Mexican cuisine is known for its vibrant flavors, colorful presentations, and variety of ingredients. Understanding the fundamentals of Mexican cooking can help you create authentic dishes at home. Some key aspects to learn include:
Many classic Mexican dishes use the same basic set of ingredients. Getting to know these core components is an important first step. Here are some of the most essential:
- Corn – Used dried or fresh, corn is a staple of Mexican cuisine. It’s ground into masa for tamales, tortillas, and more.
- Beans – Black, pinto, and other bean varieties are common in entrees, soups, salsas, and sides.
- Chiles – Mexico uses many types of chiles ranging in flavor and spice level. They add heat and aroma to salsas, moles, stews, and more.
- Tomatoes – Fresh and canned tomatoes season sauces, stews, and other dishes.
- Onions and Garlic – Along with cilantro, onions and garlic offer classic flavor in many Mexican dishes.
- Limes and Avocados – Bright lime juice and creamy avocados lend cooling contrast to spicy chile heat.
Having these staple ingredients on hand makes it easy to whip up a variety of Mexican specialties.
Beyond basic ingredients, a taste of homestyle Mexican food relies on key spices and flavorings. Some to stock in your pantry include:
- Cumin – This warm, earthy spice adds depth to meats, beans, salsas, and more.
- Oregano – Often used dried, oregano brightens up tomato-based sauces, meat rubs, soups, and beans.
- Chili Powder – While you can make your own blend, commercial chili powder offers instant Southwestern flavor.
- Cinnamon – A touch of cinnamon enhances chocolate- and coffee-flavored Mexican dishes and beverages.
- Epazote – This unique herb has a minty, licorice-like note and is used in beans, quesadillas, soups, and stews.
Having these spices on hand makes it quick and convenient to add authentic Mexican zest to your cooking.
What would Mexican food be without salsa? The table sauce is a centerpiece of Mexican cuisine. While you can buy jarred salsa, it’s easy and rewarding to make your own. Basic ingredients include:
- Fresh Chiles – Jalapeño, serrano, guajillo, and other chile varieties pack salsa with heat.
- Tomatoes – Plum tomatoes and tomatillos offer fruity depth and brightness.
- Onion/Garlic – Aromatic onion and garlic provide a flavor foundation.
- Cilantro – Chopped cilantro leaves lend fresh herbal notes.
- Lime Juice – A squeeze of lime brings out flavors and balances heat.
- Salt – A pinch of salt boosts overall flavor.
Adjusting the proportions of the ingredients allows you to make red or green salsa with mild, medium, or spicy heat to suit your tastes.
Tortillas and Tostadas
Warm, just-prepared tortillas and tostadas are a vital part of many Mexican dishes. Luckily, both are easy to make at home:
- Mix masa harina with warm water until a soft dough forms
- Knead dough and divide into Ping-Pong sized balls
- Press each ball into a thin round using a tortilla press lined with plastic
- Cook on a hot comal or griddle for about 1 minute per side
- Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and lard (or oil)
- Gradually add warm water and knead to make a pliable dough
- Divide into balls and rest under a towel for 30 minutes
- Roll each ball out thin and cook on a hot griddle for about 1 minute per side
For tostadas, bake fresh corn tortillas crisp in the oven or crisp up day-old corn tortillas in oil.
Rice and Beans
No Mexican meal is complete without rice and beans. Luckily, both are simple to prepare.
For Mexican rice:
- Toast uncooked white rice in oil to lightly brown
- Add chicken or vegetable broth and tomato sauce for color
- Flavor with garlic, onion, and spices like cumin and oregano
- Simmer until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender
For frijoles refritos (refried beans):
- Cook pinto beans until very soft
- Mash beans with a potato masher or immersion blender
- Fry mashed beans in oil with garlic until heated through
- Season to taste with salt
Serving rice and beans together provides balanced, tasty plant-based protein.
Key Cooking Techniques
Mastering some fundamental Mexican cooking methods helps you recreate traditional dishes at home. Here are some techniques to learn:
Searing and Braising Meats
Many Mexican meat entrees start with searing beef, pork, chicken, etc. to add texture and color. Then, the meat simmers slowly in liquid to become tender and flavorful. This includes dishes like:
- Carne asada – Marinated steak that’s grilled and served in strips
- Carnitas – Seasoned pork braised until falling-apart tender
- Birria – Spiced goat or beef stewed in a chile-infused broth
Practice searing meats before adding broth, tomatoes, or other braising liquid. Cook low and slow until meat shreds easily.
Making Mole Sauce
Mole poblano is Mexico’s most famous sauce made from over 20 ingredients. While complex, homemade mole is worth the effort. Making it involves:
- Toasting and grinding spices and chiles
- Simmering it for a long time to develop rich flavor
- Adding chocolate and thinning with broth
- Pouring it over meat or poultry
When made well, mole poblano has multidimensional flavor – smoky, sweet, nutty, spicy.
Assembling Tacos and Tostadas
Tacos and tostadas are among Mexico’s most popular street foods. Follow these steps for authentic presentations:
- Warm small corn tortillas in a dry pan
- Fold in half around desired hot fillings
- Top with onions, cilantro, salsa, lime wedges, etc.
- Top crisp fried tortillas with refried beans
- Layer on meat or veggies, lettuce, cheese, sour cream, etc.
Keep components separate for a colorful, textured bite when eating.
Tamales – masa dough wrapped around savory or sweet fillings – take work but make a festive meal. Steps include:
- Mix masa with lard or oil until smooth
- Spread a thin layer on a corn husk and add filling
- Fold husk to seal in filling and tie closed with string
- Steam tamales in a pot with a steamer rack for at least 45 minutes
Practice shaping tamales and developing tasty fillings like spiced meats, cheese, or beans.
Signature Dishes and Drinks
Certain beloved Mexican specialties are great to start with as you build your repertoire. Classic options include:
This impressive dish features roasted poblano chiles stuffed with cheese, dipped in egg batter, and fried crispy. Make the flavorful, charred chiles first by roasting them over an open flame. Filling them with melting cheeses like Monterey Jack or Oaxaca makes for gooey, irresistible bites.
The combination of corn tortillas, flavorful fillings, and an array of enchilada sauces makes for endless variety with this comforting baked casserole. Try enchiladas with ground beef, chicken, or cheese fillings and top with red or green enchilada sauce and cheese. Add a fried egg or avocado slices for even more richness.
Tacos al Pastor
In this dish, thin slices of marinated pork are stacked and roasted on a vertical rotisserie to get crisped edges and juicy meat. The flavorful pork is served with onion, cilantro, lime, and pineapple on a warm corn tortilla. Recreate it at home with a gyro-style vertical rotisserie, marinated pork, and the classic toppings.
What would Mexican cuisine be without its famous cocktails? Margaritas – made with tequila, orange liqueur, and lime juice – are refreshing, tangy, and go perfectly with spicy dishes. For best results:
- Use 100% agave tequila
- Add a splash of orange liqueur like Cointreau or triple sec
- Juice fresh limes and add lime slices
- Shake over ice and add salt to the rim of the glass
Salud – try a traditional margarita after your next homemade Mexican feast!
While Mexican cuisine has common elements, flavors and specialties vary by region. Getting familiar with the differences can deepen your knowledge and cooking abilities.
The cooking of Northern Mexico often features:
- Grilled meats – Inspired by cattle ranching culture
- Wheat tortillas – More common than corn tortillas here
- Simple salsas – Like uncooked salsa fresca
- Cheese – Queso and queso fundido melts
- Machaca – Dried, shredded beef
Signature Northern dishes include tacos al carbón with grilled marinated steak.
The central highlands around Mexico City define quintessential Mexican cuisine with:
- Corn tortillas – The cornerstone of central cuisine
- Mole – Iconic, complex sauce made with over 20 ingredients
- Chiles en nogada – Stuffed poblano chiles with walnut cream sauce
- Barbacoa – Pit-cooked beef or lamb
When cooking classic Mexican, look to the dishes of central Mexico for inspiration.
Food of Southern Mexico is known for:
- Fresh seafood – From the region’s coasts and rivers
- Tropical fruits – Like guava and papaya
- Rice-based dishes – Influenced by proximity to Central and South America
- Milder chiles – Peanuts and herbs also provide flavor
Dishes like Veracruz-style snapper steamed in spicy tomato broth define the local cuisine.
Food of Mexico’s far southeast has distinctive hallmarks like:
- Achiote seasoning – Red annatto seeds lend earthy flavor and color
- Habenero chiles – Adds fiery heat to salsas and stews
- Slow-cooked pork and chicken
- Citrus fruits – Especially sour orange
Flavorful local specialties include cochinita pibil (achiote pork) and sikil paak (pumpkin seed dip).
The Keys to Authentic Flavor
Certain guiding principles help you achieve genuine Mexican flavors in your cooking:
- Build depth of flavor – Through techniques like toasting spices, charring chiles and vegetables, and simmering broths and moles
- Layer textures – With contrasting crispy fried foods, soft tortillas, and creamy salsas
- Balance heat – Using an array of mild and spicy chiles
- Go for freshness – Highlight fresh produce like cilantro, lime, onion, tomato
- Make it colorful – With bright ingredients like red rice, green salsa, black beans
- Customize to taste – Adjust spices, condiments, and sides to preference
Keeping these pointers in mind will help your Mexican cooking come to life with true homemade flavors.
Mastering real Mexican cuisine relies on understanding the culture, ingredients, and cooking methods that define it. Start with fundamental components like corn tortillas, beans, chiles, and fresh salsas. Practice iconic dishes from mole to margaritas. Experiment with regional specialties and make each plate colorful and flavorful. With its hearty staples, bright produce, and varied spices, Mexican food offers a wide array of possibilities for home cooks to explore.