The right fajita spices are essential if you want to make fajitas that taste like they came from a Mexican restaurant. Fajitas are believed by many to have originated in Texas but are technically Mexican since the dish arrived in the US via Mexican ranch hands. The vaqueros came up with fajitas as a way to utilize a particularly tough cut of beef. Fajitas are traditionally made with skirt steak, but more recently have been made with chicken and shrimp. The name comes from the fact that the skirt steak is said to resemble a sash or belt, which is faja in Spanish. Fajitas may have been invented as early as the 1930s, but the name wasn’t widely used until the 1970s. Here are some of the best fajita spices.
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Unlike chili powder — which is a spice mix for making chili — chile powder has one ingredient: dried pepper. Chile powder will give your fajitas some heat. Depending on the kind you use, it may provide some smokiness.
The distinctive cumin flavor is essential for many Mexican dishes, including fajitas. This spice gets used in everything from taco seasoning to chili powder. Ground cumin is a source of savory earthiness with a strong nutty note.
Most fajita seasoning blends include paprika, which gives the blend a little sweetness while enhancing the color.
Garlic is essential for fajitas and since the protein is grilled, the most convenient way to apply it is in powdered form. Along with its pungent sulfurous fragrance, the dehydrated garlic used to make garlic powder gives fajitas a mild nuttiness and boosts its umami flavor.
Arguably a default ingredient in fajitas, you do have the option of leaving salt out entirely or adding it to taste. If you do use it, it should be added to the meat before cooking so that it has a chance to be absorbed.
Along with giving fajitas a pleasant tang, the acidity of lime juice helps to tenderize the skirt steak. Lime juice will also enhance other popular fajita proteins, including chicken and shrimp.
Traditional fajitas are made with skirt steak that has been cooked with sliced onions, making the onion one of the key elements in the flavor profile. Onions add caramelized sweetness with a strong savory element.
While it is intended for a different dish entirely, chili powder does have many of the fajita spices and can therefore be used to make a fajita seasoning. You will still need a source of acidity, but it has some of the key elements, like the ancho chile pepper and the garlic powder. Chili powder will also contain cumin and may even have Mexican oregano.
The spicy savory notes of fajitas are often enhanced by acidity and creaminess in the form of sour cream. While crema —sour cream’s less-tart Mexican cousin —is the traditional creamy condiment in Mexico, sour cream almost does the same job as well and is a popular topping for fajitas north of the border. As a dairy product, it has the added benefit of taming the heat from peppers.
A fajita seasoning blend is meant to provide all the fajita spices in one convenient mixture. Fajita seasoning is usually sold in powdered form. It will typically contain all of the ingredients above, with citric acid powder as a source of tartness in place of the lime juice.