Mexican cuisine is renowned for the lively and often spicy flavors that characterize traditional dishes like enchiladas, refried beans, pozole, guacamole and more.
Achieving these authentic flavors largely depends on having the right ingredients. But with so many types of chili pepper, spices and herbs, it can get overwhelming to even start thinking about cooking Mexican food at home.
Fear not, because we’ve prepared a guide to help you stock your kitchen with the ingredients you’re most likely to use in your everyday life in Mexico – or anywhere you want to cook authentic Mexican food.
From fresh and dried herbs to dried chilis, canned goods and native spices like achiote or epazote, this guide breaks down the most popular foods you’ll need in your pantry so you can easily identify them at the supermarket and use them at home.
The ingredients are categorized into herbs, spices, canned goods and dried chilis, to make your grocery shopping a bit easier.
Let’s dive right in!
As with any cuisine, herbs or hierbas de olor are an important part of Mexican cooking. These aromatic herbs are used in fresh and dried forms and are vital in almost every savory dish.
The basic herbs you need for a complete Mexican pantry include:
Cilantro: Cilantro is a ubiquitous herb in Mexican cuisine, employed in dishes like guacamole, broths, salsas, pico de gallo and more.
This herb is used in its fresh form and is available in every supermarket or tiendita de la esquina (corner store).
Parsley (perejil): Like cilantro, parsley is widely used in Mexican households to aromatize broths, stews, salads and even aguas frescas. Always use it fresh.
Bay leaves (hojas de laurel): These herbs are mostly sold in sealed plastic bags in dry form. We use it to aromatize broths and stews like pozole, or salsas like mole, the famous savory chocolate-chili sauce.
Mexican oregano: Mexican oregano is different from Mediterranean oregano in that it is brighter with floral and citrus notes rather than sweet and a bit bitter.
As one of the most common herbs in Mexico, we use oregano to aromatize everything from enfrijoladas — tortillas covered in refried beans — to chicken broth, marinades, braised meats and more.
Epazote: This aromatic herb has no translation in English and has been used since pre-Hispanic times. While it is not typically found in many dishes, it is essential to aromatize esquites — boiled and sauteed corn in a cup — and caldo de frijoles, or black bean soup.
Cinnamon (canela): Cinnamon is very popular in Mexican cuisine. In fact, it is so popular that many would think it is a Mexican ingredient — except it’s from Sri Lanka (former Ceylon). The spice made its way to Mexican cuisine during colonization, and it has remained a staple to both sweet and savory dishes since.
In Mexico we use Ceylon cinnamon, which is mellower and more subtle than the cassia type used in the United States.
You’ll find this spice ground into mole sauces, used as a flavor base in desserts like rice pudding and added to traditional beverages like horchata and hot chocolate.
Achiote: Achiote is the superstar spice responsible for the vibrant red color of cochinita pibil — a slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatán peninsula — and the popular taco al pastor.
While it is linked to Mexico, the spice is widely used in other parts of South America, the Caribbean and the Philippines. Globally, it is known as annatto. In Mexico, achiote is sold as a thick paste in any supermarket.
3. Canned goods
Chiles chipotle en adobo: No Mexican pantry is complete without at least a can of chipotle chilis in adobo sauce
Chipotle chilis are actually jalapeño peppers that have been dried, smoked and covered in a sauce made of tangy tomatoes and spices.
This single ingredient serves as the flavor base for many dishes that include marinades, soups like fideo soup with chipotle, dips, enchiladas, chilaquiles, stews and even tacos.
Pickled jalapeño: The jalapeño chili is a fundamental ingredient in Mexican cuisine that adds mild spiciness and flavor to various dishes and snack foods.
This ingredient is commonly used in sandwiches, potato salads and even American foods such as burgers, hot dogs and nachos — although it is important to note that nachos are not a traditional Mexican dish.
4. Dried chilis
There are so many varieties of chilis that they each deserve their own article, but for now, we’ve selected the most common ones and provided a brief explanation of each.
Chile guajillo: Also called chile marisol or chile colorado, the mildly spicy guajillo is the flavor base of enchiladas and chilaquiles. It also adds flavor and color to red pozole and serves as a garnish for the famous tortilla soup and fideos secos.
Chile de árbol: Don’t be fooled by its small size — this is one spicy chili.
It is often used along with the chile guajillo to add spiciness to recipes like enchiladas or chilaquiles and serves as the flavor and heat base of salsa macha, a very spicy sauce used to garnish almost every Mexican dish.
Start with half a chile de árbol if you want to start incorporating this ingredient into your Mexican meals.
Chile ancho: The ancho chile pepper is the dried version of the poblano pepper. It adds mild heat, sweetness and smokiness to many Mexican dishes like sauces for braised chicken or meat.
Along with the guajillo chile, ancho chilis are a staple ingredient of pipián, a sauce made of mild chilis and peanuts to accompany braised chicken.
Pro tip: remember to remove the seeds and veins of the dried chilis before you start cooking with them, as these are what give chilis their heat.
Gabriela Solís is a Mexican lawyer based in Dubai turned full-time writer. She covers business, culture, lifestyle and travel for Mexico News Daily. You can follow her life in Dubai in her blog Dunas y Palmeras