How to make restaurant-quality tacos at home, according to food editors
Experts weigh in on how to make great tacos at home.
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There are few foods more universally beloved than the simple taco. And while some might have affection for the stale yellow taco shells and shredded cheddar of American school lunches, it’s the soft tortillas topped with ingredients like smoky-sweet pork and pickled onions that are worth fighting for.
It’s easy to make tacos, but great tacos are a much loftier goal. You need the right ingredients, sure, but also the right tools. With this knowledge in mind, we polled food experts about the tools they use to make the best tacos at home, and even did some thinking about what we use in our own kitchen.
Ready? Here's what you need to make enviable tacos at home.
1. A sizzling cast iron for the perfect protein
I know a lot of people might say they love to grill or slow cook the protein for their tacos, but I’m a big fan of a simple cast iron skillet. For me, the best tacos are about texture (and flavor too, of course!)—the tender chew of the tortilla, the sweet crunch of some radishes and raw onion, the moist but never mushy protein—and a screaming hot cast iron is perfect for getting a really great, crusty sear on some shrimp or chorizo before plopping it in a taco.
J. Kenji López-Alt of The Food Lab at Serious Eats agrees, but he takes it a step further, even charring his tortillas in his trusty skillet:
My cast iron skillet is an essential tool for taco nights. It's great for heating up corn tortillas and giving them a nice char. I can use it to sear carne asada or marinated chicken for fillings. It's also fantastic for crisping up shredded pork carnitas, either directly on the stovetop or transferred to under the broiler in the oven.
2. A masa grinder for fresh corn tortillas
It’s easy to buy pre-made tortillas, but the best tortillas are made fresh. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, Stacy Adimando, the test kitchen editor at Saveur Magazine, thinks it’s worth the effort to make your own from scratch:
To me, the thing that turns a taco from good to great is a fresh, authentic corn tortilla. You can make them quickly using store-bought corn flour or masa harina, but when I want tortillas of the absolute best texture and flavor, I use a molino de mano to grind my own dried corn (or nixtamal). It works sort of like a hand-cranked pasta machine: you sprinkle soaked corn on top and turn the handle, and you're left with the softest, fluffiest masa for making homemade corn tortillas.
3. An authentic, beautiful tortilla press
So you've got your masa ground and ready—now what? It's time to press them into perfectly round tortillas. Lindsay Mattison, a Colorado-based professional chef and food writer, tested our best tortillas presses and learned they're surprisingly easy to use:
If you’re equipped with the right tools, making corn tortillas is almost easier than driving to the store to buy them. All you need is a specialty flour called masa harina and a decent tortilla press. Our favorite, a cast-iron model from Victoria, was faster than all the other presses we tested—only 10 seconds per tortilla! The tortillas were so perfectly flat and consistent that I would happily serve them in a restaurant to paying customers.
4. A good chef's knife for slicing and dicing
I might not be a professional chef, but I am a food editor, and can tell you this much: the best tacos I’ve eaten have all incorporated fresh produce. A really excellent salsa fresca, thin slices of avocado, onion, or radish—they all elevate your taco to a new level of deliciousness.
The thing about making salsa fresca is that it’s a huge pain if your knife isn’t up to the task. Our favorite chef's knives can make quick work of tomatoes, chiles, and onions, but a dull or unbalanced blade can turn the task tedious—and dangerous.
If you’re going to be throwing together some salsa, or maybe just adding some other sliced produce to the mix, you’ll want a good knife. Period.
5. Our favorite tortilla warmer for serving
As much as we recommend trying to make your own tortillas fresh at home, that's obviously not a realistic goal for everyone. If you're heating up tortillas you bought from a store (or tortillas you made yourself earlier in the week), a tortilla warmer is a table-ready way to keep them soft, pliable, and ready for taco-making. Here's what Lindsay Mattison had to say about them after testing yet another tortilla round-up:
Covering warm tortillas with a clean dish towel works in a pinch, but it’ll only hold the temperature for a few minutes. You need a tortilla warmer to keep them warm for longer than five minutes. Our favorite models were both cloth, but ceramic models will also work if you want them to match your other dishware.