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Want to make more Mexican food at home? Stock your pantry with these staples

Grab these essential spices, peppers and canned goods to make your favorite Mexican recipes any night of the week.
These are some of the ingredients you might think about adding to your pantry so you can whip up any number of Mexican dishes with what you have on hand.
These are some of the ingredients you might think about adding to your pantry so you can whip up any number of Mexican dishes with what you have on hand.CHEYENNE M COHEN

At this moment in time, we are stretching our cooking muscles in all kinds of ways. We are certainly digging deep into our pantries and fridges, surfacing those condiments and grains and beans that might have been ignored but weeks ago. We are sometimes trying to keep things simple (three meals a day is a lot to ask of any home cook, no matter how competent), and sometimes we are looking for a kitchen project, something to fill the hours and make life and dinner feel a bit more rich and varied.

So, what better time than to do a deeper dive into a cuisine we already know and love? Mexican food is understandably one of the most loved, but many of us haven’t made much of it at home. Now is our chance. Here are some (just some!) of the ingredients you might think about adding to your pantry so you can whip up any number of Mexican dishes with what you have on hand.

Oregano

You probably already have oregano in your pantry, but Mexican oregano is actually from a different plant. The flavor is a bit stronger than Mediterranean oregano, more earthy and woodsy tasting. It sometimes has some stems mixed in with the leaves, which should be picked out. It is used in all kinds of Mexican dishes, such as burritos, chili con carne, tacos, soups, stews, many of which might have a tomato base. Store it at room temperature in a tightly sealed container for up to 6 months.

Cheesy Ground Beef and Vegetable QuesadillasCourtesy of Katie Workman

Use oregano in:

Cumin

This spice has an earthy flavor with an undercurrent of pleasant bitterness. It appears in contemporary Mexican recipes frequently, though some think of it as a Tex-Mex addition. Use it sparingly as too much cumin can overpower the other flavors in a dish.

Use cumin in:

Dried Chiles

Dried chiles are one of the mainstays of Mexican cooking. Some of the most common varieties are guajillo, ancho, arbol, and pasillas, but there are actually dozens available. They will add heat to a dish, yes, but depending on the variety they might also add smoky, citrusy, earthy, or sweet flavor notes as well. They range widely in terms of heat level. Large guajillos are fairly mild, while small chilis de arbol are very hot, so don’t let size fool you.

There are a couple of ways to use dried chiles. You can simply grind them into a powder, as coarse or as fine as you like. Otherwise they need to be soaked in warm water or cooked in liquid to soften them. An extra step that really brings out the flavor is to toast them first in a hot skillet, either a dry pan or with a bit of oil. Dried chiles are the base of adobo, which is the term used for a basic seasoning paste used in much Mexican cooking.

Look for chiles that are pliable, not dry and brittle. They should smell like spicy dried fruit. Store in an airtight container for up to six months, and whenever you handle chiles of any sort make sure to wash your hands very well with warm soapy water, because your hands will pick up the hot oils from the chilis.

Chili Rubbed Flank Steak with Corn, Tomato and Avocado SaladCourtesy of Katie Workman

Use ground dried chilis in:

Chili powders

Some recipes, especially more Americanized versions of Mexican dishes, will call for chili powder, referring to the spice blend that includes some ground chiles, but also oregano, garlic, and other spices. But Mexican cooks usually use pure ground dried chilis, such as ancho, guajillo or chipotle. The powder should smell spicy with a little sweetness, and be vibrant in color.

Use chili powder in:

Mexican Grilled CornCourtesy of Katie Workman

Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce

Chipotles in adobo sauce are smoked jalapeño peppers which have been stewed in a sauce with tomatoes, garlic, vinegar, salt and various spices such as cumin, oregano and paprika. You can use the peppers with the sauce that clings to them, and then also use the sauce which picks up some heat from the peppers. Or, you can puree a little 7-ounce can of the peppers with the sauce, transfer it to a plastic container, and scoop out a couple of teaspoons whenever you need it for weeks worth of cooking.

Use chipotles in adobo in salsas, sauces, enchiladas, chilis, anywhere you would like to add a bit of smoky heat.

Try chipotle peppers in adobo sauce in:

Beans

Beans are one of the main proteins used in Mexican cooking. You can buy dried beans and cook them yourself, or use canned beans which are obviously more convenient. Pinto beans and black beans are very commonly used and readily available, and you might also seek out peruano, mayocoba, and flor de mayo beans.

Slow Cooker Barbacoa BeefCourtesy of Katie Workman

Rice

While rice and beans is another Tex-Mex construct, rice is definitely used in Mexican cooking. Medium grain white rice is the most typical. It is used in savory dishes, like pilafs, but also in sweets, and it’s a core ingredient of the popular Mexican drink horchata.

Flaky Fish Tacos with Vegetable SlawCourtesy of Katie Workman

Pepitas

Pepitas are hulled pumpkin seeds and used in recipes such as moles, sauces and dips. They have a mild nutty flavor, and then can be added whole, or ground. For the best flavor, toast them in a dry skillet until they turn a bit golden and pop into a puffier shape. About 4 minutes should do it, then use them as directed in the recipe.

They are also very snackable on their own, or mixed with other nuts or seeds, and they are great on salads. You can freeze them to make them last longer.

Use pepitas in:

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