Key Spices in Mexican Cooking
Here are the main spices that flavor traditional Mexican food and how to use them.
If you're interested in Mexican cooking, the best place to start is to become familiar with the variety of herbs and spices that provide the distinct flavors and aromas so highly treasured in the cuisine. The quality of your herbs and spices can absolutely make or break the end result of your efforts, so be sure to use top-quality Frontier herbs and spices for the best flavor, freshness and quality.
Allspice: Rich and aromatic, allspice is used to add flavor to Mexican pickled fish, vegetables, and meat dishes. You'll also find it in recipes for Mexican desserts and beverages.
Annatto Seed: Known in Mexico as achiote, annatto seeds impart a rich yellow color and earthy, distinctive flavor to grains, sauces, and other dishes. They're often used in meat pastes in the Yucatan. To make an achiote paste, cover seeds with water and simmer for 10 minutes. Soak in water for an hour (or overnight). Drain and grind with a mortar and pestle or blender. Whole seeds can also be fried in oil to make beautifully colored annatto oil for cooking.
Azafran: Otherwise known as Mexican saffron, azafran possesses a pleasantly bitter flavor, and most dishes require only a small amount. To use, dissolve first by crumbling a small amount in hot water. Frontier European saffron is an excellent substitute in dishes that call for azafran.
Basil: This pungent herb is used either fresh or dried, most often in tomato dishes.
Cayenne: An orange powder, cayenne is simply a variety of very hot, ground chili peppers. It's used throughout Mexican cuisine, including spice blends. Use it sparingly to add extra hotness to dishes. And place a shaker of cayenne on the table for those who like their Mexican dishes even hotter than you serve them.
Chamomile: This herb is traditionally considered the perfect tea herb at the end of a Mexican meal.
Chilies: Chilies are perhaps Mexican cooking's most indispensable seasoning. Chilies are typically known for their spicy hotness, but in the correct amounts, they may also add mild and subtle flavor to dishes. A great range of varieties, sizes, and levels of heat are available. When cooking, remember that the smallest peppers are generally the hottest, and that the seeds and stems (the hottest parts of the peppers) are usually removed during preparation. Always wear rubber gloves when handling chilies, as the volatile oils can burn your skin. To prepare dried chilies, rinse well in cold water and let soak for one hour. Drain and use the chili water in your recipe if a liquid is called for. Your recipe may also call for the chilies to be lightly toasted, ground, fried, or burnt black. To further increase hotness, add a touch of cayenne, crushed red pepper, or some seed and stem of the chili to your recipe.
Chili Powder: In Mexico, chili powder is a powdered form of a red pepper, such as Ancha. Domestic chili powder contains extra seasonings, such as cumin, garlic, oregano, salt, and coriander. Mexican cooks make a paste by mixing one tablespoon of chili powder, one teaspoon of flour, and two tablespoons of cold water. To yield the correct flavor, the paste should reach a boil sometime during cooking. Chili powder may also be added directly to soups, stews, and other dishes. More about chilies.
Cilantro: Though it comes from the coriander plant, cilantro (the leaves) and coriander (the seeds) have very different tastes and uses. You'll find cilantro in Mexican salsas, main dishes, stews, sweets, and sauces. Cilantro is also known as Chinese parsley or fresh coriander. Dried cilantro should be used only in recipes that will be cooked.
Cinnamon: Cinnamon was first introduced to Mexican cooking by the Spanish, and it's most often used in beverages (such as chocolate drinks). You'll also find cinnamon in rice pudding and chorizo sausages. Mexican cooks use both the sticks and ground cinnamon, (Remove the sticks before serving.)
Cloves: Mexican spice blends like pepians and moles often contain cloves, which bring a rich, deep flavor to meats and poultry.
Coriander Seed: The dried seeds of the coriander plant yield a different taste than coriander leaves. Ground coriander seed is used in breads, cakes, and other desserts, as well as in savory dishes such as soups and stews (especially chili), and with meat and game. The whole seeds are also used; dry roast them to enhance their flavor.
Crushed Red Pepper: The dried, crushed chili pepper often found on the table in Italian restaurants is also a popular ingredient in Mexican dishes. Use 1/2 teaspoon for each chili pepper called for in your recipe.
Cumin Seed: Known as comino, this spice is the predominant flavor in many chili powder blends; its flavor balances the hotness of other spices.
Mint: Mint is used sparingly in some Mexican recipes, including meatballs, soups, and beans.
Nutmeg: The warm, sweet, spicy flavor of nutmeg is most often used in beverages and desserts. You can grate your own or keep a fresh supply of ground on hand for baking or sprinkling on Mexican hot chocolate, ice cream, and puddings.
Oregano: Oregano is a mainstay in Mexican cuisine, where you'll find it in sauces, dressings, salads, stews, and meat dishes -- often along with other spices like thyme, chilies, and cumin. Oregano is also an important ingredient in escabeche, a popular marinated fish dish. Oregano leaf is more desirable than powdered oregano, and in some recipes, the directions call for lightly toasting the oregano leaf before adding to dishes.
Sage: Used whole, rubbed, or ground, sage has a strong, aromatic, slightly bitter taste. It is often used in soups and stews.
Thyme: Thyme has a dry, fresh, pungent flavor that complements the heat in many Mexican dishes. You'll find it in Mexican soups and sauces, salads and dressings.