Mexican cuisine is known for its bold flavors, diverse ingredients and complex cooking techniques. While the foundational ingredients of corn, beans, rice and chilies take center stage in most dishes, Mexican cooks also incorporate a wide variety of nuts into both savory and sweet preparations. Nuts add crunch, richness and subtle flavor to balance out the heat and acidity prevalent in Mexican fare. From mainstream staples like mole and enchiladas to regional specialties of Oaxaca and Yucatán, nuts play an integral role in Mexican gastronomy.
Common Nuts Used in Mexican Cooking
The most prevalent nuts used in Mexican cooking include:
Almonds are one of the most ubiquitous nuts found in Mexican cuisine. Their mild, nutty flavor complements both sweet and savory dishes. Almonds are often ground into a paste to thicken and add body to mole sauces. Marzipan, a sweet almond paste, is used to create whimsical shapes and decorative accents on cakes and confections. Slivered almonds garnish everything from snapper Veracruzano to tres leches cake.
Though technically a legume, peanuts are used like a nut in Mexican fare. Their earthy flavor and crunchy texture make peanuts an ideal topping for dishes like chicken pipián and shrimp cakes. Peanuts are also boiled or roasted and tossed with chilies and lime juice for a quick snack or cocktail garnish. Ground peanuts thicken and enrich mole sauces.
Also known as pepitas, these green seeds from pumpkin shells add a delicious savory crunch to Mexican food. They are most frequently toasted and used as a topping for salads, soups and stews or as a snack mixed with chilies and lime. Pumpkin seeds are also ground into sauces like pipián verde.
Buttery, nutty pine nuts are prized ingredients in Mexican cooking. They are integral to picadillo stuffings and mole sauces, and are used as a crunchy garnish for everything from tacos al pastor to chilaquiles. Pine nuts are also often paired with pomegranate seeds in iconic dishes like chiles en nogada.
Rich, buttery pecans add fabulous flavor and texture when toasted and used as a topping or mix-in for both sweet and savory Mexican dishes. Pecans are often incorporated into mole sauces, used as a crust or filling for meat, or tossed with butter and sugar for addictive praline candies.
Earthy, slightly tannic walnuts complement the warm spices in Mexican mole sauces. They are also used in savory fillings for chiles rellenos or chicken dishes. Walnuts are often candied or incorporated into Mexican wedding cookies and other confections.
Toasted hazelnuts lend a sweet nuttiness and crunch to Mexican dishes ranging from snapper Veracruzano to chicken mole. Hazelnut liqueur adds richness to Mexican hot chocolate and some cajeta recipes. Ground hazelnuts are also used to thicken and enrich pipián sauces.
Mild, subtly sweet cashews add creamy texture and rich flavor to Mexican meat stews, pipián sauces, and even some atole beverages. Cashews encrusted in ancho chili powder and lime make a zesty snack or garnish for cocktails.
Signature Mexican Dishes That Contain Nuts
Many iconic Mexican dishes incorporate nuts as a key ingredient. Here are some of the most popular:
Mole sauces are ultra-complex, labor-intensive Mexican culinary creations. There are many regional variations, but mole sauces often contain a mixture of toasted nuts like almonds, peanuts, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds ground into a thick, rich paste. The nut paste helps create mole’s quintessential body, texture and flavor. Mole poblano with its earthy spice and hints of chocolate is probably the most famous variety.
Ground or chopped nuts are often incorporated into the fillings for enchiladas to add flavor and texture contrast with the other ingredients. Some popular nutty fillings include almonds or pine nuts in chicken or seafood enchiladas; pecans or walnuts with cheese enchiladas; and peanuts or sesame seeds paired with vegetables. The enchiladas are typically blanketed in mole, pipián or other nut-thickened sauce.
Pipián is a specialty Mexican sauce made from ground pumpkin seeds, nuts like peanuts or almonds, and spices like cumin, cloves and cilantro. It has an earthy, nutty, slightly tangy flavor profile. Pipián sauce is served with everything from chicken and pork to seafood and vegetables. Versions made with green pumpkin seeds are called pipián verde, while red pumpkin seeds produce pipián rojo.
Chicken in Almond Mole
This Pueblan dish features chicken simmered in a rich almond-based mole sauce infused with spices like cumin, cloves, cinnamon and chili powder. The sauce obtains a smooth, thick texture from the almond paste. It’s a delicious example of how nuts can transform a mole.
Tacos Al Pastor
In this popular street food, thin slices of marinated pork are sliced from a rotating spit and topped with onion, cilantro and pineapple. The meat marinade often contains guajillo chilies, achiote and ground nuts like almonds or peanuts to add flavor. Pine nuts are also sometimes sprinkled on top for added crunch.
Chiles En Nogada
This iconic, seasonal dish features roasted poblano peppers stuffed with a nutty mixture of ground pork, fruit and spices. It’s topped with a creamy pecan-thickened sauce and pomegranate seeds. The green, white and red toppings are said to reflect Mexico’s flag.
Pollo con Cacahuates
Chicken simmered in a peanut sauce is a specialty of the Yucatán region. The hearty peanut-based sauce enriched with tomatoes, garlic and spices coats the juicy chicken. Chopped cilantro and peanuts are perfect garnishes.
Cajeta is a decadent Mexican caramel sauce usually made by slowly cooking sweetened milk with vanilla and cinnamon until thickened and caramelized. Some recipes also incorporate nuts like pecans, almonds or peanuts to lend a fabulously nutty flavor and aroma. Cajeta sauce drizzled over enchiladas, ice cream and flan is divine.
Nuts are often used to thicken, enrich and add flavor complexity to beloved Mexican drinks like the warm corn-based beverage atole and spiced hot chocolate. Almonds, sesame seeds, peanuts and pine nuts are some examples used in atole. Spiced hot chocolate is fabulously enhanced with a hit of hazelnut liqueur.
Regional Specialties Highlighting Nuts
Specific regions of Mexico are known for preparing nut-centric dishes showcasing local ingredients and cooking methods. Here are some of the most nutty regional specialties:
– Mole negro – Rich, complex mole sauce made with chocolate, spices, chilies and nuts like almonds
– Chicken or pork in mole amarillo – Meat simmered in tangy, yellow mole brightened with tomatillo and nuts
– Chapulines con nuez – Grasshoppers sautéed with tomatoes, garlic and lemon then tossed with pine nuts
– Mole poblano – Smoky, spicy mole flavored with chocolate, chilies and almonds
– Chiles en nogada – Roasted poblanos stuffed with meat, fruit and pecans
– Snapper Veracruzano – Snapper fillets baked in a sauce of tomatoes, olives, capers and toasted almonds
– Cochinita pibil – Achiote and citrus marinated pork topped with onion and habanero salsa
– Pollo en cacahuates – Chicken simmered in a hearty peanut sauce
– Sopa de lima – Lime soup with chicken, tomatoes and toasted pepitas
– Birria – Savory stew of chili-spiced meat and spices served with corn tortillas
– Chorizo con nueces – Spicy pork chorizo sausage sautéed with tomatoes, onions and pecans
Nuts Used for Garnish and Texture
In addition to incorporating nuts as key flavor components, Mexican cooks often use nuts simply as a garnish or finish to provide contrasting texture. Here are some examples:
– Tacos – Tacos al pastor, carne asada and other street tacos are often sprinkled with chopped peanuts, almonds, pepitas or pine nuts.
– Sopes and Gorditas – These thick masa cakes are great topped with beans, meat, cheese, lettuce, crema and chopped walnuts or pepitas.
– Tostadas – Crispy corn tostadas make an ideal edible vessel for layers of chicken, beans, cabbage, avocado and a crown of toasted pumpkin seeds.
– Ensalada – Nutty crunch enhances fresh Mexican vegetable and fruit salads. Toasted pepitas and almonds are common additions.
– Agua Fresca – Sliced almonds or pepitas complement the sweetness of agua fresca drinks like horchata and Jamaica.
– Michelada – The Mexican beer cocktail is rimmed with chile powder and chopped peanuts or pecans for fabulous crunch and heat.
– Ceviche – Chopped or candied nuts add appealing texture to the chunks of fresh fish and citrus in ceviche.
– Flan – Toasted pecans, almonds or pepitas sprinkled over velvety, rich flan caramel is an irresistible combination.
– Helado – Nuts like candied pecans or pistachios make delicious mix-ins for Mexican ice cream flavors like avocado, mango and cinnamon.
Nuts for Snacking
Nuts are also prepared as tasty standalone snacks and appetizers in Mexican cuisine:
– Candied Pepitas – Pepitas toasted with sugar make an addictively sweet-salty snack.
– Spicy Peanuts – Peanuts fried in oil with chili powder, garlic and lime juice become a zesty bar snack.
– Almendras Garapiñadas – Almonds fried in sugar syrup result in a crunchy, caramelized candy.
– Marzipan – Figs, strawberries and other fruits get a coating of sweet almond paste called mazapán.
– Nuez Garapiñada – Whole walnuts simmered in sugar syrup take on a shiny candy shell.
– Coctel de Frutos Secos – Blends of candied nuts like peanuts, pepitas and almonds served as a cocktail snack.
– Elotes – Grilled corn on the cob is slathered with cream, cheese and chili powder and finished with a sprinkle of toasted pepitas.
Incorporating Nuts When Cooking Mexican at Home
It’s easy to start integrating more nuts into your homemade Mexican meals:
– Make nutty salsas and guacamoles – Add chopped peanuts, almonds or pepitas to your mashed avocado or fresh tomato salsa recipes.
– Stuff ancho chiles with nuts – Fill roasted ancho peppers with a mixture of cheese, nuts like pine nuts or pecans, and herbs.
– Use nut-based sauces – Thicken up enchilada or taco sauces with a blend of toasted nuts like peanuts or almonds and spices.
– Simmer meats in nut sauces – Braise chicken or pork shoulder in a pipián verde or creamy almond sauce.
– Make Mexican pesto – Blend toasted pumpkin seeds, cilantro, garlic, lime and olive oil for a tangy pesto-style sauce.
– Add texture to sides – Toss toasted almonds, pepitas or peanuts into rice dishes, slaws and roasted veggies.
– Include nuts in fillings – Mix chopped walnuts, pecans or almonds into ground meat or vegetarian taco, enchilada and tamal fillings.
– Finish with nutty garnishes – Top tacos, tostadas, soup and more with a sprinkle of toasted pepitas, almonds or peanuts.
– Make nutty drinks – Blend hazelnut liqueur into Mexican hot chocolate or add a spoonful of almond butter to fruit licuados.
Where to Buy Nuts for Mexican Cooking
The selection, quality and price of nuts can vary greatly depending on where you purchase them. Here are some of the best options for buying nuts to use in Mexican recipes:
Mexican Grocery Stores
Stores specializing in Mexican ingredients will have the best selection of peppers, chilies, spices and other signature ingredients to complement your nuts. They also often carry pre-ground nut pastes used in moles which saves prep time.
Bulk Bins at Health Food Stores
Many health food markets have large bulk bins where you can purchase smaller quantities of nuts at more affordable prices. This allows you to buy exactly what you need.
Big Box Stores
Large chains like Walmart, Costco and Sam’s Club sell nuts at very low prices in large bags. Go this route if you cook Mexican food frequently and will use up a large quantity.
Nut Specialty Shops
These stores provide the ultimate variety and quality of nuts such as raw, unsalted, sprouted, seasoned, etc. However, prices are typically higher.
Buying from online stores like Nuts.com allows you to easily purchase bulk quantities of nuts essential for Mexican cuisine you may not find locally. Check shipping costs first.
Browse your local farmer’s market for deals on in-season, local nuts sold by regional vendors. You may find rare varieties not sold elsewhere.
Check your pantry before shopping – you may already have some of the common nuts called for in Mexican recipes on hand! With the right techniques, Mexican food presents endless opportunities to highlight the amazing flavors of nuts.
Nuts add so much to the diverse flavors, textures and overall experience of Mexican cuisine. Ancient cultures like the Aztecs understood the incredible culinary value of nuts like peanuts, almonds and pumpkin seeds native to their land. Today, Mexican cooks seamlessly blend nuts into sauces, fillings, snacks and other dishes both savory and sweet. The complex mole sauces of Oaxaca, tangy pipiáns of the Yucatán, and almond-stuffed chiles en nogada of Puebla all showcase how nuts can utterly transform a recipe. Whether used as the starring ingredient or simply as a finishing garnish, nuts complement Mexican food perfectly. With such a wide variety to choose from, cooks can constantly reinvent classic dishes and create new favorites for their own tables.