20 Essential Mexican Ingredients

From fresh tortillas to fragrant chiles, here's the scoop on finding essential foods in every aisle of your local Mexican market

Photo by Alex Farnum; written by Christine Ciarmello
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Learn the secrets of your local Mexican market

Dedication to the tortilla is just one reason to shop at the West’s many Mexican markets, found in just about every city and town. These markets cater to customers who prize freshness and crave a variety of fresh, dried, and packaged ingredients, plus a stunning array of prepared sauces and salsas—often at bargain prices.

Silvana Salcido Esparza (pictured), chef of the popular Barrio Café in Phoenix and Barrio Queen in Scottsdale, points out the true finds.

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1 | Flour tortillas. Tortillas from white flour come in different sizes and are often labeled for their intended use: burrito, fajita, etc. Esparza says that the large ones, from the state of Sonora, are sometimes referred to in slang as obaquera (sobaco means armpit) because their roughly 15-inch diameter stretches from elbow to armpit.

Use it: Depending on size, roll for burritos or fold for fajitas.

2 | Corn tortillas. Available in various sizes (often 4-inch and 7-inch diameter) and in white, yellow, and sometimes blue corn.

Use it: Fry for Chicken Tinga Tostaditas, roll into Enchiladas Suizas, or warm for tacos.

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3 | Pan dulce. Sweet breads are huge in Mexico, and pan dulce (pictured), with its sugary topping, rules.

Use it: To avoid artificial coloring, choose the white or brown (cocoa) varieties.

4 | Bolillo. A light, crusty submarine roll.

Use it: Split and fill with jalapeños, ham, and melted Oaxaca cheese for a quick sandwich.

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5 | Hot sauce. Esparza says Tapatío is the best: “The body is thicker than the other sauces.” By the looks of how it dominates the shelves here, few people would disagree.

Use it: Pour on everything.

6 | Salsa verde. Canned green salsa is a good shortcut to avoid peeling and roasting tomatillos.

Use it: Esparza livens up canned salsa (Embasa brand, for the thick texture) with puréed chipotles in adobo and a few dashes of Tapatío.

7 | Cajeta. This caramel sauce is akin to dulce de leche. Esparza loves the full, tangy flavor of Coronado brand, made from goat’s milk. For a milder flavor, look for one from cow’s milk.

Use it: Top Cajeta Ice Cream Sundaes, or simply spread on a saltine for a “to-die-for” salted caramel treat.

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More packaged foods

8 | Chipotle chiles in adobo sauce. A chipotle pepper is a dried, smoked jalapeño; adobo sauce contains tomatoes, cloves, cinnamon, sugar, vinegar, and salt. “A perfect combo of savory, sweet, and spicy,” says Esparza, who likes Embasa brand for its rich color and smokier flavor.

Use it: A spoonful of puréed chiles kicks up the flavor of tomatillo salsa, barbecue sauce, and the sauce for Chicken Tinga Tostaditas.

9 | Achiote paste. Mayan in origin, it’s made from annatto seeds and imparts smoky, peppery flavors and a reddish hue to marinades and sauces. Esparza dilutes the paste with sour orange juice.

Use it: Dilute the paste with sour orange juice (juice and paste over chicken or tilapia. For chicken, roast or cook slowly in a dutch oven. For fish, wrap in a banana leaf and grill.

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Dried chiles

10 | Arbol (top left). “As flavorful as the habanero, but with a fraction of the heat,” says Esparza. It’s brittle when freshly dried and doesn’t require rehydration.

Use it: Throw it in soups, canned pinto beans, and rice to give lift to a dish (pull it out before serving). Infuse tequila with it by dropping a few in the spirit, or use it in Sangrita de toro.

11 | Ancho (top right). A dried poblano with a rich, smoky flavor that Esparza especially likes with beef.

Use it: For salsa, reconstitute and purée with broth, garlic, and salt, then cook. Cool, then add cilantro and diced onion.

12 | Guajillo (bottom right). Has little heat but a fragrant, earthy flavor; Esparza calls it “the king of dried chiles.”

Use it: It’s central to mole sauces and also commonly used in red chile sauce (Chile colorado).

13 | Negro (bottom left). A chilaca that’s dried; may be sold as “dried pasilla.” It has a black color and deep flavor, like a spicy prune.

Use it: Reconstitute and purée with other dried chiles, then slow-cook with beef or pork.

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14 | Oaxaca (pictured). A semisoft melting cheese often sold in a mozzarella-like ball meant to be torn off in strips, it’s closest in texture and flavor to string cheese or Monterey Jack.

Use it: Top Enchiladas Suizas or grilled nopales.

15 | Cotija. A semihard, salty, crumbly finishing cheese similar to parmesan.

Use it: Makes a sharp-flavored garnish for red chile enchiladas or tostadas.

16 | Queso fresco. Semisoft and creamy; used for cooking and as a condiment.

Use it: Crumbled in Enchiladas Suizas.

17 | Mennonite. Increasingly popular semisoft cheese, introduced to the state of Chihuahua by Mennonites.

Use it: Make mac ’n’ cheese, with adobo chipotles for kick.

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More dairy

18 | Crema. Called Mexican sour cream, it’s less tangy than the standard kind. Crema Mexicana is thinner; jocoque is thicker, like crème fraîche. You’ll find crema in the dairy case, but check the cheese counter for a fresh crema bar, where you can taste before you buy.

Use it: Drizzle onto Enchiladas Suizas and Chicken Tinga Tostaditas.

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19 | Tomatillos (pictured). These common tart, tomato-like vegetables are the foundation for salsa verde. Esparza likes the harder-to-find milpero tomatillo, a tinier, more expensive version, for its more concentrated flavor.

Use it: In Enchiladas Suizas. Or, for a simple salsa verde, peel and roast tomatillos until tender, then purée with arbol chile.

20 | Nopales. The stickery pads from the prickly pear cactus are hard to clean. But at Mexican markets, nopales often come already cleaned (dethorned and peeled) and either whole or chopped.

Use it: Parboil cleaned, chopped nopales, then dunk in an ice bath so they don’t get gummy. Sauté with garlic, onions, tomato, and scrambled eggs or tofu. Or, if you buy whole cleaned pads, brush them with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill on one side until olive-colored, about 4 minutes, then turn, top with Oaxaca cheese, and grill 3 minutes more.