Tender, spiced ground beef wrapped in soft tortillas or hard shells makes a quick dinner that pleases the whole family. Proper browning ensures the beef comes out flavorful, rather than pale and soggy. Spices, such as cumin and chili powder, add pizzazz to the filling, and fresh toppings perk up the finished dish.
Skip the prepared seasoning packets and put together your own mix of spices. You'll avoid flavor enhancers, such as monosodium glutamate, and gain the ability to customize the intensity of the flavors. Mix together chili powder, ground cumin, paprika, onion and garlic powder, salt and black pepper in a small bowl. The amount of the spices you use depend on your personal tastes, but you can start with about a teaspoon of each per 2 pounds of meat. Mexican oregano, ground coriander and a pinch -- not a teaspoon -- of cayenne are other optional additions. Add 1/2 to 1 full teaspoon of sugar to the spice mixture to balance out the savory notes.
A superior taco filling begins with fresh ground beef. If you have access to the butcher, ask him when the ground beef was ground to ensure you get the freshest possible. Any type of ground beef works, but chuck that's about 85 percent lean offers a meaty flavor and juicy texture. Line a large, sturdy skillet with a scant layer of olive or vegetable oil and heat it over a medium-high burner. Add the beef and begin to break it into chunks using a spatula or large spoon. Allow it to brown slightly and then continue to break it up into smaller bits. Add the spice mixture to integrate the flavors. Once you've broken up all the meat, and it's thoroughly browned, you're ready to fill the tacos. Note that if you use a pan that's too small or heat that's too low, the meat will turn a pale gray because it's steamed, rather than browned.
Whether you opt to wrap the filling inside a soft tortilla or hard shell is completely up to you. Choose a soft flour tortilla over soft corn as the latter are more likely to break and crumble when rolled. Hard taco shells are easy to make at home, too. Use corn tortillas that you've wrapped in a damp paper towel and steamed in the microwave for about 20 seconds. Spritz them with cooking spray and drape them over and between the rungs of your oven rack to form the U-shape. Heat at 375-degrees Fahrenheit until crisped, which takes about 8 minutes.
Spiff up the taco by adding an assortment of toppings. Options include: shreds of Monterey Jack or cheddar cheese, diced tomato, chopped bell pepper, minced onion, sliced avocado and shredded lettuce. Salsa, guacamole and sour cream are other traditional additions. If you're serving a group, place bowls of these toppings out so people can make their own tacos to their liking.