Cookbook Club

3 Essentials For Stocking a Mexican Pantry

May 11, 2018

For the month of May, our Cookbook Club members are diving headfirst into Gonzalo Guzmán and Stacy Adimando's Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen, a cookbook based on the eponymous San Francisco restaurant.

Guzmán’s cooking largely relies on simple ingredients to create bright and flavor-packed dishes from Puebla, Mexico City, Michoacán, and the Yucatán, but some ingredients still might require a trip to a local Mexican grocer. Below, we’ve highlighted a trinity of sorts that will make dishes like Guzmán’s crispy red quesadillas, sunflower-seed mole tamales, and salsa-dipped chorizo sandwiches come to life.


Nearly everything in Nopalito relies on one humble ingredient: corn. The restaurant cooks more than 200 pounds of corn per day, transforming most of it into masa. Masa is hulled, ground corn that becomes a doughy, coarse paste. If you’ve ever eaten a taco or a tortilla chip, you’ve had masa.

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While it seems like one of the most intimidating parts of cooking Mexican food, Guzmán recommends that home chefs learn how to make masa from scratch, a process that begins with nixtamalization—soaking dried corn in an alkaline solution of calcium hydroxide—and then requires washing and grinding the corn. It’s then used for tortillas, tamales, chips, and other dishes. If nixtamalization isn’t your thing, masa harina (a flour that can be used to make masa dough) can be found at most grocery stores—although it won’t be nearly as flavorful as a homemade version.


Chiles, both fresh and dried, are the backbone of Mexican cooking—and Guzmán uses them without hesitation. In Nopalito, he calls them “Mexican cuisine’s steady workhorses,” adding, “you won’t believe the array until you have tried them all yourself.”

For simplicity’s sake, a chef looking to recreate a generous array of Nopalito’s dishes without stocking every dried chile known to man, would be wise to add guajillo (used most commonly throughout the book), chipotle (merely a smoked jalapeño), chile de árbol (Guzmán’s self-described go-to red chile), and ancho (a mildly spicy dried poblano) to their pantries.

Don’t overlook fresh chiles too! Guzmán calls the jalapeño his chile de amor, but also relies on serranos (spicier and great as a garnish) and the intensely-spicy tiny orange habaneros, a staple in Mexico’s Yucatán region.


Outside of southeast Asian cooking, few cuisines rely on herbs the way Mexican food does. Some, like cilantro and oregano, are easily sourced, others, like hoja santa and epazote, will likely require a trip to a Mexican grocer.

Divisive to many, Guzmán says, “in my opinion, you can never have too much cilantro in your house.” He relies on it for everything from garnish to salsas to braises. Oregano is frequently used, too, and if you can find it, Guzmán does recommend Mexican oregano; it’s slightly more pungent than its Mediterranean cousin.

Hoja santa adds a mildly bitter flavor to dishes and is commonly used in Oaxacan moles. If you can’t find hoja santa, you can always grow your own plant; they can grow up to six-feet tall! Those familiar with Mexican food might recognize epazote from bean dishes. The sticky leaves add an herbaceous kick to other earthy ingredients, but Guzmán warns that some might find its flavor soapy or medicinal.

What ingredient do you think is essential for any Mexican pantry?

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Laura Ratliff

Written by: Laura Ratliff

A life-long lover of food, I spend my weekends at farmers' markets, , shaking up cocktails (currently obsessed with tiki), and generally making a mess in my Brooklyn kitchen.


Smaug May 11, 2018
You may be able to get fresh corn masa at Mexican groceries, particularly those with tortilla factories attached. Epazote is a chenopodium, and like most can be an aggressive weed- it grows quite well in a pot (I'd be careful about letting it loose in the ground). Mexican oregano (Lippia Graveolens) is easy to grow if you can find it, but is extremely tender; it will die back at the first touch of frost- I usually restart from cuttings every year. Many of the Mexican chiles are very good fresh, too- I particularly like the fully ripened Poblanos (which may or may not be properly called "Ancho" if not dried- never found any authoritative info on this). Poblanos are quite prolific, as are Serranos and Jalapenos; much easier to grow than tomatoes. Masa, by the way, is Spanish for "dough"; there seems to be some confusion on this. I like the use of dried chipotles over canned- the canned ones are very messy to handle and a bit of a nuisance to store, and are more expensive. Haven't grown Hoja Santa, but I believe it's very tender too.
Cheri May 11, 2018
Marvelous selections here of staples essential to Mexican cooking. I keep manchega and fresh white cheeses, canned tomatoes for salsas with fresh onions, garlic, lime, and Mexican oregano. We’re trying out variations of gorditas and sopes with quick-fix fillings like frozen poblanos and nopal. Fun to mix it up!