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So I routinely serve up very simple style burritos in my apartment (beef, sour cream, cheese and white flour tortillas), and I've grown well past the days of using pre-mixed seasoning packets to flavor the ground beef.

However, after a particularly tired night where I reneged on that and used a packet that I had leftover sitting in the pantry, I realized just how much flavor it managed to impart into the beef comparative to what I normally get out of my manually done spice blends.

Typically speaking, I use a blend of:

  • Chili Powder
  • Chipotle Powder
  • Cumin
  • Mustard Powder
  • Freshly Cracked Black Pepper
  • Touch of Salt
  • Cinnamon (just a touch for some sweetness)

I brown the beef, drain off the fat, and then get it back in the pan to simmer in a mix of red wine vinegar and water for volume. When about half of the liquid is gone, I then add the spice mix.

Generally I get the heat just right with the chili/chipotle, but it's not quite salty enough and the cumin flavor doesn't seem to really impart itself enough to the point I'd like. Likewise, there's only a hint of the vinegar flavor, which isn't necessarily a bad thing when all of the other flavors are weak, but if the other flavors came more to life, I'd expect the vinegar flavor to be at least a bit bolder as well.

Is there an ingredient I'm missing for this type of cooking that aids in making those flavors really stick to the beef? Or is this possibly just a case of "add more X"? Possibly a technique / timing issue? Alternatively, is there a spice out there that you could recommend as a stronger version of any of said ingredients? I'd really like to NOT overload the salt levels, and I'd also prefer to keep straining off the fat from the browning process.

Thanks in advance!

edit: Thank you all for the suggestions! I'm making them again tonight and will be trying a combination of Bob's and Mrs. Garden's answers. Going to be adding Worcestire Sauce, replacing water with Beef Stock, upping the amount of Cumin and using some fresh minced garlic towards the end of the simmer (and maybe some onion powder as well). I'll update when the verdict is out.

edit 2: The fresh garlic and extra cumin definitely brought out some more flavor, and the Worcestershire definitely gave a bit more punch than I would have thought it could possibly do. The flavor was fantastic, albeit a bit overpowering, but that I'll attribute that to having to readjust the amounts of everything with the new ingredients / ratios. Thank you all for your suggestions again.

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7 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

To get more flavor out of cumin, you can use whole seeds, and toast them briefly in a pan before grinding. If you don't want to put forth that extra effort, you'll just need to add more cumin. If it's not salty enough, the best solution is to just add more salt (sorry). Salt will enhance the other flavors as well. A bit of cornstarch would help make the spices stick, and dry out the mixture. I'm not sure how much water and vinegar you're adding, but you may just be watering down your beef too much. I usually add just enough to keep the spices from sticking to the pan, but not so much that there is a lot of extra liquid that needs to be reduced.

Your spice mixtures may also contain some form of MSG. You can get a similar umami "punch" by adding a dash of Worcestershire sauce.

Edit: I don't know how I missed this, but the other answers point out the lack of garlic and onion. Your store-bought spice mixtures definitely contain plenty of those in powdered form, which you can use, but fresh is tasty too. Don't add fresh garlic too early, as it can easily burn and turn bitter.

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You can replace the water with soup stock too (a stock with mushrooms will add umami), and try flour instead of corn starch (it browns up adding punch). –  Bruce Alderson Nov 30 '10 at 4:03
    
@Bruce Flour would be better, but you need to continue to cook it long enough to get the taste out. Good point on mushrooms and replacing the water with stock. I was focusing on replicating the taste and behavior of the seasoning pouches. –  Bob Nov 30 '10 at 12:56
    
@Bruce I actually was considering using some flour to thicken it up and hopefully cause some more 'stick' but was worried about the taste as well, as Bob said. I suppose I'll just have to let it cook down a whole lot. –  TheQ Nov 30 '10 at 13:12
    
@Bob I'll try some fresh garlic next time too! I'm not a huge fan of onion (so sue me) but I'll toss in a dash of the powder for the diluted flavor. I'll probably substitute water for beef stock as in Mrs. Garden's answer, and I didn't even think to do Worcestire. I unfortunately don't have a good grinder, so whole cumin seeds are out of the question, but I do have plenty of the ground cumin powder anyway so I might just add more. Thanks for all the tips! I'll try it out tonight and let you know how it goes. –  TheQ Nov 30 '10 at 13:16
    
You can always pre-cook some of the flavour out of the flour by making a roux out of some of the fat in the beef and the flour: cook this down until it's tasty, and fold it back in. –  Bruce Alderson Dec 1 '10 at 0:43
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Draining all of the fat will most certainly reduce flavor...so my first choice would be to keep some of it in the pan. Use it to heat up your spices and don't add any water. That is definitely lowering flavor impact. If you need to add a liquid, why not try some beef stock?

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Thanks for the tip with the stock! I know the fat has a lot of the flavor, but it's definitely not something I want to keep in the pan. I think I'll probably give this a try in combination with Bob's suggestions. –  TheQ Nov 30 '10 at 13:17
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I find the secret to getting the right flavour is a couple of tablespoons of bean powder or just left over refried beans into the water (no vinegar). This makes the spices sauce up and stick to the meat

If you want the acid taste, squeeze some lime or lemon over while assembling the burrito

Instead of ground beef, try a good cut of beef and slice thinly (5 to 10 mm) into short strips. This holds more meat flavour and coats well too. This way you will use less meat, and can select for lower fat levels too

Light roasting the spices before grinding is always a great booster

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When I make taco seasoning, I also add oregano. I usually add a pinch of sugar for sweetness, but your cinnamon works for that, too. I also like a little paprika and cayenne, but your chipotle will work for that, too, but I bet oregano is what you're missing...

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If you're using cumin powder, you could try switching to cumin seed and then grinding it right before adding it. This might make it more flavourful. I might also add, for the rest of the ingredients, garlic/garlic powder and maybe onion powder as well. I don't know how much salt you add, but just increasing the salt by a bit, might bring out the rest of the flavours.

I often serve something similar, except I use shredded beef, the meat is different, but the seasonings are fairly similar. The recipe I started from calls for the following. I'm posting it as it gives an idea of the quantities used. For about 2 lbs of meat:

  • 1 level tbsp. salt (I actually reduced this as it was a bit excessive the first time I made it)
  • 1 tbsp. pepper
  • 1 tbsp. cumin
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. chili powder ( light or dark )
  • 1 tbsp. garlic powder (I usually use minced garlic)
  • 1 tbsp. onion powder (I omit it due to a severe allergy that my wife has)
  • 4 bay leaves (It's stewing for hours to break down the meat)
  • Onion (added mid cooking, for shredded beef, I'd add it prior to cooking if you're using ground beef. Omitted for me, for the same reason as the powder)

I have slightly increased other ingredients, to compensate for a lack of onions. I may try using some vinegar next time.

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Garlic and Onion powder tend to help a lot. Also I use a nice pureed salsa in replace of most of my water, helps give it a little extra kick (in addition to the spices.

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It's not a dry ingredient, but I typically add adobo sauce to taco and chili meat. It has a complex flavor, and a decent amount of heat. They are sold in small cans. I typically just extract a few tablespoons of the sauce, and leave the chilies.

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