This feature is brought to you by our friends at Stella Artois.
When we’re into a cuisine, we food obsessives—no, I will not use the “F” word—tend to go a little type-A overachiever. We scavenge specialty stores for in-the-know-only ingredients; dedicate hours to pouring over books and magazines and websites in search of pro techniques; geek out over gadgetry (and not feel the slightest bit of shame for splurging on it). Whatever it takes to go from amateur to pro, basically.
In the spirit of enabling this noble cause, we’ve put together a list of key ingredients and techniques that any master of Mexican cuisine must have in their back pocket.
The ingredient that’s going to take your Mexican food game to the next level? Two words: “Corn smut.” What, no? Would you prefer “Mexican truffle”? I’ll leave it to you to sweat the semantics, but the point is that both refer to a delicacy known as huitlacoche, a type of gray-black puffy fungus that grows on ears of corn. Your growing season for the fresh stuff is typically between May and November, but you can seek out frozen, canned, or jarred version in Mexican specialty stores. Prized for its earthy, smoky, mushroomy flavor, it’s a popular filler for tacos, enchiladas, and quesadillas. Try this quesadillas de huitlacoche recipe.
There’s a crucial ingredient you need to pick up from the canned foods section for tonight’s Mexican feast, and no, I’m not talking about beans. Chipotles in adobo are smoked and dried jalapeños that have been rehydrated in a tangy, slightly sweet spiced tomato-vinegar sauce and they’re the in-the-know hack you need to take your sauce, marinade, and overall seasoning game to the next level. Use the plumped chipotles or adobo sauce on their own, or better yet, blend the two together for a powerhouse purée base.
Particularly prevalent in the Yucatán and Oaxacan cuisines of Mexico, achiote paste (aka recardo rojo) is a bold mixture that features nutty-peppery annatto seeds as its star. Slight variations abound, but usually the orangey red-tinting paste will also include cumin, coriander, garlic, allspice, cloves, orange juice, and black peppercorns. You can experiment with it as a wet spice rub for chicken, steak, and fish, but just don’t try and make Cochinita Pibil without it.
The next time you want to cook Mexican, go ahead and give your good pals butter and olive oil a vacation day because lard is stepping in to cover. An essential component in the fresh masa dough, used to make tamales, and the fried part of refried beans, the pork fat adds a unique richness and complexity of flavor to whatever its working with. Look for it at your local butcher shop or specialty store.
It’s time to put the pepper jack aside and get some real Mexican cheese in your kitchen. There’s the feta-esque queso fresco, a fresh cow’s milk acid-set cheese (dynamite in a torta or crumbled over tostadas, or the gooey, mozzarella-like oaxaca cheese, an obvious choice for quesadillas. And the nearly-all-purpose one to always have on-hand, of course, is cotija. The salty, creamy, hard cow’s milk cheese will amp up whatever it’s sprinkled over—from huevos rancheros to carnitas tacos and just about everything in between. Though you’d be hard pressed to find a better application for the cheese than the street food favorite elote, where it smothers an ear of grilled corn slathered in spiced mayo.
The hulled pumpkin seed has a more important role in traditional Mexican cuisine than merely adding a taste of fall flair. A popular standalone snack that can be dressed up in all manners of creative seasonings, it also makes a might fine texture-enhancing garnish for dishes as well.
Move over crème, Anglaise. Take a seat, fudge. It’s cajeta’s turn to play dessert sauce boss. A goat’s milk version of dulce de leche, this rich, sweet, creamy caramel is BFFs with everything from churros and ice cream to flan and even dessert empanadas.
You’re going to need to find a pitcher for these flowers, and not be used as a vase. Infused in a liquid (water or tequila) these dried buds impart a tremendously refreshing tart-tangy profile as well as a gorgeous, vibrant magenta hue.
To really master the Mexican cuisine you're going to need to get in good with your griddle. Asar or tostar refers to the high-heat technique of dry roasting (aka no fat) that is used to cook various vegetables, chiles, and spices (adding an inimitable depth of flavor to salsas and sauces), as well as the iconic fresh tortillas. The cooking vessel of choice needed here is called a comal, typically it’s made of clay but iron versions are more prevalent stateside.
Since a lot of Mexican cuisine requires getting up close and personal with wide, wonderful world of chiles, you’re going to want to have this desflemar technique in your back pocket. Basically, the process requires briefly soaking the pepper in a solution of water and either vinegar or salt in order to neutralize its bite without compromising flavor. (Pro tip: This method also works really well with especially powerful, tear-inducing onions.)
Speaking of chiles and flames, you best acquaint yourself with a technique called poner a sudar, a clever culinary dance of fire-charring and sweating that is used to remove the skin off peppers like the poblano. Sure, you could achieve a similar effect using the broiler instead of working the over a direct flame, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t have the same fearless, badass effect.
If you want to really look like a pro, eschew the modern-day convenience of a food processor or spice grinder by using a molcajete (mortar and pestle) to flex your paste-making muscles. And, entertaining as it is, the pulverizing tool behind the best spice mixes, sauces, and guacs is not all for show. Technically speaking, it does a much better job of expelling flavors from ingredients and incorporating them uniformly.