Perfect for Cinco de Mayo
Who doesn’t like a Taco? Especially the kind that has become a favorite in the US: spicy ground beef, lettuce, and condiments fitted into a corn tortilla that’s been fried in a crispy U-shape.
You know, the classic hard-shell taco that you find at every Mexican fast-food joint and in the #3 combination plate at your local Tex-Mex restaurant.
Good as they are in restaurants, homemade tacos are far superior. And they’re even better if you don’t use those overpriced packets of “taco seasoning” that you find in the Mexican aisle of your local supermarket. Add your own spices for the best flavor.
They’re really simple to make. And did I mention they’re extra tasty?
Although you can make vegetarian tacos, the classic filling is meat (specifically, ground beef). So that’s what we’re making today. You can substitute chicken, as I’ll discuss in the Notes.
The toppings I specify here — lettuce, cheese, jalapeño peppers, and Fresh Salsa or Picante Sauce — are standard, but you can alter the mix and quantity to suit your whim. I provide a list of ingredients and approximate quantities in the recipe, and discuss alternatives in the Notes. By the way, the ingredients and procedure are largely identical for both hard-shell and soft tacos (I’ll discuss soft tacos in the notes).
Tacos get a great deal of their flavor from the meat filling. And the secret to developing good meat flavor is to sauté it with onions and seasonings. A lot of recipes call for using “chili powder,” which is actually a combination of powdered ground chilies mixed with cumin, coriander, oregano, and other seasonings. (For a full discussion about the difference between chile powder and chili powder, see my post on Chili Basics.) We’re using chile powder here, but I’ll discuss how to substitute chili powder in the Notes.
I developed my recipe largely by eating tacos and observing what was in them! But there are many recipes out there, and mine is partially adapted from one in Cooking Texas Style by Candy Wagner and Sandra Marquez. Preparation time is 15 minutes (assuming you have Fresh Salsa and Picante Sauce on hand; add additional time if you need to make both from scratch).
I figure a pound of meat is enough for 8 to 12 taco shells (it depends on how full you stuff them with toppings). You can easily scale up the recipe if you need more. In my world, this will serve 3 to 4 people (assuming you have additional side dishes). Leftover taco meat keeps in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several days.
Leftover lettuce and such? Throw it out, unless you have a use for it the same day (it's quality will diminish quickly).
For the Taco Meat:
- 1 medium onion, minced
- 2 - 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 tablespoon neutral oil
- salt to taste
- 2 tablespoons ancho chile powder (may substitute another variety, or “Chili” powder; see Notes)
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
- additional salt to taste (about 1 teaspoon)
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- ~3 cups lettuce, shredded (ice berg is traditional; I like romaine or leaf lettuce)
- 1 recipe (a cup) of Fresh Salsa (or commercial; may substitute chopped tomatoes, etc.; see Notes)
- 1 - 1½ cups shredded Cheddar cheese ~1 cup Picante Sauce (optional; may substitute commercial variety)
- 1 - 2 jalapeño peppers, sliced into rings, for garnish (optional)
- 12 taco shells (you can buy commercially prepared hard taco shells, which is what most people do; or you can make your own from corn tortillas — for more on this, see the Notes)
- This recipe assumes you’ve already made Fresh Salsa and Picante Sauce. If you haven’t, you need to do that first (or substitute commercial varieties).
- Mince onion and garlic. Put skillet on stovetop over medium heat. When warm, add oil. When it’s hot (it will shimmer), add onion and garlic and sauté until it’s translucent but not brown (about 5 minutes).
- Meanwhile, measure out your chile powder, cumin, coriander, oregano, cayenne pepper, and salt. When the onion is ready, add spices to the onion, stir, and cook for about a minute.
- Now add the ground beef. With a wooden spoon or spatula, break up the meat and combine with the onion and spices. You want to break up all clumps so the meat has a fine texture. Sauté until deep brown, stirring from time to time (about 5 - 10 minutes).
- Meanwhile, prepare your toppings: Wash and shred lettuce, shred cheese, slice jalapeño peppers if using (wash your hands when you’re done — otherwise the oil may get into your eyes), and get Fresh Salsa and Picante Sauce ready.
- When meat is done, drain grease if necessary, and make your tacos!
- To build a taco, I usually put some meat in first; then Picante Sauce (if using); then lettuce; then Fresh Salsa (or chopped tomatoes and onions); then cheese; then top with a couple of jalapeño slices. But layer your ingredients in whatever order you prefer.
- You can either make the tacos in the kitchen and serve them, or just put all the ingredients out and let people build their own. I usually prefer the second approach.
- If you want to substitute chicken for beef, start with about 2 cups of cooked chicken cut into fine dice. Cook onion and garlic, add spices, then add chicken. Since the chicken is already cooked, you don’t need to brown it. However, you do want to cook it for at least 5 minutes so that it mixes well with the spices and onions, and absorbs their flavor.
- To aid that mixing, I usually add an 8-ounce can of tomato sauce to the pan when I add the chicken, and cook until nice and thick.
- Some people like to add an 8-ounce can of tomato sauce to beef when making beef tacos. I sometimes do, too. In Step 4, after you add the beef, let it cook for 5 minutes until it’s no longer pink. Then add the tomato sauce and cook for another 10 minutes, until you have a thick mixture.
- I like ancho chile powder in this recipe — it has a lot of flavor but isn’t too hot. But substitute another variety of chile powder if you like (chipotle is particularly nice).
- If you want to substitute chili powder (chile powder mixed with seasonings), increase the amount to 2½ tablespoons, and decrease the amount of cumin, coriander, and oregano to ½ teaspoon each.
- If you don’t have Fresh Salsa on hand, you can substitute fresh tomatoes and onion. Dice a large tomato and small onion. You may want more than that if you really like to pile on the toppings. You may also want to mince some cilantro, and add another jalapeño pepper as a garnish.
- You can also add other vegetables as toppings. Almost anything that you’d consider serving raw probably will work in tacos. Guacamole is common. Cucumbers are refreshing. Diced zucchini will take tacos almost into health food territory!
- If you want to make soft tacos instead of hard-shell tacos, you’ll need to use corn or flour tortillas, and soften them. I like the method Rich Bayless suggests in Mexican Everyday: sprinkle a clean dish towel with about 3 tablespoons of water, wrap 12 corn or flour tortillas in it, and place in a microwavable plastic bag or covered casserole. Nuke at 50% power for 3 - 4 minutes (you’re trying to turn the water into steam). Then let rest for a couple of minutes so the steam softens the tortillas.
- When making soft tacos, just layer the ingredients onto the tortilla, roll, and eat! The only trick is not to put too much stuff on the tortilla; otherwise it will be too full to roll properly.
- What to do if you want hard-shell tacos and have only fresh tortillas on hand? Make your own hard taco shells! Put about ½ inch oil into a small skillet, then heat to about 350 degrees. Using tongs, dip half of the tortilla into the hot oil, and fry until it’s crisp. Lift it out, and immerse the uncooked half, bending the tortilla into a U-shape, and fry until it’s cooked. Make sure you hold the opening of the taco apart with the tongs as you’re frying — you want enough space in the U so you can fill your taco.
- These shells will taste great! But they’re also a lot of trouble. Easier to buy your taco shells already formed. Or make soft tacos.
Soft tacos were the original tacos (sort of like a sandwich). And as with a sandwich, the fillings are limited only by one’s imagination. Some of the more common varieties include Tacos al Pastor (thin strips of pork are the main ingredient), Fish Tacos (or Tacos de Pescado, with fried or grilled fish as the filling), and Breakfast Tacos (where eggs dominate). In Mexico, tacos are commonly eaten more as an appetizer or a snack than as the entrée in a meal.
And although I suppose you can find the hard-shell style in Mexico these days, the soft style is what Mexicans most often eat. They also have a fried taco, where a toothpick is used to hold together a soft taco (keeping it shut so the filling doesn’t fall out), which is then deep fried.
The hard-shell taco is a US invention, and according to Wikipedia, it dates back to the mid-20th century, perhaps the 1940s. Glen Bell was the guy who put these on the culinary map. Bell was an American businessman who opened his first food establishment in 1948 (a hot dog stand called Bell’s Drive-In). He went on to found Taco Tia’s, which sold hard-shell tacos. In 1962, he founded Taco Bell — today’s ubiquitous “Mexican” fast food chain.
Make Your Mouth Happy
The hard-shell variety is what I usually make — to household acclaim.
“Wow,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs as she took her first bite. “Where has this flavor been all my life? It’s been ages since we’ve made these!”
“Makes your mouth happy,” I agreed between bites.
For although hard-shell tacos may not be “authentic” or even “Mexican,” they deliver awesome flavor. Perfect for Cinco de Mayo — which, as we discussed in the post on Fresh Salsa and Picante Sauce, is sort of a made-up holiday anyway, at least in the United States, where it's celebrated more than in Mexico. Kind of fitting that we eat an essentially American food for what is mostly an American holiday.
“That’s all very interesting,” said Mrs K R. “But less talk, more taco. I’m having another.”
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