Taco shells are a staple food in Mexican cuisine and are now popular worldwide. They can be used to make a variety of delicious tacos and other Mexican dishes. Taco shells provide a crispy, corn exterior to hold tasty taco fillings. Let’s explore what taco shells are, their history, various types, and what they are commonly used for.
What are Taco Shells?
Taco shells are U-shaped crispy shells used to hold taco fillings. They provide a convenient handheld method for eating tacos without the mess of fillings falling out of soft tortillas. Taco shells are made from corn tortillas that have been fried or baked into a curved U-shape.
Authentic taco shells are made from corn masa flour, which is ground dried corn that has been nixtamalized. The nixtamalization process involves soaking and cooking the corn in an alkaline solution, usually limewater. This helps release nutrients in the corn and gives the masa a unique flavor and texture.
Today, many mass-produced taco shells use a corn and wheat flour blend. This makes them easier to produce and gives them a stabilized crisp texture after frying or baking. Taco shells are gold to reddish-brown in color and have a crispy, crunchy bite.
History of the Taco Shell
Tacos have been eaten in Mexico for hundreds of years. However, the now-familiar U-shaped taco shell is a more modern innovation.
One of the first mentions of fried taco shells was in the 1937 book “Los Tacos de México” by Mexican food historian Amando Farga. The book described tacos dorados (fried tacos) from San Luis Potosí. These were made by taking small rolled tacos made with corn tortillas and frying them into a U-shape.
The crispy taco shell gained popularity in the United States when fast food chains like Taco Bell started selling hard shell tacos. Glen Bell, founder of Taco Bell, is sometimes credited with inventing the U-shaped crispy taco shell by frying a tortilla into that shape.
Hard taco shells became popular in the 1950s-60s as a neat and portable finger food. By the 1970s, kits were sold in grocery stores for consumers to make U-shaped taco shells at home by frying tortillas.
Today, crispy taco shells are beloved for their crunchy texture and ability to hold fillings. Both hard and soft flour tortilla tacos remain popular on both sides of the border.
Types of Taco Shells
There are a few main types of taco shells available:
- Fried – The most common type. Corn or flour tortillas are fried in oil, forming the signature U-shape.
- Baked – Rather than frying, baking tortillas into taco shells makes them lower in fat.
- Street taco – Smaller sized shells used for street tacos. They are around 3 inches across.
- Hard – Pre-formed “hard” shells are made from corn masa or a corn/wheat blend. These don’t need frying or baking.
- Soft – Soft flour tortillas can also be used as taco shells. Fillings are added directly on top.
Street taco and soft taco shells are commonly used for their portability. Hard shells are loved for their satisfying crunch and sturdiness.
What are Taco Shells Used For?
Taco shells are the foundation for building delicious tacos. They provide a crispy vessel for holding savory taco meats, vegetables, cheeses, salsas, and other toppings. Here are some of the most common uses for taco shells:
Ground beef tacos are the most popular taco filling in the U.S. Taco seasoning is added to browned ground beef along with water to make the meat mixture. It is then spooned into a taco shell along with shredded lettuce, tomato, cheese, salsa, and other desired toppings.
However, tacos can be filled with almost any type of protein, vegetable or combination. Common taco fillings include:
- Carnitas (braised pork)
- Chorizo sausage
- Refried beans
- Shredded pork
- Grilled fish
- Sauteed vegetables
The toppings help provide flavor, moisture, crunch and texture contrast to the tacos.
Taco shells are also commonly used as edible bowls for taco salads. Taco meat, lettuce, tomato, cheese, beans, salsa, etc. are layered inside the crisp taco shell instead of served in a tortilla. This turns the ingredients into a fun salad presentation.
Mini street taco shells can be filled with smaller portions of taco meats, beans, or cheeses to make party-friendly appetizers.
Some popular appetizer ideas include:
- Mini chicken or beef tacos
- Pork carnita bites
- Chorizo and potato bites
- Shrimp or fish tacos
- Cheese or bean dip filled shells
Broken taco shell pieces can be used as edible scoops for nachos. Just layer taco meat, beans, cheese, tomatoes, jalapeños and other toppings over a bed of nacho chips. The taco shell pieces help scoop up loaded nacho bites.
Nutrition of Taco Shells
The nutrition of taco shells can vary based on the ingredients used. Here is the nutrition for a standard fried corn taco shell:
As you can see, a single taco shell is low in calories, fat, and protein. The calories come mainly from carbohydrates. Taco shells can fit into a balanced diet when enjoyed in moderation. Keep portion sizes reasonable and fill them with healthy toppings like veggies, beans, and lean proteins.
How To Soften Hard Taco Shells
Hard taco shells sometimes need a little softening if they are too crispy and brittle. Here are some easy ways to soften hard taco shells:
- Wrap shells in a damp paper towel and microwave 10-15 seconds. Be careful not to overheat.
- Place shells directly on oven rack and bake at 300°F for 2-3 minutes.
- Fry shells briefly in hot oil to re-crisp and soften.
- Place shells under broiler for 1-2 minutes watching closely.
- Let shells sit in a sealed container with a slice of bread to absorb moisture.
Softening hard shells slightly makes them more pliable and less likely to crack when filled. But be careful not to make them too soft and soggy.
Taco Shell Alternatives
Don’t feel limited to just taco shells! You can make tasty tacos with these alternatives:
- Soft corn or flour tortillas – The traditional taco vessel. Warm and fill as desired.
- Lettuce wraps – Use large lettuce leaves like romaine to wrap tacos for a low-carb option.
- Baked potatoes – Cut potatoes into wedges, top with taco fixings, and bake.
- Tostadas – Flat crispy corn tortillas topped with tacos fillings and condiments.
- Tortilla bowls – Drape tortillas over muffin tins to bake into edible bowls.
Taco shells provide a convenient crispy shell for eating tacos and other Mexican foods. While invented relatively recently in the 1930s, they have now become a hugely popular vessel for taco fillings and toppings.
When preparing tacos, look for authentic corn shells for the best flavor. Fill them with your favorite proteins, vegetables, cheeses, salsas, and garnishes for a fast, fun meal. Taco shells can also be used creatively for nachos, salads, and appetizers beyond just classic tacos.
With a variety of types and flexible uses, taco shells are a beloved convenience food perfect for Mexican cuisine. So grab some taco shells and start getting creative with your own taco fillings and toppings!