Taco Wisdom

At some point in my early adulthood, I discovered two corresponding facts: 1) I can cook my own damn food, and 2) the food I make is usually better than most restaurants and certainly better than any prepared, frozen food. Segue to tacos. I love them. Learning to create my own authentic taco meat was a life changing experience. Now, I have distilled this wisdom for you to have your own transcendent experience.

You’re welcome.


Proper tacos start with a proper spice blend. Discard that paper envelope of dessicated taco seasoning from the grocery store. You need fresh spices and in the proper proportions to have a proper taco. If you find you cannot salvage together a reasonable spice blend from your kitchen, just give it up and boil some pasta like a loser.

This proportion of spices assumes that you are cooking two pounds of meat. If you want to double or triple these proportions to have taco seasoning on hand in a well-sealed glass jar, use a generous 2 Tbsp mix per pound of meat to be cooked. For best results, combine spices into a small mixing bowl and stir with a dry fork or small whisk.

The essence of taco seasoning is cumin. This isn’t something you can substitute out with anything else. You can choose to include more or less of it, but you can’t leave it out. That said, the four pillars of taco seasoning are:

  • 2 Tbsp cumin
  • 1 Tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper

Atop this base is the classic flavor pyramid with cayenne at the peak:

  • ½ tsp garlic powder, add for depth of flavor
  • ½ tsp onion powder, add for aroma and spice
  • ½ tsp dried oregano, to add savory aroma
  • ¼ tsp cayenne or dried pepper flakes 

That’s the standard preparation. Once you’ve  done it this way a few times, you may decide that it’s time to try some variation. Here are a few solid suggestions that shouldn’t take you too far away from something reasonably edible.

  • Add up to 2-3 tsp more of cumin for more deep, savory flavor
  • Add less chili powder for less spicy, more chili powder for more spicy
  • Paprika is a sweeter, less spicy pepper, so use in in place of, or along with the black pepper or chili powder as desired to add flavor or reduce intensity
  • Add 1-3 tsp garlic powder, add for depth of flavor
  • Add ½-2 tsp onion powder, add for aroma and spice
  • Add 1-2 tsp dried oregano, to add savory aroma
  • Add ¼-½ tsp cayenne or dried pepper flakes for extra spicy, or leave it out entirely because ¡muy caliente!
  • Add 1 tsp dried thyme, teragon, or dill to add savory aromas
  • Have you considered curry?
  • Add ½ tsp sugar, for sweetness and depth of flavor (or to make up for too much spicy)
  • Add ¼ tsp cinnamon for aroma and sweetness

DO NOT attempt to make a spice blend using all of the above additional ingredients at once. Your kitchen may explode, and your face could fall off. The basic blend alone is a 1/4 cup of spices for only two pounds of meat, so it’s more about changing the balance than adding flavor if you make any changes at all.

Pick one or two suggestions to use each time and experiment to discover what you like the best, and don’t be shy about taking other things out to make room. Remember: It’s only science if you write it down!


With ground beef, fat content is key to how you cook and use the meat. Too lean, and it won’t cook well or taste as good. Too fatty, and it may not cook right, but will probably taste just fine. For taco meat, I have had good luck with 85% lean ground beef. If you mix with leaner meats, it can help to use a 75% lean ground beef to compensate.

Instructions below are for cooking ground meat, but there are other taco choices that have their own methods of preparation. Chicken breasts, cod, mushrooms, tofu – pretty much anything that can be coated in cumin, grilled, and sliced into strips.

If the meat is frozen, you must allow it to defrost thoroughly in a cold water bath or in the refrigerator before cooking. 


A word about preparing food: know yourself. If there are certain foods or spices that you know you despise, then do  yourself a favor and skip them when you make the recipe. It’s possible that you may discover some new favorites when trying something new, but don’t waste your time adding something you already think is yucky.

Prep your fillings (suggested quantity per taco):

  • ¼ cup shredded cheese
  • 1 Tbsp sour cream
  • ¼ cup diced tomato
  • ½ cup shredded lettuce
  • ¼ cup diced bell peppers
  • 2 Tbsp refried pinto beans
  • 2-3 pickled jalapeño slices
  • 1 Tbsp salsa

There are many more toppings that get used in the taco world, but this is the standard assortment. Some people used diced, uncooked white onions, like barbarians. Sprouts, cilantro, sliced olives, chopped cucumber or pickles, and beans are all delightful elements to include. But at first, just start with these.


To cook the meat, prep the following ingredients:

  • 2 lbs ground meat (beef, or beef + [pork or turkey or buffalo or venison])
  • 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp diced fresh garlic
  • Spice blend
  • 1 cup beef broth
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 10oz can Rotel diced tomatoes and peppers, drained (optional)
  • 2 Tbsp corn starch (optional)


  1. Heat up a large skillet on a stove with 1 Tbsp vegetable oil. 
  2. When the oil is hot (about 300°F), add 1 tsp diced fresh garlic.
  3. Stir the garlic frequently until it begins to tan.
  4. Add 2 lbs ground meat and incorporate the roasted garlic into the meat.
  5. Stir frequently. After about 3-4 minutes, the meat should be about half-cooked.
  6. Add the spice blend and thoroughly incorporate it into the meat.
  7. After another 3-4 minutes, the meat should be fully cooked.
  8. Stir in the diced tomatoes and cook for one minute
  9. Add the beef broth and tomato paste. Stir well.
  10. Once mixture begins to bubble, reduce heat to 1/3rd and simmer uncovered for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  11. To add thickness to the broth, stir in 1-2 Tbsp corn starch.

While the meat simmers is a good time to warm up tortillas or shells. Keep the meat warm over low heat while serving and covered when not being used.

If you’re going with hard corn shells, be sure they’re fresh and warm them in an oven at 300 for 5-7 minutes (or use whatever instruction is on the box). Soft flour tortillas can be warmed over an open flame or in a lightly greased skillet immediately before serving. Soft corn tortillas can be lightly fried immediately before filling for extra flavor and warmth.

To prepare a crispy taco: take a warmed shell and add enough meat to cover the bottom 1/2″ to 3/4″. Cover this with shredded cheese and then lettuce. Add a dollop of sour cream to the lettuce, add bell peppers, tomatoes, and jalepenos, and finish with a splash of salsa.

For a soft flour taco, start by spreading a Tbsp of refried beans along a line down the center of the tortilla, then spread a dollop of sour cream next to the beans. Distribute the taco meat along the line of beans, then add in the desired toppings, fold it together, and serve.

Regarding presentation: tacos are messy, use a plate. Then when you’re finished with your tacos you have a nice taco salad to finish up!


One response to “Taco Wisdom”

  1. Katrina Prati Avatar
    Katrina Prati

    Could I just come over and eat the ones you cook?

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