The aromatic epazote herb is an integral part of Mexican cuisine. With its pungent and almost licorice-like flavor, epazote adds depth and complexity to many staple Mexican dishes. In this article, we will explore everything you need to know about cooking with epazote – where to find it, how to store it, what dishes it works well in, and more. Whether you are just getting into Mexican cooking or looking to add more authenticity to your recipes, epazote is an herb worth getting to know.
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What Is Epazote and Where Does It Come From?
Epazote is a leafy annual or short-lived perennial plant that is native to Mexico and parts of Central America. Its scientific name is Dysphania ambrosioides, formerly known as Chenopodium ambrosioide. In Mexico, epazote goes by the name epazotl – a literal translation from Nahuatl meaning “skunk weed”.
This pungent Mexican herb has long been used in cooking in Mexico and Guatemala. The Aztecs utilized both the leaves and seeds for their medicinal properties and to add flavor to food. Today, epazote remains an integral part of Mexican cuisine and is relied upon for its unique flavor.
What Does Epazote Taste Like?
Epazote has a very distinctive flavor that stands out in Mexican dishes. Many describe its taste as resinous, medicinal, minty or even similar to oregano, fennel or anise. The aroma and flavor are strong, but pleasant. A little epazote goes a long way in recipes.
When used properly, epazote enhances the flavors of ingredients like beans, squash, mushrooms and queso fresco cheese in Mexican cooking. It brings out savory notes and adds depth of flavor. Many cooks consider epazote to be essential in dishes like black beans, quesadillas, soups and stews.
What Are the Benefits of Cooking with Epazote?
In addition to its robust flavor, epazote has some benefits when used in cooking. Firstly, it is thought to be carminative, which means it helps reduce gas and bloating. This makes epazote a great addition to dishes made with beans or other gas-producing foods.
Some also believe epazote has anthelmintic properties, meaning it can help get rid of intestinal parasites. This benefit has not been scientifically proven, but epazote has traditionally been used as a folk remedy for intestinal worms.
Finally, epazote contains compounds like limonene, pinene and menthol that are considered antimicrobial. This may provide some food safety benefits when cooking with epazote.
Where Can I Find Epazote?
If you live in an area with a sizable Mexican or Central American community, keep an eye out for epazote at farmers markets, Mexican grocery stores and spice shops. Since it grows wild in many parts of Mexico, fresh epazote can often be found in these local markets.
Look for epazote bundles with healthy looking leaves and tender stems. The leaves should be deep green in color with a noticeable aroma when crushed. Avoid any bunches that are wilted or dry looking.
You can also find dried epazote in the spice aisle of many grocery stores and online spice retailers. Dried epazote retains much of its unique flavor, although the aroma is a bit diminished. For most applications, Mexican cooks prefer to use fresh.
How Do You Store Fresh Epazote?
To keep fresh epazote for more than a couple days, trim off any wilted stems, then wrap the remaining leaves and tender stems in a damp paper towel. Place the epazote bundle into a partially closed zip lock bag and refrigerate. This should allow it to keep for up to a week.
You can also chop up fresh epazote, place it in ice cube trays filled with water and freeze the cubes for longer storage. Pop out a frozen epazote cube whenever a recipe calls for it.
When and How Should You Add Epazote?
While epazote can be added at any stage of cooking, most cooks recommend adding it at the end. This prevents the herb’s strong flavor from overpowering a dish. Remove the leaves and stems before serving.
For fresh epazote, chop or tear the leaves into pieces and add them in the last 5-10 minutes of cooking. For dried epazote, add a pinch or two at the very end.
You can also infuse epazote into soups, stews and beans by wrapping leaves and tender stems in cheesecloth or placing them in a metal tea strainer. Simmer the bundle in the cooking liquid, then remove before serving. This infuses flavor without overpowering.
What are the Best Uses for Epazote in Mexican Cooking?
Here are some of the most popular ways to use epazote in authentic Mexican dishes:
Black beans – Add a sprig or two of epazote to the beans while simmering. This enhances flavor and reduces gas.
Quesadillas – Place epazote leaves inside a quesadilla made with corn tortillas and Oaxaca cheese.
Soups and stews – Add epazote leaves and stems in the last 10 minutes of cooking time.
Salsa verde – Chop up fresh epazote and add it to your favorite roasted tomatillo salsa recipe.
Meat rubs and marinades – Use dried, crumbled epazote along with other herbs and spices to season meats.
Rice dishes – Stir in a few fresh epazote leaves after cooking rice for enhanced flavor.
Teas – Infuse fresh or dried epazote in hot water for a traditional Mexican medicinal tea.
Can You Grow Your Own Epazote?
The good news is epazote grows very easily in most climates. It thrives planted outside once the threat of frost has passed. Start seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before the last expected frost date. Plant seedlings 18 inches apart in well-draining soil.
Provide at least 6 hours of sunlight per day. Water whenever the soil is dry to the touch. Harvest leaves and tender stems as needed once the plants are established.
If you don’t have space for an outdoor garden, epazote also grows well in containers on sunny patios, porches and balconies. Use a good potting mix and a container at least 10 inches deep.
Key Takeaways on Cooking with Epazote
Epazote is an aromatic Mexican herb with a unique pungent flavor perfect for authentic dishes. Look for it fresh or dried.
Its strong taste is best added near the end of cooking rather than at the start.
Works well in beans, stews, salsas, soups, quesadillas and more. A little goes a long way.
Imparts complexity and depth of flavor to Mexican cuisine when used properly.
Traditionally used to aid digestion and relieve bloating caused by beans.
Very easy to grow in warm climates. Thrives when given sun and well-draining soil or in containers.
So don’t be afraid to add epazote next time your recipe calls for cilantro or oregano. Embrace its unique flavors and benefits for an authentic Mexican cuisine experience. A little epazote can transform the flavor of your dishes.