- There is nothing like going out for tacos, but with some help, your at-home tacos can also taste great.
- Heat your tortillas.
- Don’t forget the citrus.
If you’re a taco fan (and honestly, who isn’t?), you’ve likely noticed a distinct difference between homemade tacos and the restaurant versions with fresh salsas, grilled meats, and tortillas shaped and pressed in-house.
Both incarnations of the taco have their own special kind of charm, but if you find yourself craving professional-level eats on Taco Tuesday, it’s helpful to learn how to recreate them in your own kitchen. We decided to ask a group of chefs specializing in Mexican cuisine for their tips on how to make restaurant-grade tacos at home, and we’re bringing you 10 key pieces of advice.
If you have the time and the inclination, consider making your own tortillas.
According to Chef Joe Martinez of ChaCha’s Latin Kitchen in Brea and Irvine, California, “most people think the filling [of a taco] is the most important part, and while it is crucial, the authenticity of a taco comes from the tortilla.” Because tortillas provide the external structure of the taco, you can’t settle for anything less than excellence if you want your at-home tacos to taste like the ones from an awesome restaurant or taco truck.
Making tortillas seems like a complicated endeavor, but it’s actually not as tough as you might expect. Many pro chefs prefer their tacos on soft corn tortillas, and while a special tortilla pan (known as a comal) is an ideal tool for tortilla-making, any cast-iron skillet can do the job. Chef Brian Riggenbach of The Mockingbird in Nashville, Tennessee talked us through the process:
“Something that I like to do is roll out my own corn tortillas. Don’t be afraid – it’s easier than you think. Masa Harina instant corn flour is a readily available product (and a fine substitute) for freshly ground masa.
“The process is unabashedly simple; it is just liquid (typically water or stock) added to the masa flour. Then you form a dough and press it or roll it out.
“The next step after the dough is formed is to roll it out thinly and then cut out rounded shapes 4 or 6 inches wide. Over a medium-heat (not too hot or they’ll burn) dry cast iron [skillet], place your tortilla down, making sure to flip on both sides until the tortilla is slightly puffed up and cooked through. Wrap the tortillas in a towel and store on a plate until you are done cooking all of them and ready to serve.”
Should you choose to use store-bought tortillas, opt for refrigerated or frozen versions rather than shelf-stable ones.
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While freshly-made tortillas give you the best possible product, time constraints can remove this possibility. Luckily, high-quality, pre-made tortillas can be found in Latin markets and even at well-appointed supermarkets, but you need to know what to avoid. Specifically, shelf-stable tortillas aren’t doing your tacos any favors.
Chef Richard Sandoval of Richard Sandoval Hospitality, a group of 45 restaurants worldwide focusing on Mexican flavors, suggests looking to the refrigerated section of your market for better tortilla choices. “Whenever possible, choose refrigerated tortillas over the shelf-stable ones – they simply taste better and have better texture. There’s a huge difference between brands, so experiment until you find one that you like (the tortillas should be flavorful and chewy and not dissolve easily on contact with sauce),” Sandoval advised.
If you can’t find a refrigerated store-bought tortilla to fit the bill, check the frozen section, suggests Chef Bernie Matz of Bodega Taqueria y Tequila in Miami Beach, Florida: “To make a great taco, you need a great tortilla. Avoid any tortillas off the shelf in a Supermarket. They are full of preservatives and [often] have a weird smell. Go to the nearest Central American market (bodega) and look for a refrigerated or ‘better’ frozen homemade corn tortilla. Yes, it has to be corn. If frozen, let the tortillas defrost in the refrigerator overnight. Now you’re ready to fill them with deliciousness and make a killer taco.”
When using pre-prepared tortillas — whether homemade or store-bought — be sure to re-heat them correctly.
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An ideal taco involves a properly-heated tortilla with just the right amount of char. To achieve this standard, Chef Todd Nash of The Blind Burro in San Diego, California, recommends this technique:
“To re-heat your tortillas, use either a comal or [put the tortillas] directly over the flame on your stove. Also, if using store-bought tortillas, dip the edges in some water [combined with] a couple of tablespoons of oil. The oil and water help to steam the tortillas a bit, and the oil [also] helps keep the texture [consistent] and retain heat. To store your warmed tortillas, use a kitchen towel that is very slightly dampened and wrap your pre-warmed tortillas in it. You can put them all in a bowl with a lid, and they will stay warm for a long time. Also, a little char on your tortilla is a good thing. It adds another layer of complexity to the flavor.”
Add chorizo to your ground beef to amp up the flavor.
- Hollis Johnson
For the most classic Tex-Mex style tacos, your filling needs a base of ground beef. However, even well-seasoned versions of this popular taco ingredient can lack dimension. To give your ground taco beef an extra layer of nuance and bold flavor, consider mixing in some spicy Mexican chorizo.
According to Chef Morgan Bolling of America’s Test Kitchen, a food and media company based in Boston, Massachusetts, “we recently developed a ground beef taco recipe and [mixed] in some fresh Mexican chorizo with the ground beef. It added smokiness, porky richness, and extra layer of spice with only one ingredient. It can be a little hard to find, but is often available at high-end grocery stores or Latin [markets].”
Taco toppings can come in many different incarnations, but balance remains essential.
From typical picks like lettuce and sour cream to more inventive options like jicama slaw and Texas queso, a taco’s toppings give chefs a prime opportunity to define the dish’s flavor profile. But while you should feel completely free to experiment with toppings, it ‘s important to consider the overall balance of the ingredients you put on top of your tacos.
Jan Stewart, director of culinary operations for Midwestern mini-chain Condado Tacos, emphasizes the need for toppings that play well off of each other without overwhelming the base taco filling and the tortilla. “Build a balanced yet complex taco by pairing your protein with complementary toppings. Too many fresh toppings and your taco will be cold. Too many salsas and sauces and your taco will be soggy,” Stewart warned INSIDER.
Making your own salsas brings freshness and customizable flavors to your tacos.
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Crafting your tortillas from scratch may be too time-consuming for a weekday dinner situation, but making your own salsa involves a quick process that’s well worth the slightly-extra effort. Chef Jonathan Rohland of Bartaco, a nationwide chain of upscale-casual Mexican restaurants, described the ease and creative license offered by salsa-making:
“Maybe buy the tortillas but learn to make your salsas. I have yet to taste a great-quality salsa that you can buy. The main reason is that it takes fresh, bright ingredients like lime, tomatillos, tomatoes, garlic, jalapenos and serranos, and cilantro; you can’t jar this stuff [and expect it to taste as good as the fresh versions].
“Try grilling [your salsa] ingredients, or keep them 100% raw in an aguacate salsa – explore and learn. Understand your dried chiles and the heat index levels of each. Guajillos are deep and rich in flavor, as are Cascabel [chiles], but chiles like Arbol will bring the heat. Some dried chiles like Mulatos will provide smokiness. [Making your own salsas provides] such a great condiment, not only for tacos, but for all things salsa lovers enjoy.”
Don’t be afraid to play around with fruit in your tacos.
- Roanne C./Yelp
The sweet-salty dynamic is one of the most essential flavor intersections in cuisines across the globe. Add some spice and some acidity, and you’ve got a taste bomb that will elevate your taco to cravable status. For an easy way to bring some sweetness and tang to your taco, include fruit in your taco toppings.
Chef Claudia Sidoti of HelloFresh particularly enjoys pineapple in her tacos. “You haven’t truly experienced pineapple until it’s been warmed through and caramelized to bring out all of its juicy sweetness. And when you toss it into a taco with some gently spiced pieces of tilapia and a crispy slaw, everything you think is true about the fruit is suddenly flipped on its head as you venture into savory dinnertime territory,” Sidoti told INSIDER.
The right cheese brings all of the taco’s diverse flavors together.
- Flickr/Alan Levine
From the shredded cheese used on American-style tacos to the crumbly Mexican cheeses popular on traditional tacos, a sprinkle of stategically-chosen queso can take a taco from “good” to “excellent.”
Chef Leo Asaro of Tico in Boston has some specific cheese recommendations for a taco feast: “Cotija, Oaxaca, pepper jack, and feta cheeses all work nicely with tacos!”
A squeeze of citrus brings a zippy brightness to your tacos.
- Melanie N./Yelp
Acidity and fresh toppings provide a refreshing counterpoint to the richness of taco meat, cheese, and sour cream, and a bit of fresh lime juice squeezed over the top goes a long way.
Celebrity chef Aarón Sánchez of “Chopped” and “MasterChef” is a big believer in this principle when whipping up a platter of tacos. “Top your tacos with something fresh with citrus or acid as it combats the often heavy and rich fillings. Thinly sliced radishes are a welcomed addition, I also like to make fresh slaws like a chayote and jicama slaw for example,” Sánchez explained.
Above all else, keep it simple.
- Flickr/Larry Miller
Tacos make a fantastic canvas for unusual fillings and inventive preparations, but there’s no need to overcomplicate them. A street food that’s conveniently handheld and delicious even in its most stripped-down form, the taco benefits from simple, flavorful, and well-made ingredients.
Chef Jorge Baralles Jr. of Papi’s Tacos in Greenville, SC offered us these valuable tips: “Keep it simple. The more basic you make it, the less expensive it’ll be to make, and often, the more flavor you can [develop]. Cook your protein first with onions and cilantro to create a bold flavor. Make a simple fresh pico [de gallo] with tomatoes, onion and cilantro or a fresh avocado salsa with jalapenos, green tomatoes, onion and garlic.”
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