Tender, savory, well-spiced filling that's not loose or pebbly
Pliable but sturdy taco shells
Tacos that are crispy but don't crack
Maybe it’s nostalgia—the first bite that cracks the shell, sending orange grease down your wrist. Or perhaps it’s the satisfying combination of spiced meat, creamy cheese, and cool, crisp lettuce that makes hard-shell tacos so popular. Either way, Americans have an enduring love for this lunchroom and dinnertime staple.
Ease is a big part of the appeal: Relying on a packet of powdered taco seasoning and a sleeve of prefried taco shells means that dinner comes together in a flash. But when I recently prepared tacos using the contents of a supermarket kit, my middle school memories were obscured by a dust cloud of flat spices covering dry, nubbly meat.
Choose Your Shell Adventure
I’d followed the instructions for preparing the shells, baking them for a few minutes before serving, and they were fine, though not terribly flavorful. Frying your own shells into the proper U shape using corn tortillas produces better results—rich corn flavor and a light, crispy texture that’s miles apart from the hard crunch of the prefab type—but the process is tedious and messy.
Not truly satisfied with either choice, I dug into the history of hard-shell tacos. Although commercially made hard-shell tacos are an American innovation, crispy-shell tacos have long existed in Mexico under the name tacos dorados, or “golden tacos.” The way they’re prepared is pure genius: Soft corn tortillas are filled, folded in half, and then deep-fried. At the table, the tacos are opened like a book and stuffed with garnishes.
After just one go-round with the filled‑before‑fried method, I was hooked. The fried shells were shatteringly crispy on their flat sides yet flexible at their spines, so they didn’t break into a million pieces when I took a bite, and they boasted true corn flavor. This was what I had been craving; I just wanted to avoid deep frying.
Before I tackled frying the filled tortillas, I wanted to revamp the usual beef taco filling to work in my tacos dorados. I started with 90 percent lean ground beef, figuring that 85 percent would be on the greasy side. To ensure that the meat stayed tender and juicy, I used a test kitchen trick: raising its pH with baking soda to help the proteins attract and retain more water. I combined ¼ teaspoon of baking soda with 1 tablespoon of water so it would distribute evenly. I then stirred it into the raw beef and let the mixture sit.
Meanwhile, I sautéed finely chopped onion and added modest amounts of common hard-shell taco seasonings—chili powder, paprika, ground cumin, and garlic powder—to bloom in the oil and release their flavors. Then I added the treated beef and cooked it until it lost its pink color. It was a fine start, but I wanted a bolder spice flavor and more meaty depth. I increased all the spices to a total ¼ cup, and to boost the savoriness, I cooked a couple of tablespoons of umami-rich tomato paste in the skillet with the onion before adding the beef. My filling was now well spiced and rich-tasting. It was time to stuff the meat into tortillas and fry them up.
To ensure that the tortillas were pliable enough to be filled without cracking or falling apart, I borrowed a technique that we use for enchiladas: brushing each side with oil and then briefly baking the tortillas until they become flexible.
But even with tortillas that cooperated nicely, my filling was a little loose and tended to spill out. I tried binding it with flour and even with mashed canned beans, but ultimately it was easier to simply stir in some of the cheddar cheese I was already using as a garnish. I mixed ½ cup of the shredded cheddar into the beef while it was still hot. The cheese melted seamlessly, helping the beef stay put in the tortilla and enriching the mixture as well.
Finally, instead of deep-frying, which seemed fussy for these slender tacos, I simply shallow-fried them in the same skillet I’d used to cook the beef. I was able to fry 12 tacos in just ¼ cup of oil, and with some strategic arrangement in the skillet, I could complete the job in two batches of six.
As my colleagues eagerly pried open the tacos, added garnishes, and crunched away, I knew I had upped my taco game for good.
Keys to Success
Tender, savory, well-spiced filling that's not loose or pebblyTreating the ground beef with baking soda helps it stay juicy. Sautéing onion, spices, and tomato paste before adding the beef creates a savory, flavorful base. Stirring shredded cheese into the hot filling makes the filling more cohesive.
Pliable but sturdy taco shellsBrushing corn tortillas with oil before baking them helps them stay flexible enough to be folded over the filling without splitting or cracking.
Tacos that are crispy but don't crackFrying the tortilla with the filling already inside creates a taco that is crispy on the flat sides and softened just enough at the spine so that it doesn't break apart when you eat it.