Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

While I’m not dedicated to Taco Tuesday on a weekly basis, every now and then, a homemade taco hits the spot, especially when I need a substantial meal in a pinch. It was a move my mom used to make from time to time, throwing a packet of taco seasoning into some ground beef and serving it with fixings like hard and soft taco shells, diced tomato, lettuce, sour cream, cilantro, avocado, and shredded cheese. It was a dinner that didn’t require much planning or thought, but was nevertheless a satisfying one. 

The “taco seasoning” most of us are familiar with is more a product of Tex-Mex cuisine than it is Mexican. It features a combination of chile peppers, warm spices, and more, to create a seasoning for ground beef and other meats and proteins that is nearly synonymous with the old ad slogan, “Pass the Old El Paso.” 

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

While the origins of taco seasoning itself are a bit murky, the American taco—the kind we eat in a hard shell, usually with spiced beef and topped with ingredients like shredded iceberg lettuce, pre-grated cheddar cheese, and chopped tomatoes or salsa—is a product of convenience-era foods built on top of a deeper history of tacos in Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. 

The popularity of Mexican tacos increased in the 19th century, and northern Mexico specifically was known for its beef. And while soft-shell tacos made with fresh tortillas are more the norm in Mexico, hard-shell tacos made from fried tortillas exist there too: Tacos dorados, taquitos, and flautas are just a few examples.

According to Atlas Obscura, the marriage of beef and crispy tortillas to create the American taco was partly a consequence of the invention of chili powder, a store-bought item not found in Mexico. “Chili powder was first sold in 1894 by its inventor, Texan-by-way-of-Germany Willie Gebhardt, for use in chili,” Dan Nosowitz writes. “Gebhardt was unable to find the chile peppers he wanted year-round, and so bought a huge stockpile of the peppers, which were probably ancho, and ran them through a meat grinder a few times to pulverize them. He later began selling the powder already made—a huge convenience for anyone wanting to make the then-trendy chili.”

Later on in the 1950s, Glen Bell, the creator of Taco Bell, invented the pre-formed taco shell, and in the 1960s, Old El Paso and Ashley’s started selling taco-making kits, chili-spice included. These ingredients all came together to establish the American taco as a popular dinner-time meal. It’s arguably not an accident that the American taco is so similar in ingredients to a classic hamburger: A comfortingly familiar set of ingredients made just “ethnic” enough for many Americans to feel like they were branching out and trying authentic Mexican food. 

Why Make Your Own Taco Seasoning

One of the more obvious reasons to make your own taco seasoning is that you can adjust the ratios of ingredients to meet your own personal taste. I found that many pre-made taco seasonings on the market are loaded with salt—one of them even listed it as the first ingredient—which on the one hand might be fine, but salt is generally something we want to control the level of independent of other ingredients (which is also why we tend to avoid salted butter in recipes; it’s not bad, it’s just limiting). Want less salt? When making taco seasoning from scratch, you can adjust it. Want more of a kick? You can adjust that, too—just add more chile powder. 

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Making taco seasoning from scratch also guarantees a fresher flavor, especially if you’re using fresh spices, which you should. It’s worth seeking out spices from specialty purveyors who share where their ingredients come from and who harvested them. And if you want even fresher flavor, you can start with whole spices and grind them yourself once you’re ready to make the taco seasoning.  

It’s important to note that while making your own mix will create a fresher flavor, the homemade mix still has a short shelf life. After a few weeks, the mix will start to lose its intensity and vibrancy, and after a month or two, it’ll be just as good as those stale packets you pick up from the store. Given this, we recommend making a quarter cup at a time, which is just about enough for a meal or two, and storing it in a cool, dry place in an airtight container. 

Taco Seasoning Uses

Before getting into suggested uses, there’s one important technical tip: Don’t throw your meat into a pan and then add the taco seasoning after that. This will steam the seasoning as the meat releases its moisture, and while the seasoning may develop its flavor once that moisture has evaporated and browning has begun, the effect is likely to be more limited. Instead, bloom the taco seasoning in a couple tablespoons of hot oil or another fat first: The spices’s flavor molecules are largely fat-soluble, which means they will dissolve more readily into the oil. At the same time, as the taco seasoning heats and toasts in the oil, its flavor will become more fragrant and complex. Just make sure to add the meat before the taco seasoning scorches.

The most obvious use for taco seasoning is in meat for at-home tacos—anything from chicken to ground beef, but you can also use it to make vegetarian fillings for tacos like sauteed mushrooms or tofu. You’ll want to start by blooming two tablespoons of seasoning in hot oil or another fat of your choice before adding in your protein, be it ground beef, vegetables, tofu, etc. 

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

In a pinch, you can also use taco seasoning to spice up homemade fajitas. (In general, fajitas tend to be less spicy, with more of a cumin flavor, so your fajitas will be a bit different with taco seasoning, but you can always add some more cumin if you have it on hand.) You can also use the mix outside of normal taco uses, including as a spice rub for grilled meats and vegetables. It’s a versatile spice mix that offers warmth and heat to whatever you use it with.

In a small bowl, thoroughly stir together all ingredients. Transfer to an airtight container and store in a cool, dry, dark place for up to 2 months.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

To Use Taco Seasoning

For 1 pound (454g) ground meat, such as ground beef: In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons neutral oil (such as vegetable or canola) over medium heat until shimmering. Add 2 tablespoons taco seasoning and cook, stirring, until it smells lightly toasted. Add ground meat and cook, stirring and breaking up with a wooden spoon, until meat is evenly coated in taco seasoning and lightly browned, about 8 to 10 minutes. Season with additional salt, to taste, if desired. Transfer to a serving bowl and keep warm. 


Cornstarch helps make ground beef juicier and less watery as it cooks. If you don’t plan to use the taco seasoning for meat, then you can omit this ingredient. 

Make Ahead and Storage

The taco seasoning can be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place for up to 2 months.

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