This is a public service announcement. Step away from the packet of taco seasoning! Drop it in the trash and back away slowly. Your stomach (and your health) will thank you.
If you’re like me, you grew up with ground beef tacos made with a packet of seasoning from the store. One packet per pound of meat, just add water. I remember my mom used to buy Taco Bell brand sometimes, and there was Old El Paso, as well as some others, I’m sure. I must have known something was up, because I remember when I was old enough to help cook, I would take over the taco meat and instead of following the instructions to mix in the seasoning and then add water, I would just add the seasoning. And then throw in some extra chili powder, onion powder, and Mexican seasoning to boot. I didn’t realize that there were thickeners at play that needed the water to be activated, nor did I (obviously) think the packets were sufficiently tasty. But, I never questioned their necessity. No, that took longer than I care to admit. I didn’t realize you could make taco meat from scratch until I saw a recipe on my favorite recipe blog, Mel’s Kitchen Cafe. I made her recipe for (the best) tacos one night, and I realized I could never turn back. They were delicious! The meat was moist and flavorful, and tasted so much more balanced than the flavor packets, which end up tasting one-dimensional, and, let’s admit it, a little bit like cardboard.
I hate to admit that I disagree with Mel, but in this case, I do. After tasting how glorious tacos could be, I became dissatisfied that they weren’t absolutely perfect. They were a bit heavy on tomato (though the jalapeno is a nice touch if you have it). One day, as I flipped through a Cook’s Illustrated magazine, I found the one. The perfect taco. Instead of using a whole can of tomato sauce like Mel’s, it uses just half a can and includes half a cup of chicken broth. It’s also a tad lighter on the seasonings, which I think helps it stay more balanced. The final touch, the perfect touch, is the brown sugar, which doesn’t make the tacos sweet at all, but curbs any potential acidity from the tomato sauce and harshness from the spices. In my opinion, they are perfect. And, aside from measuring out spices and chopping an onion, they take no more time than making tacos with a seasoning packet. There is no reason to ever, ever touch a taco seasoning packet, filled with it’s mystery ingredients and fillers, ever again.
Ground Beef Tacos
adapted from Cook’s Illustrated “All Time Best Recipes”
1 Tablespoon canola oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon oregano
pinch of Cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pound extra-lean ground beef (I use 93%)
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup tomato sauce
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon brown sugar
Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat until it’s shimmering, then add the onion and saute until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and spices and salt, and stir for about 1 minute, until the spices are fragrant. Add the ground beef and stir, breaking up. Cook until the meat is no longer pink, about 8 minutes. Add the broth, tomato sauce, vinegar, and brown sugar and simmer gently (reducing heat to medium-low if necessary), stirring occasionally, until the liquid has reduced.
Serve in taco shells with lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, and grated cheese. Save any leftovers (if there are any) for taco salads or nachos supreme.