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10 Essential Latin American Ingredients in Chef Gaby Melian's Kitchen

The celebrity chef shares her fridge and pantry staples.
By Published Aug. 11, 2022

Hola! My name is Gaby Melian, and I am a professional chef and the author of Gaby’s Latin American Kitchen, the brand-new cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen Kids. I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, before I moved to the United States. In Gaby’s Latin American Kitchen, you’ll find many of the Latin American recipes I grew up eating and those I’ve learned from my friends and neighbors.

I like to keep my fridge and pantry stocked with my favorite Latin American ingredients. Here are some of the ingredients I use over and over in my kitchen—and in the recipes in my latest cookbook!

Dulce de Leche

I also call it heaven on earth. This “milk jam” is basically milk and sugar cooked together until it is thick, gooey, and delicious. Taste it for yourself in alfajores de maicena (sandwich cookies with dulce de leche) and chocotorta, an Argentinean no-bake chocolate cookie and dulce de leche layer cake.

Masa Harina 

Masa harina is a type of flour made by drying and grinding masa dough, which is made from corn that has been nixtamalized, or soaked in an alkaline solution to change both its flavor and structure. It’s used to make tortillas, tamales, and pupusas. 

Masarepa

This type of flour is made by drying and then grinding precooked corn. It’s used to make the Latin American corn cakes called arepas.

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Queso de Freír

Also called queso para freír, this fresh white cheese is very interesting because it does not melt when you cook it, it just softens. That makes it perfect for frying, as I do in the Dominican breakfast meal known as mangú con los tres golpes—or mashed green plantains with eggs, cheese, and salami.

Queso Fresco

A firm, fresh cheese similar to feta. I like to eat it crumbled into baleadas (a Honduran street dish similar to tacos), or sprinkled onto chilaquiles verdes and tostadas. 

Salame Dominicano

A large precooked sausage made of pork and beef, used in mangú con los tres golpes. It’s sometimes called salchichón dominicano.

Crema

This tangy sauce is a little thinner than sour cream and used on everything from tacos de carne molida (ground beef tacos) to tostadas.

Totopos

In México, tortilla chips are called totopos. They are toasted, fried, or baked triangles of corn tortillas. Find them served with guacamole or salsa, used as a base for nachos, and more!

Plátanos

These relatives of bananas are firm and green when unripe and soft and black when ripe. They are often fried to make crispy tostones or soft, sweet maduros.

Sazón

In Puerto Rico and parts of Central America, sazón is the name given to a popular spice blend. But it’s also a Spanish word that means “seasoning,” or the way each chef adds “flavor” to their dishes.

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