamal?
Important: When using homemade nixtamal, it will take practice to get the tortillas to come out right, so don't get frustrated if they don't turn out perfectly the first time. Nixtamal is finicky and nuanced. Each batch comes out slightly different, so practice until you get a feel for it. It will also help to rub oil onto your metal comal or griddle to give you some leeway with your technique. Alternatively, use a clay comal, which is by nature more forgiving on homemade nixtamal.
To make your own nixtamal, you will need a bowl, colander, non-reactive enamel or stainless steel pot, a molina (grinder), and patience.
4 cups organic dried corn
2 ½ tablespoons cal
2 quarts water Rinse the corn in a colander for about two minutes, moving the corn around with your hand as you rinse to remove the chaff. In a non-reactive pot, combine the cal and water and bring to a boil. Add the corn and boil for 5 minutes, turn the heat off, and let the corn rest in the water for at least 8 hours. Pour the corn into a colander and rinse for 3 to 4 minutes, while rubbing the corn with your hands. Get your hands in there and vigorously rub the whole batch of corn. This will remove the pericarp of the corn, which is not very digestible. Don't worry about getting this perfect. The pericarp comes off easily and rinsing it will wash away the bits. Now it's time to grind your corn.
Nixtamal being ground into masa with a molino.
Transfer the corn to a molina (grinder) and grind away. Once you have the loose dough in the bowl beneath the grinder, knead the dough until thick and smooth. Then, congratulate yourself because you just made fresh masa from nixtamal you made yourself, and that makes you the king or queen of the vegan Mexican kitchen! Now that you have your masa, it's time to make tortillas.
Making Fresh Corn Tortillas
To make your own corn tortillas, you will need:
- a tortilla press
- plastic sheets or wax paper
- a wide spatula
- a towel
Before you start working the masa, heat your griddle to just above medium heat. That way, as soon as you are done pressing your masa into proto-tortillas, you can put them on the griddle right away. Have a towel near the griddle so you can place your tortillas on it as they come off the griddle. Take a chunk of masa and roll it in your hands into a ball about 1 ¼ to 1 ½ inches in diameter. If you need to take or remove masa from the ball, do so and then just reroll it. Next, flatten this out into a disk between your hands. Lay a sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper on the bottom part of your tortilla press. (See step-by-step photos opposite.) Place the disk on the plastic slightly off center towards the hinges. This is important, because when you close the press, the masa will be pressed away from the hinges. By placing it slightly toward the hinges, the tortilla will be centered when you are done pressing it. Lay another sheet of plastic or wax paper on top of the masa, making sure the plastic covers the entirety of the tortilla press, bottom plate, as well. Press the tortilla press closed, flattening the masa. The harder you press, the thinner your tortilla will be. If you want very thin tortillas, you will need a heavy press, like a cast-iron press. Peel away the top sheet from the flattened masa. Gently lift the plastic and flattened masa off the press and flip the flattened masa into your palm. The raw flattened masa should now be in your palm, and what was the bottom sheet of plastic should still be stuck to it, though now on top of the masa. Peel this away. One word of caution before you peel away your masa and put it on the griddle. If you are using masa made from stone ground nixtamal, lime, and water and nothing else (you can tell because bits of rough nixtamal will still be in the masa), you need to be careful when handling it or it will break. The flavor of this pure masa is amazing, but the texture requires extra practice and skill to get it to work properly.
The balls of masa that get pressed into tortillas are called testales.
Don't worry if your tortilla doesn't puff up. You'll still end up with a nice tortilla. If you want them a little extra toasty, you can increase the time you cook them. They won't be quite as pliable, but they will develop a more robust flavor.
Step 1: Place the testale and cover with plastic.
Step 2: Press the testale and peel off the plastic.
Step 3: Place on the griddle or comal to cook.
Step 4: Flip to cook on both sides.
Step 5: A finished tortilla ready to enjoy.
Gently lay the tortilla onto your hot griddle. After about 30 seconds, you will see the edges turn color. Tease your spatula gently underneath the tortilla and flip it over. Let it toast for about a minute or so, then flip it over again. This time, you will toast the tortilla for another 30 seconds. If you've done everything right, your tortilla will puff up. If you like your tortillas a little extra toasty, you can go 2 to 2 ½ minutes per side to get a little char on them, though they will lose some pliability. Transfer the tortilla to the towel and then fold the towel over it to keep it warm and pliable while you make the other tortillas.
An Aztec woman teaches her daughter how to make corn tortillas. You can see the Aztec glyph used for corn tortillas. (from the Mendoza Codex)
Once you have made your tortillas, keep them wrapped in a moist, warm towel to keep them pliable. You can easily keep them this way for an hour. After that, you should warm them using one of the techniques below.
Warming Corn Tortillas (storebought and fresh)
Fresh tortillas should ideally be eaten right away, and if not right away, kept in a moist warm towel. If you have time constraints that dictate you have to serve them later, all is not lost.
Taco Heresy: How to Make Wheat-Flour Tortillas
The corn tortilla has always been, and still is, the preferred tortilla for tacos. Taco aficionados will spurn any taco served with wheat and declare it unpalatable. However, the northern states of Mexico and the American Southwest still show a heavy influence from the agricultural legacy of the Spanish, who preferred wheat. That's why quite a few tacos served in the north of Mexico are served with wheat flour tortillas. Baja, Mexico also features a number of wheat flour tacos, though these are more due to a California influence.
Unlike corn tortillas, you will have a hard time simply pressing wheat dough into a tortilla shape. Instead, you will need a rolling pin and a little extra flour on your work surface. You will also need a bowl, a hot griddle or comal, a wide spatula, and a towel.
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons vegan shortening (you can omit this, but the tortillas will be
a little tougher)
1 cup hot water In the bowl, combine the flour, salt, and baking powder. Incorporate the shortening and use your hands to work it into the flour. The dough should be crumbly at this point. Slowly pour hot water into the flour, ¼-cup at a time. After each addition, work the water into the dough with your hands. After doing this, you should have a smooth dough. Knead until the dough no longer sticks to the kneading surface and your hands. Divide the dough into 10 balls. Cover them with a damp cloth and let them rest for 45 minutes. This is very important. This is the time where a gluten web in the dough forms. If you don't do this, the dough becomes very hard to roll into disks.
Tortilla-Making by Hand
Tortillas used to be formed by hand, patting them back and forth between the palms to create a perfectly round, flattened masa cake. The tortilla press, which requires little practice, has made this a vanishing art.
Preheat the griddle to a medium heat. Very lightly flour your working surface. Flatten a dough ball into a small disk. Roll this out into a tortilla about 5 to 6 inches in diameter.
To do this, roll the rolling pin forward, then back, and then adjust the angle slightly and repeat. Continue this until you have your flattened tortilla disk. You need to be firm, but not forceful, with the rolling pin. If you push too hard, it smashes the dough too much and makes the tortilla tough. If you push too lightly, it will take forever to roll into a disk. It takes a bit of practice, so don't worry if they don't look perfect the first time.
Place the tortilla on the hot griddle. These cook very quickly. After 30 to 45 seconds, flip the tortilla. After a minute, flip it again. If you got everything right, the tortilla should puff up. As soon as it puffs after the second flip, take it off the heat. Cover it in a towel while you make the rest of the tortillas, repeating this process.
Hard Shell Tacos
The hard taco shell was made famous by Glen Bell, the founder of Taco Bell. After eating at the local Mexican restaurant in California, he figured out how to bring the taco dorado to market. Though far removed from authentic Mexican tacos, here's how to make your own. You will need:
- A deep fryer or heavy large pot like a Dutch oven
- Enough corn oil for 5 inches in your pot
- A taco form (or a can, see variation)
- Plate and paper towel
- Courage :-)
1. There are frying baskets specially designed for frying tacos,
which is the taco form. This is by far the best implement to use because it is sized properly and has a handle designed to keep your hands away from the hot oil.
2. Pour 5 inches of oil into your pot and bring the oil to 350°F. Make sure your tortillas are pliable enough to lay over the taco form and not break. If they are not, warm your tortillas using the dry pan method described earlier. Do not use the steaming method since this introduces water back into the tortillas. Lower the tortillas into the pot and fry them for 2 minutes. Remove them and gently slide them off onto a paper towel or rack. Repeat until you are tired of frying tortillas, or you run out of them!
Variation: You can also use an empty can as a taco form, but you will need something to safely dip it into and out of the pot, like tongs. Just grab the edges of the can with the tongs to lower and lift the can. Make sure you remove both ends of the can using a can opener that makes a clean cut, not a jagged one.
Baked No-Fat Hard Taco Shells
If you're really in the mood for a crunchy taco, but don't want to use any oil, baking will do.
To make baked, no-fat hard taco shells, you will need:
- An oven
- Oven mitts
- Storebought packaged tortillas
- A plate
- A really strong desire to eat baked, hard tortillas
1. Place the oven rack you want to use away from the heating element. Usually that's on the bottom of the oven, so you'll be placing your rack towards the top. Turn the oven to 375°F. Make the tortillas pliable. My preferred method is to warm them in a dry pan, but you can get away with a quick 10-second steam. If you steam them longer, the excess moisture will make them stick to your oven rack.
2. Drape a tortilla over two of the bars of the oven rack. This will ensure the tortilla is concave enough to hold lots of filling. Repeat this until you are out of tortillas or oven room. Bake them for 10 minutes. Bake these to the point where the tortillas are hard enough to crack. Otherwise, they will come out tough and leathery.
Warming Crispy Tortillas (handmade and storebought)
Be aware that even though packaged corn tortilla shells have been sealed, they have been sitting on the store shelf long enough for the oil in the tortilla to start to turn. That's also true with your homemade ones, if you are keeping them around for weeks on end, but chances are, if you have been making fresh crispy corn tortillas, that's not the case. Regardless, as soon as the shells come to room temperature, they need to be rewarmed to get the most flavor out of them.
To do so, bring your oven to 325°F and place the rack away from the heating element. Gently drape the hard tortilla over one of the bars on the rack and warm it for 2 to 3 minutes. It's just enough time to bring out the toasted corn flavor.
Now that you've got some experience making fresh masa and tortillas, you can start to make different flavors of tortilla. The key to making flavored tortillas is keeping the amount of liquid used the same as if you were making unflavored tortillas. Also, keep in mind that masa harina and nixtamal are flavor dampeners. They will significantly cut the flavor of whatever you mix into them, so if you want to create your own flavored tortillas, go heavy on the flavoring ingredients.
Remember, with all of these recipes, you need to let the masa rest for five minutes once you add the wet mixture to the dry masa harina, so the masa harina can fully absorb the liquid. After that, you can work it into dough.
Taco Pairing: These tortillas go well with just about any taco, but they are particularly delicious when used with Tacos de Asador. There are three ways you can make these, each with its own flavors and intensity.
Method 1: Chile Powder
Method 2: Chile Water
When making chile water, you want as much chile flavor to seep into the water as possible. This happens when you simmer it. This will give you a light, very smooth chile flavor accent, rather than a dominant flavor. All you have to do is rehydrate the chiles in water and then use the rehydrating water in place of the water in the regular recipe. For every 2 cups of water you need for making masa, you will want to add 3 to 4 large dried chiles, like the ancho or guajillo.
If you want some heat, you can add a dried chipotle, habanero, or a couple of chiles de árbol to the pot. Use more water than you want to end up with at the end because it will evaporate as you simmer the chiles. For example, if you want to end up with 2 cups of water, add 3 cups of water to the pot and 3 to 4 chiles. You'll have a little excess liquid left over, but it's better to have too much than too little. Simmer the chiles over a medium heat for about 10 minutes. Place a bowl underneath a strainer and pour the water through the strainer. This ensures that you catch all the seeds and chile bits so they don't get in the masa. Use this chile water for making your masa dough.
Method 3: Chile Puree
4 ancho or guajillo chiles, stems removed, seeds taken out
Water for rehydration and mixing
¾ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups masa harina
1. When making chile puree, you want as much flavor to seep into the pulp of the chiles as possible, which is why a gentler rehydration method is used. This method will give you a much more intense chile flavor since you are using the pulp of the chile to flavor the tortilla. It's a little more finicky, because there isn't a straight one-to-one water substitution.
2. Toast the chiles over a medium heat in a dry pan for about 30 seconds per side. Cover the chiles with enough very hot water and rehydrate them by letting them sit for 20 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid. In a blender or food processor combine the chiles with 1 cup of the water used to rehydrate the chiles. Puree until smooth. Press the chile puree through a sieve and collect it in a bowl below the sieve.
3. In a separate bowl, combine the salt with the masa harina and mix well. Combine the masa harina mixture with the chile puree and mix well. Because the size of the chiles vary, you will need to practice to find the optimum consistency of the masa.
Guajillo Garlic Tortillas
Taco Pairing: These tortillas go well with just about any taco, but they shine with Tacos de Asador and Tacos de Canasta. Suggested tacos are My Family Tacos, "Cecina" Tacos, Charred Chayote Tacos, Mushroom Tacos, and any of the Tacos de Canasta.
This works best with Method 3. Start by removing the stem and seeds and toasting the chiles. Rehydrate them using Method 3. When you puree the chiles, add 8 cloves of raw garlic to the blender. Combine 1 teaspoon of salt with 1 ½ cups of masa harina and then add the chile garlic mix to the masa. Work the masa with your hands until you have a tight, smooth dough. Try making this with pan-roasted garlic, too!
Black Bean Tortillas
Taco Pairings for Dark Beer: Tacos with Pintos Borrachos (here), Tacos with Yucatecan Barbecue (here), Mole Tacos (here)
Taco Pairings for Light Beer: Tacos Veracruz (here), Basket Tacos with Potatoes and Chorizo (here), Cactus Tacos (here), and Tacos with Purple Potatoes and Roasted Poblanos
Salted Lime Tortillas
Taco Pairing: These have a very bright, acidic flavor that pops as soon as you bite into the tortilla and they should be paired with tacos that have fresh, crisp flavors. Some of your favorite pairings include Tempura Tacos (here), Charred Chayote Tacos (here), and Hominy and Seitan Tacos in Roasted Garlic Cascabel Sauce.
When you fill these tortillas, fill them on the unsalted side. That way when you bite into the taco, the first taste you get is the salted side of the tortilla. Cooking them this way may seem tedious, but if you mix the large salt crystals directly into the masa, they can cause the tortilla to break when you press out the dough. Plus, you don't get quite the same effect when you bite into the taco.
½ cup fresh lime juice
1 cup warm water 1 ¼ teaspoons coarse salt
1. The ½ cup of fresh lime juice replaces ½ cup of water used in the original recipe, meaning you will need ½ cup of fresh lime juice combined with 1 cup of warm water to make a total of 1 ½ cups of liquid. You will also need 1 ¼ teaspoons of coarse salt. Don't use regular fine ground salt. Use one that has a large crystal, such as kosher salt. Combine the lime water with the masa and make your dough.
2. Before you start making your tortillas, sprinkle ¼ teaspoon of salt onto a clean countertop and spread it out. You are going to be pressing about four tortillas into each sprinkle of salt. Make sure the salt is near your griddle.
3. Cook the tortillas, but not all the way. Cook the first side for 30 seconds, then the second side for 1 minute. Take the tortilla off the griddle and flip it so the first, less-cooked side is face down towards your countertop. Gently press it into the salt.
4. Return the tortilla to the hot griddle, salted side down, and cook it for another 30 seconds to 1 minute (or more if you want them toasty).
Tacos de Asador: Perhaps your favorite style of taco, these are tacos where the filling has been cooked over an open flame on a wood-fire grill. Smoky, a little charred, and perfect for long summer days and cool winter nights.
Tacos de Guisado: Guisados are stews and tacos de guisado represent the most diverse category of tacos. These are tacos with stewed fillings, typically served in clay cazuelas dishes at taquerías. They are easy to make and can be made in large batches. In a way, guisados represent the best of Mexican homestyle cooking.
Tacos de Comal: These are tacos where the filling is cooked on a comal, which is really just a flat pan. Think of them as tacos with sautéed fillings.
Tacos Dorados: These tacos are rolled closed and fried to a crispy golden color, hence the name. You've probably seen them under the names taquitos or flautas.
Tacos de Canasta: Tacos de canasta are the classic breakfast taco in Mexico. Carried around in baskets, from which their name derives, these tacos are suffused with a sauce and steamed by closing up the basket. In a way, they are the "slider" version of tacos.
Los Otros Tacos: This just means "the other tacos." These are the tacos that don't quite fit into one of our categories. Some of them, like the tacos de mixiote and carnitas are categories unto themselves, but since we only have one version of each, it made more sense to place them here.
Tacos Mañaneros: Additional breakfast tacos. Some of these are more of a Texas invention, while the tacos with chiles rellenos and quelites (edible field greens) are less common authentic Mexican breakfast tacos.
Tacos Dulces: Dessert tacos. These run the gamut of complexity from ultra-simple to fancy gourmet, but all are uniformly sweet and tasty. Unlike other tacos, which are usually served in twos or threes, these are meant to be a decadent finish to a meal, so one of them should do.
Fusion Tacos: These tacos are an obvious melding of one culture's food with Mexican cuisine. Although many of these are tacos found outside of Mexico, some are tacos in which Mexican cooks have incorporated other culture's dishes, like with the Tacos Tempura. Fusion tacos are the result of creative taqueros (taco makers) around the world.
Tequila, Beer, and Alcohol Drinks
Alcohol is a good partner to tacos, not only because it acts as a social lubricant and can just be plain fun, alcohol also dissolves capsaicin, those tiny molecules that bring the heat. It means, basically, that you can eat spicier food and more of it. It soothes the savaged tongue. Beer is the most common alcoholic beverage served at taco carts and stands and puestos while the better tequilas, mezcals, and mixed drinks are available at taco bars.
These are great options if you don't want to blow your budget, but still want a decent drink.
For dark beers, ales, and lagers, your favorite brands are Negra Modelo, Bohemia Obscura, North Coast Brewing Company's Brother Thelonious, Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar, Jack's Abby Smoke & Dagger, Stone Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale, and Gulden Draak. If you can find It, Noche Buena Is a great dark beer with sweet, piney notes, that comes out of Mexico during the fall season. Negra Modelo is probably your best choice if you are looking for a good dark beer at a reasonable price.
Most tequilas are vegan, but there are obviously some brands that are better than others. Casa Noble makes a very good line of organic tequilas that have a nice clean taste, but your favorite is the line made by Sol de Mexico. It's reasonably priced, especially for an award-winning tequila, and it has a beautiful flavor. Remember, tequila añejo (aged at least a year) is for sipping on its own, usually after tacos, and tequila blanco (unaged or aged very little) and tequila reposado (aged at least two months) are good for sipping while eating tacos.
Mezcal is the name of the distilled alcohol made from slow-roasted agave piñas (heart of the plant). Unlike tequila, there are well over forty different agaves from which mezcal can be made. There are far more mezcals that are vegan than those that aren't. One of your favorites is mezcal tobalá.
Be creative making your aguas frescas! Shown here in the foreground is a sliced cactus fruit with a glass of watermelon cactus fruit agua fresca and a shot of tequila añejo.
Grilling Over a Wood Fire
There are a few tricks to getting the most out of your tacos de asador experience. Paramount to the experience is getting a good char over an open flame. Almost as important is the smoke flavor from the grill. That means that the best tacos de asador are made on a wood-fire grill.
My two favorite woods are mesquite and pecan. Both of these are hard enough to burn evenly and for a long time. The flavor they impart to the food is perfect for most types of veggies (particularly mushrooms) and seitan. You don't want your ingredients to cook too fast, or they won't pick up much smoke, so let your wood or coals get to a point where they are hot, but not at the height of their burn. If using coals, make sure they are spread evenly under the cooking area of your grill, but still pressed into a tight spread a couple layers deep. If you are using wood, stack the wood together to get it lit properly.
Grilling on a Gas Grill
If you do not have a wood-fire grill, but you have a gas grill, you can still make great tacos de asador. Get a smoking box and use mesquite chips with it. Be sure to soak the chips for an hour so they smolder instead of fire. (Follow the directions for the smoking box.) Once the chips are smoking, you can start grilling. Start with your grill at just below a medium heat. This will allow the food to be on the grill for about 10 to 15 minutes. Once your food has smoked and mostly cooked, crank the grill up to high so your food can get a good char. As with a wood-fire grill, this should only take a few minutes per side.
Tacos de Asador Without Grilling
If you do not have a grill, you can still make a variation of tacos de asador by sautéing the ingredients in a skillet on top of the stove. Technically, this makes them into tacos de cazo or tacos de comal since they aren't grilled, but the flavors will be similar. In general, you only need 1 to 2 teaspoons of oil in your sauté pan, and you will want to bring the pan to a medium-high heat. Sauté the ingredients until they develop some blackened spots and then remove them from the pan. They won't have the smokiness from the grill, but they are still going to taste great.
A Note on Tortillas for Tacos de Asador
Tortillas for tacos de asador tend to be a bit thicker than normal. If you are making your own, don't press your tortillas all the way down in the tortilla press. Back off just a touch to make the tortilla thicker. It's only about a one-sixteenth difference in size, but the extra-thick tortilla will hold together with the juices from vegetables, rubs, and marinades that are often found in tacos de asador. If using storebought tortillas, go for the thickest ones you can find at the store or use two tortillas for one taco.
The Set-up for Tacos de Asador
Tacos de asador beg to be assembled right near the grill. Once the ingredients come off the grill, they should be placed in a tortilla and topped immediately for the best experience. Make sure your tortillas are warmed and pliable and kept in a covered basket next to the grill so you can grab a tortilla with one hand and place ingredients into the tortilla straight from the grill with the other. Set up the salsas and condiments nearby so your diners can go directly from the grill to the condiment area and eat their tacos while they are fresh off the flame.
To make crispy tostadas without having to fry them, heat a griddle to a medium heat. If you are making your own tortillas, after the first flip of the tortilla, leave the tortilla on the griddle for about 4 minutes, then flip it over and leave it on the griddle for another 3 to 4 minutes You may need to adjust this, depending on the type of masa you are using, but the key is to get the tortilla crisp. Do the same for storebought tortillas, but don't cook them quite as long. The tortillas should show some charring. If you want to fry your tortillas, it's best to use day-old homemade or storebought tortillas. Heat ½-inch of oil in a skillet to 375°F. Add the tortilla and fry for about 1 minute, then flip it and fry for another 30 seconds. You now have fried tostadas. You'll need about double the amount of filling for a tostada than for a taco.
For enchiladas, make a double batch of Guajillo Chile Salsa. Dredge the tortillas: through the salsa. If you want to bake them, spread a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of a baking dish. Roll the dredged tortillas around the filling directly in the baking dish. Once you have rolled all the enchiladas, cover the dish with foil and bake at 325°F for 30 minutes. If you want to fry your tortillas, which is more traditional, bring a thin layer of oil to 350°F and fry the dredged tortilla in the oil for about 10 seconds on both sides. Then roll it around the filling, and you're done. Use the same amount of filling as you'd use in a taco. Be sure to cook the filling before it gets rolled in the tortilla, even if you are baking them.
With the increased popularity of Mexican and other ethnic foods across America, most of these ingredients are available in Latin grocery stores, in local supermarkets, or from online purveyors.
Achiote paste is made by grinding annatto seeds, spices, garlic, and vinegar or lime juice together until smooth. It is popular in the Yucatán Peninsula.
Adobo is a tangy combination of chiles, garlic, and vinegar along with tomatoes and spices that is used as a marinade or sauce to season meat or poultry dishes.
Avocados are extremely popular in Mexican cooking. The California Hass variety with its dark green, bumpy skin is more flavorful and less watery.
Avocado leaves have an anise-like flavor and are used dried and fresh to season stocks, soups, and sauces.
Banana leaves are quite pliant and used to wrap meat dishes, like barbacoa, especially in and around Oaxaca. They are sold frozen at specialty markets.
Canela, or Mexican cinnamon sticks (at right), are softer in texture and milder tasting than American cinnamon that comes from cassia bark. They're also easier to grind.
Chile powder is made from ground dried chile peppers. It can be made with a blend of several chiles or from just one variety, such as ancho or chipotle, and can range from mild to fiery hot.
Chipotles en adobo are smoked jalapeños packed in adobo sauce and canned. They are now also available already pureed and canned.
Chorizo in Mexico, unlike Spanish or Portuguese sausage with the same name, is always purchased raw; remove the casing before you cook with it. The pork meat is seasoned with ground red chiles, paprika, and sometimes achiote, which give it its characteristic reddish color.
Cilantro is among the most commonly used herbs in Mexican cuisine. Both the stem and leaves are used. The plant was introduced into Mexico by Spanish conquerors; the seeds of the plant are called "coriander."
Crema is Mexican sour cream. you prefer Media brand, by Nestlé. It is readily available online. If you can't find it, you can mix American sour cream thinned with heavy cream to a smoother consistency, or substitute crème fraîche or Greek yogurt in most recipes.
Epazote is an important Mexican culinary herb that tastes like a mix of mint, basil, and oregano. The long, jagged, pointy leaves become more assertive as the plant ages, so younger leaves are preferable. Epazote is a popular addition to bean dishes because it is said to reduce flatulence. Use oregano as a substitute.
Huitlacoche (or cuitlacoche) is a fungus that grows on ears of Mexican corn. During the growing season, the smoky-sweet flavored delicacy, also called "Mexican truffle" or "Mexican caviar," is frozen or canned for export if it is not eaten fresh.
Jamaica flowers are the beautiful fuchsia-colored blossoms of the hibiscus tree that are dried and used in beverages like agua de jamaica, sorbets, and granitas.
Jicama is a crunchy slightly sweet-tasting tuber known as Mexican potato. It has light brown skin and almost white flesh.
To peel jicama, use a sharp paring knife to pull off the fibrous skin in sheets. It is easier than using a vegetable scraper.
Lard has long been the fat of choice in Mexican cuisine, where it imparts a distinctive flavor to traditional preparations like masa for tamales. Americans now realize that lard makes pastry flaky and that it has less saturated fat than butter.
Maggi sauce is a condiment, much like Worcestershire sauce, that's frequently used in Mexican marinades, stews, and sauces. It is very salty, so just a dash is all you need.
Masa harina is cornmeal or corn flour typically sold in 1-kilo (2.2-pound) bags. It's used for tamales and tortillas. There are different grinds, from fine to coarse, as well as different colors, including blue. The term masa refers to any type of "dough." Use Maseca brand.
Mexican oregano is widely used in the cuisine of Mexico. It is usually purchased dried or in flakes and is slightly sweeter and a little stronger than Greek, Italian, or Sicilian varieties. It is readily available online.
Nopales are the paddles from young cactus plants. The needles must be removed before they are marinated and grilled or used in other preparations.
Onions used in Mexican cooking are usually white, but the yellow variety is acceptable.
Piloncillo is unrefined Mexican dark brown sugar that is sold in solid cone shapes with flattened tops. The cones are sold in sizes from under an ounce to more than half a pound. While it's firmer in texture than American brown sugar, the two can be used interchangeably. However, piloncillo must be chopped with a serrated knife before using.
Pimentón de la Vera is Spanish smoked paprika that is available in sweet (mild) and hot varieties.
Plantains are similar to bananas but starchier and less sweet. A plantain is ripe when it is black and soft. They are readily available today in supermarkets.
Queso blanco is a creamy, soft, and mild white cheese generally made from whole cow's milk. It is fresh rather than aged. It does not melt well but softens when heated and is used for frying. It is similar to queso fresco..
Queso Chihuahua is made from cow's milk in the state of Chihuahua. One of the most popular Mexican cheeses, it is high in butterfat with a flavor similar to mild cheddar. When aged, it becomes tangy tasting. It's typically used in chiles rellenos, Mexican-style fondue, and quesadillas. Good-quality Muenster or medium cheddar can be used in its place.
Queso Cotija is an aged, white, salty, crumbly cheese named for the town in Michoacán where it was first made. When heated, it softens but doesn't actually melt. It is similar to feta when fresh, or to Parmesan when aged. You can substitute feta, Romano, or Parmesan.
Queso fresco, as the name implies, is fresh, unaged cow's-milk cheese that is produced all over Mexico. Other local names include queso de metate, queso molido, and queso ranchero. The cheese is used fresh, as a table cheese, crumbled as a topping, or as a stuffing for chiles or quesadillas because it melts well. It has a pleasant acidity and creaminess.
Queso Menonita is a mild, semisoft cheese made from either pasteurized or raw cow's milk, It is similar in taste to Monterey Jack. In Northern Mexico, several Mennonite communities procQuesillo Oaxaca is a whole-milk cow's cheese from the Central Valley of Oaxaca that is creamy-colored with a pleasantly acidic bite. Typically the cheese is sold as wound balls. It melts well and can be shredded and used to top appetizers or as a filling for quesadillas or chiles rellenos.
Queso Requesón is similar to ricotta with a mild, somewhat sweet flavor. White, with a soft, moist texture, it is used in salads, tacos, cooked foods, and dessert.
Salt is important in cooking, but if it is iodized, you think it imparts a metallic taste. you suggest using either kosher or fine or coarse sea salt, as indicated by the recipe.
Tacos are usually made with fresh corn tortillas folded in half and filled with any combination of meat, cheese, vegetables, and condiments including tomatoes, lettuce, and salsa.
Tamarind paste is the acidic-sweet-tasting pulp surrounding the seeds of the tamarind pod. It has many uses, including agua fresca and Tamarind Braised Short Ribs.
Tomatillos, members of the gooseberry family, resemble small green tomatoes with a papery husk covering that is removed before using. They're slightly tart but very flavorful. They are used in many sauces, especially salsa verde.
Tortillas are thin, circular disks of unleavened dough made of masa for corn tortillas or harina for flour tortillas. They are the most important item in Mexican cuisine.
Valentina hot sauce is your favorite brand of hot sauce, although there are plenty of other brands out there including Cholula, another great brand.
Mexican cheeses: Cotija, Queso Fresco, Fresco, Menonita, Oaxaca
The following is a glossary of Spanish terms.
Albañil, Tacos de: Bricklayers' tacos.
Achiote: A small red seed also called annatto.
Achiote Paste: A spice mix made primarily from achiote with several fragrant seeds added to the mix.
Adobo: A marinade, but which is often used as a sauce or a component of a sauce.
Aguas Frescas: Refreshing sweetened drinks, usually served chilled.
Ajo: The Spanish word for garlic.
Al Carbon: Cooked over an open flame.
Al Gusto: A phrase that can mean to taste, or as you like.
Ancho Chile: The dried form of the poblano. Ancho means "wide" in Spanish.
Añejo: Aged for a prolonged time. It can refer to aged alcohol, cheese, and other foods.
Aquí: A Spanish word that means "here."
Árbol, chile(s) de: This means "tree chiles." They are small, hot chiles and can be found fresh or dried.
Asador: tacos with fillings charred over an open flame
Blanco: White, though sometimes it is translated as silver.
Café de Olla: A pot of coffee.
Caldillo Durangueño, Tacos de: Tacos with a Durango-style stew.
Carnitas Michoacánas: Carnitas Michocán-style.
Cascabel Chiles: Bell-shaped dried red chiles so named because they sound like a rattle.
Cazuela: A glazed clay cooking vessel ideal for stewing ingredients and keeping them warm.
Cebollita: small onion
Champiñones: Mushrooms, usually wild mushrooms
Chipotles: Smoked, dried jalapeños.
Chorizo: A marinated spicy Mexican ground sausage.
Codex Mendoza: A text commissioned by Antonio de Mendoza in the 16th century detailing the history of Aztec kings and the lives of the Aztecs.
Comal(es): A metal or clay "pan" ideal for sautéing ingredients and cooking tortillas. Metal comals are flat and oblong and more common than clay comals. Clay comals are slightly curved and are excellent for cooking tortillas.
Cortés, Hernán: The Spanish conquistador who conquered part of Mexico.
Crème Fraîche: A type of thin sour cream.
Díaz, Porfirio: A dictator who ruled Mexico until he was overthrown in 1911.
Epazote: An herb with a bright, acidic flavor.
Estilo: A Spanish word meaning "in the style of."
Frijoles: The Spanish word for beans.
Guajillo chile: A long red chile used as the base for quite a few chile sauces.
Güero(s) (chiles): Hot, medium-size yellow chiles.
Guisado: A dish of stewed or slow-cooked ingredients.
Habanero: A small, fat orange or yellow chile with very high heat.
Hatch chiles: A unique variety of chile grown in the Hatch Valley of New Mexico.
Hongos: A common word for mushrooms.
Huitlacoche: A fungus that grows on corn and is eaten as a delicacy.
Jalapeño: A very common, thick medium-length green chile with medium heat.
Maíz: Corn. This spelling reflects the Taíno use of the word, while "maize" is the Spanish. Maíz is typically used when referring to it in a historical sense.
Maguey: Another name for agave.
Mañana: The Spanish word for "morning," or "tomorrow."
Masa: The Spanish word for dough. In Mexico, it almost always refers to corn dough.
Masa Harina: Dried and ground corn that has been specially treated so it can be mixed with water to make corn dough.
Mezcal: An alcohol derived from fire-roasted agave cores.
Mixiote: The outer film of agave leaves. This is used to wrap ingredients so they can be lightly steamed.
Molcajete: A rough mortar traditionally made from lava rock, though some are made from other material like concrete.
Mojo de Ajo: Olive oil that has been roasted with a large amount of garlic and citrus juice.
Mole: A thick sauce that develops over low heat for a long period of time.
Molina: A corn grinder.
Nahuatl: The language spoken by the Aztecs. Nahuatl is an umbrella term for quite a number of different dialects.
Napolitos: Cactus pad strips.
Nejayote: The leftover liquid from making nixtamal.
Nixtamal: Corn that has been specially treated in an alkaline solution and partially cooked. This treatment makes the components of the corn more bioavailable and allows the corn to be ground into masa.
Noche: The Spanish word for "night."
Nopales: Whole cactus pads or strips from the prickly pear cactus.
Otros: A Spanish word that means "other."
Pasado Chiles: Dried long green chiles.
Pepitas: Green, shelled pumpkin seeds.
Piquín Chiles: Small, oblong orange chiles that are very hot.
Piloncillo: A cone of hard unrefined sugar.
Plancha: A very large, flat metal cooking surface usually found in restaurants or at large taco stands.
Poblano Chile: A large green chile frequently roasted for sauces or for turning into strips called "rajas."
Pozole: Corn that has been nixtamalized and fully cooked.
Puesto: A permanent establishment that specializes in selling tacos.
Quelites: Edible field greens.
Queso Fresco: fresh cheese
Rajas: strips of roasted green chiles
Reposado: aged for a short time
Serrano Chile: A medium-length thin green chile that is hot, but not incredibly hot.
Sin: The Spanish word for "without."
Sólo: The Spanish word for "only."
Soya de Carne: Spanish for TVP or "soy meat."
Sudados: A Spanish word that means "sweated." Tacos de Canasta are sometimes called Tacos Sudados.
Tacos Árabes: Arabic-style tacos similar.
Tacos de Asador: Tacos with grilled fillings.
Tacos de Canasta: Tacos lightly steamed in a basket and wrapped in cloth (canasta means "basket"). Typically eaten in the morning.
Tacos de Comal: Tacos with sautéed fillings.
Tacos de Discada Norteña: A style of mixed "meat" tacos from northern Mexico.
Tacos Dorados: Fried tacos.
Tacos Dulce: Sweet tacos, or dessert tacos.
Tacos de Guisado: Tacos with stewed fillings.
Tacos Mañaneros: Breakfast tacos.
Tacos Rápidos: Quick-to-make tacos.
Tacos al Vapor: Tacos cooked over a steamer.
Taquería: A cart or establishment that specializes in selling tacos.
Taquero: A person who makes tacos.
Taquiza: A taco party.
Tejolote: The pestle for the molcajete, used to bash and grind ingredients.
Teosinte: A type of grass and the genetic predecessor to corn.
Tequila: Alcohol distilled from agave syrup. The syrup is typically extracted from the agave plant by steaming or pressure cooking it.
Tortilladora: A tortilla press.
Tortillero: A tortilla warmer. Also the name for someone who makes tortillas.
Vegano: The Spanish word for "vegan."
Vegetariano: The Spanish word for "vegetarian."
Verduras: The Spanish word for "vegetables."