I have a love-love relationship with spices and seasonings.
Always have, and barring some monumental changes in the universe, always will. To me, bland food is generally sad, and I love anything full of flavor – be it real vanilla in whipped cream, Thai curry, citrus and pink pepper, Ras-al-Hanout over meats or rice dishes, garlic in anything savory – you name it. I don’t think I’ve met a spice I didn’t like yet (unless you are talking about something patently misused like garlic ice cream… don’t get me started on that).
(If you want the recipe for my homemade taco seasoning but not to read the entire rant, please feel free to skip the manifesto and scroll to the end!)
I also have a hate towards the over-processed, “value-added” and chemically preserved and enhanced where it comes to food. And one of the most frequently overlooked places where this all hides are pre-mixed seasoning packets, the sort you buy in the Mexican or Oriental isle of the supermarket for “taco seasoning”, “singapore stir-fry seasoning”, etc., that you are supposed to just open and sprinkle into your food and suddenly your “boring” meal “is transformed into a sumptions meal” (insert marketing babble here). I’ve bought and used those before, on the lure of “ease” and to try it out and let me tell you – my opinion, after trying a few different ones, is that they are all vile.
Why? Because they neither impart that much flavor, nor is it good flavor – and in most cases, flavor enhancers are among the ingredients. Why? Because without those, the packets containing mostly starch and salt/sugar with a small amount of spices really wouldn’t do a whole lot for your food. That’s value-added food for you, which in layman’s terms just means – “let’s add some [bleep] to this premix of sugar, salt and cornstarch so it smells a little like food, and sell it for a lot of money to gullible consumer!” Worst part is that these premix packets foster a very bad kitchen habit of not learning what spices go into what food, or why, and thus the result is a “learned [kitchen] helplessness” in the form of inability to cook food without a packet of mysterious pre-mixed stuff on hand.
The silly bit here is that most of those “flavor packets” contain nothing mysterious nor anything you can’t buy off a spice rack in the same supermarket for far less money: for example – a tablespoon of sugar, teaspoon of salt and some minor amounts of spices which go into a packet of taco seasoning (let’s call it “Brand X”) don’t cost the 10-15sek (€1-1.5) they sell for in a packet. Really, they don’t.
In fact, homemade taco seasoning requires very little in the way of exotic ingredients (nothing I don’t keep on hand in my kitchen and perhaps one or two things someone with a less stocked pantry may need to buy), takes 2 minutes to assemble while the frying pan is preheating for the meat, and tastes much, much better than anything you can buy in a premixed packet in a shop (I am not talking about gourmet spice mixes you can get – those are a whole different – from packets – kettle of fish, and are essentially the same thing as what I mix at home, only packaged in a fancy jar).
Let’s examine the packet – total weight 40g. That’s roughly 3 tablespoons of stuff. What stuff? The first ingredients are sugar and then salt. Following them are onion powder, ground chili and cumin, followed by modified potato starch (?), garlic powder, yeast extract (?), potato fiber (?), maltodextrin (?), “spices” (paprika, oregano), paprika extract (?), acidity regulator (E330 – that’s ascorbic acid aka vitamin C).
I’ve marked questionable ingredients with a (?) because in my view, when Mexican people came up with a seasoning mix for their regional street food (tacos), they never in their wildest dreams thought that what it needed was … these things.
- Modified potato starch – this is added to the seasoning mix to make the meat “gloopier” once it’s cooked, and make it look like there is more of it as it won’t lose as much water in the cooking process.
- Potato fiber is most likely added to prevent all of this clumping into a messy mass while in the packet.
- Yeast extract is a savory-flavor enhancer. Natural insofar as it’s made from yeast, but authentic or needed? You decide (I already ahve).
- Maltodextrin is a carbohydrate (essentially, sugar), which is used as a food sweetener.
- Paprika extract (oleoresin) is added for color and possibly flavor – to compensate for either insufficien quality, quantity or both, of actual paprika powder used in the mix.
- I can’t fault the addition of vitamin C as a preservative (it is used as an antioxidant here), since it decomposes harmlessly when the spice mix is heated, but neither is it needed if the spice mix is made fresh.
Now, the ingredients in the above list are ranked in order of weight (note that oregano and paprika are combined into one entry, “spices”, as separately they’d probably fall further down the list), but obviously without any indication of how much of any of them is contained in the packet. For all I know, it’s 99% sugar and 1% everything else in fractions of a %. It isn’t, but from reading the label it may as well be – and it’s not in the manufacturer’s interest to add more of the expensive spices into this. For my own mix, however, I am going to go for flavor and color, not profit margin. Obviously.
An important thing to note here is that the actual recipe on the packet, if I throw out all the questionable items, is a fairly standard taco seasoning recipe. So what will happen if I do omit all those additives, and instead use spices readily available in my cupboard to make up about 3 tablespoons of seasoning, is that it – trust me on this! (or don’t, and try for yourself) – will taste much, much better. Since, as we should establish, it is a spice or seasoning mix, not “food-additives for your dinner” mix.
To make your own taco seasoning mix (enough for 500-600g of uncooked ground meat), you need:
- A small bowl or a cup (cereal or soup bowl or a large teacup will do)
- A tablespoon and a teaspoon
- 1 tablespoon of brown sugar such as demerara or golden caster sugar
- 1 teaspoon of fine sea salt
- 1 taspoon of dried chili flakes (more or less to taste and depending on your heat tolerance)
- 1 teaspoon paprika (I use smoked hot paprika if I have it, but any will be good)
- 2 heaping teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 heaping teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons garlic granules or powder (I don’t use dried onions in my mix, but you can do a teaspoon of dried onion and garlic each instead if you like)
Note: all quantities are approximate. Please, please feel free to add/substract/adjust to your own taste – you aim to please yourself, and your taste buds, after all!
What to do:
- Put all ingredients into a bowl and mix with a spoon.
- Fry about 500g ground beef or blend of beef and pork in a pan until browned and any water evaporated.
- Sprinkle the entire bowl of seasoning over it.
- Add about 100ml boiled water to the bowl, rinse it out and immediately add to the meat.
- Mix the spices and water in, and allow to cook on medium-high heat until liquid is absorbed.
Yes, it’s that simple. Yes, it’s much cheaper than buying that packet. And yes, it tastes and looks far, far better.
And the best part is that this same process of eliminating anything questionable and then mixing up the spices yourself to your liking can be used to get rid of any variety of spice-packet-addiction. Rejoyce, eat delicious food and be free!