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The Ingredients You’ll Find In Traditional Mexican (And Tex-Mex) Food

Tuesday, June 30th, 2020
mexican food ingredients

The hearty warmth of authentic Mexican food is hard to beat! While this cuisine has regional variations, there are certain key ingredients that you’ll find in nearly any dish you try. These ingredients are the hallmarks of this regional style of cooking and are commonly used in Tex-Mex food too.

Spices and herbs

The spices and seasonings that go into a traditional dish aren’t always spicy! There’s a full spectrum of savory, spicy, and sweet to choose from. Cumin, cayenne, and black pepper are popular seasonings used to give Mexican food its familiar zesty taste.

In Tex-Mex cuisine, spices and herbs are used with great care to create the bold, distinctive flavors that make this style of cooking so unique. Like traditional Mexican cuisine, spices such as cumin, cayenne, and black pepper are frequently used. However, Tex-Mex tends to feature these spices in more robust quantities, creating heat levels that vary from mildly spicy to outright fiery.

Cilantro remains a vital herb in Tex-Mex cooking, bringing a bright, fresh counterpoint to the heavier, spiced flavors. Additionally, Tex-Mex cooks often incorporate chili powder, a blend of various ground chilies and other spices, to infuse dishes with a deep, smoky heat.

Avocados

Ceviche on a plate with avocado

Avocado, a rich and buttery fruit, is an essential part of Mexican cuisine. It brings a touch of Mexican flavor to a wide range of dishes, from simple sandwiches and salads to delightful ice cream treats.

In Tex-Mex cuisine, avocados take center stage as both a key ingredient and garnish. They are often mashed into guacamole, a creamy and spicy dip that doubles as a flavorful topping for tacos, nachos, and enchiladas. In many Tex-Mex dishes, slices of fresh avocado are also used to add a touch of creaminess and a hint of nutty flavor. These thick, velvety slices adorn various dishes, from fajitas to burrito bowls, complementing the robust, spicy flavors inherent in this vibrant cuisine.

Beans

Black beans and pinto beans are versatile staples, offering different flavors for various dishes. Transforming them into refried beans involves soaking, mashing, and refrying after seasoning. These delicious refried beans are commonly served as a side dish or used as a topping for tacos, burritos, and quesadillas.

In Tex-Mex cooking, refried beans are typically prepared with lard, which gives them an intense flavor profile and helps to thicken the texture. Canned refried beans can also be used in many Tex-Mex dishes.

Cheeses

Queso Oaxaca, a white cheese made in Mexico, is the perfect choice for quesadillas. With its easy melting and semi-soft texture, it adds deliciousness to enchiladas and tacos. In the US, it is also known as “quesillo” or “asadero” cheese.

In Tex-Mex cuisine, other varieties of cheese are often used to complement dishes. Mild cheddar cheese is a frequent ingredient in many dishes, adding creaminess and flavor to tacos, burritos, and other Mexican entrees. Monterey Jack cheese is also popular with Tex-Mex cooks because of its mild flavor and creamy texture.

Chipotles

Tacos Caribeños from The Plaza Restaurant and Bar

These canned smoke-dried jalapeños have a shelf life of up to six months. Chipotles, commonly used in salsas and marinades, offer a mild heat and a smoky flavor. In traditional Mexican cuisine, they serve as a condiment, adding a distinctive taste to tacos, enchiladas, and various other dishes.

In Tex-Mex cuisine, chipotle peppers are used more liberally. They are combined with spices and herbs to create marinades and rubs for meats like beef, chicken, or pork. Chipotle chili powder is a popular spice blend that gives dishes a unique smoky flavor and a mild kick of heat. It’s great for adding complexity to beef or chicken dishes, as well as hearty soups and stews.


Mexican chocolate

Mexican chocolate boasts a rich, earthy taste that complements a variety of ingredients. It adds depth to delectable treats like mousses and flans, as well as enhances the flavors of spiced turkey breast and mole sauce. Nowadays, this culinary gem is readily available in numerous large grocery stores and Latin markets.

In Tex-Mex cooking, Mexican chocolate is used in a variety of dishes, such as the famous chili con carne. It adds a hint of sweetness and depth of flavor to various entrees and desserts. Mexican chocolate can also be used to make sweet sauces for tacos or burritos, or added to tres leches cake for extra richness.

Crema

Crema, a Mexican variation of sour cream, enhances both hot and cold sauces, imparting a vibrant and tangy burst of flavor. Elevating flautas and tacos to new heights, it adds that final touch of indulgence. Tex-Mex chefs often use crema to top off their dishes, creating a creamy balance to the heat and spice. It can also be used as an ingredient in chili con carne or as a condiment for burritos, enchiladas, and quesadillas.

Limes

Margarita with a lime garnish in a fancy glass with a cactus stem from The Plaza Restaurant & Bar

The humble lime is the ultimate flavor enhancer for Mexican cuisine. A crucial ingredient for adding that final touch to dishes, drizzle it on tacos, mix it into salsa, or add a zesty kick to any dish in need of a burst of tangy goodness. It’s especially important in Tex-Mex cooking, as its zesty flavor helps to temper the heat of dishes. Lime juice is also used to make flavorful marinades for meats and seafood that will be grilled or roasted.

Limes are also integral to the vibrant array of Tex-Mex beverages. Their tangy freshness breathes life into cocktails and mocktails alike. In the classic margarita, lime juice adds a zesty kick that balances the sweet and salty elements of the drink. Lime slices are also a common garnish, providing a bright splash of color and an inviting aroma. Additionally, limes are often used in agua fresca and other non-alcoholic drinks, lending their citrusy brightness to these refreshing beverages.

Poblanos

These gentle chili peppers are commonly found in Mexican cuisine, particularly when they are roasted and peeled. When sliced into strips, they are known as rajas. They are used in a variety of dishes, ranging from salsas to quesadillas to chile rellenos. Tex-Mex chefs consider poblanos are an essential ingredient. Stuffed with cheese and fried until golden brown, they’re then smothered in a red sauce to make the classic chile relleno dish. Roasted poblanos can also be added to tacos or burritos for an extra layer of flavor.

Tomatoes

Mexican cuisine is known for its diverse range of sauces, many of which are tomato-based. These essential ingredients play a significant role in creating the delightful flavors found in traditional Mexican dishes.

Tomatoes are also a staple in Tex-Mex dishes such as enchiladas, tacos, and burritos. They’re usually diced or pureed to make sauces, salsas, and other condiments. Fresh tomatoes are often used for garnish or diced and added raw to salads for a burst of flavor. Tomatoes can also be cooked down into a zesty sauce that pairs well with grilled meats.

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