5 essential ingredients for Mexican cooking from experts : Life Kit Want to start making authentic Mexican cuisine at home? Here's what you'll need in your pantry and your fridge to get started, according to two Mexican chefs and cookbook authors.

5 essential ingredients for Mexican cooking (plus one you can't buy at the store)

5 essential ingredients for Mexican cooking (plus one you can't buy at the store)

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1132205161/1133025243" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Some of the staples for Mexican cooking include dried chiles, masa and Mexican oregano. Reprinted with permission from Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico by Rick Martínez, © 2022. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photography by Ren Fuller © 2022 hide caption

toggle caption
Reprinted with permission from Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico by Rick Martínez, © 2022. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photography by Ren Fuller © 2022

Some of the staples for Mexican cooking include dried chiles, masa and Mexican oregano.

Reprinted with permission from Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico by Rick Martínez, © 2022. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photography by Ren Fuller © 2022

Since I was in high school, I've been trying to master the art of Mexican cooking. I'd ask my mom and grandma for help, read cookbooks and watch YouTube tutorials. I'm proud to say, nearly a decade later, that my frijoles negros, or black beans, are finally tasting pretty darn good.

But there are some things I wish I knew a little earlier in my culinary journey. That includes some of the essential ingredients needed to make great Mexican dishes.

For Life Kit, I spoke to Bricia Lopez, a Mexican American restaurateur and author of Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico, and Rick Martínez, a food writer and author of Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico, about what it takes to cook this cuisine. And they say it starts with stocking your pantry with the staples commonly found in Mexican dishes.

Bricia Lopez, left, a Mexican American restaurateur and author of Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico. Rick Martínez, right, a food writer and author of Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico. Left: Jose Fuentes/Abrams; Right: Ren Fuller/Clarkson Potter hide caption

toggle caption
Left: Jose Fuentes/Abrams; Right: Ren Fuller/Clarkson Potter

Many of these ingredients are native to the country, says Martínez. "It's a cuisine that's built on the migration of people and cultures into Mexico, along with the indigenous people of the area and what grows naturally." But you can find many Mexican ingredients online and in grocery stores in the States.

By pairing the pantry items in this list with fresh ingredients such as onions, garlic, tomatoes, tomatillos and serrano peppers, Martínez says you'll have much of what you need to make some of the cuisine's foundational sauces and salsas.

Here are five pantry items that Lopez and Martínez recommend, (plus one you can't buy at the store).

1. Dried chiles

Reprinted with permission from Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico by Rick Martínez, © 2022. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photography by Ren Fuller © 2022
a close-up photograph of two different kinds of dried chiles
Reprinted with permission from Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico by Rick Martínez, © 2022. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photography by Ren Fuller © 2022

Lopez and Martínez suggest starting with guajillo, ancho, morita and árbol chiles. "Dried chiles are the essence of Mexican cooking," Lopez says. They are often toasted and rehydrated to make dishes such as mole, a complex sauce and marinade, and pozole, a hominy stew.

The process of drying chiles transforms them. "You develop so much more flavor," Martínez says. He describes fresh chiles as "herbaceous" compared to their dried counterparts. A poblano that is dried becomes an ancho, with a sweet and jammy taste. A jalapeño that is smoked becomes a chipotle, which he describes as smoky and chocolatey.

Dried chiles can be found online and in many grocery stores. Store them in an airtight container for up to a year. Scroll down to find out how to make a salsa with árbol chiles or click here.

2. Masa

Reprinted with permission from Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico by Rick Martínez, © 2022. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photography by Ren Fuller © 2022
Tortillas made from masa.
Reprinted with permission from Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico by Rick Martínez, © 2022. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photography by Ren Fuller © 2022

Masa — the Spanish word for "dough" — is made from ground corn that is steeped in water and alkali (such as slaked lime and wood ash), an ancient process known as nixtamalization. In addition to tortillas, it's used to make foods such as tamales; tlacoyos, thick corn tortillas filled with cheese, beans or other ingredients; or gorditas, a kind of stuffed pocket.

While some markets might carry fresh masa, your best bet is to find masa harina at the grocery store. It's masa that has been dried out and powdered into a flour form (harina means "flour" in Spanish).

Masa harina, mixed with salt and water, "forms this beautiful dough that you can then press down" to make tortillas, Lopez says. She prefers brands such as Bob's Red Mill and Masienda, both of which can be ordered online or found in some grocery stores.

Martínez shares a recipe for three foundational recipes you'll need to make Mexican food: frijoles de olla, simple beans with scallions and herbs; arroz blanco con mantequilla, buttery rice with poblano, carrots and corn; and homemade tortillas.

YouTube

3. Dried beans

Becky Harlan/NPR
A bin of dried beans with a metal scoop scooping them up.
Becky Harlan/NPR

Martínez suggests keeping a pound of dried beans in your pantry. "Use whatever bean you like," he says. There are many varieties of beans in Mexico – including the creamy, nutty pinto bean; the mild, buttery Mayocoba bean and the delicate yellow mantequilla bean. They're generally boiled with onion and garlic and aromatics such as bay leaves or avocado leaves and served whole with their broth or refried and mashed.

Martínez and Lopez like to cook with dry beans instead of canned ones because of the flavor. Cooking them will take about one to three hours, but the end result is much tastier.

"Anything that's worth your while is going to take time," Lopez says. If you're up for the challenge and the time commitment, try her recipe for enfrijoladas, pan-fried tortillas in a spicy black bean sauce.

4. Rice

Becky Harlan/NPR
long grain rice in bulk at a market
Becky Harlan/NPR

Rice is used in so many different ways in Mexican cuisine. It's served as a side dish with vegetables to add flavor and color. Arroz rojo, for example, is cooked with tomatoes, while arroz verde is cooked with poblano peppers. Rice can also be used in drinks such as horchata, rice water with Mexican cinnamon, and desserts such as arroz con leche, rice pudding.

The kind of rice you choose is up to you. Lopez often uses long-grain jasmine rice in her recipes. Other Mexican cookbooks might call for basmati or Morelos rice, a kind of long-grain rice harvested in the state of Morelos in south central Mexico. Most of these rice varieties are available online or in commercial grocery stores.

5. Dried Mexican oregano

Becky Harlan/NPR
A close up of a heaping pile of Mexican oregano on a piece of brown kraft paper.
Becky Harlan/NPR

This ingredient is often used in dishes such as pozole and meat dishes like pollo al carbon, grilled chicken; and carnitas, braised or simmered pork. Unlike Italian oregano, says Martínez, "Mexican oregano is a bit more floral. It has a little less bitterness. There's a slight sweetness or anise flavor to it as well." Italian oregano can work as a substitute, he adds.

He recommends the Mexican oregano from the brand McCormick, which is available online and in some grocery stores.

Bonus ingredient: Sazón

This refers to the concept, not the seasoning. And it's an important part of Mexican cooking — something you can't buy at the store. It roughly means "magic in the kitchen" in Spanish. It's the flavor that you bring as a cook that makes the food uniquely yours.

"You and I can be cooking the same recipe at the same time with the same ingredients," says Lopez, "yet somehow, yours will be slightly different than mine because you have your own sazón."

"That's the beauty of sazón," says Martínez. "It's your point of view, your flair, your creative license in the kitchen."

Anyone can add sazón to their food. Just cook what tastes good to you, says Lopez. Be creative and playful when experimenting with your dishes. And the sazón will naturally come.

I know that my frijoles negros, for example, will never taste quite like my grandmother's. But I know that my cooking has its own sazón. And I'm finally starting to embrace it.

Recipe: Salsa de chipotle y chile de árbol

Although showstopper foods like tamales, pozole and mole can take hours to cook, there are plenty of approachable entryways into the cuisine — and salsas are the best place to start, says Martínez. "They're less intimidating. Everybody loves them."

A variety of salsas out on a colorful table.
Reprinted with permission from Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico by Rick Martínez, © 2022. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photography by Ren Fuller © 2022

Salsas also introduce newcomers to different kinds of traditional Mexican cooking techniques. They can be made of fresh, boiled, charred or fermented ingredients.

He shares a recipe for salsa using dried chipotle and árbol chiles from his cookbook, Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico. Makes 1 ½ cups.

  • 4 medium Roma tomatoes (1 lb.), cored and roughly chopped
  • 2 chipotle chiles for mild salsa (or 4 for hot), stemmed
  • 2 árbol chiles for mild salsa (or 4 for hot), stemmed and seeded for a milder flavor
  • ¼ medium white onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • 1 teaspoon Morton kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • Fresh lime juice (optional)
  1. In a medium saucepan, combine the tomatoes, chipotles, árbol chiles, onion, garlic, salt and ½ cup water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until the chiles and vegetables are soft, about 15 minutes.
  2. Remove from the heat, cover and set aside for 10 minutes to cool slightly. Transfer to the jar of a blender and purée on medium-low until almost smooth. Taste and season with more salt and lime juice if desired.

The salsa can be made 2 days ahead. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator, or freeze for up to 1 month.

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

Listen to Life Kit on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or sign up for our newsletter.