15 Essential Ingredients You Need For Mexican Cooking

Mexican food is a universe in itself, comprising traditions, techniques, and ingredients that vary from state to state and have survived and evolved over thousands of years. Traveling and eating across Mexico means embarking on a journey for the senses, and this same feeling can be transmitted when cooking the country's culinary specialties at home. In 2010, UNESCO named traditional Mexican cuisine an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This incredibly significant event was based on elements like farming systems and traditional techniques. It also considered Mexico's spectacular native ingredients, including vanilla, squash, tomatoes, and cocoa. Honoring and appreciating these ingredients is almost a religion to Mexican cooks, which is why we have put together this list of basic ingredients for you. Whether you are preparing a simple homemade salsa or taking on the challenge of making a complex mole, these are the materials that will help you create more authentic, flavorful Mexican dishes.


For thousands of years, corn has been a highly praised ingredient in Mexico. History tells us that the region near Tehuacán, in the state of Puebla, was where pre-Hispanic cultures began to domesticate corn. Eventually, it became a staple ingredient for cultures like the Maya, the Aztecs, and the Toltecs, and today, Mexico has 64 of 220 species of corn found in Latin America. A key moment in the history of corn was the invention of nixtamalization, a process that consists of soaking corn kernels in an alkaline solution and peeling them. The resulting soft corn is ground into masa (dough), which can be used to make tamales and, of course, tortillas. Tortillas are essential in countless Mexican dishes, from tacos to enchiladas to quesadillas.

Having corn in your kitchen opens up a whole world of possibilities for cooking. You can make street food-inspired elotes, slathering corn on the cob with mayonnaise, queso fresco, and chili powder, or use those same toppings to enhance your esquites, with kernels swimming in a savory broth with epazote leaf. Hominy corn is the star in a healing bowl of pozole, and if you're in the mood for something sweet, you can whip up a comforting pan de elote (cornbread).


Pre-Hispanic cultures called this fruit tomatl and used it to prepare sauces just like we do thousands of years later. In fact, the first recipe for a tomato-based sauce was published in 1692. Its origins can be traced to the Andes, and it eventually made its way north to Mexico. It was Christopher Columbus who brought the tomato to Europe, where it became a staple in kitchens throughout the continent. In Mexico, there are several varieties of tomato, but some of the most common are jitomate bola (beefsteak tomato), saladet (plum tomato), heirloom, and tomatillo (green tomato).

Having these varieties in your kitchen means always having the option to make salsa from scratch. Juicy beefsteak tomatoes, for example, are perfect for an easy pico de gallo, while a fresh salsa verde made with tart green tomatoes will elevate your quesadillas or morning eggs. On the other hand, plum tomatoes are perfect for preparing soups or tomato-based broths or sauces for dishes like enchiladas, meatballs, or chicken tinga. For fresher options, you can chop tomatoes and use them in salads, guacamole, ceviche, or shrimp cocktail.

Chili peppers

Mexicans love some heat in their food, from a subtle touch to a powerful, eye-watering kick. Luckily, there is a wide array of chili peppers available – in fact, more than 60 kinds of chili peppers grow in Mexico — many of which can easily find their way to your kitchen.

When it comes to fresh chili peppers like serrano or jalapeño, you can chop them up and add them to dishes like ceviche and guacamole. You can also pickle, roast, or smoke them before adding them to a dish. If your heat tolerance is high, look no further than habaneros. Round, orange, and quite spicy, they are named after the city of Havana and are amazing in salsas, elevating tacos and tostadas to hot new levels. Jalapeños, which originated in Mexico, is excellent when pickled and can do wonders to liven up the simplest of dishes, like tortas or tostadas.

You can also stock up on dried chilis, which means that the peppers are aged, dried, and smoked, bringing additional layers of depth to your dishes. Morita peppers, for example, are actually smoked jalapeños, and their rich flavor means they work very well in sauces to accompany protein like chicken or beef. Pasilla, a dried chilaca pepper, has a sweeter profile and is one of the many ingredients that go into mole.


Though the origins of onions take us to the Middle East, this bulb vegetable's presence in Mexican cuisine is undeniable. The Northern state of Tamaulipas is home to most of the onion production in Mexico, where it is not only appreciated for its flavor but also its antioxidant and antibacterial properties.

White onion, the most commonly used in Mexican cuisine, will come in handy when you're looking to bring flavor and crunch to countless dishes: use it to garnish chilaquiles, enchiladas, or tacos, or incorporate it into dishes like Pescado a la veracruzana.

If you're embarking on the ambitious mission of preparing cochinita pibil, a traditional pork dish from the Yucatan peninsula, you're going to need pickled red onions, which bring acidity and cut through the richness and fat of this delicacy. Red onion is also great in seafood-based dishes like aguachile or ceviche. Shallots, sweet and aromatic, are ideal when preparing a salad or a white fish that needs a touch of delicate flavor.


When it comes to iconic ingredients, nopales are high on the list, so much so that there is an actual nopal on the Mexican flag. Also known as prickly pear, this cactus is endemic to Mexico and also grows in South America, the Southwest US, and parts of Europe. According to the Mexican Government, 812,000 tons of nopales are produced each year in the country. You can find fresh nopales at farmer's markets and grocery stores, and you can always go for the canned version if fresh ones are not available in your area or you're a bit short on time.

With their thick yet juicy texture, nopales are not only versatile and delicious; they are packed with health benefits. Their high content of fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants make them great allies in a nutrient-filled diet. Nopales are also very easy to prepare. You can grill them on your next outdoor BBQ, add them to your scrambled eggs, or roast them in the oven and serve them as a side dish. Another favorite? The nopal salad is a fresh mix of chopped nopales, tomatoes, onions, fresh cheese, and coriander.


The most beloved sidekick for dozens of dishes, beans are comforting, nutritious, and a major part of the Mexican diet. According to the Secretariat of Agriculture and Rural Development, pre-Hispanic cultures grew beans in the Mesoamerican region around 8,000 years ago. Today, out of around 150 identified types of beans, 70 are found in Mexico, including black, pinto, bayo, mayocoba, and vaquita (named after its white-and-black spots).

One of the most delicious bean-based creations you can prepare is black bean soup, a heartwarming preparation that includes garlic, onions, and if you want, chorizo. Frijoles de olla, made with pinto beans, is another comfort food classic – it translates as "pot beans," and the flavorful broth is ideal as an appetizer or a side dish. And, of course, you can never go wrong with refried beans, which pair perfectly with your eggs in the morning or a hearty plate of enchiladas.


Thanks to its rich soil and humid weather, the Totonacapan region, located between the states of Puebla and Veracruz, is the birthplace of Mexican vanilla. The most famous, however, is Papantla vanilla, which has an appellation of origin since 2009, comprising 39 municipalities in Veracruz and Puebla. With large, fleshy beans, Mexican vanilla is highly valued, although only 1% of the world's vanilla grows here.

Most of us are used to cooking with vanilla extract, but using vanilla beans is an incomparable way to bring aroma and flavor to your dish. Whether you are working with vanilla beans, paste, or extract, you can get inspired by several Mexican classics. Arroz con leche, a sweet rice pudding, is an old-school favorite, as is tres leches cake, a moist cake made with condensed and evaporated milk. Vanilla is also an essential component in agua de horchata, a beloved rice-based drink that is as sweet as it is refreshing.


The southeastern state of Chiapas is the birthplace of cacao, a sacred ingredient in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times. It is believed that the Maya used chocolate as currency. History also tells us that chocolate drinks were the drink of choice for locals even through colonial times. Records of the Spanish conquest and later European explorations show that indigenous Mexicans sipped cups of foamy chocolate, valued because of its nutrients and flavor. It was around the Mexican Revolution, at the beginning of the 20th century, when coffee took over.

Today, you can pay tribute to Mexican chocolate and use it in countless ways in your kitchen. For a simple yet excellent sweet treat, you can prepare a Mexican hot chocolate or a corn-based atole to pair with churros or with your favorite pastry on a chilly morning. If you want to aim high and prepare an authentic mole recipe, you're going to need chocolate, as well as dried chili peppers, garlic, tomatoes, and plenty of spices.

Squash blossoms

With their beautiful, bright colors and delicate, sweet flavors, squash blossoms are born from the squash plant. The rainy summer season brings an abundance of squash blossoms, which are not only valuable in the kitchen but are appreciated for their medicinal value as well. Traditionally, squash blossoms have been used to fight colds, urinary infections, and osteoporosis.

When you're working on your next Mexican specialty, you can use squash blossoms in numerous ways. One of the most popular and delicious recipes is quesadillas with flor de calabaza or squash blossom quesadillas, which simply requires you to fold the cooked blossoms into melted cheese. On chilly days, you can't go wrong with a squash blossom soup or a squash blossom-stuffed tamal. These colorful flowers are also excellent substitutions when you want to prepare vegetarian dishes. Replace the chicken or beef with cooked squash blossoms in enchiladas or tacos, and you'll get a tasty, texture-filled version.

Epazote leaf

With its potent herbal flavor, epazote is one of those ingredients that makes itself known. Epazote brings depth to broths, stews, and street snacks, and it also packs a pretty impressive amount of health properties. Mexicans have known this for centuries. The first record of epazote's medicinal powers was written in the 17th century, stating that people used it to fight kidney and liver stones as well as intestinal infections.

You're going to need epazote if you're preparing esquites. This delightful street snack calls for corn kernels cooked with epazote, salt, and pepper and then topped with mayo, fresh cheese, and chili powder. Epazote will also come in handy if you're preparing black beans, adding an herbal, anise-like note to the dish. And if you really fall in love with epazote, we have great news for you: this plant is so adaptable that it can flourish successfully in a house garden.


Originally from Asia, cinnamon has been a long-prized spice since Egyptian times, when it was used for religious rituals. In the Middle Ages, it gained popularity in Europe for its flavor and powerful properties, as it was considered a digestive, an aphrodisiac, and an aid for treating sore throats. Cinnamon was the most profitable spice in the Dutch East India Company trading route and eventually made its way to the Americas.

There are four main types of cinnamon with culinary use: Vietnamese, Ceylon, Chinese, and Indonesian. These four countries hold 99% of the world's production, and Mexico boasts a small, artisanal production in the states of Veracruz and Chiapas. Ceylon and Chinese are the most popular for preparing Mexican dishes. Use it when preparing stews and moles, including mole negro, where it accompanies several other ingredients such as avocado leaf, clove, cumin, and sesame. Keep cinnamon in hand if you're preparing desserts like arroz con leche or flan or drinks like agua de horchata. Speaking of drinks, cinnamon is key when brewing café de olla, a sweet, aromatic coffee brewed in a clay pot.


It's no secret that garlic is one of the most popular ingredients for cooking and bringing out flavor in many culinary cultures, and Mexico is no exception. In Mexico, garlic grows mainly in the states of Zacatecas, Baja California, and Guanajuato. In your own kitchen, garlic will be one of the main protagonists when you're making salsas, such as salsa tatemada. This traditional recipe calls for burnt tomatoes, onions, chili peppers, and garlic, resulting in a smokey, spicy creation. Garlic is also one of the many ingredients that go into pozole rojo, making the red broth more flavorful and aromatic. And if you want to pay tribute to one of the most traditional Christmas dishes in Mexico, you may want to try your hand at making bacalao a la vizcaína, or Basque-style cod, with a rich, tomato-based stew that – you guessed it – has garlic in it.

Throughout history, garlic has also been a prized medicinal bulb. Thanks to its sulfur compounds, it can help protect your body against colds, reduce the risk of heart disease, and help prevent Alzheimer's.

Queso fresco

Made from cow's milk, or a combo of goat's and cow's milk, queso fresco – which literally translates as fresh cheese – is mild, soft, and slightly salty, becoming an excellent topping in countless Mexican dishes. According to Mexico's CONAHCYT (National Humanities, Science, and Technology Council), the country produced almost 100,000 tons of queso fresco in 2021. It's easy to find queso fresco at most local grocery stores, as is finding queso panela, another excellent choice for your cheesy needs. Panela is made from skimmed cow's milk and also boasts a fresh, milky flavor. Neither queso fresco or panela will melt, and they both crumble easily, becoming the perfect topping when your dish needs a touch of savory, creamy goodness.

You can use queso fresco to top dishes like esquites, nopal salad, tostadas, and soups. It's also a great way to counter the heat in dishes like enchiladas or chilaquiles, especially when served alongside a spoonful of crema.


Historically, oregano has been present as a valued condiment since the times of ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt. The Greeks used oregano in meaningful rituals like marriages and funerals. They also appreciated this herb for its health properties, such as helping to combat respiratory diseases, indigestion, and cough.

Oregano can be divided into two categories: Origanum sp (Mediterranean) and Lippia sp (Mexican). Oregano thrives in mountain climates. In fact, the word oregano comes from the Green origanum, which means "joy of the mountain." Sprinkle some joy into your Mexican creations. Its herbal, minty flavor can liven up preparations such as albóndigas, a comforting meatball-and-broth dish, and pozole verde, with a tomatillo-based broth that also includes parsley, epazote, and cilantro. Picadillo, a comforting stew made with ground beef and vegetables, also calls for oregano during the preparation process. Picadillo is delicious on its own or as a filling for tacos or empanadas.


The first thing that comes to mind when we mention achiote is cochinita pibil. This icon of Southwestern cuisine is prepared with shredded pork cooked with achiote, which gives it its distinctive orange hue. Cochinita is traditionally cooked in an underground earthen pit, resulting in a soft, juicy, super flavorful preparation. To many Mexicans, preparing a good cochinita is one of the ultimate cooking challenges, setting the amateurs apart from the truly talented cooks. If you're taking on this challenge, you're going to need achiote paste. Achiote will also come in handy when preparing flavorful rice or vinaigrette.

Achiote hails from the Americas and was considered a sacred plant during pre-Hispanic times, so it was barely used for cooking. Today, Quintana Roo, Yucatán, and Tabasco produce most of Mexico's achiote. Around a third of the production of achiote seeds is used for coloring purposes, destined for textiles and cosmetics.