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 herbs and spices for the best flavor, freshness and quality.
First there is garlic. It comes fresh, in a jar or in powdered form and is used in many recipes. Salsa, taco seasoning and Spanish rice are just a few recipes that use garlic. Next is onion which usually comes fresh or powdered. It is commonly used in conjunction with garlic.
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.
Here are the main spices that flavor traditional Mexican food and how to use them:
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.
Cilantro/Coriander: The leaf of the coriander plant. It tastes like a mix of parsley and citrus and adds a strong flavor to food. It is a primary herb in Mexican cooking and is can be found in guacamole, salsa, meat, fish and other foods. It comes in fresh or dried varieties.
Chamomile: This herb is traditionally considered the perfect tea herb at the end of a Mexican meal.
Chile Powder: Chile powder is actually a blend of dried, powdered chilies, cumin and oregano. Other spices are sometimes included in the mix, but those are the key ingredients. It is used primarily for seasoning meats and vegetables but has other uses as well.
Cumin: This spice has been around since the beginning of history. It's origin lies somewhere in the Mediterranean but has expanded in popularity because it is easily grown all over the world. It has a toasty yet somewhat bitter taste and gives Mexican dishes a certain flavor that can't be replaced. Cumin is a dry seed, which is used to make chili powder and curry powder. It has been used in Mexico for hundreds of years. Cumin is one of the most popular Mexican spices. Dishes containing cumin include enchiladas, chalupas, and various rice dishes. Cumin is a hearty spice and a little does go a long way.
Oregano: Oregano gives dishes a rich earthy flavor. There are two types of oregano: Mediterranean and Mexican. You are probably familiar with the Mediterranean version used in Italian cuisine. Mexican oregano has a pungent odor and flavor and is found in meat and cheese dishes. It is also one of the ingredients for chili powder-- a popular spice product
Red Pepper: This is another name for ground chili peppers. Fresh chili peppers are usually no longer than 4 inches and are red or red orange. The ground pepper ranges from orange-red to deep, dark red. These peppers are native to Central and South America, Mexico and the West Indies. Chili powder, a common spice product, is a combination of red pepper, garlic, oregano and cumin. Red pepper gives Mexican food its characteristic spicy flavor.
Unusual flavors such as cinnamon, cloves and anise are also used to add unique dimensions of flavor to Mexican dishes.
Cinnamon is often used in sweet treats such as dessert empanadas or Mexican fried ice cream recipes. It goes very well with fruit, especially apple and pear. Cinnamon can be used in savory recipes and goes very well with tomato-based dishes. It can be infused in its stick form or ground to make a powder. A softer version of cinnamon is called canella. This variety comes from Ceylon rather than Malabar and also suits Mexican cookery.
Cocoa is used in several dishes to add a very rich warm flavor. Spices combined with small amounts of cocoa and peanut butter are used to make Mole, a thick sauce often served over chicken. Raisins can also be used to flavor certain dishes.
Taco seasoning usually contains Chili powder, cumin, salt, pepper and garlic. Oregano and paprika are often added for more flavor. A taco mix will also have cornstarch in it so it will thicken the meat mixture.