Not all Mexican spices burn your tongue. From classic enchiladas to taco bowls, each Mexican dish needs a set of spices in different ratios. Even the good old tamales are wrapped in flavor-releasing leaves.
The list of spices that make Mexican dishes so appetizing is pretty long.
We’ve compiled 12 must-have spices in your kitchen cabinet to cook traditional Mexican food for the next family dinner.
Table of Contents
The name allspice is apt to this spice as it tastes similar to cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and a little like cloves. But it is not made with any of these, though the name sounds like a mixture of spices.
The dried berries of Pimenta dioica are ground into a fine powder called allspice. A dozen berries make a teaspoon of allspice. These berries resemble peppercorns in structure and can be used in their whole form too.
Allspice is a key ingredient in jerk chicken as it smells warmly sweet. Cook them for a few minutes before you drop them into the meat bowl.
The ground powder will lose its flavor quickly than the whole berries. Use dried whole berries in pickles, and ground allspice in desserts.
Store it in an air-tight container away from direct sunlight. You don’t have to freeze allspice.
2. Ancho Powder
Mexican cuisine has several types of chile powders, and ancho powder is one of them. It is widely used due to its moderate spiciness. Fun fact, ancho means wide in Spanish.
Poblano chilies when ripe and dried are called ancho chilies, and they’re ground to make ancho powder. You can buy it in stores or make it at home. As ancho chiles are dark, the powder turns out reddish black.
Home-made ancho powder gives a wholesome flavor as it has no preservatives. And, it saves a lot of bucks too.
This is traditionally used in red chile sauce, but you don’t have to limit it to sauce alone. Use it in pork or beef for a fruity and mildly-hot touch. Ancho powder is a staple ingredient in Mexican breakfasts like tamales and hot chocolate. A pinch of ancho powder incorporates a fruity flavor into your truffles and cakes. If you love Mexican dishes, your spice cabinet must have ancho powder.
Anise is not star-anise, though the names are somewhat similar. They belong to different plant families. Anise and fennel are from the same family and are related closely in terms of flavor. Anise also tastes like black licorice, so much so that it is used in brewing licorice-flavored tea. Anise is used as a spice in both sweet and savory dishes.
Anise has a rich aroma that you can smell in several Mexican dishes. Bakers use anise in sugar cookies, sweetbread, and biscuits. Anise extract is blended in liqueurs too. You can verify it by adding water to anise-spiked liqueur and see if it turns cloudy. The alcoholic beverages anisette and absinthe acquire their sweet and spicy flavor from anise seeds.
Anise can be used as seeds or powder or extract. You can store the seeds for about 3 years, and powder lasts for 6 months. Freezing is not needed.
Cilantro is a common ingredient in Mexican food and is also called Mexican parsley. You may wonder why we’re talking about cilantro instead of coriander. Well, the herb cilantro’s seeds are called coriander, and they are used as a spice. Cilantro and coriander seeds have different tastes and flavors.
Taste experts say that people either hate or love cilantro, but there’s no in-between. This isn’t the case with coriander, though.
Coriander seeds are used in whole or ground form, and their flavor is hardly ever criticized. The seeds are roasted to enhance their aroma and then grounded. As the ground seeds lose flavor within a week, it is best to grind them a few minutes before adding them to your dish.
Coriander powder or seeds are a great way to spice up your curries and pickles. Any dish that uses chilis or chili powder would become better with a spoon of coriander in any form.
Cumin is grown all over the world and is a classic spice in Mexican cuisine. No spice can replace it satisfactorily. Cumin tastes slightly bitter and has a strong toasty flavor. It can modify any dish even though it is used in small quantities. Northern Mexican dishes like chimichangas and carnitas are some examples of this.
Cumin, both green and black, can be used for seasoning. Black cumin tastes more bitter and isn’t used as extensively as the green variant. Whether it’s whole cumin seeds or ground cumin, they last about 3 years.
Epazote is also called Mexican tea or wormseed and it belongs to the family Amaranthaceae.
Previously, epazote was unknown to many, but it is slowly getting the limelight it deserves. Epazote is a pungent herb that many do not dare to use. But once you’ve acquired a taste for it, you’d want to experience its citrus-like flavor over and over again.
Epazote’s aroma is similar to that of oregano, mint, and pepper but is two times stronger. It is traditionally used in Mexican black beans not merely for the flavor but due to its antiflatulent properties. Antiflatulent herbs reduce intestinal gas, which is a relief to everyone who loves black beans.
Epazote is also an essential ingredient in Mexican green salsa. Those who haven’t tried epazote tend to replace it with cilantro in their green salsa. But cilantro and epazote are not at all interchangeable due to distinct flavors.
You can grow epazote in a pot and keep it handy at all times as finding epazote in a store is not always successful.
Garlic, also called ajo in Spanish, is a basic ingredient in every Mexican savory dish. Garlic chunks are used as a topping to salsas and stews. Coarsely chopped garlic roasted in butter to reduce pungency before topping.
Though garlic smell is not everyone’s favorite, it is up to the cook to disguise garlic or make it profound. When done right, it is almost impossible to tell that the beautiful aroma is from pungent garlic. One cannot make authentic Mexican rice without garlic. Oil infused with garlic is used in making pasta with a twist.
Store garlic cloves in an open container at room temperature. Closed jars will promote fungal growth on the garlic due to humidity. Store garlic in the refrigerator only if it is chopped or minced.
In many Mexican dishes, garlic is accompanied by fresh onions. Onions and garlic are not so stinky if you learn how to prepare them.
8. Hoja Santa
Commonly known as Mexican pepper leaf, hoja santa is an aromatic herb with a plethora of flavors. It smells familiar to licorice, mint, nutmeg, black pepper, and anise. The flavor is so complex that it cannot be recreated with any substitutes.
Hoja santa belongs to the family Piperaceae. Its stems and leaves are used for various Mexican cooking methods. Younger plant parts have more fragrance and taste than older parts.
The leaves are heart-shaped and the veins are hard. Usually, the leaves are cut into strips before they’re used to season any stews like pozole and Oaxacan yellow mole.
Traditionally, tamales are wrapped in corn husks or hoja santa leaves. Hoja santa leaves are used to flavor cheese, tea, and coffee. Tea brewed with hoja santa is believed to have medicinal properties.
If you cannot get fresh hojas santa often, grind the dried leaves into a powder.
9. Mexican Oregano
Mexican oregano (Lippa graveolens) is from the family Verbenaceae and is unrelated to traditional oregano. Its flavor is similar to Mediterranean oregano united with lemon and licorice. Despite the strong flavor, Mexican oregano is less bitter.
Mexican oregano is more apt to Mexican food than regular oregano. Honestly, regular oregano doesn’t taste good in Mexican dishes. If there is no other option than replacing, Greek oregano can be the closest substitute.
Dried Mexican oregano is commonly used in chicken tinga and bean soup. Though fresh Mexican oregano is packed with more flavor, finding it is tough. Chili peppers are grounded with Mexican oregano and added to stews for a smokey touch.
You can store fresh Mexican oregano in the refrigerator for 3 days. Dry Mexican oregano stored in an air-tight container at room temperature will last 6 months.
10. Onion Powder
Onion powder is made by finely grounded dry onions. The onions are dehydrated or lyophilized to remove excess moisture.
Onion powder is used instead of fresh onion, but the powder is 10 times more powerful than a fresh onion. So, it is used for seasoning meat dishes and breakfast casseroles.
A huge challenge in storing onion powder is to prevent caking. Within the shelf life, you can break the clumps with a fork.
Commercially packaged onion powder when stored at room temperature will last as long as 4 years. Homemade onion powder made by following proper directions will last a year.
11. Smoked Serrano Chili Powder
The name says it all. Serrano chilis are native to Mexico and their powder is used in Mexican salsas. The ancho powder discussed earlier in this post is mildly hot, but smoked serrano chili powder is very hot and not for heat-sensitive foodies.
As long as you love spicy food, feel free to use this in tacos, enchiladas, barbequed meats, and any other savory Mexican dish.
This chili powder can be stored in a cool and dark place for 2 years.
Nutmeg is slightly sweet, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it in savory dishes. It is made from the seeds of an evergreen tree Myristica fragrans. Another spice called mace is made from the outer coat of the seed. But mice and nutmeg are not used together in any recipe.
To make nutmeg, the seeds are dried until the outer coat(mace) and the inner seed separates. The nutmeg is packed as whole seeds or ground into a coarse powder.
Nutmeg gives a comforting flavor to autumn beverages. Whole nutmeg is shaved into soups using a nutmeg grater. Adding more than suggested quantities of nutmeg in a recipe will dominate other flavors, making the dish intolerably spicy. It can also make you sick.
Ground nutmeg stored away from direct sunlight will remain fresh for 6 months and the whole nutmeg will last for a long time in the same conditions.
You might have found a few of these in your kitchen cabinet. Collect the rest too, and open doors to a delectable Mexican meal.