Forget a powdered taco seasoning mix. Forget even a HOMEMADE powdered seasoning mix. Do you think any taco in Mexico uses powdered garlic? Powdered onion? No, mi amigo. I don’t think so.
Even though ‘Merican-style ground beef tacos aren’t really authentic Mexican food, we’re going to pretend they are to make the best-tasting homemade version. These crazy-delicious beef tacos take advantage of the full flavour of fresh ingredients.
There’s an actual secret to incredible homemade beef tacos.
My beef taco recipe is seasoned assertively with lots of fresh onion and garlic, cooked so that it totally disappears into the beef. The real secret is borrowing from the wisdom of Indian cooking with the ingredient proportions. That onion will look like a lot. You’ll scratch your had and look dubiously at me from across the internet. Trust. Just trust. Your kids will not know that there are two cups of onion in there. PINKY SWEAR.
When cooked until truly soft, onions lose most of their water, caramelize to a sweet-savoury complex deliciousness, and then once the beef is mixed in, poof, they’re gone. Just part of the seasoning. The delicious, delicious seasoning.
Similarly, a whole tablespoon of minced garlic is called for. Don’t skimp. Trust.
This is all going to come together into the most scrumptious homemade beef tacos.
Look at the cooked beef. Do you SEE any onion? You were right to trust me.
Homemade beef taco seasoning.
We’ve established that most of the seasoning comes from real onion and garlic, but the spices are important too. We use paprika, cumin, cayenne, and oregano, plus ample salt and pepper. These are the same spices you’d find in the grocery-store packet, but they just taste better when combined with fresh ingredients.
A pinch of sugar is another key addition that balances out the spice in way that’ll have you reaching for spoonful after spoonful to “test” over the stove until you have inhaled so much you have to make a new batch. Plus, it makes it taste more like the comfort food you had as a kid (there’s actually more sugar – as maltodextrin – in the familiar yellow taco seasoning packet than spice!).
Note that this makes a totally family-friendly spice level, but if your crew is particularly heat sensitive, you can scale back to 1/4 tsp cayenne and work your way up from there. It is easy to add more, not easy to take it away.
Two cooking secrets that take this beef taco filling to the next level.
We add the salt in two stages. Salting the onion from the start helps to draw out the moisture and makes it cook down faster. Also, seasoning this important ingredient from the get-go helps build the flavour and seasoning, making the whole finished dish taste better. Even though the onion is pretty much imperceptible, it is a major player in the filling.
In addition, we make the spices taste incredible by treating them to a quick toasting in the hot skillet before we add the beef. As soon as they hit the hot pan, the kitchen fills with the nutty, roasty smell of the cumin and cayenne. It’s like toasting nuts. Totally takes the flavour to new heights.
(Both, by the way, tricks from Indian cooking! My husband is Indian, if you’re new here. In which case, welcome!)
I prepare the toppings while the beef is cooking. I like to put all of the components in bowls on the table and let everyone build their own tacos. We stick to shredded iceberg lettuce (so under-rated as a vegetable), grated cheese and sour cream to keep it simple on a weeknight. If you’re more ambitious, you could go nuts with lots of delicious additions, from chopped red onion and tomato to easy guacamole, roasted corn salsa, cabbage slaw and/or lime crema, etc.
PS. My two boys asked me to make these again tomorrow night for dinner. And I’m gonna.
Ultimate Beef Tacos
- 3 tbsp canola oil or other cooking oil
- 2 cups finely chopped yellow onion about one 14-oz large onion or two medium
- 1 3/4 tsp coarse salt divided use
- 1 tbsp minced garlic
- 1 1/2 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp ground cayenne
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 lb ground beef
- 1 tsp granulated sugar
- Taco shells
- Shredded cheese
- Sour cream
- Shredded lettuce
- Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and 1 tsp salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until onion is golden and very soft, 7-10 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook, stirring constantly until softened, about a minute, then stir in cumin, oregano, cayenne, and pepper and cook until fragrant, about a minute more.
- Add beef and sprinkle with remaining 3/4 tsp salt plus the sugar. Use a spoon or sturdy spatula to break the beef into small chunks and to stir it well with the onion mixture to combine. Cook until beef renders its fat and browns, about 10 minutes.
- Serve beef with warmed taco shells, shredded lettuce and cheese, sour cream, and any other desired toppings. Let everyone build their own.