Beginner's Guide to Modern Mexican Cooking

Learn how to make incredible Mexican food at home with help from cookbook author Gabriela Cámara.

A table set with Mexican soup and crispy rolled tortillas.
Pozole Blanco from the cookbook "My Mexico City Kitchen: Recipes and Convictions"

Marcus Nilsson

This post was part of our Summer Cookbook Club series featuring My Mexico City Kitchen: Recipes and Convictions by Gabriela Cámara.

Like any cultural cuisine, Mexican food is vast, varied, and dynamic. Each house, neighborhood, community, and region has its version, and the modern Mexican recipes shared by restaurateur and cookbook author Gabriela Cámara are no different.

In both her cookbook and her restaurants, she celebrates local, sustainable agriculture. She believes the quality of the ingredients makes the dish, but that understanding how to balance a dish will make it sing. She clearly states that her recipes and approach are not to be the definitive guide to Mexican food, but rather a guide. This is how she lives, eats, and breathes Mexican food, and it's how she wants to share it with you.

Ask an Expert: Gabriela Cámara

I interviewed Gabriela and combed the pages of her beautiful book, My Mexico City Kitchen: Recipes and Convictions, to find out the essentials of making Mexican food at home.

While Gabriela honors the traditions of Mexican cooking, she isn’t bound by them, and she doesn’t want you to be either. She does, however, want you to source the highest quality, most sustainably-sourced products available to you. Most of all, she wants you to have fun.

Learn the basics, then learn how to combine them in different ways to come up with endless possibilities.

Essential Ingredients for Mexican Cooking

In the early pages of My Mexico City Kitchen, Gabriela says, “... the fewer the ingredients and steps a dish has, the more care you should put into preparing it.” This is true because the quality and the importance of each ingredient takes on a higher role.

SALSA: Gabriela recommends knowing how to make a good, moderately spicy green and red salsa. They will keep for many days in the fridge, so you can use them at will to top eggs, fish, chicken, and more.

MASA: A corn-based wet dough made from nixtamalized white or yellow corn. It’s used to make tortillas and tamales.

  • Fresh Masa: You can buy it fresh if you live in a community with a tortillería. If you buy fresh masa, do so in small amounts and use it within a day, or it can ferment.
  • Masa Harina: Commonly available in supermarkets. It’s just dehydrated masa. It’s sold in bags similar to how flour is sold. It looks like cornmeal. Gabriela prefers Bob’s Red Mill non-GMO, organic masa harina.

BEANS: Use dried beans if you can. It takes some extra planning, but the texture and flavor are far superior to anything you can find in a can. The amount of time it takes to cook really depends on how old they are. Experiment with heirloom varieties. Gabriela recommends ordering them online from Rancho Gordo if you can’t get them locally. She does have some dos and don’ts when it comes to cooking dried beans:

  • Gabriela doesn’t pre-soak the beans, because the skins can blister.
  • Don’t salt the water too early in the cooking process.
  • Don’t cook the beans on a hard boil.
  • Do let them simmer gently.
  • Do add herbs, garlic, and other aromatics.

RICE: According to Gabriela, Mexican rice is often cooked in liquid with pureed vegetables, which brings both flavor and color to the plate. She prefers sustainably produced long-grain white rice.

HERBS/AROMATICS: “I believe in simplicity and moderation when cooking,” Gabriela wrote in an email interview, “but you need more than one of these ingredients, usually. Onion, garlic, oregano, epazote, or cilantro, for example, are super basic for cooking 'Mexican,' but none are actually used alone.”

EPAZOTE: This herb is used both fresh and dried. The fresh stems and leaves provide the most robust flavor, and it's commonly used in Mexican cooking. The herb is often added to beans to help aid digestion. It has a strong earthy flavor.

Understanding Flavor

Salt and acid are both used to balance heat in a dish, but Mexican food isn’t all about heat.

“I believe in general there is the misconception that Mexican food has to be spicy to be authentic, and that is not the case, actually,” Gabriela says. “Even heat needs to be used in moderation so it does not overpower all other ingredients in a dish or sauce unless you are wanting to make a super special spicy sauce for a particular dish that can hold it and benefits from it.”

Chilies, salsas, herbs, spices, and salt are all used to create a balance of flavors in Mexican cooking. A single bite can be bright, acidic, smoky, and spicy.

When it comes to the fundamentals of good food, Mexican dishes require balance just like anything else.

“As in any great cuisine, and as my dear Samin Nosrat would put it: Salt, fat, acid, heat. And I add smoke.”