photo credit: gourmetsleuth


In Mexico, tacos are simply a wrapper, usually corn but sometimes a flour tortilla, wrapped around small bits of food, often meats, topped with fresh onion, cilantro and a little sauce. In the U.S. a taco is more likely a u-shaped corn tortilla (sometimes pre-baked) filled with ground meat, lettuce, cheese, topped with some sort of sauce. No matter how you define this dish, tacos have made their way into main stream American cuisine.

Taco History

Historically the taco is as old as the tortilla which dates back to the Aztecs.  The name "taco" was the Mexican-Spanish term that translates literally to "plug or wadding".  Although the actual definition of the culinary term is unknown it is thought the reference is to a rolled tortilla being filled or plugged with food. Counter to that, Food Timeline sites this reference:

The [National Taco Council] reports this theory of the origin of the word taco: 'It is popularly believed that taco came from the word ataco or atacar, which means stuff--and stuff they have."
---"Everything You Wanted to Know About Tacos," Los Angeles Times, May 4, 1972 (p. K9)

According to the Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, the term taco was first printed in English in 1930.  As we researched this history it was interesting to note there was no mention of "tacos" in the first most extensive Spanish-Language cookbook El cocinero espanol, published in San Francisco, California in 1898.  There were recipes for making fresh corn tortillas, as well as flour tortillas, and even recipes for enchiladas, but no tacos.

Types of Tacos

Although the heritage of the dish was something made from bits of this and that there are some classic styles of tacos that come from Mexico.

  • Tacos de cazuela - The filling for these tacos is cooked in large open clay pots.  The tacos are served in soft, warm corn tortillas.
  • Tacos de la plancha - A plancha is a griddle, typically cast iron used to grill meats or vegetables or even to heat tortillas.  Tacos de la plancha are made from various ingredients cooked on the griddle including, meats, potatoes or egg which are then served in warmed corn tortillas.
  • Tacos a vapor -Tacos served in warmed tortillas filled with steamed beef head meat.
  • Tacos de canasta - Tacos made from quick fried corn tortillas filled with a little ground beef, cheese, and sometimes potatoes. These are similar to the tacos served in the U.S.
  • Tacos de harina -These tacos are simply tacos made from flour rather than corn tortillas.  The taco may be served soft, folded, rolled, lightly or crisply fried.
  • Tacos dorados -These tacos are made by placing a small amount of filling in the center of a tortilla then rolling the tortilla up and lightly frying it in oil.
  • Tacos al carbon - Warmed corn tortillas served with charcoal-grilled chicken, beef, or pork.

Traditional Taco Toppings

Some traditional taco toppings include fresh shredded cabbage, chopped white onion,  cilantro, pickled vegetables (such as carrot and jalapeno chiles), salsa and assorted hot sauce or salsa fresca.  Fresh cheese such as queso fresco is popular as well. For other types of cheese refer to our Guide to Mexican Cheese (queso).

Everyday, Any Meal Tacos

I think of tacos as more of a concept than in terms of a specific recipe.  You can use most any ingredient you have on hand to top a tortilla.

Breakfast Tacos

I like to soft-scramble eggs with bits of any meat I may have in the refrigerator.  Today I added small bits of dried pepperoni and added some green onion.   I warmed the tortillas in my counter top convection oven.  I topped the warmed tortillas with the egg mixture, an avocado slice, some grated cheese (cheddar in this case because that's what I had) added more chopped green onion and red salsa.

breakfast taco

Lunch,  Dinner or Snack Tacos

I grew up on "American" style beef tacos.  We hand fried the tortillas in a frying pan in about a 1/4" of oil.  Drained them on paper towels.  We pan fried ground beef with garlic and a little salt and pepper.  Our standard condiments were

  • Shredded lettuce
  • Chopped, fresh tomatoes
  • Chopped yellow onion
  • Grated sharp cheddar cheese
  • Victoria's hot taco sauce

These were not Mexican style but they were our favorite family food.  They were always our favored celebration meal.  My mom even served them for my college graduation party.  I could not have ask for anything I loved more.

These days, anything I throw on a tortilla (fried or just warmed) is a taco to me.  If I have leftover beef, pork or chicken, I'll chop up the meat, add some seasonings, saute it with some onion and pile it on my tortilla.  My toppings depend on whats in the refrigerator.  I don't typically fry the tortillas unless I'm making the old family recipe.  Warming is faster and saves a lot of fat calories.

Recently I had prepared Pork Tenderloin with Stilton and Port (great easy recipe).  I used the leftovers for lunch tacos, tasted great.  Even meat left over from a stew can become a taco filling.  Try to keep the basic condiments in your refrigerator, like your favorite salsa, hot sauces, fresh cabbage or lettuce, fresh jalapenos or pickled vegetables.  Our household is never without some type of cheese, get experimental, use what you have that is compatible with your other ingredients.

Taco Preparation Tools

We never had anything fancy in our house.  We use a simple pair of tongs with coated handles (so you don't burn your hands) to fry the tortillas (when we fry them) and a frying pan.  That's about it.  Serving for us is a DIY process. Each person fills their own, one at a time so no need for special serving devices.  That said there are some tools that might be  handy for your needs.  Most of these tools can be purchased on Norpro Taco Press

Taco Frying Tongs - Special tongs that form the tortilla as it is fried.

taco tongs

Taco Holders - Devices made from ceramic or metal that holds one to several prepared tacos at a time.  These holders are useful for people making tacos for children or for anyone who prefers to serve tacos pre-assembled.  We show two styles below, one made of wire, the other of solid metal.  The function is the same although the wire version is more apt to allow juices to flow onto your table.

wire taco holder
metal taco holder

Tortilla Warmers -  These are traditionally hand woven baskets but are also made of thermal plastic used to keep soft tortillas warm.  The simple basket shown below would be lined with a dish towel and the tortillas would be bundled inside.

tortilla basket

Taco Recipes

We have a pretty extensive taco recipes collection.  Take a look, try something new and enjoy!

Fun Fact about Tacos!

The First Taco Chain Restaurant

Glen Bell started the U.S. restaurant, Taco Bell in 1962.  The chain became national and was eventually purchased by PepsiCo, Inc. While their product is not a very close approximation of an authentic Mexican taco it does use some of the basic ingredients such as the tortilla and meat and was partially responsible for making the taco a household word in the U.S.

Earlier Taco Sightings

In the The Food Chronology, James L. Trager [Henry Holt:New York] 1995 (p. 467). Trager states "1931--The Los Angeles restaurant El Cholo opens at 1121 South Western Avenue in a courtyard with a mission-style fountain. Proprietress Rosa Borquez serves enchiladas, chiles rellenos, Sonoran-style chimichangas, burritos, tacos and green-corn and cheddar tamales..."  Clearly this was not a chain but it is further documentation that tacos in the U.S. began it's popularity in the early 1930's forward.

Selecting and Storing Corn Tortillas

Providing you don't want to take the time to make your own corn tortillas here are a few things to look for when selecting a manufactured corn tortilla:

  1. Look for tortillas made ONLY with 3 ingredients, corn, water and a trace of lime (which comes from the corn slaking process).  At the time of this writing, Trader Joes sells one of the few available 3 ingredient corn tortillas.
  2. Avoid, if possible tortillas made with agar agar or guar gum.  These ingredients impart a slightly "gummy" texture to the tortilla.
  3. Avoid tortillas with preservatives or other extraneous ingredients such as Sodium Propionate (Propionic Acid, Sodium Hydroxide) Methylparaben And Propylparaben.
  4. Store unused tortillas up to a week or two in the refrigerator.  Use old tortillas for chilaquiles or make fresh corn chips.
  5. You can freeze tortillas in a tightly sealed, resealable bag.  If you are going to freeze them you should do so when they are as fresh as possible.

Taco Seasoning Time Savers

Simple tacos making use of bits of leftover meats may or may not have the more complex flavors you prefer.  If you don't want to labor for hours simmering and stewing your ingredients you may want to use some premade taco seasoning products.

Make Your Own Seasoning Mixture

You can make your seasoning and store it in tightly sealed jar.  Then saute a little chicken, pork or beef with the seasoning added.  Here is a basic recipe from Alton Brown.  You can substitute or add/delete seasonings to your taste:

2 tablespoons ancho chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons hot smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine all ingredients in a small jar, shake or stir to combine.  Keep tightly sealed when not in use.  If you like oregano a good add to this recipe is Mexican Oregano

Commercial Taco Seasoning Mixtures

There are dozens of taco seasoning mixtures on the market, many dry packets, some are shelf stable sauce style.  The downside to the dry packets is that they tend to use various preservatives and frequently include an excess of salt.  One popular version is by McCormick Premium Taco Seasoning, 24 oz.Their ingredients include: Spices (including chili pepper, cumin, oregano, and red pepper), onion, whey solids (milk), salt, sugar, paprika, garlic, potato starch, and citric acid.

taco seasoning

Frontera Foods - Taco Skillet Seasoning

These products are produced by Rick Bayless.  The line is called Taco Skillet Seasoning.  The packets are moist packed fresh ingredients.  The packets come in various flavors and may be added to chicken or ground beef.  For example:

The Original Texas Skillet Sauce contains: fresh tomato and roasted tomato, onion, garlic, apple cider vinegar, salt, evaporated cane juice, spices, expeller pressed canola oil, chile powder, ancho chile, chipotle peppers (chipotles, tomato puree, onion, distilled white vinegar, vegetable oil, sugar, salt, paprika, garlic), natural Worcestershire sauce (distilled white vinegar, molasses, water, sugar, onions, anchovies, salt, garlic, cloves, tamarind extract, natural flavorings, chile pepper extract) water, cumin, oregano, calcium chloride, citric acid. 

taco skillet sauce 

The Frontera, Skillet Sauce as well as his other products are available at Amazon.com.

Sources and Credits

Authentic Mexican - Rick Bayless
The Oxford Companion To Food - Alan Davidson

More About Tortilla Making & Tips

How to make masa / nixtamal - for making your own corn tortillas.
Tips for heating and storing tortillas - easy ways to keep your tortillas fresh and warm.

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Barbara Bowman graduated with degree in Foods and Nutrition from San Jose State University. As CEO of GourmetSleuth.com she spends most waking hours writing, cooking, eating, gardening and traveling.