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Your Complete Guide to Mexican Herbs and Spices

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix th...

Step up your Mexican food cooking game with all the right seasonings

If you have a torrid love affair with Mexican food (and who doesn't) you're probably familiar with a couple herbs and seasonings commonly used in recipes. But, my friends, getting the right kick to your Mexican food goes way beyond chili powder, cayenne pepper and cumin.

You can really take things up a notch by broadening the spectrum of spices you use. Try incorporating some of these herbs and spices into your cooking.

More: Panuchos Are the Mexican Street Food That Turns the Taco Outside In

And here's a huge tip: It's best to grind your own spices as opposed to using the pre-ground ones that come in a jar according to Mexconnect. When you grind your own, the flavor is far superior and you can control the quantities you use better. Also, pre-ground spices tend to go stale way before you finish the bottle.

Achiote paste

Commonly made from annatto seeds, coriander, oregano, cumin, cloves, garlic and more, achiote paste used in a variety of dishes, especially marinades.

The Food Network has an easy-to-follow recipe to make your own achiote paste here.

Adobo sauce

Frequently used to preserve chipotles, adobo sauce is a smoky chili-based sauce made with tomatoes, onions, garlic and other spices. It's a tad on the hot side and may be used in place of chili powder in many dishes to provide an additional kick. It also makes for a great meat marinade.

Give Chowhound's recipe a try.

Ancho chili powder

Ancho chili powder is different than regular chili powder. It's sweet and rich with a bit of a fruit flavor.

The best part? You can make your own at home for dirt cheap.

Anise

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With a flavor similar to licorice, anise is typically used in dessert cakes and especially cookies, according to Mexconnect.

It is also used in molés, and is sometimes given to help settle an upset stomach.

Chili powder

Many people assume chili powder is just ground chilies, but it's actually a blend of dried, powdered chilies, cumin and oregano. It's frequently used as seasoning for meats and vegetables and has a mild spiciness.

Chipotle

Contrary to popular belief, Chipotle isn't just the name of a Mexican fast-food chain.

Chipotle is actually a dried jalapeño, and it has a distinctive smoked flavor that complements many sauces, salsas and marinades. You can get it dried or preserved in adobo sauce.

Cilantro

Fresh cilantro is used in a variety of Mexican dishes. Both the leaves and the seeds (coriander) are edible. You can add it in salsas, molés, cheeses, broth-based soups, rice and beans — pretty much anything you want to give a fresh zip to.

More: 19 Taco Meat Recipes That Will Make Taco Night Feel Brand-new Again

Clove (clavo de olor)

The clove is the dried flower bud of an evergreen tree native to Indonesia, according to Mexconnect. Cloves are similar to cinnamon, but have a slightly smokier flavor and more pungent aroma. It's often used to add depth to sauces (like molé) and other dishes. Add a clove when making stock, and in baking.

Coriander (semilla de cilantro)

Coriander is actually the seed of the cilantro plant, and is sweet, spicy and a bit lemony. It's what gives chorizo it's super distinct flavor.

Use coriander any time you want to intensify other spices in the dish you are preparing.

Cumin (comino)

We use cumin all the time and might not associate it with traditional Mexican dishes, but it's actually used in the cuisine quite a bit, according to the Casa Blanca Mexican restaurant website. It has a bitter, somewhat toasty taste that stands apart from other spices, and is frequently used in taco seasonings.

Try using it with almost any meat, or heartier vegetables and legumes.

Hoja Santa

A photo posted by Brian Kusler (@briankusler) on

The heart-shaped leaves of hoja santa are used frequently in yellow molés, or as a wrapper or seasoning for meat, fish, mushrooms and tamales, according to rickbayless.com.

It's got a strong and rather unexpected flavor (which has been described by various people as similar to mint, eucalyptus, peppercorn, allspice or anise) and should be used sparingly.

Mexican cinnamon

Cinnamon used in Mexican cuisine is referred to as "true cinammon," and is similar in taste to what we know as cinnamon in the U.S. (which is actually cassia cinnamon).

Mexican cinnamon is often used in both sweet and savory dishes, according to Mexconnect.

Mexican oregano

When you think of oregano, you think Italian, right? But adding Mexican oregano to your dishes will add a fresh, earthy taste, according to the Casa Blanca Mexican restaurant. It's often used to season tomato-based dishes. It's stronger and more bitter than Mediterranean oregano, so be careful with the amounts you use.

Papalo

Papalo is similar to cilantro, but much more bold and complex, according to underwoodgardens.com. It's kinda considered to be an acquired taste, and packs more heat than cilantro, but it is often eaten raw with tacos, and in cemitas, guacamole and salads.

Romerito

Romerito (also known as seepweed) looks a bit like rosemary, but it's flavor profile is closer to spinach.

Romerito is always cooked and almost never eaten raw and is most often used in traditional holiday dishes, mixed with nopales (cactus), potatoes or molé sauce, according to specialtyproduce.com. You can also saute Romerito and add to savory cakes or rice and bean dishes.

More: Copycat Chipotle Sofritas Are So Easy to Make at Home

Before you go, check out our slideshow below:

Step up your Mexican food cooking game with all the right seasonings
Image: Brandi Bidot / SheKnows

Originally published May 2013. Updated February 2017.

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