Never suffer a dull taco Tuesday again with this guide to making amazing custom tacos with whatever ingredients you have on hand.

By Tiffany Stevens
March 09, 2020

There’s probably someone out there who doesn’t like tacos—maybe even multiple people. But for those of us who appreciate convenient, delicious parcels of food, there’s nothing quite like a taco to sate immediate hunger. You don’t have to stop by a taco stand to get food that goes beyond Taco Bell fare, however (not that we’re judging Bell lovers). Amazing tacos can be made out of all kinds of ingredients, including any leftovers that might be in your fridge. Tacos are also easy to customize, making them a fun meal that kids and adults alike will gravitate to. To help you put together your next taco night, we’ve compiled this guide, which takes you through the process of putting together the perfect taco. Use it to beef up your existing recipes, or to find a new at-home alternative to eating out. 

Copycat Doritos Locos Tacos

Photo: Alison Miksch; Prop Styling: Audrey Davis; Food Styling: Nicole McLaughlin

Step One: Choose Your Shell

Get the Recipes: Copycat Doritos Locos Tacos, San Antonio Puffy Tacos, Dessert Taco Shells, Chipotle Pork Soft Tacos, Crisp Chicken Tacos, Chocolate Tacos with Ice Cream and Peanuts, Beef Flatbread Tacos

As the base of the taco, the shell deserves a little thought. You can, of course, buy hard or soft shells of your choosing from the store. No shame. But if you want something closer to homemade, you could try making a traditional puffy tortilla out of masa dough. You can also pan fry a hard or soft shell for a few minutes on each side to make it crispy. If you’re making a gyro style taco, you can even use a piece of flatbread as a tortilla. You can even make dessert tacos, either by making a taco shell shape out of chocolate or by laying soft tortillas over aluminum foil rolls. If you go with the latter method, you’ll want to brush the tortillas with melted butter and sprinkle them with sugar and bake in the oven at about 400°F for 15 minutes.You’ll be left with a sweetened shell that would taste perfect filled with fruit and ice cream. 

Time Inc. Video Studio 

Step Two: Choose Your Star Ingredient

Get the Recipes: Chicken Verde Tacos, Garlicky Shrimp-Cilantro Tacos, Crab Tacos, Tofu Tacos, Huevos Rancheros Tacos, Chimichurri Steak Tacos, Fried Fish Reuben Tacos, Japanese Tako Tacos, Kung Pao Chicken Tacos

Now that you’ve decided on a shell, you’ll want to think about which ingredient (or ingredients) should be the focal point of the taco. Usually, this means picking a protein—and there’s so many things to pick from. Naturally, there’s the usual choices: shredded chicken, ground beef, steak, shrimp and fish, but there’s also breakfast tacos, crab tacos, and bean or tofu-based tacos for vegetarians. You can even take leftovers, like last night’s Kung Pao, and make tacos. The possibilities here are truly endless, so feel free to get adventurous while choosing your primary taco flavors. 

Aaron Kirk; Prop Styling: Christina Daley; Food Styling: Robby Melvin

Step Three: Choose Your Other Fillings

Get the Recipes: Family-Style Taco Night, Shrimp Tacos with Cilantro-Lime SlawBrisket Tacos with Summer Salsa, Grilled Fish Tacos with Jalapeno-Cabbage Slaw, Steak Tacos with Charred Salsa, Black Bean Tacos with Feta Slaw, Flank Steak Tacos with Watermelon Salsa

With the shell and primary taco theme safely selected, it’s time to decide what other fillings you might like on the menu. The options are pretty varied, and include various cheeses, beans, tomatoes, lettuce, sprouts, and sliced vegetables. You could, of course, roast vegetables, like potatoes, peppers, and corn, and add them to your tacos. A wide variety of salsas and slaws could also be used to complement your taco feast. And if you’re thinking about making a corresponding coleslaw that people can use to top tacos (always a good idea), feel free to check out our coleslaw guide here

Greg DuPree

Step Four: Make a Sauce

Get the Recipes: Pot Roast Tacos with ChimichurriFish Tacos with Sweet Pickle Sauce, Grilled Flank Steak with Chipotle-Orange Mojo

Finally, if you’d like, you can finish off your taco with a sauce of some kind. Tabasco or hot sauce work fine, but you could also make a custom sauce, such as the sweet pickle or chipotle-orange sauces listed above. If your family members or guests have different spice tolerance levels, feel free to set out multiple sauces so that everyone can choose the topper that best suits their tastes.

Step Five: Cook Your Ingredients

With all other components of your tacos assembled, the only work left is to cook whichever ingredients require it. Here’s a few methods we recommend for creating incredible tacos. 

Photo: Jennifer Causey Styling: Lydia Degaris Pursell

How to Make Stove-Top Tacos

Get the Recipes: Mushroom and Charred Corn Tacos, Pan-Seared Tuna Tacos, Blackened Shrimp Tacos, Peanut Crusted Tofu Tacos, Ancho Chicken Tacos

If you just need to quickly season and cook a protein for your tacos, whip out a frying pan and cook up your primary ingredients. Cast-iron skillets can help you get an even better sear, if a bit of char is what you’re looking for. Make sure to chop up any meat into bite-sized pieces and check for doneness before serving. 

Meredith Food Studios 

How to Make Sheet Pan Tacos

Get the Recipes: Sheet Pan BBQ Fish Tacos, Pulled-Pork Tacos, Carnitas Tacos with Pickled Red Onion

Planning to include quite a few cooked veggies in your tacos? Want to cook everything at the same time and with minimal effort? Throw everything on a sheet pan! Just make sure the sheet pan is well greased; ideally, gather the vegetables at one end and the meat at the other, and make sure you use veggies with similar cooking times. Some peppers, for example, will need far less time than potatoes. 

Photo: Jennifer Causey; Styling: Lindsey Lower

How to Make Slow Cooker Tacos

Get the Recipes: Slow Cooker Barbacoa Brisket, Slow Cooker Chicken Mole, Cola Shredded Beef Tacos

Your slow cooker can also provide you with an easy, hands-off path to taco night, especially if you’re a fan of shredded meats. Feel free to cook your favorite proteins in whatever marinades you like best, or try one of the recipes listed above, such as the slow cooker chicken mole or the cola shredded beef tacos. 

Photo: Jennifer Causey; Styling: Claire Spollen

How to Make Fried Tacos

Get the Recipes: Crispy Tilapia Tacos, Fried Chicken Tacos, Big Easy Fried Catfish Tacos

If you’ve got a deep fryer or air fryer (or a really big pot), why not consider frying your primary ingredients? For this application, you’ll want to bread your protein (whether its fish, tofu, or chicken), and then carefully add it to oil heated to around 365°F. Of course, if you want to skip the frying sense, you could coat your protein and cook it in the oven, or you could just pick up some fried chicken tenders for quick, easy-to-throw together tacos.

Caitlin Bensel

How to Make Grilled Tacos

Get the Recipes: Grilled Buffalo Chicken Tacos, Grilled Steak and Elote Tacos

It’s just about springtime, so if you’re firing up the grill, feel free to throw your main taco ingredients on for a good char. If you’d like, you can even throw the tortillas on the grill so they can take on some of that smoky taste; just make sure to place them on top of some aluminum foil first.

Photo: Caitlin Bensel; Prop Styling: Christina Daley; Food Styling: Marianne Williams

How to Make a Taco Salad

Get the Recipes: Easy Taco SaladTaco Salad with Tortilla Whiskers, Walking Tacos

Maybe you’d like to skip the tortilla and go for a bowl. If so, combine your primary ingredients, fillings, and sauce, and simply make a salad instead. Add more greens to the mix, if you’d like. Or, buy some bags of corn chips, crack them open, add your taco fillings, and then clip the bag to seal it. You’ll have a taco salad that can be eaten on the go, as long as you have a fork handy. 

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