It can be tricky to talk about the Mexican pantry, given the profound diversity of Mexican food itself. The foods of Mexico are fiercely regional and distinct, from the fresh clams and varied seafood dishes of Baja California to the Mayan-, Dutch-, and Caribbean-influenced flavors of the Yucatán.
But, keeping in mind the country's unique culinary traditions, it's fair to say that Mexican cuisine depends on three core staples: corn, beans, and chilies. The exact types of each will vary all across Mexico, but collectively, they form a foundation that weaves its way through the kitchen, supported by a wealth of herbs, spices, nuts, and seeds. Together, these items reflect Mexican cooking's complex identity, which brings together a mix of preconquest foodstuffs and items that arrived after 1521, via trade routes to Europe and Asia.
Broadly speaking, we can say that a well-prepared traditional Mexican dish captures heat, salt, acidity, and smoke. Many classic preparations call for nuts and seeds as thickeners in place of flour, and chili powders are often eschewed in favor of whole fresh or dried chilies. Depending on the recipe, chilies are boiled, fried, toasted, roasted, or simply hydrated and blended into sauces. And finally, because Mexico is such a fertile territory for agriculture, freshness is paramount in making good food: Herbs, fruit, chilies, and citrus dazzle on their own, without needing much else.
In the United States, the quality of Mexican ingredients varies depending on where you are. Cities with large Mexican and Mexican-American populations still tend to have better stuff, but there's certainly more available than there used to be. Many mainstream supermarkets now carry staple items like tomatillos and jalapeños. I've found tomatillos and dried chilies in rural South Carolina, and fresh corn masa and xoconostle (prickly pear) in Atlanta. In the Northeast, where only 20 years ago it was hard to find cilantro (or so people tell me), there are now tortillerías, and markets selling Mexican vegetables like the huauzontle.
Even after attending cooking school in Mexico City, living there for years, and writing a Mexican cookbook, I'll be the first one to admit that I'm still learning about this astonishingly multifaceted cuisine. I spoke with several experts to put together this list of essential pantry ingredients, and together we settled on the core items you'll need to get started making great Mexican food at home—all available in the States, as long as you're willing to look around a bit or place a few orders online. Let's take a look.
In Mexico, tortillas are what completes a meal; in some communities, they are the meal. They are utensil, wrapper, and edible plate. Stale and doused with sauce, they shine as chilaquiles and enchiladas. Grilled, baked, or fried whole, they transform into sturdy tostadas, a base on which to stack almost anything. Cut up and fried, they're crisp totopos (chips); stuffed, rolled, and fried, they become flautas and tacos dorados. And that hardly even touches on the entire canon of tacos, which is so vast that there's a verb for it: taquear.
Flour tortillas reign in northern Mexico, where they take myriad forms, from the smaller rounds most Americans know and love to the giant Sonoran sobaqueras—also known as tortillas de agua—which are made by hand-stretching a thin dough over one's hands and forearms.
Meanwhile, corn tortillas, a millennia-old staple in the Mexican diet, rule the Central and South. Traditional corn tortillas are made from kernels that have been treated with an alkaline solution, typically calcium hydroxide, also known as slaked lime. The process, known as nixtamalization, does several crucial things to the corn, most importantly adding calcium (an essential mineral before the Spaniards arrived, as there were no indigenous animals to provide milk) and unlocking important nutrients in the corn so that they are more readily absorbed by the body.
In the United States, you can find great (and still warm!) homemade flour tortillas at tortillerías and large Mexican grocery chains, particularly in the West, the Southwest, and Texas. If you're going the packaged route, La Tortillería is a decent choice, and some folks swear by the raw versions you heat up on a griddle. But most packaged flour tortillas are a far cry from the real deal, with a slightly sour aftertaste and gummy texture. Happily, making them from scratch is a breeze.
Finding great corn tortillas is an even trickier proposition, since packaged grocery store brands are almost uniformly awful. The one exception is El Milagro, available only in Chicago, Texas, Michigan, and Georgia. Otherwise, I highly recommend making your own or, at the very least, seeking out corn tortillas made from fresh, stone-ground nixtamal, which taste the best and are worth the effort required to find them.
It's actually easier to find these tortillas than it used to be. Big Mexican grocery store chains sell fresh nixtamal corn tortillas at their tortilla counters, as do growing numbers of tortillerías popping up around the United States. More and more Mexican restaurants are stone-grinding their own masa in-house, and they may sell you a package of tortillas if you ask.
Beans are almost as important as tortillas in a Mexican meal. They can be served alongside a typical guisado (a stewed dish of meat or vegetables in a chili-based sauce), spooned on top of a taco, stuffed into a chile relleno, or eaten plain at any time of day. Canned beans work in a pinch, but dried will taste better every time, and the leftovers will force you to get creative. Leftover beans can be turned into soups, or refried and slathered into tortillas, or puréed into a sauce for enfrijoladas. Markets in Mexico sell a wide variety; in the States, Rancho Gordo is a great resource for more off-the-beaten-path varieties—try the alubia blanca, a mild, creamy-fleshed bean, or the stunning domingo rojo.
Markets in Mexico always stock fresh bundles of hierbas de olor (aromatic herbs), a mix of thyme, marjoram, Mexican bay leaves, and Mexican oregano. These herbs, which are used either fresh or dried, make an appearance in almost every savory dish. Cooks add bay leaf and sprigs of herbs to stock, which in turn becomes the essential liquid stirred into mole, rice, and guisados. Different herbs are also blended into soups, stews, beans, and moles. (This does not count the fresh herbs that also flavor soups, beans, and other savory dishes.)
It's difficult to find hierbas de olor bundles outside Mexico, but you can make your own by drying fresh herbs in the microwave. And, at the very least, you should absolutely try to find Mexican oregano, which has an aromatic, bright quality unmatched by Italian oregano.
Mexico actually has several native oregano strains, including one native to Yucatán. This strain, Lippia graveolens, is often what's labeled as Mexican oregano in the United States, says David Sterling, owner of the Los Dos cooking school in Mérida, Yucatán, and author of Yucatán: Recipes From a Culinary Expedition. "It contains more essential oils than the Old World varieties, and so it's more pungent and fragrant," he adds. You can find Mexican oregano online, in Mexican grocery stores, or in the specialty-food aisles of some mainstream supermarkets.
A mild dried chili with a maroon-colored skin, guajillos add a signature deep-red color to enchilada sauces, salsas, chilaquiles, moles, tamal fillings, and stews. Woodsy, tangy, and slightly bitter, they have a certain punchy freshness lacking in other dried chilies. They may not have the fruitiness of anchos and mulatos, but they're powerhouses of flavor nonetheless. If you're shopping for them in the United States, make sure you get true guajillos—I've spotted colorados mislabeled as guajillos on more than one occasion. To identify the real thing, look for chilies that are around six inches long, with a reddish-brown skin.
As with all dried chilies, guajillos are generally stemmed and seeded before use, at which point they can be toasted, fried, or placed directly in water to hydrate. Once the skin is soft and/or the chilies have released their essential fragrance, they're mixed with water or stock, aromatics such as onions and garlic, and an acidic element such as tomatoes, and then blended into a sauce. Guajillo skin is on the tough side—even after hydrating in water, it may not break down completely, so have a strainer handy if you're making a sauce.
When purchasing, choose chilies that are soft and pliable whenever possible. Brittle chilies are old and won't have as much flavor. Pati Jinich, a Mexico City–born chef and author, most recently, of Mexican Today, says she stores her dried chilies in sealed plastic bags, in a dry, cool area of her kitchen.
Dried Árbol Chilies
Dried árbol chilies are so spicy that they're not generally used in guisado sauces because the effect is overpowering. Instead, the blood-red dried chilies provide punch for table salsas, the type that are drizzled on whatever you happen to be eating: eggs, tacos, pizza, quesadillas.
To seed them, snip off the stem and shake the seeds out, or carefully cut them open with kitchen shears. Some árbol chilies I've bought in the United States are too brittle to cut; it helps to warm them on a gently heated comal or griddle first. Find them at Mexican grocery stores, or online at Melissa's, Mex Grocer, or Marx Pantry.
Ancho chilies, also known as dried Poblanos, are plump and wrinkly, with a very dark red skin. Their slight bitterness and rush of heat are accompanied by a hint of red berries. Hotter than guajillos, but not as hot as, say, serranos, they're used primarily in moles, guisado sauces, and adobos. Anchos, once they have been hydrated in water, also make fabulous chiles rellenos when stuffed with a wedge of mild cheese, then battered and fried.
As with guajillo chilies, you can toast and then hydrate the chilies until their skins are soft and pulpy before blending them with aromatics and stock.
Chipotles en Adobo
Canned chipotles en adobo are small, very hot morita chilies (moritas are dried, smoked jalapeños), bathed in a tangy, spicy, often chili-based sauce. You can find them sold under all sorts of brands—I like La Morena—and they're a quick way to add heat and smoke to a dish. The smoky blend is most popularly used in tinga (shredded chicken in a tomato-chipotle sauce), albóndigas al chipotle (meatballs in chipotle sauce), and fideo seco (fideo noodles in tomato sauce). Jinich calls it her "number one pantry ingredient"—she uses the chilies in quesadillas, omelettes, avocado toast, soups, pasta, rice, and mashed potatoes. Taste the adobo sauce before you add the chipotles to a recipe, because some brands are sharper and more vinegary than others.
Lime isn't the only thing that adds acidity to Mexican cooking. Vinegars add necessary astringency to salsas; adobos (thick, tangy chili-based marinades, often used to flavor meat or preserve chilies); pickles; and salad dressings. White vinegar, apple cider vinegar, and sugarcane vinegar (vinagre de caña) are popular, but Mexico also has a rich culture of fruit vinegars, which are often homemade using fruits such as pineapple and banana. Susana Trilling, chef and owner of Seasons of My Heart Cooking School in Oaxaca, says she likes to use pineapple vinegar for pickling chilies and cabbage, and occasionally to add extra flavor to a guisado.
Mexican cinnamon, also known as Ceylon cinnamon, is different from the cassia typically used in the United States. The sticks are lighter in color, and the bark thinner and more crumbly, but the most notable distinction is their flavor, which is headier, warmer, and not as sharp as cassia. Mexican cinnamon is used in an abundance of applications: ground into moles, used as a flavor base in desserts like rice pudding, and added to traditional beverages like horchata. In Yucatán, Sterling notes, it joins allspice and oregano in a recado blanco (spice blend). Find Mexican cinnamon at Mexican grocery stores, organic markets, or online.
Allspice berries, known as pimienta gorda (literally "fat peppercorn") in Spanish, are often toasted and ground to add warmth and zing to salsas, moles, adobos, and stews. Sterling says most people don't realize that allspice berries are native to the New World, in particular southeastern Mexico and the Antilles. "It grows as a large, very beautiful shade tree," Sterling says. "The leaves also smell like the spice and are used in cooking." While popular throughout all of Mexico, allspice is virtually impossible to avoid in Yucatán—most dishes carry a fragrant mix of oregano and allspice.
Achiote, known in English as annatto, lends deep red color and a subtle earthy flavor to all kinds of Mexican dishes. You can find it in seed form, in a pure paste, or in blocks seasoned with other spices and vinegar, called recados. It's the key ingredient in cochinita pibil, perhaps Yucatán's most famous export to the rest of the country; it's also often used to add color to tacos al pastor. The seeds can be used to lend a ruby hue to lard, while the pure paste often flavors and colors everything from meat to rice. In my experience, the blocks are the easiest to use, but you're best off purchasing the form your recipe calls for.
In the United States, you can find whole achiote seeds or the recado spice bars (I like El Yucateco) in many Mexican grocery stores and online. The bars make wonderful marinades for meat, particularly when "doctored up," as Sterling says, with Seville orange juice, more salt, and some oregano. You can also make your own recado by grinding achiote seeds from scratch in a clean coffee grinder, though the seeds need to be sifted and re-ground multiple times. "I always recommend trying to grind your own at least once, for the reward of the work, and also so that you understand the process," Sterling adds.
Pumpkin seeds, known as pepitas, might be the most important seed in Mexico. Ground, they act as a crucial buttery, nutty thickener for moles and pipiánes (sauces, similar to moles, that are dependent on pumpkin seeds). Roasted and seasoned, they're eaten in their hulls as a snack. And in central Mexico, they're peeled and mixed into sweetened puffed-amaranth bars known as alegrías. Pepitas are also used in several typical candies, including tortitas de Santa Clara (round cookies covered with a layer of pumpkin-seed icing) and sweet, dense jamoncillos, fudge made with ground pumpkin seeds and sugar.
The pumpkin seeds I've found in the United States don't have the same airy plumpness and crackle as the ones in Mexico, but they will most definitely get the job done. If you have extras lying around, try tossing them onto your favorite salad for some crunch.
If you've never tasted Mexican chocolate, its flavor may come as a surprise—sweetened with extra sugar and spiced with cinnamon, it's sold in round bricks that are used to flavor everything from beverages like chocolate de agua and champurrado (a traditionally corn-thickened gruel) to moles. (Obligatory disclaimer: Not all moles contain chocolate.)
The quantity of sugar can vary from brand to brand, so it's best to taste a little before you use it in a recipe. I like Rancho Gordo's Mexican chocolate, which is rich and not too sweet. Jinich says she loves the more sugary Abuelita, "because that's what I grew up eating." Trilling—who makes a wonderful Mexican chocolate under her cooking-school brand name—prefers to hold back on the sugar, since too much has a tendency to dominate the dish.
Lard, first introduced to Mexican shores by the Spanish, remains the fat of choice in the traditional Mexican kitchen, thanks to its rich depth of flavor. It's used in the production of flour tortillas and tamales, and for frying all sorts of antojitos (masa- and tortilla-based snacks). Lard is key to traditional carnitas and chicharrón, and the go-to frying fat for beans, nuts, bread, and chilies.
In Mexico, lard is sold by the pound, in gigantic vats at butcher counters. In the United States, butcher counters or Mexican grocery stores are still the best place to buy it, unless you make your own. (Avoid the blocks of lard sold in supermarkets' refrigerated sections, which tend to have a strange texture and not much flavor.) Lard should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator, where it will keep for several months, if not longer.