Mexican Cooking 101: Terms and Substitutions

Mexican Made Easy's Marcela Valladolid shares her dictionary for making Mexican cooking a breeze.

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From achiote to tomatillos, here are some of the most common Mexican specialty food items and suggested substitutions in case you can't find them at your market.

Achiote paste: Rust-colored flavorful paste made from the flowering seed of the annatto shrub. It can be found in the ethnic section of the grocery store. Use achiote paste in Achiote Potato Croquettes.

Substitute: Achiote oil may be available. Turmeric powder, just enough to color the dish (1 to 2 tablespoons per recipe) should do. (Too much can make the dish bitter.)

Queso fresco: Fresh Mexican cheese with a crumbly texture and slightly acidic flavor. Use queso fresco to make Jalapeno Buttered Corn.

Substitute: feta cheese

Dried California/New Mexico chile:
Dark burgundy chile with a mild to medium-hot flavor. Use these potent peppers in Marcela's easy Spicy Surf-n-Turf Trio.

Substitute: ancho chile pepper, a more commonly found dried chile

Panela cheese: Fresh Mexican cheese made from whole unpasteurized milk curds. Make Panela with Chipotle Cream for your next party.

Substitute: Monterey Jack or mozzarella