Mexican cuisine is known for its bold, vibrant flavors and reliance on core ingredients like corn, beans, rice, chiles, herbs, and spices. While the options for stocking a Mexican pantry are endless, there are a few staples that can take you a long way in replicating classic dishes at home. Here are four essential ingredients that belong in every Mexican kitchen.
No Mexican pantry is complete without an arsenal of dried chiles. They form the base of adobo pastes, moles, salsas, and soups, and imbue food with the quintessential smoky-spicy taste that defines authentic Mexican cooking. While fresh chiles are great when in season, dried chiles have a complexity and depth of flavor that makes them irreplaceable. There are many varieties to choose from, but here are four that you absolutely need:
- Ancho: A dried poblano with a mild, sweet, fruity flavor. It lends a rich color and is perfect for making chili, mole, and enchilada sauce.
- Guajillo: Small, deep red, and very flavorful. It has notes of berries and tea leaves. Great for salsas, pozole, tamales, and beef dishes.
- Pasilla: Often called chile negro. It has an enticing, herbaceous aroma and robust, earthy flavor. Works beautifully in mole and rich sauces.
- Chipotle: A smoked and dried jalapeño with intense, lingering heat. Imparts smokiness and fire to salsas, stews, beans, soups, and meats.
Look for whole, flexible dried chiles with vibrant color. Avoid chiles that are cracked or brittle. Store in an airtight container away from sunlight and humidity. When ready to use, reconstitute in hot water or broth until softened, then blend into sauces and salsas. Their complexity is unmatched and can make all the difference in authentic Mexican cooking.
Fresh, handmade corn tortillas are an indispensable part of Mexican cuisine. Store-bought ones work in a pinch, but homemade tortillas have a world of difference in terms of flavor and texture. The process is simple: nixtamalize dried corn kernels in mineral limewater to create masa. Then, press balls of masa into thin rounds and cook on a hot comal or skillet. Still too time consuming? Keep masa harina (ground, dehydrated masa) on hand to quickly mix up tortillas whenever a craving strikes. Here are some tips for buying and using corn tortillas:
- Seek out white or yellow heirloom corn varieties to make masa for exceptional flavor.
- Pick up fresh tortillas from a local Mexican market if you don’t want to make them from scratch. They hold up better than commercial packaged tortillas.
- Heat tortillas one at a time on a dry skillet to gently crisp and soften before serving.
- Double wrap leftover tortillas in foil and reheat in a steamer to freshen up.
- Use day-old tortillas for making chilaquiles, enchiladas, tostadas, or chips.
With a bag of fresh tortillas in the pantry, you’re always ready to tuck into tacos, quesadillas, sopes, gorditas, and more. Their soft, pliable texture and sweet corn taste can’t be replicated by wheat flour tortillas.
Protein-packed beans served as a staple crop and food source for Mesoamericans long before European contact. Today, they continue to serve as a cornerstone of the Mexican diet. Beans like pinto, black, white, brown, and garbanzo are simmered with aromatics and served whole, mashed, or whipped into dips. They are also fried for toppings and fillings. Canned beans work fine, but dried beans make the tastiest frijoles and absorb flavors best. Cook up a batch on the weekend to incorporate into multiple meals throughout the week. Here’s how to buy, store, and cook dried beans:
- Pick over and rinse beans to remove any debris. Discard beans that appear damaged or discolored.
- Soak beans in water for 5-8 hours to reduce cooking time and aid digestion.
- Drain the soak water and cover beans with fresh water. Add aromatics like onion, garlic, epazote. Simmer until tender.
- Store cooked beans submerged in their cooking liquid in the fridge for up to 5 days.
- Freeze extra portions of cooked beans for later use. They’ll keep for 3-6 months.
When combined with rice, tortillas, salsas, and other fixings, humble beans form complete, nutritious, and satisfying Mexican meals loaded with fiber and plant-based protein. They are endlessly versatile as the foundation of soups, dips, sides, fillings, and more.
In Mexican cuisine, rice serves as an essential side to balance out entrees and soak up savory sauces. Traditional Mexican rice is quite different from plain white rice. It’s amped up with tomatoes, garlic, and aromatic spices for a flavorful crimson-hued grain. When simmered in a flavorful broth, the rice absorbs the surrounding flavors and offers the perfect complement to enchiladas, tacos, grilled meats, and more. While long grain white rice is most common, medium grain varieties like jasmine or basmati also work well. Here are some tips for cooking stellar Mexican rice at home:
- Sauté raw rice with minced garlic and onions before adding hot broth. This adds depth of flavor.
- Use tomato sauce or puree to tint the rice red and provide tangy sweetness.
- Season with cumin, chili powder, oregano, bay leaf, garlic powder, and salt.
- Stir in peas, corn, or diced vegetables for variation.
- Let the rice steam off heat for 10 minutes after cooking for perfectly tender grains.
With homemade Mexican rice on hand, you have the ideal partner for so many dishes. The rice balances out the richness and heat and provides burst of flavor in every bite. Make a big pot to reheat throughout the week.
A well-stocked Mexican pantry should contain dried chiles for flavor and heat, corn tortillas for their unique taste and texture, dried beans for protein and fiber, and aromatic Mexican rice to bring every meal together. With these four essentials on hand, you can quickly prepare classic antojitos like tacos, enchiladas, burritos, and tostadas as well as hearty staples like rice and beans any night of the week. Experiment with different chiles, beans, and add-ins to make each dish your own. The possibilities are endless, but these core ingredients will give you an authentic foundation to create wholesome, crave-worthy Mexican food at home.