The Ultimate Guide to Mexican Spices
Mexican spices embody nature's elements, combining heat and smoke and depth into unforgettable dishes. Earthy cumin, smoky chipotle, and cooling cilantro meet fiery chiles, creating a cuisine rich with culture and tradition. With garlic and onions as the savory cornerstone, the most common Mexican spices and herbs are coriander, allspice, cloves, thyme, Mexican oregano, Mexican cinnamon (ceylon), cumin and cacao which showcase the breadth of Mexican food.
As the fourth most megadiverse country in the world, Mexico has an abundance of spices and herbs that have been used by traditional cooks for centuries. A guiding principle across regions and centuries has been to take simple, local ingredients, and create as much flavor as possible. We've compiled an ultimate guide to the Mexican spices and herbs that are used to create the fajitas, sauces, salsas and—of course—tacos, that the world has come to love.
So if you're looking to create better tasting, traditional Mexican food we've complied a comprehensive list of the most frequently used Mexican spices, herbs and chiles to take your meal to the next level.
- Achiote – This seed imparts a brilliant orange color and mildly earthy flavor. It is used in sauces and marinades, and as a natural food coloring.
- Allspice – Allspice has savory and sweet applications in Mexican cooking. It's often used as a pickling spice and in adobo and the seed-based pipian sauce, but is also common in desserts and cookies.
- Anise – This Mediterranean import is an essential addition to a traditional Day of the Dead bread in Mexico. Herbal and licorice-y, anise is mainly found on the Mexican dessert tray, but is a standard ingredient in mole poblano.
- Cacao – Chocolate is the rock star product that cacao produces, but it can be used in savory ways too. Cacao goes great with chiles, and is famously made into mole poblano, the complex, multi-ingredient sauce that is a hallmark of the Puebla region.
- Cinnamon – Cinnamon tastes pungent and woodsy, because it is the inner bark of a tree. Mexican cinnamon, canela, was introduced to the region by Spanish conquistadores and has an almost floral aroma. Normally associated with desserts, cinnamon's sweet spice adds depth and originality to soups and stews, and pairs well with vegetables like carrots, onions, or winter squashes.
- Chili Powder – The blend of ground chiles that is "chili powder" is ubiquitous to Mexican recipes, but it varies from company to company and blend to blend and is entirely subjective to preference. We invite our customers to browse our selection of seasoning blends, but the Hill Country Blend is our standard, go-to chili powder for everyday cooking.
- Clove – Known as "clavos de olor", or "nails that smell", in Spanish, the distinct peppery-sweet flavor of cloves adds richness across the Mexican food spectrum, while its mildly astringent quality adds a fun mouthfeel. It's a standard in a classic mole poblano, and the seed-based stew pepian. But be judicious! Cloves are strong and can easily take over a dish if they're not balanced correctly.
- Coriander – Coriander is the mildly citrusy, nutty seed of the cilantro plant. Coriander is much less aggressive than cilantro, since the citronellol compound that gives cilantro its bright green flavor is not present in coriander seeds. It adds a warm, sweet flavor to black bean soup, and a tart boost to vegetables and spice rubs. If you veer away from Mexico, it's also great in coleslaw.
- Cumin – This seed has a strong flavor, variously described as "earthy", "pungent", "warm", "hearty", and, for a surprise finish, "with a little edge of citrus". Cumin has the heft to stand up to other robust flavors, but can also elicit surprisingly delicate nuance from sweeter vegetables or mild bread.
- Nutmeg – This is often mixed into frothy, spicy Mexican hot chocolate, and is a surprising, secret-ingredient addition to savory winter squash or chicken dishes, and it's brilliant with greens.
- Sesame – Sesame seeds are a workhorse. They can top desserts and entrees. They can be ground into a paste, or the seeds, which pair extremely well with several varieties of chiles, can star in salsas and moles.
- Basil – Beautiful, soft basil brings gentle herbal notes to everything it's in and is found primarily in Mexican soups and tomato-based dishes.
- Cilantro – Crisp and citrusy, cilantro is an integral ingredient in Mexican cuisine. When dried, it adds a more subtle, herbal flavor to a dish. Fresh cilantro is, of course, the fragrant green garnish that gives Mexican food its fresh pop.
- Epazote – Epazote's deep herbal, bitter lemon notes pair well with dairy, and love to enhance roasted peppers and pots of beans. Use wisely! Too much can overwhelm a dish, but heat can destroy the flavor compounds in epazote and render it tasteless. And in high doses, epazote can cause stomach upset.
- Mexican Oregano – A relative of lemon verbena, Mexican oregano has hints of citrus and a touch of licorice that linger in its grassy flavor. This herb has a natural affinity for its culinary compatriots, and pairs well with chiles, avocados, and is a welcome addition to both cooked and raw salsa.
- Hibiscus – Tart and tannic, this gorgeous ruby-red flower is great in tea…but that's not all it's good for! It's mixed into marinades and served with meats like duck and boar, and pairs surprisingly well with chiles and cheese for a twist on a vegetarian quesadilla.
- Rosemary – Native to the Mediterranean, rosemary was brought to Mexico and happily took root in its sunny climate. This evergreen adds piney fragrance to fish and chicken.
- Sage – Sage brings its slightly bitter, hearty edge to Mexican soups and stews. Beautiful velvety fresh sage leaves, when dried, concentrates its flavor, so mind how much is used in one dish.
- Spearmint – One of the aromatics known as hierba Buena, spearmint is a staple of the Mexican kitchen. Its use runs the gamut; it's found in various aguas frescas (non-alcoholic beverages), salads, and desserts, but it's also an integral ingredient in the meatballs in albondigas, a traditional Mexican meatball soup.
- Thyme – Floral, slightly minty thyme helps elevate lighter, more delicate flavors in dishes. It's one of the classic hierbas de olor, fragrant herbs, that are found across most Mexican cuisine and thus is used in a cosmos of dishes, from sauces and stews to pickled chiles.
- Vanilla – The vanilla flower is indigenous to Mexico, and the only orchid that produces an edible product in the vanilla bean. Vanilla figures predominantly in desserts, though I have seen a recipe or two for fideos that include vanilla as a savory ingredient.
- Mulato – 1-2K Scoville Units – Fully mature poblano peppers are picked at their most ripe, darkened past red to brown, and allowed to dry. This develops the deep chocolate-cherry undertones that add richness to dishes like the classic mole poblano. They are usually pureed for sauces and soups, but can be rehydrated and stuffed. One of the milder chiles, mulatos deliver just a touch of heat.
- Pasilla Negro – 1-2K Scoville Units – The Pasilla Negro chile, or the "little raisin", is called so because as the chilaca chile dries, it shrinks and develops a dark, wrinkly exterior. The flesh of the pasilla negro is thin and delicate, and adds smoky, woodsy flavor with notes of chocolate and licorice. It's great cooked into adobo sauces, or crushed and used as a garnish.
- Cascabel – 1-2.5K Scoville Units – Round and cheery, these bright red chiles hold their shape when dry, deepening to a dark red color, and sound like maracas if you shake the seeds. They have a rich flavor that's reminiscent of smoke and earth, with a slightly nutty note. They are mild enough to enhance a wide range of dishes, from salsas to casseroles.
- Guajillo – 2.5-5K Scoville Units – Tart and tannic, this dark red chile pepper has mild-to-medium heat and a versatile flavor profile. The Guajillo Chiles, a dried mirasol chile, is used in a wide range of foods. It can be rehydrated and chopped, sautéed with onions and garlic for tacos, or pureed for sauces. It's even been found in desserts because it's lovely with chocolate. Toast before using for maximum richness.
- Ancho – 4-9K Scoville Units – The Ancho chile pepper, like the Mulato, is also a dried poblano, but picked off the vine when it's bright red, and dried. The flavor profile is slightly sweeter and the heat hasn't mellowed, so it's a little hotter than its cousin, the Mulato. This chile pepper can be rehydrated and stuffed for chiles rellenos, pureed into salsa, and mixed with chocolate for a piquant truffle.
- Pasilla de Oaxaca – 4-10K Scoville Units – This pepper comes from the Sierra Mixe mountains in the Oaxaca region of southern Mexico. Dried and smoked, the Pasilla de Oaxaca have a strong smoky flavor and have been used to give an almost meaty flavor to vegetarian dishes. While they make beautiful salsas, the Pasilla de Oaxaca are also a great addition to tamale fillings.
- Puya (Pulla) – 5-10K Scoville Units – The Puya chile delivers jalapeño-level heat with a bright, fruity flavor. The Puya pepper is usually used ground and goes well in sauces, chutneys, and anywhere you'd like to add heat and fruit. Its fruitiness even goes well with dessert; put it on vanilla ice cream for a surprising treat that's so cool it's hot.
- Chipotle Meco – 5-10K Scoville Units – Take a ripe jalapeño, smoke it for a very long time, and you'll have the Chipotle Meco. Wrinkly and brown, they look a little bit like wood bark, but they bring dynamic flavor that ranges from smoky to spicy to mildly grassy. The chipotle meco can accent all sorts of food; it will stand up to assertive meats like beef, but will also make a great seasoning rub for hearty root vegetables, like sweet potatoes or celery root.
- Chipotle Morita – 5-10K Scoville Units – The Meco's cousin, a Chipotle Morita is also a smoked and dried jalapeño. The standard pepper that is used when one thinks of chipotles, it is picked off the vine earlier and not smoked as long as the Meco, so its flavor is not as aggressive. Moritas are great in sauces, like the vinegary adobo or a sharp salsa, or mixed in with a crema to create a fun flavor contrast.
- Costeno Rojo – 5-15K Scoville Units – Hailing for Oaxaca's coastal region, the Costeno Rojo brings a solidly up-front, medium heat to dishes. It's a little tart, a little fruity, a little earthy, and is a traditional ingredient in a vast array of Oaxacan sauces and soups.
- Smoked Red Serrano – 8-18K Scoville Units – This slender pepper looks like a jalapeño's skinny little cousin, but it's got five times more heat in its core. Dried and smoked, the serrano's flavor becomes crisp despite the smokiness, with notes of citrus and a heat that lingers. Its bright flavor pairs well with poultry and the smoked serrano is a great addition to chicken-based stews. It also makes a great chile pesto.
- De Arbol – 15-30K Scoville Units – The concentrated flavor and heat of the de Arbol chile makes it a wonderful choice for kicked-up salsas, and is a favorite chile to use in enchilada sauces. This narrow chile pepper, also known as a "bird's beak" pepper because of its long, pointy shape, are smoky and nutty, with a potent bite from the heat.
- Japones – 15-30K Scoville Units – It's unclear where Japones chiles first emerged; are they Asian? Are they Mexican? But they have become a standard in Mexican cuisine, growing in pots in cucinas across Mexico. The chiles are favored for their clean heat—spice, with little additional flavor. Because their flavor is so unassertive, you can play with Japones peppers and decide which salsa, or spice rub, or stew, you want to dial up, without changing its basic flavor.
- Pequin – 40-58K Scoville Units – Spicy things come in small packages! The Pequin Chile, with a name that means "small", is no more than ½ inch long. But they don't mess around; they're about 10 times hotter than a jalapeño. Their flavor boasts a hint of citrus that underlies the wallop of heat. This pepper usually ends up in salsas, but it's a great choice if you're looking to make a hot pepper vinegar, or mix it with chipotles for a smoky, rich salsa.
- Chiltepin – 100-250K Scoville Units – These tiny peppers, slightly larger than a peppercorn, do not mess around. They have a big smoky bite and up-front, searing heat. But there is mercy; the heat from this pepper dissipates quickly, so recovery will not take long. Then you can eat more! This pepper is often pickled with oregano and kept on the table. It's also been mixed with cream cheese or yogurt for a dressing with a creamy bite, and made into a sizzling hot salsa.
- Habanero – 150-325K Scoville Units – Holy habanero! This Scoville powerhouse blasts spicy heat through the dishes it's used in. But once you get past the heat, you'll find that this is a gorgeous pepper, with elegant floral and fruity aromas and flavors waiting to be appreciated underneath the spice. It goes well in fruit or tomato salsas, ignites guacamole, and is often jellied with peaches or mangoes. Just be careful when handling; wear gloves, wash your hands thoroughly, and don't rub your eyes!
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