There are some secrets to cooking Mexican food that you may or may not already know. In the world of herbs and spices, you have tons of varieties and combinations available to you. It’s important to understand which ones complement each other and which ones do not. If you love cooking traditional Mexican cuisine, you’ll love using some of the spices discussed in this guide.
Beware, though, some of these herbs and spices are things that you may not associate with Mexican food. However, try some of them, and you’ll be amazed at how much they change and enhance the flavors of your food. Let’s talk about each one and what they bring to the table.
Contrary to popular belief, cinnamon is not just used for desserts and sweet dishes. It can really add complexity and depth to hearty dishes as well. Common uses for cinnamon in Mexican food are:
- Vegetable dishes
Cinnamon is extracted from the inner bark of several varieties of trees, mostly found in China and Indonesia. However, there are several varieties of cinnamon, just as there are trees. Eastern cinnamon is called cassia, while Mexican cinnamon is called canela. Either way, it’s a fabulous spice to add to your dishes!
Cinnamon was not always a traditional spice in Mexican cuisine. It was introduced by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s and has been used ever since. It has a variety of health benefits, which are an added bonus to an already awesome spice.
“Clavos do olor,” or “nails that smell” is a common way to refer to cloves in Spanish. Cloves can add some major depth to your Mexican cooking because of their aroma and flavor. They also add a fun mouthfeel due to their astringent-like qualities.
Cloves are a standard ingredient in many dishes, including:
- Pepian stew
- Mole Poblano
However, they are extremely strong and should be used with care, as they can quickly overtake an entire dish if you use too much!
These aromatic little spices are buds from trees that are found in the Maluku Islands in Indonesia. They are common in many countries’ cuisines across the globe. In Mexican cuisine, they are frequently paired with cumin and cinnamon.
This is typically a blend of dried chilis that have been powdered, along with some cumin and oregano. There are sometimes a variety of chilis and other spices included in the chili powder blend, but these are the most common. In close relation to chili powder is Chipotle powder, which is made from dried, smoked Jalapeños.
Chili powder is generally used for flavoring meat and vegetables. It can be used as a rub, a marinade, or a spice that is sprinkled into the pan while cooking. One of its less-common uses is to put a dash of Ancho chili powder in Mexican hot chocolate.
Chili powder comes in several variations, all hailing from different peppers. Some of those varieties include powders from:
- Piri piri
Each has a distinct flavor that can change the profile of a dish.
Contrary to popular belief, cilantro and coriander are two different flavors. Cilantro is an aromatic herb with a distinct flavor. It adds brightness to:
- Salsas and more
It also adds a bright green color and a refreshing aroma.
Coriander, on the other hand, has a milder flavor. It is the seed of the cilantro plant with a flavor that is a little citrusy and slightly nutty. It’s much less aggressive due to the absence of the citronellol chemical that is found in cilantro.
Both coriander and cilantro are commonly used in Mexican dishes. Coriander lends itself well to soups and cooked veggies, whereas cilantro is generally better in fresh dishes that incorporate both cold and hot foods.
Cumin is a spice that is derived from the seeds of the cumin plant. More specifically, the seeds come from the flowering part of the plant. This plant is native to areas of the Middle East and India, and its spices are used in cuisines all over the world.
The flavor of cumin is often described as “strong” and “earthy.” It has notes of citrus, too, but is mostly used to create a warm, hearty flavor in a variety of foods. The fragrance of cumin is nearly impossible to miss, which further enhances the experience of the dish in which it is used.
This spice can be used to stand up to other extremely strong spices or to add some delicate depth to lighter dishes. Cumin is sometimes confused with caraway seeds but is a completely different spice. It is often combined with chili powder in meat and veggie dishes.
Not to be confused with traditional oregano, this herb is from a completely different family of plants. It has a bright, citrus flavor and some “grassy” undertones that are quite unique. Lemon verbena is a close relative to Mexican oregano.
Verbenaceae is the plant from which Mexican oregano is derived. It is native to Mexico, Central America, and the southwestern region of the United States. It is used in traditional Mexican cuisine, Tex-Mex, and more.
This herb pairs nicely with other traditional Mexican flavors, such as:
It works well in a variety of fresh salsas, whether sweet, mild, or spicy. Traditional oregano is rarely a good substitute for Mexican oregano because it lacks the brightness of flavor and aroma.
If you’ve ever had Mexican food that has a bright orange color, you’ve probably had achiote. This spice is nutty, earthy and adds a bit of complexity to the flavor of the food without overpowering the other flavors. It is most commonly used in spices and marinades.
Achiote is derived from the seeds of the evergreen tree, which is native to the tropical regions of Mexico and Brazil. The seeds are generally dried and used whole or ground into spices. It has a fantastic aroma in addition to its mild flavor.
Achiote is also commonly used as a natural food coloring for different commercial food products, including:
- Some cheeses
In some countries, it is known as annatto instead of achiote.
Allspice is actually a single spice all by itself and not a blend, as its name suggests. It is made from the dried berries of the Pimenta dioica plant. This plant is native to Jamaica and was first documented by Christopher Columbus upon his second visit to the new world.
The flavor of allspice is reminiscent of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper. It’s a little bit sweet and a little bit savory, making it very versatile in the kitchen. It is commonly used in dishes with origins in:
- Latin America
- The Middle East
A unique use for this spice is the enhancement of mulled wines and ciders. This is a common practice in many households in the wintertime and around the Christmas holidays. Because of its ability to mix well with sweet ingredients, it also makes an awesome addition to desserts.
If you’re a fan of licorice, you’ll probably love anise. It features a nice mixture of both herbal and licorice flavors, making it a staple in Mexican desserts. Anise is also traditionally used in loaves of bread baked for special occasions such as the Day of the Dead.
Other uses for this spice include in warm drinks such as teas and coffees. However, it is not reserved for only sweet dishes and drinks, but can also be used in:
- Cheese spreads
- Other savory dishes
Anise is derived from the Apiaceae plant, which is native to the eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia. There are several varieties of anise and most are common to particular parts of the world. It was first cultivated in Egypt but is now used all over the world.
It may seem odd, given the unsightly “galls” on the bottom of many avocado leaves, but they are an excellent thing to add to your cooking! They offer a flavor profile that is quite unique. With these leaves, you may taste a hint of a nutty or hazelnut flavor, as well as anise or licorice.
Avocado leaves are generally toasted before eating. This helps bring out the pleasant flavors in the leaves. When they’re raw, they tend to be bitter and pungent. When used correctly, they can enhance the flavor of many savory dishes.
Originally from Mexico, Peru, and other countries in the Western Hemisphere, avocados are now found all over the world. If you want to use the leaves of the avocados, you might have to find an organic food store or a farmers’ market to purchase them. If you can buy them directly from the farmer, you’ll have a better chance of getting great leaves!
Cayenne pepper is available in different varieties, including African, Indian, and Cajun. The Cajun cayenne is native to Central America and is often the variety used in traditional Mexican dishes. However, it’s a matter of personal preference as far as which one you want to use in your cooking.
This spice adds a bright flavor and intense heat to any dish. Be sure to use it sparingly, and add slowly to taste. It is often used in:
- Spicy dips
- Topping sauce for enchiladas
Much like chili powder, cayenne is also used in Mexican hot chocolate for those who want a little kick. It adds a gentle burn to the sweetness of the chocolate. Likewise, you can throw a pinch of it into a cup of coffee or mocha, as well.
One of the more elusive spices in Mexican cooking is called epazote. It is used to flavor beans and other side dishes. Many people believe that it has anti-inflammatory qualities that help relieve any gastrointestinal issues caused by the beans.
It’s important to treat epazote with care when cooking with it. The heat from the oven or stove can destroy the compounds in the spice, rendering it completely tasteless. It often makes more sense to add it to your dishes just before removing it from the heat.
Epazote is also sometimes called “Mexican Tea,” as it is used in hot or cold drinks. It can be extremely pungent, so it should be used sparingly, so you don’t overwhelm the other flavors in the food. It can also be toxic if you use too much, which is another great reason to use it only in moderation!
Mexican Bay Leaf
This aromatic leaf has notes of camphor and even menthol. As it cooks, it will also generate the taste of black pepper and pine. Their gentle bitterness works well in soups and helps cut the heaviness of the other ingredients.
It can be really intense, so it’s important to use it carefully. You don’t eat the bay leaves, but rather just add them to soups, stews, and other liquids to add flavor. Once the dish is complete, you can remove them before serving.
Mexican bay leaves hail from California, Mexico, and other states and countries in this region. They are pretty easy to find in the grocery store, usually in dried form. If you want to get really fancy, you can try to find and use fresh ones!
This might seem like an odd addition to Mexican food, but cacao can really change the personality of a dish. Many Mexican dishes have cacao added to them to add a rich, warm flavor. In fact, a popular technique is mixing various spices with cacao and peanut butter to form a thick paste called mole, which is often served over chicken dishes.
Another great use for cacao is alongside some mellow chilis like Chipotle. They can soften the smoky flavor of the Chipotle pepper and add an interesting layer of depth. You can also throw in a pinch in your morning coffee for a bittersweet kick.
Cacao has been around for centuries and even dates back to the Aztecs and Mayans. They used it in their foods and rituals and believed that it was a gift from the gods. When you use it in your Mexican food, you might think the same thing!
One of the most common uses for this bright, tart flower is teas and other drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. It is also often mixed into marinades and sauces to add a little kick to traditional spices. It pairs really well with meats such as duck and boar but also with Mexican staples like queso and quesadillas.
The flavor profile of hibiscus is very fruity and a little sharp. Many people compare it to berries that aren’t quite ripe. It also has some citrus undertones that make for an enticing addition to sweet or salty foods. It is often added to sauteed onions for tacos and fajitas.
Hibiscus is the national flower of Malaysia. It is commonly found in the Pacific Islands and Asia. It’s also closely associated with Hawai’i but is found in other tropical regions, as well.
Nutmeg is typically associated with sweet foods and drinks. It can be included in a variety of Mexican desserts such as churros and other pastries. It is also a classic topper for Mexican hot chocolate.
This spice is extremely fragrant and adds a warm sensation to any dish. It can be used in savory foods and blends well with salt on chicken. If you want to add something interesting to your greens, throw in some nutmeg on them!
Something important to note about nutmeg is how quickly it can lose its flavor if not used immediately. Although it’s easy to find in powdered form, we encourage you to purchase the whole seed and freshly grind it as necessary. The flavor and aroma are striking when it’s fresh!
These versatile seeds can be used atop desserts or main courses. They can be raw or roasted, whole or ground, and can even be made into a paste. The fact that they are so versatile makes them the perfect thing to keep on hand in the kitchen.
Sesame seeds are very common in Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine but have a definite place in Mexican dishes too. They pair well with tons of different chilis and also in salsa. Traditional Mexican mole often includes the nutty flavor of sesame as well.
The use of sesame goes as far back as ancient Chinese and Egyptian civilizations. The Chinese were known to burn the oil from the seeds, while the Egyptians ground it into flour. Now, the seeds are well-known all over the world as a culinary delight.
Hopefully you’ve learned something new about some spices you might already be using on a regular basis. You may have also learned about some spices that you didn’t know would work in your Mexican dishes.
Whatever the case may be, we hope you’ve enjoyed our guide to traditional Mexican spices that will make your food taste amazing!