Mexican cuisine is one of the most flavorful because the spices used in traditional dishes can be used very sparingly for a mild palate, but can also have the heat turned up for those who like it spicy. There are some spices that are the true foundation for authentic Mexican flavors, and for those who like to experiment, there are some unexpected necessities in many a Mexican spice rack.
Cayenne and Red Chili powder are staple spices in Hispanic food. Red Chili powder is often a blend of spices using red peppers, and Cayenne is a pure chili pepper that’s very hot. Cayenne is used sparingly when cooking; if someone wants more heat, give them a shaker of the spice. Red Chili powder can be made into a paste using 1 tablespoon chili powder, 1 teaspoon flour, and 2 tablespoons water; make sure any recipe using this paste is going to reach a boil to ensure the right flavor is produced in the dish.
Crushed Red Pepper is an easy way to add pepper to recipes that call for a certain number of them. Using ½ teaspoon is equivalent to one chili pepper for those times when you just don’t have fresh peppers on hand.
Chiles come in various sizes; smaller usually means it’s hotter. The stem and seeds are the hottest part of any pepper. If you’re shopping for peppers, ask if it has a Scoville number (SHU). The higher the SHU number is, the hotter it is. Comparatively speaking, sweet bell peppers rate a zero, Cayenne may rate up to 50,000 SHU, while Red and Poblano peppers are 1,000-2,000 SHU, and Chipotle and Jalapeño peppers range from 3,000-8,000 SHU.
Thyme, Oregano, and Sage can be used fresh or dried and are most often used in soups, stews, sauces, and dressings. They also add depth to meat, game, and poultry dishes. Mint is a lesser used spice in Mexican dishes; though, it does make an appearance in meatballs, soups, and bean dishes.
Cilantro is the leaf of the Coriander plant, but its flavor is very different from the Coriander seed. Dried Cilantro is much less pungent and should only be used in recipes that are going to be cooked; even then, there is much less flavor than fresh Cilantro would provide.
Basil, is found in most tomato dishes. Also used fresh or dried, this pungent herb has about 60 varieties to choose from, the most common is sweet green basil. Basil’s grows stronger the longer it cooks, so if you’re looking for a lot of basil flavor, get it in the mix early.
Seeds and Blends
Coriander, Cumin, and Anatto (achiote) seeds are popular and can be used in a variety of ways: dry toasted, ground, or soaked in water for a flavorful liquid stock. Cumin balances the heat of chili peppers, so you’ll find it in many of the blended spice options.
Allspice is widely considered a pickling spice, and commonly used in the pickled fish dish known as Ceviche. Clove in Pepian and Mole sauces affects each sauce differently; pepian sauces are made with (pepitas) pumpkin or squash seeds while mole sauces combine green chiles and unsweetened cocoa.
Cross the Border in Your Own Kitchen
Don’t be afraid of Mexican flavors or the spices used in authentic dishes, the key is to start with a small amount and work your way up to the flavor you love. Shop where the merchant is familiar with the ingredients, especially if you’re going to try something unfamiliar. We want you to explore your palate, but more importantly, we want you to love the taste!
If you are in the Fort Worth, TX area and looking to experience some authentic Hispanic flavors without the hassle of food preparation, Benito’s delivers authentic Mexican food. Come in and experience their flavour-packed recipes that have been handed down for generations!