Two hard shell tacos filled with taco meat, cheese, and salsa on a plate.

Taco night has evolved considerably since posting this recipe five years ago. Back then, I was grinding the chicken meat at home, grating the cheese by hand, mixing the taco spices, pickling the onions, and making the salsa. Sometimes I even made the tortillas.

I titled the post: “Simplest Chicken Tacos.”

Are you laughing? My how things have changed.

It didn’t happen overnight, but rather very gradually, one small change leading to another until I had slipped right down that slippery slope, landing at present-day taco night, where the taco shells are hard (and stand upright!) and purchased at the store along with the bag of grated “Mexican-style” cheese, the packet of taco seasoning, and the pound of ground beef.

I often buy the salsa, too: you know the fresh salsa sold in the produce aisle? That’s the one!

My prep list on taco night now amounts to dicing an onion, browning the meat, and slicing up a head of Romaine lettuce. I warm the taco shells in the toaster oven, dump the cheese and lettuce into bowls, and when the taco filling is cooked, which takes about 20 minutes total, the assembly line is ready.

I had wanted to title this post: “Taco Night 2.0”, but that would have implied some sort of culinary advancement, which is not exactly what has happened here.

But do you know what? The reception of my mostly effortless taco night has never been better. No one seems to miss the freshly ground meat, the hand-grated cheese, and the homemade taco seasoning. The tacos, in fact, have never disappeared faster.

Friends, this is not easy to admit. If you’ve been reading for a while, you know I’m a proud DIY-er: I’ve made the case for buying chickens whole and cutting them up yourself (and then making stock with the carcass!); I extoll the virtues of cooking dried beans from scratch. I don’t think twice about making homemade ricotta, and I encourage you to do the same.

I like to cook. I LOVE to cook! Foods made from scratch so often taste better. Plus there’s less waste; you get more bang for your buck.

Knowing all this, if I confess to stocking packets of taco seasoning, bags of grated cheese, and tubs of salsa, what will come next? Endorsing a brand of bottled salad dressing?

I think this is my fear. That slippery slope I mentioned earlier. The trouble is that sometimes all of this DIY pride (madness?) prevents me from actually getting dinner on the table. Since adopting a more semi-homemade approach to taco night, it happens more regularly. And no matter the day of the week, it always feels doable.

I want to be better about this, and I’ve made strides over the years, namely accepting that canned beans work just fine, that boneless, skinless chicken thighs make souvlaki night a walk in the park, that Trader Joe’s pre-cooked lentils and bruschetta sauce unite into a most magical salad, and, most recently, that a packet of taco seasoning somehow makes taco night feel like a complete and utter breeze.

Friends, have you ever let your high standards prevent you from getting to the task at hand? Are you ashamed of anything in your fridge or pantry? Please share. This is a safe space.

While the spirit is moving me, here’s my full confession:

10 Items I Never Imagined Stocking

This confession stems from the most recent taco night, when I found myself staring at all of the outsourced components — numbers 1-5 below all make appearances on taco night.

  1. Pre-grated cheese
  2. Taco seasoning packet
  3. Jarred tomato sauce
  4. Fresh salsa
  5. Stand-up taco shells
  6. “Baby” carrots
  7. Pre-formed burger patties (very convenient)
  8. Chicken in parts (very convenient)
  9. Cheesesticks (at this point I’m more addicted than the children)
  10. Sliced bread (this one’s the hardest to admit)

How to Make Truly Simple Tacos

Step one, gather your ingredients:

Ingredients to make simple tacos.

Dice an onion.

A diced onion on a cutting board.

Sauté the onion for about 4 minutes; then add the packet of taco seasoning and cook for 1 minute.

A sauté pan holding onions and taco spices.
.

Add the ground beef, and stir constantly until the meat is browned, 1-2 minutes.

A sauté pan filled with onions, taco seasoning and ground beef.

Add the tomato sauce and water.

A sauté pan filled with taco meat ready to simmer.

Bring the mixture to a simmer and simmer for 10 minutes or until…

Taco mix simmering in a skillet.

… much of the liquid has reduced down.

Taco mix in a skillet.

Cut up a head of Romaine lettuce, and …

A head of Romaine lettuce on a cutting board, shredded.

… dump it into a bowl. Dump the cheese into a bowl, too, and place your taco shells on a sheet pan. Toast them in the oven or toaster oven for 1 to 2 minutes.

Grated cheese and lettuce in a bowl.

Your assembly line is ready. Assemble away! I do this order: lettuce, meat, cheese, salsa.

Two hard shell tacos filled with taco meat, cheese, and salsa on a plate.
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Two hard shell tacos filled with taco meat, cheese, and salsa on a plate.

Taco Night, Simplified


  • Author: Alexandra Stafford
  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Cook Time: 20 minutes
  • Total Time: 35 minutes
  • Yield: 4 to 6
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Description

Recipe simplified from this other mostly simple recipe for beef tacos. 

Notes: 

  • Taco Seasoning: I like the Whole Foods 365 brand, and if you have one you recommend, please share in the comments. Update: Three recommendations from commenters include The Spice House, Penzey’s, and Siete Foods. My experience with taco seasoning packets is that they tend to be saltier, so if you have a heavy hand (as I do) when seasoning meat and onions, etc., consider holding back a bit.
  • Ground Beef: I look for grassfed ground beef or humanely raised (for reasons I discuss here and here) and look for 20% fat. 

Ingredients

for the taco filling:

  • 1 tablespoon grapeseed or olive oil
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped to yield about a cup
  • 1 packet (1 oz | 28 g | about 3 tablespoons) taco seasoning, see notes above
  • kosher salt to taste
  • 1 pound ground beef, see notes above
  • 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons white balsamic, cider (or other) vinegar

for serving:

  • tortillas, hard shell (stand up or otherwise), soft, or whatever you like 
  • shredded cheddar, Monterey Jack, or a blend 
  • shredded Romaine lettuce
  • salsa, homemade or purchased, I like the La Mexican brand sold in the produce/refrigerated aisle
  • sour cream, optional
  • diced avocado, optional

Instructions

  1. Make the taco meat: Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat until hot and shimmering but not smoking; add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add spice packet; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add ground beef and cook, stirring often, until it is no longer pink, about 5 minutes. (Note: you may need to use a spatula to break up the block of meat into smaller pieces before you can stir frequently.) Add tomatoes or tomato sauce, water, and vinegar; bring to simmer.
  2. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, stirring frequently, until liquid has reduced and thickened (mixture should not be completely dry), about 10 minutes. Taste, adjust seasonings with salt. This can be done up to 5 days (or longer actually) in advance and reheated slowly before serving.
  3. For taco night: If using hard tortilla shells, you can toast them in the oven or toaster oven at 350ºF for about 2 minutes. If using flour tortillas, wrap the tortillas in foil, and place in a 350ºF oven for 15 minutes or until warm. Sometimes I just toast them in the toaster. Remove from oven, and transfer to tea towel to keep warm. Place shredded cheese, lettuce, salsa, sour cream (if using), and avocado (if using) in bowls. Start assembling as you wish.
  • Category: Dinner
  • Method: Stovetop
  • Cuisine: Mexican, American

Keywords: simple, beef, tacos