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What’s the difference between a tostada and a taco shell?

Both tostadas and taco shells are staples of Mexican cuisine, but there are some key differences between these crunchy tortilla-based foods. In this article, we’ll examine the ingredients, preparation methods, serving styles, and culinary roles of tostadas and taco shells to understand what sets them apart.


The main ingredient in both tostadas and taco shells is corn tortillas. However, they differ in the following ways:

  • Tostada shells are made from corn tortillas that have been deep-fried until crispy. This frying gives tostadas their signature crunchy texture.
  • Taco shells are made from corn tortillas that have been bent into a U-shape and fried only briefly so they hold their curvature. They have a softer texture than tostada shells.

In addition, tostadas are generally larger in diameter than taco shells. A tostada shell is usually around 6 inches wide, while a taco shell is around 4 inches wide.

Preparation Methods

The preparation methods for tostadas and taco shells also differ:

  • To make tostada shells:
    • Corn tortillas are fried in oil at 350-375°F until crisped and lightly browned, usually 30 seconds to 1 minute per side.
    • The fried tortilla is then drained on paper towels and allowed to cool.
  • To make taco shells:
    • Corn tortillas are warmed to make them pliable.
    • Each tortilla is then folded into a U-shape by hand and held in place using tongs or a taco mold.
    • The shaped tortilla is quickly fried for 10-15 seconds on each side to set the shape.

As you can see, taco shells require more hands-on shaping compared to tostada shells, which are simply fried flat.

Serving Styles

When it comes to serving, tostadas and tacos have some key differences:

  • Tostadas are served open-faced. The tostada shell is laid flat and topped with various ingredients like meat, cheese, lettuce, salsa, beans, etc. These ingredients are layered on top of each other.
  • Tacos are served folded. Fillings are stuffed inside the taco shell, which is picked up and eaten out of hand. Toppings tend to be simpler, usually limited to meat, onions, cilantro, and salsa.

So tostadas are knife-and-fork foods, while tacos are handheld. This impacts how the two items are eaten and what ingredients work best with each.

Culinary Uses

Tostadas and tacos are used in several different culinary contexts:

  • Tostadas are most often served as a dish on their own. They make a filling starter or light main.
  • Tacos can be served as a dish, but they are also used in a variety of other ways:
    • Stuffed into burritos, chimichangas, etc.
    • Topped with salad to make taco salads
    • Crumbled into chilaquiles
    • Cut up and used in soups or stews

So while tostadas are limited to being eaten as-is, taco shells are more versatile and can be incorporated into other dishes.


Despite their differences, tostadas and taco shells do share some similarities:

  • Both are made from corn tortillas.
  • Both provide a crunchy, edible vessel for Mexican ingredients.
  • They can be filled/topped with similar fillings like meat, beans, cheese, lettuce, salsa, etc.
  • Deep frying is involved in the preparation of both dishes.

So while they have distinct shapes, textures, and uses, tostadas and taco shells are still closely related in the world of Mexican cuisine.


Nutritionally, tostadas and taco shells are quite similar since they share a main ingredient of corn tortillas. Here’s a nutrition comparison:

Nutrition Facts Tostada Shell (6″ diameter) Taco Shell
Calories 150 70
Fat 7g 3g
Carbs 19g 11g
Protein 3g 2g
Fibre 2g 1g

As you can see, tostadas generally provide more calories, fat, carbs, protein and fiber since they are larger in size. However, taco shells are still a relatively high-calorie food due to being deep fried.


Commercially, taco shells tend to cost slightly more than tostadas. Based on Walmart pricing, this is the average cost breakdown:

Product Average Price
Tostada shells (12 count) $2.50
Taco shells (12 count) $2.98

The increased price of taco shells accounts for the additional labor involved in shaping each shell by hand. Tostadas only need to be fried flat, which is less work.


In the United States, taco shells are significantly more popular than tostadas. Some key popularity statistics include:

  • Tacos were ranked as the #1 favorite ethnic food in a National Restaurant Association survey.
  • Americans eat over 4.5 billion tacos per year according to
  • Taco shells are a $3 billion market according to Fortune Business Insights.
  • Tostadas are not widely found on restaurant menus across the U.S.

The portability and customization of tacos contribute to their mainstream appeal in American culture compared to the lesser known tostada.

Ease of Preparation

When it comes to ease of preparation at home:

  • Tostadas are simpler to make. You can fry store-bought tortillas into tostada shells or use pre-made shells. Then just layer on desired toppings.
  • Taco shells require more effort to fry into the curved shape at home. It can be tricky maneuvering the tortillas into the U-shape by hand without breaking. Shaping the shells is the hardest part.

So for home cooks, tostadas provide an easier preparation process overall compared to taco shells.


Storing leftover tostada and taco shells also differs:

  • Tostadas can be stored flat in a ziplock bag or plastic wrap. Their flat shape makes storage simple.
  • Taco shells are more prone to breaking and cracking while being stored. It’s best to separate each shell with parchment paper in an airtight container.

So taco shells require more careful storage to keep their shape intact. Tostadas store better long-term.


There are many different varieties of tostadas and taco shells to suit different tastes and dietary needs:

Tostada Shell Varieties Taco Shell Varieties
– Corn – Corn
– Flour – Flour
– Multigrain – Soft corn
– Low carb – Hard shell
– Protein-enriched – Street taco size
– Nut-free – Bowl-shaped

With the variety of options, most dietary needs and preferences can be accommodated by both tostada and taco shells.

Regional Differences

Regionally, tostadas and tacos vary in their prominence:

  • In Mexico, tostadas are more widely found, especially in central and southern regions.
  • In the United States, tacos are far more common on restaurant menus and in home cooking.
  • On the U.S. West Coast, various Mexican dishes like tostadas are easily found.
  • In the American South and Midwest, tacos are ubiquitous while tostadas are rare.

So the geographical region impacts the availability and awareness of each dish for consumers.

Cultural Significance

Both tostadas and tacos hold cultural significance:

  • Tostadas are believed to have originated in Mexican cantinas as a quick, cheap snack.
  • Tacos have become symbolic of Mexican cuisine and culture worldwide.
  • In Southern California, taco trucks and stands are an iconic part of the food landscape.
  • Tacos feature prominently in the Mexican diaspora and fusion cuisines like Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex.
  • National Taco Day is celebrated every October 4th in the United States.

So while the ubiquitous taco has certainly claimed the global spotlight, tostadas still hold an important place, especially regionally in Mexico.


Tostadas and taco shells are two crunchy staples of Mexican cuisine with notably different shapes, textures, serving methods, and culinary roles. Tostadas are open-faced and flat while tacos are folded into a U-shape. Tacos tend to be more mainstream, portable, and versatile in recipes. Tostadas are easier to prepare and store but are less common outside their regional Mexican roots. While related, these fried or baked tortilla vessels have unique identities and purposes within Mexican food culture and beyond.