10 Sweet Additions You Should Consider For Tacos

When thinking about what flavors to add to Mexican dishes, sweetness can sometimes be low on the list, especially for American cooks. But sugar is just another tool in the flavor toolbox, just like salt, heat, acid, and umami, and many tacos can be elevated to new heights of deliciousness with the judicious application of sweet components.

Taco expert and cookbook author Rick Martinez knows this. He's so passionate about putting sweet flavors in his cooking that he's created a whole YouTube show around the concept: Sweet Heat with Rick Martinez. In a recent exclusive interview with Tasting Table, Martinez shared a ton of useful tips for making the best tacos. Along with all of the other advice, he had many good ideas for using sweetness to amp up the flavor of tacos. We've collected Martinez's best sweet taco additions along with some of our own; after trying them, you may find that sweetness was the missing touch your tacos needed to reach the next level.

Dried chile marmelada

One of the most traditional sweet and spicy condiments you can make hails from central Mexico, according to Martinez. As he told us, in that region "there are a lot of people who make pepper jams, primarily with dried chiles." These mixtures are known locally as "marmelada," which means jam or marmalade.

A variety of different dried chiles can be used for marmeladas, but no matter what pepper you choose, the method is basically the same. Per Martinez, "It's literally just chipotles, which are dried and smoked jalapeños, or chile anchos, or guajillos, cooked in a piloncillo syrup." Piloncillo is unrefined Mexican brown sugar — in addition to bringing sweetness to a dish, it also has notes of smoke and caramel. It contributes more complexity and depth of flavor to recipes than white sugar does.

A marmelada would probably be too sweet to use as the only salsa in a taco, but it would be a great second salsa to bring some sweet heat to whatever you're eating. Martinez likes to use a similar technique to marmelada — cooking dried chiles in syrup — to create spiced simple syrups for cocktails as well. As an added treat, you get to snack on the candied chiles after making the syrup too.

Habañero jam

If dried chiles aren't your thing, you can also make pepper jams with fresh chiles. As with marmelada, the choice of chile is up to you. Martinez's go-to is habañero. "For that one, I'll go a little sweeter and do habañeros, piloncillo, onions, garlic, and apple cider vinegar." And while the piloncillo makes the jam quite sweet, the habañeros are also super spicy, so you have to use this condiment sparingly. "You're not using a lot of it on whatever you're building but when you take a bite, you're getting a little pop of heat and sweet at the same time." Martinez will typically put out habañero jam alongside other more savory salsas like tomatillo and roasted tomato.

If you'd like to try your hand at making a spicy-sweet pepper jam for tacos that isn't quite as fiery as Martinez's habañero version, we have a hot pepper jelly recipe that uses jalapeños, poblanos, and bell peppers. It's intended as a topping for cream cheese, but it could easily be repurposed as a taco condiment.

Caramelized onion salsa

Another sweet salsa that Martinez raved about during the interview is made with caramelized onions and serrano chiles. He got the idea from a friend of his who runs a taqueria in Mexico City. Instead of sugar or piloncillo, the sweetness in this salsa comes entirely from the caramelized onions. Per Martinez, "It's like a French onion soup flavor but really spicy from the caramelized serranos." And making it couldn't be simpler — all you need to do is caramelize the vegetables and then puree them with a small amount of water. Martinez likes to keep the consistency thick and jammy and stays away from adding acid to this salsa, letting the chiles and onions speak for themselves.

Of course, you could also apply this same basic method to other types of chiles. Poblanos or jalapeños would be good choices if you want something less spicy. For extra heat, add habañeros. And take your time with the onions — caramelized onions cannot be rushed.

Grilled pineapple

Adding fruit is another great way to get some sweetness into your tacos, and one classic taco filling that uses fruit is al pastor. The traditional method for making al pastor is to load thin slices of chile-marinated pork onto a spit that's set into a vertical grill. The stack of meat is often crowned with a pineapple, and the fruit cooks with the pork and bastes the meat with its sweet juices.

If you don't have a vertical grill setup at home (and who does?), you have options for recreating the flavor of al pastor at home. One great method is to use pineapple juice in your meat marinade and grill the pork alongside sliced pineapple on a conventional grill. Our slow cooker al pastor is great for people without access to outdoor cooking equipment (or those who just want an easier recipe). Beyond al pastor, pineapple can also be used to create wonderfully sweet and tangy salsas and pico de gallo variations that work well with many different taco fillings.

Mango salsa

Speaking of fruits that are great in salsa, mango is a natural choice. It brings plenty of sweetness to the proceedings, but mango also has a tropical, tangy edge that plays well with savory flavors. Our mango salsa recipe is perfect for people who enjoy moderate levels of spice. It uses a relatively mild red chile along with tomatoes, lime, cilantro, red onion, and, of course, diced mango.

If you like a little more heat, try swapping the red chile out for habañeros. While these chiles are known for being extremely hot, they also have a citrusy sweetness that goes exceptionally well with fruit. This recipe for mango habañero hot sauce is a great formula for combining mangos with spice. In terms of what taco fillings to pair mango salsa with, there are very few wrong answers, though we think some proteins work particularly well with this fruit. The delicate taste of seafood pairs wonderfully with the sweetness of mango. Pork is always great with sweet seasonings, too.


The Choco Taco may be discontinued, but that doesn't mean you can't add chocolate to your own tacos in the form of mole sauce. We should note that not all moles contain chocolate or are even particularly sweet — regional variations like mole pipián and mole amarillo taste quite different from the brown, chocolate-tinged mole poblano we're discussing here.

A true mole poblano is a blend of what seems like too many flavors happening at once, yet somehow they all come together into a harmonious whole. The base of the sauce is typically a blend of chiles, nuts and seeds, stock, spices, and some kind of starchy thickener. Sweetness comes from chocolate as well as dried fruit, cinnamon, cloves, and sometimes plantains or bananas. Mole can accompany many dishes and types of meat, but we particularly like it for chicken or turkey tacos.

Cooking a true mole can easily turn into an all-day affair, but our shortcut mole sauce allows you to make something pretty close to real mole in a lot less time. Time-saving ingredients like canned chipotles, cocoa powder, and almond butter help to streamline the cooking process without sacrificing too much flavor.


Although you might associate coconut more with Southeast Asian foods like curries, it works great with spicy and savory flavors in tacos as well. Martinez has a recipe for coconut-roasted cod that he makes into tacos with salsa matcha (a spicy oil-based salsa). To infuse the cod with coconut flavor, he marinates it in a spiced coconut milk mixture and bakes it in the oven. The mild sweetness of the coconut perfumes the fish and acts as the perfect foil to the spice of the salsa matcha.

If you'd like to take things in a more Polynesian or fusion-inspired direction, why not try putting coconut shrimp in a taco? Coconut just goes so well with seafood, and fried shrimp tacos are already a thing, so fried coconut shrimp isn't too big of a stretch. You could dress your coconut shrimp tacos with traditional salsa and shredded cabbage or go full Asian fusion and top them with sweet-and-sour sauce and sliced scallions.

Orange juice

If you like the idea of adding a sweet component to the marinade for your taco filling but coconut milk isn't your style, orange juice is the way to go. Orange juice-based marinades are quite tasty with red meat; Martinez uses one in his recipe for ribeye tacos norteños.

In his recipe, Martinez balances the sweetness of orange juice with acidity from limes, heat from various types of chile peppers, and mild bitterness from a Mexican lager beer. The OJ isn't just adding sweetness, either. The sugar in the juice also enhances browning and caramelization when you cook your meat.

Marinades are just one application for orange juice — it's a great liquid for braising meat as well. Our carnitas tacos recipe calls for braising pork shoulder in a mixture of lard, orange juice, milk, and aromatics until it's lusciously tender and incredibly flavorful. The brightness of the orange juice helps cut through all the fat in the pork.


Plantain is a nice ingredient to add flavor and heft to vegetarian taco recipes. Fried sweet plantains taste incredible with black beans, and the combo makes for veggie tacos with an exciting mix of flavors and textures. Fried plantains would be a fun garnish for meat-based tacos, too.

To make good fried sweet plantains, you have to buy the right fruit. Green plantains are unripe, and while they cook up crispy and delicious, they're starchy rather than sweet. If you want the plantains to add sweetness to your tacos, they need to be ripe. Fully ripe plantains look like overripe bananas — yellow with splotches of brown on the skin. When ripe, plantains are filled with sugar, which means they burn easily if you're not careful. Fry them at a low heat so they cook through before the outsides become over-browned, and you'll have a perfect sweet component for your next taco creation.

Sweet potatoes

Like plantains, sweet potatoes are a great foil for black beans in vegetarian or vegan taco recipes. The sugar in the potato is a match made in heaven with the earthy beans, and the combination is more interesting than either component on its own.

Sweet potatoes can also make for a fun alternative to regular potatoes in breakfast tacos. They taste good with all the typical breakfast taco ingredients like eggs, bacon, and cheese, and they have more flavor than starchy white spuds.

There's no single right way to incorporate sweet potatoes into tacos. You could simply add boiled or baked pieces, or even a schmear of mashed sweet potatoes. But for our money, we want some texture. We like to dice the sweet potatoes rather small and either roast them in a hot oven or shallow-fry them so they become crisp. Seasonings like cumin, chili powder, and Mexican oregano all help elevate the flavor of the sweet potatoes and make them make sense in the context of a taco.