To make the best beef taco seasoning you've ever had, you need just four ingredients: two kinds of toasted and ground chilies – one hotter and smokier than the other – green cumin seeds, and oregano. It's the same combination of chilies, herbs, and spices that cowboys took on the trail, that Spanish settlers and Native Americans lavished on big cuts of meat, and that northern Mexicans and American border-town cooks use to this day.
It's also the seasoning Mark Miller used while pioneering what became known as "Southwest cuisine," heating up palates in the seven-state region from New Mexico to California as the chef-founder of Santa Fe's Coyote Café. Miller, a Berkeley- and Stanford-trained cultural anthropologist, became Alice Waters' chef at Chez Panisse and was likely the first non-Mexican to authentically use Latin American spices. He sold Coyote Café in 2007, authored half a dozen books on Southwest cooking, and is now a flavor consultant for large companies.
The key to Miller's go-to seasoning blend is high quality. "When you rub the chilies between the fingers, the color should come off and it should be moist," he says. "When you push it together, it should stick together." If it doesn't, it's too desiccated, which makes it bitter.
Miller recommends buying the ingredients from a local business that specializes in spices or ordering them online from Kalustyans.com, a favorite among chefs. Try to buy one variety of each chile – a variety with a name – and look for bright color (the brighter the brick red, the fruitier the taste). As for the remaining ingredients, Mexican oregano and Moroccan green cumin seeds are best. The blend should be worked into ground meat before it browns because browning creates a crust that blocks absorption of the seasoning. You can store the seasoning components, but for deepest flavor, make the blend fresh every time.
Mark Miller's Beef Taco Seasoning Blend
(Makes 2 1/2 tbsp)
- 5 dried guajillo chilies, rehydrated, stemmed, and finely chopped
- 1 large serrano chile, stemmed and cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin seed, toasted and ground
- 1/2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, toasted and ground
Mix everything well with your fingers or a metal spoon. Estimate 2 tablespoons of this blend for every pound of ground beef.
Classic Ground Beef Tacos with Guajillo Chilies
- 1 tbsp corn or other vegetable oil
- 1 small white onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 12 oz tomatoes, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 2 1/2 tbsp Beef Taco Seasoning Blend (see recipe above)
- 1 tsp chopped fresh cilantro leaves
- 3 tbsp water
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/4 pounds lean ground beef (15 percent fat)
- Juice of 1/2 lime
- For serving: 10 (5 1/2-inch) crisp yellow corn tortilla shells, shredded romaine lettuce, pico de gallo salsa, and mild Mexican cheese or sweet Mexican crema (sour cream)
In a large, heavy skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat; add the onion and garlic, and sauté until the onion is softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, Beef Taco Seasoning Blend, and cilantro, and the 3 tablespoons of water. Season with salt and pepper. Cook the tomato mixture down to the consistency of a thick marinara sauce. Crumble in the ground beef, mashing and stirring it to combine with the sauce. Increase the heat to high and cook, covered, until the meat has lost its pink color and the filling is moist, but not liquid, about 12 minutes. The meat should be soft like meatloaf.
Remove from the heat, stir in the lime juice, and serve right away, or keep warm in the pan until ready to serve.
To serve, divide the lettuce, filling, salsa, and cheese or crema equally between the crispy shells and arrange the filled shells in a taco holder. Or lean the filled shells in a row, propped upright, on a platter. Eat right away. To build your own, spoon some lettuce and beef filling in a crispy shell, top with cheese or crema and salsa, and eat immediately.