The Spicy, Nutty Salsa Macha I Spoon Over Almost Everything I Eat

Spicy and smoky, this Mexican do-it-all condiment packs a plethora of flavors and textures. Spoon it over tacos or pizza, add it to eggs, or serve it alongside your favorite grilled meats.

Side view of spooning salsa match onto eggs
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

The marriage of chiles and nuts is well celebrated in Mexican cuisine— in moles, chocolate bars, and drinks, to name a few applications. The smoky, nutty, savory pairing keeps people coming back for more. My favorite way to enjoy this combination of flavors is in salsa macha. I drizzle this fruity, spicy chile oil over almost everything, including eggs, grilled meats, and almost all my tacos. 

Salsa macha originated in Orizaba, Veracruz, but has since spread to dining tables across Mexico. In more recent times, it’s become a popular condiment in Texas restaurants and store bought versions of salsa macha are sold in many markets across the US. On the heals of the rise in popularity of similarly spicy, crunchy Asian chili crisp condiments the US, The New York Times even named salsa macha the most valuable condiment of 2020. The name macha comes from the word machacar which means “to crush,” referring to the traditional preparation of the salsa, in which chiles and nuts are crushed in a mortar and pestle before they’re blended with oil. Another interpretation of the salsa’s name is that it is associated with “macho,” referring to those brave enough to handle the intense heat in some of its iterations. 

Overhead of spooning salsa matcha
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Salsa macha is typically made with fried chiles, garlic, peanuts, and sesame seeds, but recently varieties made with seaweed, chicatanas (ants), black garlic, fermented soybeans, or coffee have begun popping up in restaurants and store shelves. These playful iterations of salsa macha can be fun to try, but the nutty, spicy sauce hardly needs anything more than its staple ingredients. I’ve kept my recipe closer to its original form. And while the ingredient list and its preparation is fairly simple, there are a few key tips to making a salsa macha with the perfect balance of crunchy textures and fruity, smoky flavors with just the right level of heat. Here are my guidelines for making salsa macha that’s way better than any restaurant or store bought version.

5 Tips for Dialing in the Flavors and Textures for Salsa Matcha

1. Use a blend of chiles. To produce a fruity, smoky salsa with a solid punch of heat, I went for a blend of morita, puya, and árbol chiles. The morita chiles provide a chocolatey smokiness that's balanced by the sweet, fruity puya chiles and the fiery heat of árbol chiles. I like to add a dried habanero chile to amplify the heat, but feel free to omit for a milder version of the salsa. Trust me, the salsa is still plenty spicy without it! If these specific chile varieties are unavailable, there are a few substitutions you can make: swap chipotle chiles for the morita chiles as they're both smoked chiles made from jalapeños. Puya chiles can be substituted with equally fruity guajillo chiles, and chiles de árbol can be substituted with dried Japones or Thai chiles, which pack a similar punch of heat. I don’t bother removing the seeds from any of the chiles. Not only is it less prep work, but the seeds actually enhance the nutty profile of the salsa. 

Overhead view of ingredients
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

2. Amp up flavor with a combination of dried seeds and nuts. It's common to use a range of seeds and nuts in salsa macha. I prefer the combination of sesame seeds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and slivered almonds to increase the nuttiness and incorporate a variety of textures in my salsa macha. 

3. Fry the ingredients in stages. Before the salsa is blended, all of the ingredients are first fried in oil. This enhances flavor in two main ways: the oil is infused with the flavor of every ingredient during frying, and frying the ingredients creates a richer, toastier, nuttier flavor profile in the final salsa. To achieve this without burning any of the delicate ingredients, I opted for a two-step frying process. 

First fry: The first fry is at a lower temperature. I add the garlic when the oil is still at room temperature, and heat the two together slowly over medium-low heat, making sure the temperature doesn’t exceed 275℉. During this extended cooking time at a relatively low heat, the oil is infused with plenty of garlic flavor. It’s also a foolproof way to fry the garlic so it browns evenly without burning. As we all know, garlic can burn within the blink of an eye and no one enjoys the acrid taste of burnt garlic. Once the garlic just turns brown, add the chiles and fry until just softened. Note that the chiles will not change color or turn crispy during this brief time—the purpose is to quickly soften them so they’ll blend easily with the other ingredients and to infuse the oil with their flavor. It’s important there aren’t any pieces of garlic or chiles left behind in the oil for too long, as they’ll turn bitter if they burn. 

Overhead view of frying chiles
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Second fry: For frying the nuts and seeds, the oil temperature is cranked up to 325℉. The dense nuts and seeds need a higher frying temperature to properly crisp and brown.

4. Blend until coarsely ground. Make sure not to over blend the mixture—doing so can make it  grainy, creating an unpleasant sandy mouthfeel. The ideal consistency includes small pieces that maintain their crunch.

5. Stir the salsa well before each use. Since salt doesn’t dissolve into oil, it will settle at the bottom over time, so give the salsa a stir if it's been sitting between uses.

Overhead view of salsa matcha
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

This salsa macha is great spooned over eggs, seafood, and grilled meats, but it’s extremely versatile and finding new ways to use it is half the fun. I recommend adding a dash at the end of a stir fry or mixing it into your pasta sauce. 

In a small saucepan, combine oil and smashed garlic. Cook over medium-low heat (the oil temperature should not exceed 275℉(135℃), until garlic is golden and fragrant, 8 to 12 minutes.

Overhead view of cooking garlic in a pan
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When garlic just turns golden, carefully add the chiles (they may sizzle slightly when adding), and cook until softened, about 45 seconds. Set a fine-mesh strainer over a medium heat-proof bowl, and pour the oil mixture through the strainer into the bowl. Transfer the strained solids to a blender. Blend the solids on medium speed, scraping down the sides of the blender jar as needed, until evenly chopped, about 1 minute.

Four image collage of roasting and blending chiles and garlic
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Return the strained oil to the now-empty saucepan and heat over medium-high until oil registers 325°F. Add peanuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds and fry, stirring constantly, until peanuts and almonds turn light brown, about 2 minutes.  Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer set over the now-empty medium heat-proof bowl.  Reserve the strained nuts and oil separately and let cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes.

Four image collage of toasting garlic and peanuts
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Once the oil is cooled, add the fried nut mixture and reserved oil to the blender. Pulse until solids are broken down into small pieces (about the size of the sesame seeds), about 10 pulses. Season with salt to taste. Serve or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate. Stir to recombine before using. 

Overhead view of things in blender
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

Small saucepan, blender, fine-mesh strainer

Notes

Morita chiles can be substituted with chipotle as they're both smoked chiles made from jalapeños. Puya chiles can be substituted with guajillo chiles since they share a fruity flavor. Chiles de arbol can be substituted with dried Japones or Thai chiles which pack a similar punch of heat.

Since salt doesn’t dissolve in oil it will settle at the bottom. Make sure to stir well before each use.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Salsa macha can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

My Family’s Recipe for Smoky, Spicy Red Pork Tamales

Filled with tender shreds of pork coated in a spicy and smoky red chile sauce, these rojos de puerco tamales are packed with punchy flavor.

red pork tamales hero
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Puerco rojo is one of the most popular tamale fillings throughout Mexico, and it’s easy to see why: The saucy pork and red chile mixture has a bold, fruity, smoky, and spicy flavor that you’ll appreciate at first bite. The red chile filling is so concentrated in flavor that it might at first taste too strong if scooped up and devoured by the spoonful; but when it’s spread into a thin layer and cradled snugly in a rich and pillowy masa (corn dough) to form a tamal, its intense flavor is balanced by the rich corn dough.

I grew up eating tamales rojos de puerco—red pork tamales. For family gatherings and celebrations, my mom and aunts would typically get the masa and fillings ready and invite all the kids to the kitchen table to hop in and help wrap the tamales. They were so good that we’d intentionally make a lot so that there would be leftovers to enjoy for breakfast the next day with family. The tamales rojos de puerco recipe I’m sharing here is based on my family’s version that I grew up eating. It features a thick, aromatic red chile mole (sauce) made with charred tomatoes and tomatillos blended with sesame seeds and peanuts for a rich and creamy sauce that coats tender shredded pork. It’s tucked inside a pleasantly spongy savory masa, shaped, and steamed to make the tamales rojos de puerco.

tamales headnote
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I’ve included my recipe for making the masa and shaping the tamales here, but I recommend reading my guides on how to make tamales for more tips for making the masa and shaping the tamales. Here I’ll focus on the red chile pork filling that makes this version of tamales so special.There are two key components to getting the filling right—the pork braise and the red chile sauce, or mole— and I take no shortcuts in making either. This ensures that the filled tamales have pronounced flavor in every bite. Here’s how.

Tips for a Succulent Shredded Pork for Filling Tamales

Choose pork shoulder and don’t rush the braise. Pork shoulder is the standard cut cooked in tamales rojos de puerco filling. It's tough and flavorful connective tissue is ideal for cooking slowly at a low temperature until it’s tender enough to pull into spoonable shreds. 

Braising the collagen-rich and fatty pork shoulder slowly at a gentle simmer breaks down its connective tissue to ensure the pork shreds easily into bite-sized pieces. This will take a few hours, but don’t rush it. Once finely shredded, the pork can readily soak up the red chile sauce to make a cohesive filling mixture that holds its shape well when spooned down the center of each tamal.

Simmer the pork with aromatics to build a flavorful broth. Simmering the pork with water, onion, carrot, garlic, and bay leaves results in not just tender cooked pork, but a flavorful pork broth as well. Building a flavorful broth is important as the broth is used to thin the red chile sauce. I also recommend using the pork broth to make the tamal dough. You will have more broth than you need for this recipe, but do not under any circumstances throw out the flavorful broth that you just took hours to develop! Any unused broth can be refrigerated or frozen to use for your next batch of tamales or use it in a pork-based soup or stew.

red pork tamaled headnote 2
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How to Make the Thick and Flavorful Red Chile Sauce for Your Tamales

Use a combination of chiles. Using a combination of California, guajillo, and chipotle chiles adds layers of smoky and fruity flavor to the sauce.You can read more about each chiles' distinct flavor in our chile guide. Take the time to briefly toast the chiles in the oven until aromatic and just charred to deepen their flavor. Briefly soaking them in water softens the dried skins—a step that ensures the mole will blend until smooth, avoiding any unwanted flaky bits of chile skin. 

Char the tomatoes and tomatillos and toast the nuts and seeds for deep flavor. Broiling the tomatoes and tomatillos until well charred builds smoky savory depth of flavor in the final sauce, while roasted peanuts and toasted sesame seeds add a rich and nutty backbone. I recommend buying untoasted sesame seeds and toasting your own in a dry skillet. It takes just a couple minutes to toast. On the other hand, store-bought already roasted peanuts work well here—no need to roast or toast your own. 

Blend the sauce until smooth and thick. The red chile sauce in this recipe is concentrated and bursting with flavor. It also has a thick, paste-like texture, which ensures that the filling does not bleed out of the tamales once steamed. To make a sauce that’s thick enough, start by blending just a small amount of the reserved pork broth into the sauce. If the mixture doesn’t initially blend easily, scrape down the sides of the blender jar and try reblending. 

Overseason the filling (just a little). Once the shredded pork is coated with the velvety red sauce, go ahead and sneak a taste. The filling may seem overly seasoned and spiced at first bite, but this is actually on purpose. A heavily seasoned filling balances the mild masa that will wrap around the filling. Once you bite into a fresh steamed tamal filled with this red pork, you’ll fully appreciate the filling’s punchy flavor.

For the pork: Generously season pork with salt and pepper. In a large stock pot or large Dutch oven, add the pork, onion, carrots, garlic, and bay leaves. Add water to cover the pork by 3 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook, covered, adjusting heat as needed and skimming any scum that rises to the surface, until the pork is fork-tender and shreds easily, 2 to 3 hours.

red pork tamales step 1
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Strain broth through a fine-mesh strainer set over a large bowl or second pot. Discard aromatics and transfer pork to a cutting board to let cool slightly, about 15 minutes. Reserve the pork broth. Once the pork is cool enough to handle, use 2 forks to finely shred.

red pork tamales - step 2
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

For the mole rojo: Adjust oven rack to upper position and preheat oven to 350℉ (175℃). Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, bring a quart of water to a boil over high heat.

red pork tamales step 3
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper and spread all the chiles on top in an even layer. Bake until toasted, about 3 minutes, then transfer chiles to the pot of boiling water. Turn off heat and let chiles soak until softened, about 20 minutes, then drain and discard water.

red pork tamales step 4
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Adjust the oven to heat the broiler on high. Spread the tomatoes and tomatillos onto the now-empty baking sheet. Broil, turning once, until tomatoes and tomatillos are charred in spots on both sides, 2 to 5 minutes per side.

In a blender, blend the drained chiles, charred tomatoes and tomatillos, peanuts, garlic, black peppercorns, sesame seeds, cumin, and 3/4 cup of the reserved pork broth on high speed into a smooth paste, about 1 minute. 

red pork tamales step 6
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Set a fine-mesh strainer over a large pot or Dutch oven and pour mole through to ensure a smooth mole. Bring the prepared mole to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat, then add shredded pork. Cook while stirring gently to combine until pork and mole are warmed through, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. At this point, the filling can be cooled down then refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months. Alternatively set the filling aside and continue with the tamales below.

red pork tamales step 7
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For the Tamales: In a large bowl, add corn husks and cover with hot water; soak until pliable, 20 to 30 minutes. Make sure they are fully submerged by weighing them down with a heavy plate, if needed.

Meanwhile, in a stand mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat the lard (or other listed fat if using) on medium speed until smooth, light and airy, about 4 minutes (see notes). Stop mixer, use a spatula to scrape down sides of the mixer bowl, and add masa harina, baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Start mixer on low speed and gradually increase speed to medium and mix until well combined, about 1 minute.

red pork tamales step 9
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

With the mixer running, slowly drizzle in broth or water, until well combined and dough forms, about 5 minutes. Dough should be moist, smooth, and spongy in texture. 

Red pork tamales step 10
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

To test dough for seasoning, flatten a small piece of dough between your fingers, then microwave on high power until cooked through, about for 15 seconds. Taste and add salt by returning to stand mixer or kneading in by hand, if needed.

red pork tamales step 11
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Remove husks from water and pat dry with a clean kitchen towel. Working with 1 husk at a time, lay flat on work surface, cupped side up. Using a small offset spatula, back of spoon, or bench scraper, spread about 2 tablespoons (32g) of the prepared masa into a thin layer across the center of the wrapper, leaving a 1-inch border from the wide open end of the wrapper and from both sides, and leaving bottom 2-inches of the narrow tail end empty. You should have a roughly 4-inch by 4-inch flat square of dough (see notes). If necessary, remove any excess masa using a small offset spatula or butter knife.

red pork tamales step 12
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Spread 2 tablespoons of the prepared filling down the center of the dough in a vertical line running the direction of the tapered tail to the open top.

red pork tamales step 13
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With the corn husk’s tapered tail end facing you, fold 1 long side of the corn husk over the filling, stopping and pressing in the middle. Fold the other long side of the husk over the filling, meeting the other folded husk in the middle. Make sure both folded husk edges overlap slightly for a secure closure. Tuck the unfilled tapered tail up to create a secure pouch with 1 open end. Repeat with remaining corn husks, masa, and filling.

red pork tamales step 14
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Fit a large pot or Dutch oven with a steamer basket, removing feet from the steamer basket if pot is short. Fill pot with water until water just touches bottom of basket and bring to a boil. Gently stand tamales in the basket with open ends facing up and seam sides facing out. Cover and steam, checking water level and adding additional water as needed, until tamales easily separate from husks, 60 to 90 minutes. Rest the steamer basket uncovered and offbeat until the tamales are firm, about 20 minutes. Carefully Transfer to a platter. Open and serve.

red pork tamales step 15
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

Blender, stock pot or large Dutch oven, steamer basket

Notes

The unused pork broth can be saved and used for making masa for tamales.

This recipe can be doubled to fill 50 tamales.

Masa harina is available in the Latin foods aisle at most grocery stores. I like to use Maseca and Masienda brands. Maseca is more widely available, while Masienda usually needs to be ordered online. I tested this recipe with both brands and found they were interchangeable in the recipe when measured by weight.

It’s easiest to use large corn husks that measure about 8 inches long by 6 inches wide at the open end; if the husks are small, you may need to use two per tamal by shingling them as needed to hold all of the filling. If you do use corn husks that are different from this recommended size, you may need to adjust the amount of masa needed and the dimensions for each tamal. The most important thing for proper shaping is to be sure to spread the masa into a very thin layer.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The unused pork broth can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months.

The filling can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months.

Uncooked assembled tamales can be refrigerated for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 1 month. When cooking frozen tamales, steam them for an additional 15 minutes.

Cooked tamales can be refrigerated for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 6 months. Refrigerated tamales can be reheated in the corn husks by steaming, microwaving, or grilling. Frozen tamales should not be thawed before steaming.

A Comprehensive Guide to Making Mexican Tamales

Everything you need to know to make great Mexican tamales at home–from making, shaping, and filling the masa, all the way to the cooking.

Overhead view of tamales on a table spread
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Every year in the darkest days leading up to Christmas, my family gathers together to assemble hundreds of tamales for the winter holiday season. The Mexican tamales I know and love require a lot of time to make, so we save them for celebrations when all hands are on deck to help in the preparation, and we can fully appreciate them together. 

There can never be “too many” tamales. They should be eaten in abundance and celebrated for the savory individually wrapped gifts that they are. There’s no denying that making them is a labor of love: The enriched masa (dough) is whipped until light and fluffy, thinly smeared across your preferred wrapper (we use corn husks) then topped with saucy filling, wrapped, and then steamed all together. The result is a tender and pleasantly spongy savory corn dough that complements the filling inside.

Side view of tamales
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

The recipe I am sharing here is based on the beloved Mexican tamales that my family still unwraps first thing every Christmas morning—ignoring the presents under the tree. But it’s important to recognize that there are many different versions of tamales.

For example, I once ordered a single tamal from a Colombian cafe, anticipating a small snack between meals. I wasn't expecting to receive a heavy paper sack with one big banana leaf pouch filled with carrots, pork belly, and an entire chicken drumstick. It wasn't much of a “light snack,” but it was a delicious learning experience. Even across Mexico, tamales range from spongy to fudgy, square to triangular, and savory to sweet. And while tamales can be found in high-end restaurants, some of the best tamales I’ve had are from vendors in grocery store parking lots slinging foil-wrapped tamales from red coolers. 

Side view of cooked tamales
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

There's no limit to how tamales can be enjoyed or what you can find stuffed into a tamal. Whether they're filled with beans, squash flowers, or fish, I make it a point to try all variations I come across, and I encourage you to do the same. I’ve developed recipes for my preferred tamal fillings of puerco rojo, pollo con salsa verde, and birria that are great filling options with this tamal recipe. But before you even get to the filling, a well made masa para tamales is a must. Here are the steps to making a great dough for tamales and how to assemble special occasion–worthy tamales at home.

What Is Masa?

Masa para tamales (dough for tamales) is a blend of nixtamalized corn—fresh or dried—with lots of fat for richness, baking powder to leaven and lighten the dough, salt for seasoning, and flavorful broth to bind it all together and hydrate the dough. In terms of texture, a well made masa para tamales should be soft and pliable enough to spread in a thin layer for wrapping. And for truly great tamales, rather than just relying on the fillings for flavor, the dough must be rich and well seasoned from the added fat, liquid, and salt.

Around the winter holidays, I’ll often find large bags of freshly prepared masa para tamales at my local Mexican grocery stores in California. The doughs are often in varied vibrant colors thanks to fruits or vegetables that have been blended into them. If you can find freshly made store-bought masa that’s made from fresh nixtamalized maiz, it’s a great option to start this recipe with. The texture and flavor of masa para tamales made from fresh nixtamalized corn is incomparable. I encourage you to at some point seek it out and try this shaping technique and recipe with it. Or try nixtamalization at home with Daniel Gritzer’s technique here.

While freshly made nixtamalized corn will produce the most corn-forward masa, it’s a big project to make and can be challenging to source. Instead I call for starting with masa harina, dried nixtamalized corn flour, in this recipe. It’s easily accessible and shelf-stable and, when properly whipped up, will create a dough that is pliable and easy to shape into tamales and still have masa para tamales’ signature savory and complex corn appeal.

Making the Masa

Great masa para tamales starts with fat—and lots of it. Tamal dough should be rich and supple. This is not only for flavor, but for ease of shaping and proper texture. The fat in the masa is typically lard, but experimenting with different fats is a fun way to add flavor to the masa. Asiento (the infused fat produced during the chicharrón- or carnitas-making process) or duck fat are flavorful options to substitute for lard in tamal dough. Whatever saturated fat you choose for your dough, the fat first needs to be beaten in a stand mixer until light and fluffy. Incorporating air into the fat at this stage prevents the masa from becoming heavy and dense once cooked. This process works best with softened room temperature fat, but if the fat is too cold and firm and starts riding around the stand mixer instead of spreading evenly, work the fat with your hands to soften it up a bit before trying again. It can also be done entirely by hand, but it takes longer and requires a couple of ice cubes to keep the fat from melting. 

In addition to the added fat, a leavener must be added to keep the dough light and fluffy. Traditionally, masa was leavened using the water from boiled tomatillo husks and tequesquite, a mineral containing sodium carbonate. Today, baking powder is used as a substitute to leaven the dough.

Overhead view of tamales filling
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

The next step is to add the masa harina to the fat in small increments. Once the masa is fully incorporated with the fat, it’s hydrated by gradually drizzling in small amounts of broth. I strongly encourage you to use a flavorful homemade broth here to build flavor into the tamal dough. It’s typical for the broth used in the tamal dough to be the reserved cooking liquid from preparing the accompanying tamal filling. 

After you add the broth, the finished masa para tamales should feel airy and moist but not sticky or crumbly. If it’s too sticky, add a tablespoon of masa harina at a time until you reach the desired texture. If it’s too crumbly, add a tablespoon of water or broth at a time. Before adding any salt to the dough, cook a small amount of masa over a preheated skillet or in the microwave, then taste and season accordingly. The amount of salt it’ll need depends on how salty the added broth is. 

A stand mixer is preferable to mixing by hand because it’s hands off and allows you to focus your attention on preparing the filling. Tightly wrap your masa with plastic in a large bowl until ready to use to prevent it from drying out.

Selecting Wrappers for the Tamales

Tamales can be wrapped with corn leaves, banana leaves, leafy greens, reed leaves, chaya leaves, Swiss chard leaves, or dried corn husks. Fresh leaves impart a grassy flavor to the tamal. This recipe uses dried corn husks, which I like because they impart a subtle corn flavor and are easier to find in Mexican food markets. They need to be soaked and dried at least 20 minutes before you begin wrapping. Use the smooth side of the husk as the interior, as the rough texture of the outside can make the masa stick. Fully unfold the wrapper before adding the masa to make sure all the ridges are filled.

Overhead view of corn husks
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

It’s easiest to use large corn husks that measure about eight inches long by six inches wide at the open end; if the husks are smaller, you may need to use two per tamale by shingling them to hold all of the filling. If you do use corn husks that are different from this recommended size, you may need to adjust the amount of masa and the dimensions for each tamal. The most important part with shaping is that the masa is spread into a very thin layer.

Assembling the Tamales

Assembling tamales is a lot of work—there’s no getting around it. It’s why my family waits to make tamales until we are all together, to help divide the labor. It takes finesse to make a tamal that has a thin outer masa shell that encapsulates the filling and stays intact once steamed and peeled open. While my detailed instructions are a great starting point, this is an experience that is best learned hands-on. The more you make, the better and faster you will be with the process of shaping tamales. Dive right into the assembly. It may be a sticky mess at first, but you will improve with each tamal, I promise.

Start by spreading a thin layer of masa across the wide end of the wrapper. You can use your preferred spreading tool here—think small offset spatula, the back of a spoon, a bench scraper, or a plastic bag, or even just wet fingers to pat the dough into place. I’ve given dimension suggestions for the preferred size of the corn husk wrappers for this recipe, with a corresponding amount of masa to properly fill them. But the amount of masa used per tamal will depend on the size of your wrapper, and you may need to adjust accordingly. 

Overhead view of thin filling of tamale
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

When shaping the dough, it’s important to leave a 1-inch border around the sides and top of the wrapper. This allows headspace for the tamal to puff up and grow as it cooks. The narrow tail end of the corn husk should never be filled. If any masa creeps towards the edges, simply swipe it clean with your finger and add it back to the masa pile. The layer of masa should be very thin, but don’t worry—as it steams it will rise and expand. 

Once the filling is laid out down the length of the masa, it’s time to wrap. While I’ve seen recipes that roll the tamal closed, I find it is easiest and most secure to fold one side over the masa and filling and then fold the second side over, meeting the first folded side in the center. It’s OK if there’s a thin layer of masa in between the husk: Think of it as protective edible glue that ensures the filling stays put while steaming. 

Folding tamale
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Finally, tuck the tail end of the wrapper at least a quarter of the way up the tamal on the same side as the previous folds. At this step, the tamales can be tied closed with strips of corn husk if desired, but it isn’t necessary. A properly folded tamal will stay sealed once it’s standing up and cooking in the steamer basket.

Cooking the Tamales

Mexican tamales are traditionally cooked in large metal steamers with enough space to fit many dozens of tamales and that hold plenty of water for the extended cook time . For this scaled-down home version, a large stock pot or Dutch oven with a basic steamer basket will work best for a batch of 25 tamales. 

The most efficient way to steam tamales is to lean them on each other and keep them as upright as possible. This maximizes the space in the steamer and also prevents the filling from oozing out as it cooks. If your steamer isn’t airtight, seal the edges of the lid with aluminum foil. You’ll want to keep a pot of boiling water handy and keep a watchful eye on the tamales as they steam. If the pot runs dry, add more water as needed for proper steaming.

Overhead view of adding water to tamales
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

The tamales are ready when the wrapper peels cleanly from the masa. It’s tempting to peel back the wrapper and dive in immediately, but don’t! They need at least 20 minutes resting off the heat to firm up so they will hold their shape once open. Only then are they ready to unwrap. Toppings aren’t required, but tamales can be enjoyed with queso, crema, or salsa. If you’re a hot sauce fan like my dad, you can even slather them in Tapatio.

This recipe makes an accessible 25 tamales that someone would be able to assemble all on their own, but the recipe also can easily be doubled, and tamales freeze and reheat very well. I suggest you invite your favorite kitchen helpers over, turn on some good music, and get assembling. These tamales are worth the celebration. 

In a large bowl, add corn husks and cover with hot water; soak until pliable, 20 to 30 minutes. Make sure they are fully submerged by weighing them down with a heavy plate, if needed.

Overhead view of weighing husks down
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Meanwhile, in a stand mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat the lard (or other listed fat if using) on medium speed until smooth, light and airy, about 4 minutes. (See notes.)

Overhead view of lard whipped
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Stop mixer, use a spatula to scrape down sides of mixer bowl, and add masa harina and baking powder. Start mixer and gradually increase speed to medium and mix until well combined, about 1 minute.

Overhead of adding harissa
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

With mixer running, slowly drizzle in broth or water, until well combined and dough forms, about 5 minutes. Dough should be moist, smooth, and spongy in texture. 

Overhead view of drizzling broth
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

To test dough for seasoning, flatten a small piece of dough between your fingers, then microwave on high power until cooked through, about for 15 seconds. Taste and add salt by returning to stand mixer or kneading in by hand, if needed.

Overhead view of testing a piece of dough
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Remove husks from water and pat dry with a clean kitchen towel. Working with 1 husk at a time, lay flat on work surface, cupped side up. Using a small offset spatula, back of spoon, or bench scraper, spread about 2 tablespoons (32g) of the prepared masa into a thin layer across the center of the wrapper, leaving a 1-inch border from the wide open end of the wrapper and from both sides, and leaving the bottom 2-inches of the narrow tail end empty. You should have a roughly 4-inch by 4-inch flat square of dough (see notes). If necessary, remove any excess masa using a small offset spatula or butter knife.

Four image collage of filling tamales with masa
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Spread 2 tablespoons of your preferred filling down the center of the dough in a vertical line running the direction of the tapered tail to the open top.

Overhead view of filling tamale with chicken
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

With the corn husk’s tapered tail end facing you, fold 1 long side of the corn husk over the filling, stopping and pressing in the middle. Fold the other long side of the husk over the filling, meeting the other folded husk in the middle. Make sure both folded husk edges overlap slightly for a secure closure. Tuck the unfilled tapered tail up to create a secure pouch with 1 open end. Repeat with remaining corn husks, masa, and filling.

Four image collage of folding tamales
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Fit large pot or Dutch oven with steamer basket, removing feet from steamer basket if pot is short. Fill pot with water until it just touches bottom of basket and bring to a boil. Gently stand tamales in the basket with open ends facing up and seam sides facing out. Cover and steam, checking water level and adding additional water as needed, until tamales easily separate from husks, 60 to 90 minutes. Rest in the steamer basket, uncovered and off heat until fully firm, 20 minutes. Transfer to a platter, carefully open and serve.

Four image collage of steaming tamales
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

Stand mixer with paddle attachment, kitchen scale, steamer basket, large pot or large Dutch oven

Notes

Masa harina is available in the Latin foods aisle at most grocery stores. I like to use Maseca and Masienda brands. Maseca is more widely available, while Masienda usually needs to be ordered online. I tested this recipe with both brands and found they were interchangeable in the recipe when measured by weight.

It’s easiest to use large corn husks that measure about 8 inches long by 6 inches wide at the open end; if the husks are small, you may need to use two per tamal by shingling them as needed to hold all of the filling. If you do use corn husks that are different from this recommended size, you may need to adjust the amount of masa needed and the dimensions for each tamal. The most important thing for proper shaping is to be sure to spread the masa into a very thin layer.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Uncooked assembled tamales can be refrigerated for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 1 month. When cooking frozen tamales, steam them for an additional 15 minutes.

Cooked tamales can be refrigerated for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 6 months. Refrigerated tamales can be reheated in the corn husks by steaming, microwaving, or grilling. Frozen tamales should not be thawed before steaming.

I Made My Family’s Incredible Chicken and Salsa Verde Tamales Even Better—Don’t Tell My Mom

These shredded chicken and green salsa tamales are inspired by my family’s version, but I’ve added a few of my own twists—finely chopped crisped chicken skin is folded into the filling for a richer flavor, and ground coriander is added to brighten the sauce.

chicken tamales hero
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

For holidays and celebrations, it’s routine for my family to gather together to make various types of tamal, including tamales de pollo con salsa verde. The version of tamales with a chicken and green salsa filling that I grew up eating was made with shredded chicken tossed in a refreshing green salsa loaded with tomatillos, garlic, and fresh cilantro. My recipe here is inspired by my family’s version, but I’ve added a few of my own twists—crisped chicken skin is finely chopped and folded into the filling for a rich chicken flavor and textural contrast, plus ground coriander is added to enhance the salsa verde. When the bright, sharp, and herbaceous green chicken filling is spread into a thin layer over pillowy masa, and enclosed to form a tamal, the filling’s sharp flavor pairs perfectly with the rich corn dough.

There’s no working around it, tamales are a labor of love, but they are well worth it, and I’ve written a helpful guide on how to make tamales that I encourage you to read for tips on making the masa and shaping the tamales. I’ve also included the steps for making the masa and shaping the tamales below, but here are a few tips for making the chicken and green salsa filling.

chicken tamales headnote 1
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Tips for Memorable Tamales de Pollo con Salsa Verde

Take the time to add crisped chicken skin to the filling. Crisped chicken skin is not typically used in tamales de pollo con salsa verde filling, but I was inspired to add the crisped skin after trying a version of tamales with chicharrónes guisados (stewed fried pork rinds) from my favorite tamal vendor at my local gas station. In that pork version, I loved the contrasting textures and rich flavor the crisped skin added to this tamal filling, and I wanted to use this technique with chicken. I In my chicken tamales filling, the crisped skin softens slightly when stirred into the saucy filling, but it still adds a welcome chewy contrast to the tender shredded chicken, and incredible flavor. (I mean, what’s more delicious than fried chicken skin?!) It’s important to render the chicken skin slowly, and stir frequently to avoid the skin sticking to the bottom of the pot, and to make sure it renders its fat and crisps evenly. 

Once rendered and strained, I like to save the chicken fat, or as I call it, “liquid gold.” Go ahead and even toss a few tablespoons of the rendered fat with the tomatillo mixture before charring under the broiler.

Char the fresh vegetables and add ground cilantro to the salsa verde. Smoky, spicy, sweet, bright, and complex, this salsa verde rules them all. If there were a Mexican restaurant on my desert island, this is the salsa I’d want. Two key features set this salsa verde apart from most: The first is taking the time to char the tomatillos, tomato (added for sweet fruity balance to the tomatillos), and serranos. It’s important to get them really deeply charred. Flecks of black, burnt tomatillo skin are delicious in the finished salsa. As the vegetables cook down under the broiler, they'll also start to release liquid that will caramelize and turn sticky, like honey. Make sure to scrape those delicious juices into the blender jar with the other salsa ingredients.

The second distinction is enhancing the salsa with ground coriander in addition to the raw cilantro leaves and stems. Ground coriander adds a bold, concentrated layer of cilantro flavor to the salsa. The final salsa is sharp and acidic, and once tossed with the chicken mixture, it pairs perfectly with the rich sweet corn dough. The result is tamales that may even better be than the tamales de pollo con salsa verde I grew up eating—just don’t tell my mom.

For the chicken, broth, and chicharrónes: Generously season the chicken with salt and pepper. In a large stock pot or large Dutch oven, add the chicken, onion, carrot, garlic, and bay leaf. Add water until the mixture is submerged by 3 inches. Bring to a simmer and cook until chicken is fork-tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken to a cutting board and let cool slightly, about 15 minutes. 

chicken tamales step 1
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Once chicken is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the bones, then shred the chicken into bite-size pieces and transfer to a large bowl. Reserve the meat and the broth separately.

chicken tamales step 2
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Meanwhile, cut the reserved chicken skin into 1/2 inch pieces. Transfer the cut skin to a medium saucepan, cover with water until just submerged, and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally, over medium-high heat. Continue to cook, lowering heat as needed to maintain a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally until the skin is crisp and golden, 40 to 60 minutes. When crisping the chicken skin, monitor the heat level closely to maintain a gentle simmer to avoid hot fat splatter and to ensure even browning of the skin. Using a spider skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer the crisped chicken skin to a paper towel–lined plate. Season lightly with salt, add to the bowl with the meat, and gently toss to combine, breaking up any pieces of chicharrón that have clumped together. Cool the rendered chicken fat and reserve.

chicken tamales step 3
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

For sauce: Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and preheat the oven broiler. In a bowl, toss serranos, tomato, and tomatillos in 2 tablespoons of the reserved rendered chicken fat. Transfer to an aluminum foil–lined baking sheet. Broil until well charred, flipping the vegetables halfway through, about 5 minutes total.

chicken tamales step 4
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

In a blender jar, add the charred vegetables, fresh cilantro, garlic, black peppercorns, oregano, coriander, cumin, and 1/2 cup of the reserved chicken broth. Season with salt to taste.

chicken tamales step 5
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Pour the blended sauce over the chicken mixture and toss to thoroughly combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. At this point, the filling can be cooled down then refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months. Alternatively set the filling aside and continue with the tamales below.

chicken tamales step 6
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

For the tamales: In a large bowl, add corn husks and cover with hot water; soak until pliable, 20 to 30 minutes. Make sure they are fully submerged by weighing them down with a heavy plate, if needed.

chicken tamales step 7
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Meanwhile, in a stand mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat the lard (or other listed fat if using) on medium speed until smooth, light and airy, about 4 minutes (see notes). Stop mixer, use a spatula to scrape down sides of the mixer bowl, and add masa harina and baking powder. Start mixer on low speed and gradually increase speed to medium and mix until well combined, about 1 minute.

chicken tamales step 8
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

With the mixer running, slowly drizzle in broth or water, until well combined and dough forms, about 5 minutes. Dough should be moist , smooth, and spongy in texture. 

chicken tamales step 9
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

To test dough for seasoning, flatten a small piece of dough between your fingers, then microwave on high power until cooked through, about for 15 seconds. Taste and add salt by returning to stand mixer or kneading in by hand, if needed.

chicken tamales step 10
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Remove husks from water and pat dry with a clean kitchen towel. Working with 1 husk at a time, lay flat on work surface, cupped side up. Using a small offset spatula, back of spoon, or bench scraper, spread about 2 tablespoons (32g) of the prepared masa into a thin layer across the center of the wrapper, leaving a 1-inch border from the wide open end of the wrapper and from both sides, and leaving bottom 2-inches of the narrow tail end empty. You should have a roughly 4-inch by 4-inch flat square of dough (see notes). If necessary, remove any excess masa using a small offset spatula or butter knife.

chicken tamales step 11
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Spread 2 tablespoons of  the prepared filling down the center of the dough in a vertical line running the direction of the tapered tail to the open top.

With the corn husk’s tapered tail end facing you, fold 1 long side of the corn husk over the filling, stopping and pressing in the middle. Fold the other long side of the husk over the filling, meeting the other folded husk in the middle. Make sure both folded husk edges overlap slightly for a secure closure. Tuck the unfilled tapered tail up to create a secure pouch with 1 open end. Repeat with remaining corn husks, masa, and filling.

chicken tamales step 13
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Fit a large pot or Dutch oven with a steamer basket, removing feet from the steamer basket if pot is short. Fill pot with water until water just touches bottom of basket and bring to a boil. Gently stand tamales in the basket with open ends facing up and seam sides facing out. Cover and steam, checking water level and adding additional water as needed, until tamales easily separate from husks, 60 to 90 minutes. Rest the tamales in the steamer basket, uncovered and off heat, until firm, about 20 minutes.Carefully Transfer to a platter. Open and serve.

chicken tamales step 14
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

Blender, stock pot or large Dutch oven, steamer basket

Notes

The unused chicken broth can be saved and used for making masa for tamales.

For easier cutting, the chicken skin can be placed on a plate and frozen until firm, about 15 minutes before slicing.

When crisping the chicken skin, monitor the heat level closely to maintain a gentle simmer to avoid hot fat splatter and to ensure even browning of the skin.

This recipe can be doubled to fill 50 tamales.

Masa harina is available in the Latin foods aisle at most grocery stores. I like to use Maseca and Masienda brands. Maseca is more widely available, while Masienda usually needs to be ordered online. I tested this recipe with both brands and found they were interchangeable in the recipe when measured by weight.

It’s easiest to use large corn husks that measure about 8 inches long by 6 inches wide at the open end; if the husks are small, you may need to use two per tamal by shingling them as needed to hold all of the filling. If you do use corn husks that are different from this recommended size, you may need to adjust the amount of masa needed and the dimensions for each tamal. The most important thing for proper shaping is to be sure to spread the masa into a very thin layer.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The filling can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months.

The rendered chicken fat from making the chicharrónes can be cooled and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks or frozen for up to 3 months.

Any unused chicken broth can be refrigerated in a tightly sealed container for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months.

The filling can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months.Uncooked assembled tamales can be refrigerated for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 1 month. When cooking frozen tamales, steam them for an additional 15 minutes.

Cooked tamales can be refrigerated for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 6 months. Refrigerated tamales can be reheated in the corn husks by steaming, microwaving, or grilling. Frozen tamales should not be thawed before steaming.

This Loaded Breakfast Sopes Recipe Will Convert Anyone Into a Brunch Lover

Perfect for brunch, these crispy and savory Mexican corn cakes, sopes, are loaded with hearty refried beans smothered in a bacon and fresh chile-loaded queso fundido. Nestled on top is a perfectly poached egg with a spoonful of spicy and acidic salsa to finish.

Sopes Hero
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

A sope is a thin, shallow shell of masa that's fried until it's just crisp before the hot and tender interior is piled high with any number of fillings ( beans, lettuce, salsa, crumbled queso, and shredded meat are common). They're often served as antojitos, or appetizers, but my favorite way to enjoy sopes is for breakfast or brunch. This recipe combines my love of sopes with elements from my favorite breakfast dishes. 

sopes headnote 1
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

It features crispy sopes loaded with hearty refried beans that are smothered in a thick layer of queso fundido accented with bacon bits and fresh chiles. A perfectly poached egg is nestled on top of each filled sope with a spoonful of spicy and acidic xnipec, a Mayan salsa that’s a favorite on my family's table. The dish is savory and filling, and each sope features a gorgeous array of colors. This is not your everyday easy eggs over toast kind of breakfast, but rather a showstopping, meant-to-impress brunch I enjoy making for friends.

Admittedly, shaping and frying the sopes and preparing the various fillings is an ambitious project, but this incredible breakfast is well worth the effort. Here are a few tips for making the sopes along with the various fillings, and how to bring it all together for restaurant-worthy breakfast sopes at home. If you’re not in a brunchy mood, the base sopes recipe I’ve included here can also be used with a wide variety of fillings—a popular combination is shredded meat, lettuce, salsa, crema, and queso fresco.

Tips for Making the Sopes

It might be tempting to reach for packaged sopes at a local market, but I recommend making sopes fresh at home since store-bought raw sopes can dry out easily once fried. Making the masa and shaping the dough at home allows you to control the hydration of the masa.

Test the moisture level of the dough: Before you start shaping your sopes, test the moisture level of the masa by smashing a small amount between your palms. If it’s sticky and moist, the dough will be too difficult to shape—if this happens, knead more masa harina into the dough. Low hydration is ideal for sopes to ensure that they fry up crisp.

breakfast sopes headnote 2
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Shape the sopes by hand: There are a couple of ways to shape sopes. Some people flatten the ball of masa in a tortilla press, but I find it easier to flatten them between your palm and a flat surface, such as a kitchen counter. To shape sopes for frying, start by flattening each dough portion into a pancake, then fold the perimeter upward by about one inch, pinching the edge into itself to give it structure. The one-inch tall wall will hold the toppings in place. Next, make sure the base is flat and even by repeatedly tapping across the entire crater with your fingertips.Take the time to get the shape just right, as this will ensure the sopes hold their cupped form once fried. 

Fry the sopes: Street vendors throughout Mexico often use a comal (a large flat griddle) to par-cook the sopes before frying them. Before their final shaping, the flattened raw masa pieces are griddled on both sides before folding the edges up to form their signature cup shape. This is done very quickly while the hot par-cooked masa is still pliable, before they are then dipped in a vat of oil and fried until crisp. When making sopes at home, you don’t need a large comal to sear them before frying. I find that frying the sopes in a deep skillet or wok instead of cooking them on a comal is less finicky because you can shape the masa and fry it without needing to handle a hot, par-cooked masa pancake. 

The most challenging part of frying the sopes is keeping the shape of the ridge while the masa is still soft. The trick is to fry them flat side down first in enough oil to submerge the outside of the rim and allow it to crisp before flipping. You’ll need to support the base with a spatula or spider skimmer as you gently flip it over.

The Breakfast Sopes Toppings

Fill With Refried Beans Topped With an Ooey and Gooey Queso Fundido

While refried beans in sopes are typically topped with crumbled curds of queso fresco or queso cotija, I wanted a gooey melted cheese accompaniment for these sopes so I landed on a queso fundido. Queso fundido (also known as queso flameado when served as a flambé) is cheese that is melted down and often mixed with toppings.

breakfast sopes headnote 3
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

I started by testing the recipe with queso Oaxaca, and while I loved the meltiness, it didn’t quite have enough flavor. I found that incorporating extra-sharp white cheddar added a funkiness similar to cotija that was bold enough to shine through among all the other flavors in the dish.

As for the mix-ins for the queso fundido, I went with bacon in this recipe, but carnitas or chorizo are a great substitutes if you prefer a different add-in. Pouring the finished queso fundido over the refried beans made a more attractive presentation than when I stirred the queso and the beans together.

Serve with a Sharp and Spicy Salsa

At this point, the sopes were very rich and desperately needed some acidity for balance. I immediately thought of xnipec, a Mayan salsa from the Yucatán that features onions and habaneros pickled in the juice of a sour orange. In this recipe, I swap in a more readily available citrus juice—a blend of orange, lime, and grapefruit juice—to mimic the flavor of sour oranges. I wanted to boost the acidity and fruitiness of the salsa even further by adding diced pineapple. I briefly broiled the pineapple to develop a charred flavor before dicing and tossing it with the rest of the salsa right before serving. The result is a spicy and bright salsa featuring slivers of red onion and habanero that are lightly pickled from the acidic mixture.

Serve with a Sharp and Spicy Salsa

At this point, the sopes were very rich and desperately needed some acidity for balance. I immediately thought of xnipec, a Mayan salsa from the Yucatán that features onions and habaneros pickled in the juice of a sour orange. In this recipe, I swap in a more readily available citrus juice—a blend of orange, lime, and grapefruit juice—to mimic the flavor of sour oranges. I wanted to boost the acidity and fruitiness of the salsa even further by adding diced pineapple. I briefly broiled the pineapple to develop a charred flavor before dicing and tossing it with the rest of the salsa right before serving. The result is a spicy and bright salsa featuring slivers of red onion and habanero that are lightly pickled from the acidic mixture.

Poach the Eggs Just Before Serving

While I prefer crispy fried eggs in almost every other application, I found the tender whites and runny yolk of a poached egg provided a nice contrast to the crunch of the sopes. I recommend poaching the eggs right before you are ready to fill and serve the sopes so they are still nice and warm when you’re ready to eat. If the eggs do get cool, you can gently reheat them in simmering water. 

Bringing it All Together: Tips for Assembling the Sopes

breakfast sopes headnote 4
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

To get the filled and assembled sopes on the table hot, the order of operations is critical. Start by making the xnipec, which can be done a few days ahead. The refried beans can also be cooked up to four days ahead and rewarmed in the oven before topping with the queso fundido. If you choose to make the refried beans fresh the day of serving, hold them warm in the oven while assembling and frying the sopes. Once the sopes are fried, transfer them to a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet and set aside while you prepare the queso fundido. While the queso topped beans are baking, poach the eggs. The sopes can be room temperature when filling, but if you prefer them warm, reheat in the oven at 400°F (200ºC) for about 3 minutes, after the queso topped refried beans have finished cooking.

To assemble the sopes, the beans and queso fundido need to be spread on the base quickly while the cheese mixture is still melty. Then, top each portion with a poached egg and a scoop of xnipec. Then serve the rest of the salsa at the table so people can add as much as they can handle—I personally like enough to make enough to make me sweat.

For the Xnipec: Adjust oven rack to the upper-middle position and preheat the broiler. In a medium bowl, combine the orange juice, lime juice, grapefruit, red onion, and habanero. If the onion or habanero is sticking out of the liquid, push them down to submerge; set aside.

Breakfast Sopes Step 1
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Set pineapple slab on a rimmed baking sheet and broil until charred on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Once cool enough to handle, dice into 1/4-inch pieces and stir into the onion-juice mixture. Let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes or up to 4 hours. (The mixture can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.) 

Breakfast Sopes step 2
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

For the Sopes: In a large bowl, combine masa harina, salt, and water. Using your hands, mix the ingredients into a uniform dough. To test the masa, roll it into a small ball and gently crush it between your palms. If it sticks to your hands, add another tablespoon of masa harina. Once the masa is smooth and pliable, roll it into 6 uniformly sized balls.

breakfast sopes step 3
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

To form the sopes, place 1 masa ball on a work surface and flatten it into a pancake. Then, fold the outer 1-inch edge of the dough and pinch to create a 1-inch tall border that stands straight up. Using the tips of your fingers, press the inside of the shaped sopes base into an even thickness.

breakfast sopes step 4
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

In a large skillet or wok, heat oil over medium-high heat to 350℉ (175°C). (Oil should measure about 1/2 inch deep.) Add 2 sopes flat side down, and fry until the bottom side crisps and turns golden, about 2 minutes. Carefully flip over and fry until the inside surface is crisp and golden, about 2 more minutes. Using a spider skimmer, lift the sopes and let any trapped oil drip back into the pot. Place on a paper towel–lined rack, sprinkle lightly with salt, and repeat in batches of 2 at a time with the remaining sopes.

breakfast sopes step 5
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

For the Queso Fundido: Heat oven to 400℉ (205°C). In a 10-inch stainless-steel skillet, add bacon and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until bacon is rendered and crisp, 5 to 10 minutes. Add Thai chiles and cook until softened and fragrant, about 30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon and chiles to a large bowl. Add queso Oaxaca and cheddar to the bacon mixture and toss to combine. 

breakfast sopes step 6
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

In a 3-quart casserole dish, spread refried beans in an even layer. Top with the cheese-bacon mixture and bake until warmed through and the cheese is melted, about 10 minutes.

breakfast sopes step 7
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

To assemble: Fill each sope with the bean and queso fundido mixture on the base of each sope. Top each with a poached egg, minced cilantro, and the prepared xnipec. Serve, passing the remaining xnipec. 

breakfast sopes step 8
Serious Eats/Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

 Large deep skillet or wok, Digital thermometer, spider skimmer, 10-inch stainless-steel skillet

Notes

Masa harina is available in the Latin foods aisle at most grocery stores. Maseca is a widely available brand. Masienda is a great brand that uses heirloom corn but can be more difficult to find. Make sure the label says “instant corn masa flour.”

This recipe makes more xnipec than you need. Use it anywhere you would use pickled onions, such as in sandwiches or tacos, or with fried eggs.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The xnipec can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days. 

The refried beans can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.

The fried sopes are best consumed right away.

These Mushroom-Stuffed Fried Masa Pockets Are My Go-to Appetizer When I Want to Impress

One of the best features of these Mexican hand-held fried masa pockets is that they can be filled with almost anything. This version of cazuelitas features a rich mushroom, caramelized onion, and crème frâiche filling. Once assembled, they’re dunked into a buttery chicken stock glaze before serving.

Side view of cazuelitas
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

I first tried cazuelitas—the Mexican pot-shaped edible vessels made from a mixture of masa, mashed potatoes, and, at times, shredded cheese—at a friend’s dinner party years ago. I was impressed by the marriage of masa and mashed potato that produced the savory fried donut-like vessel filled with a potent chile-laced salsa. While the first version I tried was filled with a fresh salsa, I’ve since learned that one of the best things about cazuelitas is that they welcome nearly any filling. 

Since my first experience, I’ve made and eaten many versions of these fried masa shells and I’ve tried them with a range of filling options. My version below of cazuelitas are deep-fried until the exterior is crisp and golden-brown, while the inside remains soft and fluffy. Instead of using a classic Mexican filling option like fresh salsa, thinly sliced dressed cabbage, or chopped meat, I instead chose a rich and savory mushroom, caramelized onion, and crème frâiche filling that’s somewhat influenced by French cuisine. The jammy texture of the cooked filling is a welcome contrast to the lightly crisped fried masa. 

Cazuelitas
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Once filled, the cazuelitas are then dunked into a buttery chicken stock glaze to finish. While they work best as an antojito, or appetizer, they are so rich and satisfying they can also be served as a full meal. There’s no denying that cazuelitas are a labor of love, but they’re so worth it. The recipe includes multiple steps—the making, shaping, and frying of the masa, cooking the filling and the glaze, and the final assembly—but the process of shaping the cazuelitas is fun and the dish is impressive.

Tips for Shaping Cazuelitas

Cazuelitas are easier to make than other masa shapes such as tortillas or tetelas since you don’t need to haul out a press or fold any edges with precision. At their simplest, the masa just needs to be rolled into a ball and poked about halfway down into the center to create cazuelitas’ signature round casserole-pot-like shape. I like to stretch the interior a bit thinner than some versions I’ve eaten so I can load them up with even more filling. Just make sure not to stretch the walls as thin as a tortilla. I find that keeping the walls of the masa shell thicker provides the ideal balance of crisp to fluffy once fried.

Overhead view of shaping
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Filling the Cazuelitas

The crater-like shape and neutral flavor of a masa harina and potato dough allow for an endless variety of fillings; chorizo, beans, stewed meats, and vegetables, such as thinly sliced cabbage, radish, and avocado, are common choices. As noted above, this recipe breaks from tradition a bit and features a filling of mushrooms, caramelized onions, and crème fraîche. 

The filling is umami-rich and the jammy onions contrast nicely with the crisp outer layer of the cazuelitas. I use Serious Eats senior culinary editor Leah Colins’ technique for making sautéed mushrooms to cook down a large batch of mushrooms with steam and extract their earthiness. A small amount of crème fraîche forms a cohesive mixture with the mushrooms and onions and creates a creamy texture. Make sure to make the filling first before starting the masa shells. You can gently reheat the mushroom mixture before filling the cazuelitas, or serve it closer to room temperature. It is delicious both ways.

Glaze the Cazuelitas to Finish

I chose to finish the filled cazuelitas with a glaze that’s similar to a chicken pan sauce (yet another break from traditional cazuelitas). I love how it clings to the masa and has a potent savory flavor. I also added a touch of Mexican flavors in the form of cilantro, lime, and red pepper flakes. The hint of heat and acidity from the red pepper and lime tames the richness of the dish. 

Glazing Cazuelitas
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

The glaze’s texture is just as important as its flavor. I wanted to make sure that the glaze was thick enough to cling to the filled masa shells to form a shiny flavorful coating. If the glaze was too thin, it wouldn’t stick to the cazuelitas and its flavor would be lost. To guarantee a perfect glaze-like texture, I added gelatin to the mixture to thicken it slightly. The result was a potent pan sauce that coated every part of the filled masa shell once dipped.There are a lot of elements in this dish, but I enjoy that each ingredient is prominent without overshadowing the rest. 

For the filling: In a 12-inch nonstick or cast-iron skillet, bring onions, 1/2 cup water, butter, and salt to boil over medium- high heat. Cover and cook until water has evaporated and onions start to sizzle, about 10 minutes.

Overhead view of onions cooking
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Uncover, and use rubber spatula to gently press onions into the skillet. Cook, without stirring, until the bottom of onions are lightly browned, about 30 seconds. Stir onions, scraping fond from the skillet, then gently press onions into skillet again. Repeat pressing, cooking, and stirring until onions are softened, well browned, and slightly sticky, 15 to 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt. Transfer to a bowl and set aside. Rinse and wipe the skillet clean with paper towels.

Overhead view of browned onions
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Return now-empty skillet to medium-high heat and melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in skillet. Add mushrooms, cover and cook until the mushrooms have released their liquid, about 8 minutes. Uncover, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Return caramelized onions to the skillet and stir to combine. Stir in crème fraîche, and cook until the mixture is warmed through, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste; remove from heat and set aside.

Four image collage of mixing onions and mushrooms and creme fraiche
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

For the cazuelitas: In a large saucepan, cover potatoes with cold water by at least 2 inches. Bring water to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium and simmer until potatoes are softened and can be pierced easily with a paring knife, about 15 minutes. Drain potatoes. Set a ricer over the now-empty pot and pass the potatoes through it (or use a potato masher to mash the potatoes until smooth).

Overhead view of mashing potatoes
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

In a large bowl, whisk together masa harina and salt to combine then stir in the 1 1/2 cups (360ml) water to form a dough. Add mashed potatoes and use a wooden spoon or your hands to mix until homogenous. Divide the mixture into 15 equal pieces and shape into balls.

Four image collage of forming dough balls
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Working with 1 dough ball at a time, use your finger to make an indentation about halfway through at the top of the ball. Gently tap your finger around the interior as you rotate the cazuelita to form a cup shape with thick walls. The finished cazuelita should have a thick rim and deep crater that’s about 1-inch in diameter. It’s OK if the shaped cazuelitas have some small cracks. Set aside on a large plate or baking sheet and repeat with the remaining balls.

Overhead view of making wells in dough
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 200℉.  In a large Dutch oven or pot, heat oil over medium-high heat to 325℉ (175°C) (oil should measure about 1 1/2 inches deep). Working in batches of 5 at a time, carefully add cazuelitas, crater side up, and fry until light golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes. While frying, the cazuelitas should be almost completely submerged in oil. Flip and continue to fry until golden brown and center of dough registers 200℉ (93°C) on an instant-read thermometer, 2 more minutes. Transfer cazuelitas to a paper towel-lined baking sheet and keep warm in the oven. Repeat frying with the remaining cazuelitas. Hold warm in the oven while preparing the glaze.

Two image collage of frying dough
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

For the glaze: In a large bowl, add chicken stock and sprinkle gelatin on top and let sit for 10 minutes. In a small skillet, heat 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat until shimmering. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and fragrant, about 30 seconds. Pour stock mixture into skillet, bring to a boil, and cook until the sauce is reduced to a glaze that coats the back of a spoon, 6 to 10 minutes. Lower heat to low and whisk in remaining 1 tablespoon butter until emulsified, about 15 seconds. Turn off the heat and whisk in lime juice and cilantro. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Four image collage creating glaze
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

To assemble, briefly roll each cazuelita in the glaze. Add 2 tablespoons of filling to each and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, using. Serve immediately.

Two image collage of glazing and finsihed cazuelitas
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

12-inch nonstick or cast-iron skillet, ricer or potato masher, instant-read thermometer, large saucepan, Dutch oven or large pot, rimmed baking sheet

Good to Know

Cazuelitas should not be confused with cazuelas, which are a type of dish prepared in a clay pot. They are, however, identical in shape to chocoyotes, which are masa dumplings served in soup. 

Make-Ahead and Storage

The cooked filling can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days before using.

Go Ahead, Burn Your Buns for This Beloved Mexican Sandwich

This Mexican sandwich features a delightful jumble of crisp chorizo and fluffy potatoes topped with a crunchy slaw and slabs of tangy cheese all served on a smoky, lightly charred salsa-griddled bun.

Side view of Pambazo
Serious Eats / Lorena Mazzo

The first time I tried a pambazo years ago was not love at first sight. I had ordered the beloved Mexican sandwich from Mi Rinconcito Oaxaqueño, my go-to food truck in San Jose, CA. I’d heard claims from fellow patrons that it was superior to their torta ahogada—a carnitas sandwich I loved and ordered frequently—so I decided to give it a try. As it was handed down to me on a paper plate, my first thought was that the sandwich didn’t look that appetizing. The bread was charred, bordering on burnt actually, with a messy jumble of potatoes and chorizo weighing it down and crema oozing out the sides. I was starting to regret not ordering my preferred torta instead. 

But after one bite, I understood what all the fuss was about. The charred, salsa-griddled bread had a pleasant smoky bitterness, similar to fire-roasted tomatoes, that was balanced by the subtle sweetness of the crema. It was so satisfying to sink my teeth through the jumble of crisp chorizo and fluffy potatoes. 

Side view of stacked pambazo
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Since my first pambazo, I’ve enjoyed many versions at local food trucks and restaurants, and have stepped into my own kitchen to create my preferred version of this sandwich. In my initial attempts to develop my own pambazo recipe at home, I ate a lot of burnt bread and stained quite a few kitchen towels red with salsa. But over time and with practice, I’ve landed on a go-to pambazo recipe that’s inspired by that first pambazo experience, but with a few personal preferences and streamlined processes incorporated.

What Is a Pambazo?

It can be hard to define a pambazo because there are so many types. Throughout Mexico, pambazos can be served with a range of meat, vegetable, and cheese fillings. There’s even a festival to celebrate the many types of pambazos in Mexico. At the Festival del Pambazo in Xalapa, Veracruz, The bread is dyed vibrant colors with natural food dye and filled with everything from pomegranate seeds to agave worms.

Overhead image of ingredients for pambazos
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Aside from the range in fillings, what defines a pambazo is the dipping and charring of the bread. A pambazo without being dipped into a salsa and griddled would simply be a torta. And while there are many variations of the sandwich, the most prominent iteration comes from Mexico City, where they’re served on pambazo bread—the general term for the individual rolls used for the sandwich—dunked in salsa and griddled, then loaded with crispy chorizo and chunks of potato. That's likely to sound the most familiar, since it’s the style of pambazo typical throughout the U.S., and is what this recipe is based on.

 There are several components to this style of pambazo—the chorizo and potato filling, the lettuce, the salsa-dipped and griddled bread—that lend themselves to large-batch advanced prep and then quick assembly for a high volume of people while working in the limiting conditions of a food truck or food cart. The challenge is how to get this assembly-line of elements organized for an at-home preparation. But with a solid game plan, each component of the recipe can be prepped up and assembled efficiently so that once you’re ready to eat, all you have to do is fry the chorizo-potato mixture, griddle the bread, assemble, and enjoy while hot and crispy.

The Chorizo and Potato Filling

This filling for a pambazo is a prime example of ugly-delicous food, featuring a messy but undeniably flavorful mash of well-spiced chorizo and hearty potatoes. The chorizo is rendered slowly to release its fat and become crisp, then removed from the skillet and set aside. Parboiled potatoes then go into the skillet with the rendered fat and are cooked until fluffy within and crisp and golden outside. Parboiling the potatoes before crisping is an essential step to ensure that ideal dual texture in the potatoes.

Overhead view of potato and chorizo mixture
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

It might be tempting to blast the heat while cooking the chorizo and the potatoes, but it's worth taking your time to slowly render the fat from the chorizo without risk of scorching, and then cooking the potatoes over a medium heat to give them time to absorb the flavor of the rendered fat. 

It’s also important to choose the right type of chorizo: Pambazos are made with raw, loose Mexican chorizo, which is different from the Spanish cured variety. Furthermore, I recommend steering clear of the Mexican chorizo sold in plastic tubes at the supermarket. This version is a sticky paste that can be difficult to crisp. You’ll get the best version of this sandwich if you take the time to buy chorizo from a carniceria or buy fresh ground pork and season your own.

A Semi-Homemade Sauce: How to Make the Salsa

Typically, pambazos are dunked in a raw tomato–based guajillo salsa. A classic guajillo salsa involves letting guajillos sit in boiling water for 20 minutes to soften; briefly cooking down diced tomatoes; and blending it all together with garlic and onions. But I found that starting with a canned Mexican hot tomato sauce delivered a robust flavor and shaved about 30 minutes off the cooking time. 

Overhead view of cooking salsa
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

I boosted the canned sauce's flavor with a chile-, onion-, and garlic-infused oil that is quick and easy to make. The canned Mexican tomato sauce is viscous enough to cling to the rolls when dipped and has built-in spices and seasonings, which save on work. The addition of the infused oil provides fat to the salsa that helps promote browning with the dipped bread when charred. The salsa can be held in the fridge for a couple days and gently reheated on the stove before serving.

The Coleslaw

While pambazos are typically topped with lettuce, for my home recipe I opt for a tangy coleslaw with a more substantial crunch than plain lettuce. I found the common topping of shredded iceberg turned soggy and drab, but a simple cabbage based slaw retained its crunch and was a nice counter to the rich and fatty chorizo and potato mixture.

Overhead view of adding to slaw mixture
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

The coleslaw is a simple mixture of shredded green cabbage, fresh chiles, onions, and cilantro that’s tossed and bound together with jocoque—a fermented Mexican dairy product that has the texture of crema, but with a tang closer to yogurt. If you can't find jocoque, any Mexican crema will work in its place. 

Serrano chiles bring a welcome fresh heat that is lacking in the salsa, while the combination of scallions, cilantro, and cabbage is slightly pungent and sweet. The result is a refreshing slaw that is tangy and tart. The slaw balances the rich and hearty chorizo and potato filling, so be sure to add a generous amount.

The Preferred Bread for a Pambazo

In Mexico, all pambazos are made on what’s known as pambazo bread. The bread can vary in size and shape throughout Mexico, but it always has a soft exterior crust that’s perfect for toasting, dipped in a chile and tomato salsa, and griddling. 

The name pambazo comes from the bread itself. The phrase "pan bajo" means low class bread and dates back to colonial times, when Mexico was still under Spanish occupation. As early as the 1500’s flour was divided for production purposes by quality. More refined, white flour went to bakeries that served the higher classes, while less refined and older wheat flour went to bakeries known as pampacerias to produce “pan bajo”, or “low class bread”. This style of bread was shaped and baked into individual rolls with a soft crust.

Overhead view of soaking bread in salsa
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

When making a pambazo in the U.S., out of all the breads available in a panaderia, telera is the ideal choice for a pambazo. It's an oval flatbread, so it makes great contact with the griddle while searing. Its spongy dense exterior soaks up the salsa, too while still holding up once griddled and filled. But even still, the texture of telera can vary from bakery to bakery; too soft and the bread will fall apart under the weight of the fillings and the moisture from the sauce. I avoid this variable of bread quality by lightly toasting the bread in a low oven. Plus drying out the bread slightly allows the bread to absorb more of the salsa when dipped before charring it will retain more structure when filled and enjoyed.

A good indicator for when the bread is properly dried out before dipping is to give the bread a gentle poke: If your finger leaves an indent, it's still too soft and should be toasted a little more.

Bringing It All Together: How To Assemble a Pambazo

Once ready to assemble, make sure your skillet is preheated over high heat. Then, dunk and griddle only the exterior of the bread. This prevents the sandwich from getting excessively soggy. Keep sliding the bread over the heated surface while applying gentle pressure to ensure it sears evenly all over. You’re looking to get a healthy char on the bread, so a few seemingly “burnt” spots are okay. The bread’s exterior should turn toasty and crisp, with a delicate layer that shatters with each bite. 

Overhead view of open pambazo sandwich
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

To assemble, lay a few thin slabs of queso fresco on the base of the sandwich. Then, layer the chorizo-potato mixture and slaw in the sandwich—it's messy so it's okay if some spills out. Add the top slice of bread and gently push down to keep it in place. Sure, you could rely on a knife and fork to avoid staining your fingers with salsa while enjoying this pambazo, but I suggest reveling in its messy glory. Just be sure to have plenty of napkins on hand.

For the Slaw: In a medium bowl, toss together cabbage, scallions, cilantro, jocoque, and serrano until well combined. Season with salt to taste. Set aside until ready to serve or cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days.

Two image collage of slaw before and after being mized
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

For the Salsa: In a small saucepan, cook oil, onion, guajillo chiles, and garlic over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the chiles and garlic soften, adjusting heat as needed to avoid burning, about 10 minutes. If oil begins to sizzle, briefly remove from heat. Using a slotted spoon or tongs, remove chile, onion, and garlic from oil. Stir tomato sauce into oil, then transfer to a medium bowl; Set aside.

Four image collage of heating chiles and cooking salsa
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

For the Sandwich: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 250℉. Transfer rolls directly to oven rack and toast rolls until the exterior is lightly toasted.

Overhead view of rolls toasting
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

In a separate medium saucepan, add potato, salt, and enough cold tap water to cover potato pieces by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium and simmer potato, adjusting heat as needed, until a knife meets little resistance when inserted into a potato piece, about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside. 

Overhead view of potatoes boiling
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Heat an empty 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add chorizo and cook, breaking up meat with a wooden spoon, until well browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer cooked chorizo to a medium bowl; set aside.

Overhead view of chorizo broken up in pan and in a serving bowl
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Add the oil to the now-empty skillet and heat over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add potato pieces and cook without stirring until crisp and browned on bottom, about 4 minutes. Flip potato pieces and continue to cook until crisp and browned on second side, about 4 minutes. Transfer to bowl with chorizo and toss to combine, and cover to keep warm.

Two image collage of overhead view of browned potatoes in skillet and mixed with chorizo
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Heat the now-empty skillet over medium-high heat. Halve the toasted rolls. Working with 1 roll at a time, dunk only the crusty exterior of each half into the reserved salsa. Place both halves, salsa side down, in the skillet and cook, pressing down with a spatula and sliding the bread pieces around for even browning, until lightly charred, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a plate, charred-side down, and repeat with the second roll.

Two image collage of dunking rolls and toasting
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

On each roll bottom, layer half of the queso fresco, then top with half of the chorizo and potato mixture and half of the slaw. Close sandwiches and serve immediately.

Four image collage of assembling pambazo
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

Small saucepan, 10-inch cast iron skillet

Notes

Jocoque is a Mexican dairy product with the texture of crema but a flavor closer to cheese or yogurt. If you can't find jocoque, any Mexican crema or plain yogurt will work in its place.

Mexican chorizo sold in plastic tubes at the supermarket tends to be a gummy, fatty paste that’s difficult to crisp. For best results, look for chorizo from the butcher or deli counter at a Mexican grocery store or make your own.

Mexican hot tomato sauce is available at most well-stocked food stores. My preferred sauce is El Pato Tomato Sauce (Mexican Hot Style), which comes in a yellow can.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The slaw, salsa, and parboiled potatoes can be made ahead, stored separately, and refrigerated for up to 2 days. If using slaw made in advance, drain before using.

Birria de Res (Beef Birria)

Everything you need to know about Mexican birria, including its history, ingredients, variations, and a step-by-step guide to making this ultimate beef version.

Overhead view of bowl of birria and assorted sides
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

The first time I tried making birria on my own ended with me recuperating in bandages. I had grown up eating both my mother's and grandfather’s birria recipes, and figured it would be easy to whip up an enormous batch to celebrate my own birthday. It was too much for any of my pots, so I grabbed a flimsy foil roasting pan that tipped a cascade of boiling broth over my foot. I canceled my party and spent the evening on the phone with a nurse instead.

As soon as I was able to wear shoes again, I started taking careful notes on my mom’s recipe. I wanted to recreate her savory red chile broth served alongside chunks of succulent beef that I knew so well, and I wanted to do it without a trip to the ER.

Side view of dipping birria tacos into consome
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

As a child, birria was generally reserved for parties. Its straightforward technique of slowly simmering a slab of meat in a flavorful chile-infused sauce, requiring only the occasional peek into the simmering pot, made it an ideal choice for feasts and large gatherings. This was perfect for my family of more than sixty cousins. We’d dip birria’s fork-tender chunks of beef into its signature crimson chile braising broth while huddled around the table as we sipped our horchata and played a round of loteria using uncooked pinto beans.

In more recent times, dunking tender shreds of birria into its red broth has become an online trend akin to popping egg yolks or stretching apart a gooey strand of cheese. Its popularity fueled the creation of endless fusions including birria fries, birria pizzas, and birria ramen. These novel dishes can be fun to try, but the heavily-spiced stew hardly needs anything more than onion, cilantro, and lime to enjoy. My family eats birria the way many people in Mexico do: The meat is scooped onto a plate and served with rice, beans, and tortillas alongside a small bowl of its flavorful broth.

Overhead view of birria tacos
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Beyond my burned foot, my first attempts at recreating my mom’s birria had other pitfalls. My early versions resulted in dry, tough meat that wouldn’t easily shred. The consomé was too thin and it had very little flavor. These versions were a far cry from my family’s birria. 

I’ve spent years since then crafting the birria recipe below, one that I’m proud to serve at my family gatherings. It is thoughtfully loaded with chiles and spices that work in harmony to provide lots of flavor. The meat is moist and falls apart with each bite while the consomé (braising liquid) is viscous enough to slightly coat the meat. The combination of the beef with the chile sauce has robust heat that builds with every bite, but it never overwhelms you. 

While this recipe is based on my mother’s recipe, I’ve added a few of my own twists—a different blend of three chiles for more heat and a touch of gochujang for a welcome fermented savoriness.

What is Birria

Birria, which translates to “something of little to no value,” got its name from the low esteem Mexicans held for the goat meat brought to Mexico by the Spanish. Early versions of birria date back to the 1600’s in Jalisco, where the goat meat’s unwanted flavor was disguised by coating it in a paste made from dried chiles such as guajillo chiles and spices like black peppercorn and cumin. Then, the meat was tenderized by simmering it for hours over low heat before it was wrapped in a warm tortilla and topped with raw onions for a slight crunch and cilantro for freshness, and served alongside its flavorful cooking broth.

The resulting broth, referred to as consomé, is an integral part of the dish that’s used for dunking or spooning over the meat. This is different from a French consommé, which is prized for its clarity and lack of fat on the surface or cloudiness of the broth. The consomé of birria is dark red with visible specks of fat floating on the top. You actually want to keep some fat in the birria consomé since the richness and flavor it carries is an important aspect of the dish. 

Overhead view of consome
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

There’s an inevitable discourse in the comment section of any online birria recipe regarding what constitutes "authentic" birria, with some insisting that it must be made from goat. But the answer isn’t so simple. As birria spread across Jalisco and its neighboring states, variations using beef, pork, turkey, and even seafood appeared. The chiles and spices used depend on the type of meat—each pairing produces a unique version of birria that is no less authentic than the next. Although my family is from Jalisco (associated with goat birria), our recipe uses beef, tomatoes, and tomatillos. My grandfather started making birria with beef when he moved to the US because beef was more readily available than goat. My mom continued using beef as it's what she had available, and now beef is the staple in our family’s birria recipe.

The Key Ingredients in the Consomé

In Mexico, it isn’t unusual for birria to be prepared using the entire animal. Some restaurants even allow their customers to select the cut when ordering birria. At home, beef chuck is a great choice for birria. It's an affordable cut with lots of fat, which means lots of flavor and juiciness even with long cooking. Its relatively high amount of collagen-rich connective tissue breaks down into gelatin over the low and slow braise to further ensure meat that is tender and remains juicy. 

Birria’s flavor base starts with toasting cloves, cumin seeds, and black peppercorns until they’re fragrant to draw out their depth of flavor. Then, the dried chiles, tomatoes, and tomatillos are softened in boiling chicken stock with the toasted spices. Some recipes call for water instead of stock, but the chicken stock is critical for getting the right sauce consistency while preserving its savory backbone. While not required, a good homemade chicken stock is ideal, since it will have a natural viscosity thanks to gelatin from the bird's connective tissue, something most store-bought stocks lack.

Overhead view of ingredients
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

My mother’s recipe uses just one type of chile, but I've come to prefer a combination of California, guajillo, and árbol chiles for a flavor that is simultaneously fruity, nutty, and moderately spicy. The tomatoes and tomatillos provide tartness and acidity to cut through the richness of the dish. 

After softening the chiles and other ingredients in the stock, I blend them until smooth. Following my family's practice, I also add achiote paste to the blender—a mixture made from ground annatto seeds, spices, and vinegar—because it enhances the birria’s vibrant red color and adds a slightly tangy, earthy taste. While I have seen a few other birria recipes that use a small amount (a couple teaspoons) of achiote paste, I’ve never found another birria recipe that uses achiote paste to the extent that my family’s recipe does. It adds an earthy depth that is unique.

Overhead view of adding gochujang to blender
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

In my years of testing and tweaking my own recipe, I kept looking for ways to add another dimension of chile flavor beyond the blend I'd settled on. I first tried adding fresh along with the dried chiles, but fresh chiles did not add the flavor I wanted, making the birria taste more like a raw salsa than a rich and potent braise. Eventually I settled on the savory chile punch of gochujang, the fermented Korean chile paste. Gochujang is commonly used in Korean braises and stews to lend a touch of sweet, savory funk, and so while not a typical addition to birria, I've found that a small amount adds a wonderful sweetness and umami that balances the bitterness of the achiote and rounds out the marinade’s acidity.

Birria Braising Technique

Now let's talk about technique. Birria is essentially a braise—the beef is slowly cooked in a flavorful liquid until meltingly tender. In classic French technique, braises generally begin with a browning step, in which you first sear the beef to develop a deeper, more complex flavor, and then add the liquid to slowly cook and tenderize it.

But in keeping with my mom’s birria recipe, I don’t pre-sear the beef because there’s no need. While it's easy to default to browning the meat out of habit, it's not at all a required step—it depends on the recipe and what your flavor goals are. In the case of birria, the flavor of the final consomé should be balanced between the chiles and the beef. When the beef is seared first, the flavor of the beef overpowers the other aromatics and throws off the balance. 

Fork lifting up a piece of meat
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

As you can read about more in this article on the science of stewing, even meat that's braised or stewed low-and-slow can become overcooked and dry. To avoid that, you want to keep the braise at a very gentle simmer, monitoring the heat level as needed throughout cooking to avoid boiling or scorching; 180 to 190°F (82 to 88°C) is the ideal simmering temperature range, in which the beef's tough collagen will have softened into tender gelatin yet the meat itself won't yet be dried out.The lid should be kept on to prevent the liquid from evaporating too quickly and ensure the steam is trapped inside the pot to cook the meat.

How to Serve Birria

After a few hours, the meat should be soft enough to be pierced by a fork but shouldn’t be falling apart. Once you’re ready to serve, chop up the meat to use as suggested in the recipe, or use as a filling for a mulita or quesabirria. To make a mulita, layer a portion of the chopped beef with an even layer of your preferred melty cheese between two tortillas that have been dipped in the consomé, and griddle to perfection. To make a quesabirria, use just one tortilla that is dipped in the consomé, fill with the chopped beef and cheese, then fold over before griddling. Serve alongside a small bowl of consomé that’s infused with a sprinkle of raw onion and cilantro for further dunking. 

Side view of ladling consome onto tacos
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

As long as you are savoring birria’s succulent meat and deeply flavored broth, there is really no wrong way to enjoy this birria recipe, although I recommend sharing the experience with family or friends.

In a large saucepan, toast peppercorns, cumin seeds, and cloves over medium heat until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add chicken stock, tomatoes, tomatillos, guajillo, California, and árbol chiles. Bring to a boil over high heat, then turn off the heat, and let rest until tomato skins begin to shrivel and chiles soften, about 15 minutes.

Four image collage of building consome base in dutch overn
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Transfer chicken stock mixture to a blender. Crumble achiote paste into the blender by hand. (see notes) Add gochujang and garlic cloves and blend (in batches if needed) into a smooth puree. Set aside.

Four image collage of blending stock base, paste, gochujang in a blender until smooth
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Generously season beef all over with salt and pepper. In a stock pot or large Dutch oven, add the beef, blended chile sauce, water, onion, and bay leaves and cook, covered, until just simmering.

Overhead view of beef cooking in pot
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Continue to cook, covered, adjusting heat as needed to maintain gentle simmer (about 180-190°F; 82-88°C), until beef is fork-tender, 3 to 4 hours. Discard onion and bay leaves and season with salt and pepper to taste. Hold warm until ready to serve.

Fork lifting up a piece of tender meat from the pot
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

For Serving: Using a slotted spoon, transfer beef to a cutting board. Using 2 forks, shred beef into bite-sized pieces or lightly chop. Ladle consomé into individual serving bowls and top consomé with diced onion and cilantro (this is for dunking and/or spooning over the meat). Serve shredded beef with prepared consomé, warm tortillas, rice, beans, and lime wedges. (see notes)

Four image collage o shredding beef, ladling and topping consome, and finished platter
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

Blender, 3-quart saucepan, stock pot or large Dutch oven

Notes

Achiote paste is available at most latin markets. When shopping for achiote paste, search for a brand that doesn’t include artificial dyes in the ingredient list; it isn’t necessary due to the annatto seed’s natural food coloring properties. My preferred brand is El Yucateco.

Gochujang, a Korean fermented chili paste, is available at Asian markets and well-stocked food stores.

I recommend wearing plastic gloves when crumbling the achiote paste into the blender to prevent your hands from staining red.

Serve the consomé hot to prevent the fat from solidifying. If the fat begins to solidify, gently reheat until liquified and gently stir it into the consomé.

I recommend a Mexican-style tomato rice for serving.

The braised beef can also be used as a filling for a quesabirria, mulita, taco, or sandwich.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Birria submerged in its liquid can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months.