Spice Up Your Meals With Mexican Flavors

From The Lecture Series: The Everyday Gourmet — Essential Secrets of Spices in Cooking

By Chef Instructor Bill Briwa, The Culinary Institute of America

About 500 years ago, Columbus set sail to the west in hopes of finding a route to India and an entrée into the lucrative spice trade. In particular, he was looking for pepper. When he arrived in the Americas, he didn’t find pepper, but he discovered a treasure chest of plants, foodstuffs, and Mexican flavors never before seen.

Mexican Spices

About 500 years ago, Columbus set sail to the west in hopes of finding a route to India and an entrée into the lucrative spice trade. In particular, he was looking for pepper. When he arrived in the Americas, he didn’t find pepper, but he discovered a treasure chest of plants and foodstuffs never before seen in the Old World, including corn, beans, and chiles. A new way of cooking was introduced to the world, one which included Mexican flavors.

This is a transcript from the video series The Everyday Gourmet: Essential Secrets of Spices in Cooking. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Techniques for Developing Mexican Flavors

Whenever they touch an ingredient, Mexican cooks enhance its flavor. For example, they toast unpeeled garlic in a dry pan, in effect creating roasted garlic inside the papery husk. You can do the same thing with an onion. Leave the skin on, cut it into wedges, and place it in a dry pan. It will caramelize on the outside—even getting a little charred—and the flesh will cook.

Mole: A spicy Mexican sauce made with various chiles and other ingredient

You can do something similar to tomatoes, but instead of toasting them in a dry pan, put them under the broiler for about 8 to 10 minutes, turning once. You’ll see that the outside of the tomatoes blackens and the flesh collapses. Remove the worst of the blackened skin and capture the flesh of the tomatoes, which will have a rich, concentrated flavor—much fuller than even a fresh tomato. If there’s any juice left in the pan, save that for making a mole.

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Of course, nuts taste great, but they become even better when toasted in the oven or fried. Try putting some peanuts in hot oil. These nuts are fairly dense, so when they begin to take on a bit of color, take them out and drain them. In the same oil, you can also fry some raisins. Their moisture will turn to steam, and they will puff up quickly as their sugar caramelizes. Remove them after they’ve puffed up to ensure that their sugar doesn’t burn.

Dish with Mexican Style Vegetables

All about Chiles

Chiles are among the most common Mexican spices, but can be a confusing subject: Different cultures may call the same chile by different names; chiles that are ripe versus those that are under-ripe may also have different names; and a dried chile may have a different name than a fresh one of the same variety. Let’s look at a few examples to try to clear up this confusion.

On a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of heat, a jalapeño is right in the middle, a 4 or 5. It has a green, grassy flavor. When you bite into it, it eats like a green pepper—juicy and crispy.

  • When a jalapeño is dried over a slow, smoky fire, it becomes a chipotle, such as a chipotle meco. This chile is green and has a deep smoky aroma.
  • We often seen chipotle chiles cooked and sold in adobo sauce.

Dried guajillo and New Mexico chiles are difficult to tell apart. The New Mexico chile is a bit more wrinkled, which means that when it was fresh, its flesh was thicker. 

One way to distinguish between chiles that look similar is to cut them open, remove the seeds, and hold them up to a light. This allows you to see the colors of the chiles more readily.

  • The guajillo chile is smoother, which means that when it was fresh, its flesh was very thin.
  • The guajillo has a lean, almost citrusy flavor, and it’s very bright tasting.
  • The New Mexico chile has almost a sweet flavor; it’s not bitter, harsh, or overly hot. Most of the chile powder used in the United States comes from New Mexico chiles.

Both the chile ancho and the chile mulato come from poblano peppers or close relatives. When the poblano is completely ripe, it becomes an ancho. The mulato chile is dried before it reaches full ripeness.

  • Anchos tend to have a deep, rich, and fruity flavor, somewhat reminiscent of sun-dried tomatoes or even prunes. There’s a sweetness to anchos that you don’t find in a mulato.
  • A mulato, because it’s harvested when it’s still green, has a green, vegetal flavor. Often, these chiles are used to balance the richness and sweetness of a ripe chile, which after all, is nothing more than ripe fruit.

The chile negro, or pasilla negro, comes from a chilaca, which grows almost in a corkscrew fashion. Pasilla means “passageway,” and negro means “black”; thus, the chile is long, thin, and black. This chile is also harvested and dried green. Like the mulato, the chile negro or pasilla negro is used to balance the sweetness of other ripe chiles.

An árbol chile (or chile de árbol) is thin, red, and hot. A good rule of thumb is that the smaller and redder a chile is, the hotter it will be. You can grind chile árbol up to make chile flakes and use the flakes as you would cayenne powder

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Toasting Chiles

In a raw state, even dried chiles have bitter and harsh, aggressive flavors. Toasting the chiles in a dry pan is a way to “reconcile” these flavors. Before you start, keep in mind that the aroma coming off the chiles can be a bit of an irritant; turn on your fan hood or open a window in your kitchen while you work.

Ancho chile powder (a varietal chile powder) has a much deeper flavor than the chile powder we’re familiar with in this country, which is typically mixed with cumin, oregano, garlic powder, and other spices

Place a chile in a hot pan and press it down against the surface of the pan very quickly using a towel.

You may see a wisp or two of smoke coming off the pan, and you may hear the chile crackling. This technique allows the chile to soften. Its color will become mottled, and it may begin to blister. Toasting the chile in this way takes only about 10 seconds, but it makes an enormous difference in flavor. Untoasted, chiles are awkward and bitter, but after just 10 seconds in a dry pan, their flavors become deeper, richer, and rounder. Note that chiles that are shiny and smooth have thin flesh; thus, they won’t tolerate aggressive toasting. Put each chile in the pan and turn it over quickly. Don’t allow it to scorch. If you see it starting to turn black, you’ve gone too far.

After the chiles are toasted, remove the stem, seeds, and ribs inside. As you’re handling the chiles, remember that they contain a compound called capsaicin, which is what makes them hot. You can’t see capsaicin, but it transfers to your fingers when you’re working with chiles and can burn your hands or your eyes if you touch them. Because capsaicin is oily, you need to wash your hands with soap and water after you handle chiles to eliminate it. Once the chiles are cleaned, put them in a bowl, pour hot water over them, and allow them to sit for about 15 or 20 minutes to rehydrate. In effect, you’re turning them back into fresh chiles after you’ve toasted them.

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Mexican Oregano

Mexican oregano is not exactly like Italian oregano. When the Spaniards came to Mexico, they were familiar with oregano, but it wasn’t available in this new country. What they found instead was a plant in the verbena family that they called oregano. Mexican oregano is available in Mexican grocery stories, but if you can’t find it, you can substitute marjoram, which is more floral than Italian oregano and closer to the Mexican version.


Chinese cinnamon is taken from the bark of the cassia tree, while Mexican cooks use true cinnamon or canella. Canella is also from the bark of a tree, but it’s very delicate. It’s also more fragrant and floral than Chinese cinnamon. If you’ve ever eaten the candy called Red Hots®, that’s the flavor of true cinnamon.

Mexican Spices
Identifying Chiles

Common Questions About Mexican Flavors

Q: What ingredients make the Mexican flavor in Mexican food?

There are a number of common herbs, spices and starches such as epazote, cilantro, cumin, chile and corn that generally contribute to the amazing Mexican flavor of Mexican foods.

Q: What are the most popular herbs for Mexican food?

The most popular herbs for Mexican food are generally cilantro, oregano, thyme and epazote.

Q: Is Mexican oregano different from other oreganos?

Mexican oregano is completely different as it is a different plant, indigenous to Mexico, that is closely related to the vervain family while Mediterranean Oregano is from the mint family.

Q: What are the best spices for Mexican food?

The best spices for Mexican food are generally Mexican oregano, cumin, garlic, chile, cinnamon and coriander.

This article was updated on 1/22/2020

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