Five Ways to Make Better Tacos
If you're still using ground beef, you've got a lot to learn
If your tacos always involve ground beef, seasonings from a packet, a jar of salsa, and a corn shell, it’s time for an intervention. There’s nothing wrong with the tacos you’re currently making, but there’s so much more taco goodness to be had in this world.
“Tacos are great because you can eat very well, with really good ingredients, for not a lot of money or time,” says Joe Hargrave, co-author of Tacolicious and chef at the San Francisco restaurant that bears the same name. Hargrave recalls touching down one Christmas in Mexico City and having to make his family a meal using just ingredients from a local corner store. With a can of oil-packed tuna and some fresh tortillas, Hargrave says he had lunch on the table in five minutes flat. “And my kids loved it.”
Tacos are filled with protein, wrapped in carbs, and topped with fresh veggies. You get all the nutrients and calories you need in one perfect package. Plus, they’re quick to make, simple, and deliciously effective. That’s why we think tacos make the perfect post-workout meal. Of course, you can also spend all day tending a pot of stewing meat and chopping chiles, cilantro, and salsa ingredients. Whatever your approach, we have all the advice from taco pros across the country that will help you up your taco game.
How to Make Store-Bought Tortillas Shine
Yes, homemade tortillas are amazing, but they’re not always the most practical thing. Don’t sweat it if you can’t make them. If possible, look for a locally made tortilla, which will definitely be fresher than options from national brands.
That said, most tortillas can be revived by a few minutes of warming on a hot pan, says Jorge Barelles Jr., who works at Papi’s Tacos in Greenville, South Carolina. “Put it on the griddle and flip it back and forth for about a minute,” Barelles says. “I don’t know why, but if you do it for a minute versus 30 seconds, the tortilla seems to hold together better when you fill it, so do it for a minute.”
If your tortillas seem especially dry, add a small amount of canola oil to the griddle or pan before warming.
Get Creative with Your Fillings
A lot of the tacos we’re most familiar with use slow-cooked meats. But limiting yourself to those options is silly. Aarón Sanchez, the award-winning chef at Johnny Sánchez in New Orleans, author, and TV host, says some of his favorite fillings are not what we’d typically associate with tacos—like plantains or salmon. “I love getting creative with the fillings,” he says, “so you may want to expand on what you usually include.”
In short, think outside the box. Take, for example, Hargrave’s go-to: the oil-packed tuna mentioned above. Here’s how to turn it into a killer taco.
Hargrave’s Tuna Can Tacos
Chopped onion (Half to one onion is probably about right.)
One can oil-packed tuna, drained
Handful of chopped herbs of your choosing (Cilantro, basil, or oregano would all work.)
Sauté the onions until they’re translucent. Add the drained tuna and the pickled jalapeños. Cook until warm. Add the chopped herbs and capers and cook another minute or two. Fold the filling into a warm tortilla, and top with your favorite Mexican hot sauce.
Tip: Top your taco right. You do not need to set up a crazy topping bar on a weeknight. Instead, stick to the simple but flavorful basics. For Barelles, that means using chopped onion and cilantro. “Where we come from [his family is from the city of Cuautla, in Mexico], we have to cook within our means. So we use just a few ingredients that add a lot of flavor.” Onions and cilantro do so with minimal expense and fuss.
And stop using Tabasco. “Tabasco is a vinegar-based sauce, so it really changes the flavors,” Hargrave says. “Using a Mexican hot sauce like Tapatío is a better choice.”
For Peak Praise, Braise
Guisados, or slow-braised meats and veggies, are what you generally find for sale on the street in Mexico, Hargrave says. Braising is great because you both sear the meat—which creates that caramelized, roasted flavor—and then finish it on low heat so it’s juicy and tender. It’s also ideal for cheaper cuts of meat, like pork shoulder, meaning you can feed a crew on a budget.
The recipe below is an example of a guisado, which is cooked over low heat all day. Here, the recipe is made on the stove, but you could also put this into a slow cooker before work, or throw it in your pressure cooker if you forgot amid your 6 a.m. brain fog. This recipe is courtesy of Tacolicious.
Mama Virginia’s Chile Verde Tacos
5 tomatillos, hulls removed and halved
2 jalapeño chiles, stemmed and halved
4 cups water
1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup chopped yellow onion, plus 1 1/2 cups sliced onion
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
One poblano chile, stemmed, seeded, and cut
2 1/2 pounds pork butt or shoulder, trimmed of fat and cut into 3-inch cubes
Corn tortillas, warmed for serving
Chopped white onion, chopped fresh cilantro, salsa of choice, and lime wedges, for serving
In a large pot, combine the tomatillos, jalapeño chiles, and water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer, then cover and cook for ten to 15 minutes, until the tomatillos and chiles are soft. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
Transfer the contents of the pot to a blender. Add the garlic, chopped onion, cilantro, and salt and process until smooth. If your blender is too small to accommodate everything in one batch, puree the ingredients in two batches.
Dry the pot, place it over medium heat, and add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the poblano chiles and sliced onions, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about five minutes, until the onions are soft. Add the pork, pour in the tomatillo and jalapeño mixture, and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer gently for about two hours, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching, until the pork is tender enough to pull apart with forks. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pork into a bowl with some of its juice. Using a pair of forks, shred the meat into chunky pieces.
Serve with the tortillas, onion, cilantro, salsa, and lime.
Make Your Own Masa Tortillas
Making a tortilla is about as easy as making pancakes. You’ll need to find fresh, prepared masa—not masa harina, which is more work than it’s worth. Luckily, most Hispanic markets and specialty stores stock fresh masa.
Take a ball of prepared masa and roll it out—or press it if you’re invested enough in great tacos to buy a tortilla press. “The exact thickness doesn’t really matter,” Hargrave says, so don’t stress about getting it perfect. Grill it on a cast-iron pan until it’s warm and starting to brown. “It will puff up on one side,” Barelles says. “That’s the side to put your fillings on, because the dough is thinner there.”
If you’re more of a flour tortilla person, that’s okay. This recipe from Sanchez has you covered.
6 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 heaping cup vegetable shortening
2 cups warm water, plus a little more if needed
Mix dry ingredients (it is not necessary to sift them), working in shortening with your hands until it’s the consistency of oatmeal. Pour in the lukewarm water, adding it all at once. Mix well and knead for two or three minutes. Dough should be moist but manageable—a little drier than biscuit dough. Coat with a little oil or more soft shortening, and put it into a plastic bag for 20 minutes until dough is soft.
Take a large piece of dough and squeeze out a portion the size of a pingpong ball.
Roll the ball around in the palms of your hands until smooth. It’s best to prepare half the dough in balls while you keep the remaining half in the plastic bag so they don’t dry out.
Using the tips of your fingers, flatten each ball slightly, then roll out with a rolling pin to the size of a saucer.
Heat a griddle, and cook the tortillas like flapjacks until they develop slight brown spots. To avoid scorching, reduce the heat as necessary to maintain an even temperature. The tortilla will puff up slightly as it cooks. Once you have turned a tortilla and completed the cooking cycle on both sides, press down with your spatula for about 30 seconds or more on all edges, so that you produce a flat, golden disk. Do this on both sides.
Cool on a clean dish towel.
Get Creative with Your Toppings
“Think about texture in your toppings,” says Lauro Romero, the executive chef at Portland’s King Tide Fish and Shell and the man behind the Tacos + Tequila popup on the city’s waterfront. “Salsa and guacamole are great, but look to mix it up with fresh radish, chicharrones, or pickled onion. A fresh, warm tortilla is made better by a crunchy counterpart.”
One of Romero’s favorite toppings is a morita pepper and peanut salsa, which lends a spicy, smoky, crunchy lift to any taco. But what if you’re in a place without a Hispanic grocery store? “You can make a good salsa without the traditional ingredients,” Hargrave says. “I always say you need chile, lily (onions or scallions or any member of the allium family), vinegar or citrus, herbs, and salt. If you have that, you can make a salsa.”
Chef Romero’s Morita Peanut Salsa
1 pound tomatillos, peeled and washed
1 pound Roma tomatoes
2 ounces dried morita chilies
2 ounces chili de árbol
1 diced onion
8 garlic cloves
8 ounces peanuts
1 ounces grapeseed oil
4 ounces chicken stock
In a bowl, combine all veggies, dry chiles, and peanuts with the grapeseed oil and place on a sheet pan. Roast in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 20 minutes (or until it smells heavenly). Be careful not to let the peanuts burn. Blend in a blender with the chicken stock, and season with salt. Apply liberally to your favorite taco.