Tacos de Canasta (Basket Tacos for a Party or Potluck) Recipe

The best way to make tacos for a crowd is to make tacos de canasta.

Overhead shot of Tacos de Canasta plated up

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Why It Works

  • A homemade chile oil adds flavor to the tacos without adding extra moisture (which can harm the tortillas).
  • Ensuring that the fillings are on the drier side guarantees tacos that come out perfect.
  • Plenty of salsa served on the side adds moisture.

When was the last time a friend invited you over for a potluck, and you thought, I know, I'll bring tacos!

If you're like me, that would be never, because you really don't want to be that person who shows up to the potluck with 10 different containers and asks the host for both a work area to set up all the little dishes of toppings and garnishes, and also half the oven space to warm the tortillas and reheat the fillings. That creates work and chaos for the host. To put it bluntly, that's the a-hole's way of doing a potluck.

Being a good potluck participant is all about arriving gracefully with everything ready, ideally with your contribution in a single dish or container, requiring, at most, limited oven space for reheating (even better: show up with your food already warm).

But tacos are an à la minute food. Sure, you can make some of the components ahead, but the finishing touches and assembly have to happen at the last moment.

Or at least, that's what I thought until my recent trip to Mexico City. One day, walking down the street, I came across a crowd of people eating tacos in front of a cart with a sign that said, Tacos de Canasta.

Canasta, in Spanish, means "basket," and sure enough, as each person placed their order, instead of forming the taco to-order as is generally the case, the taquero reached into a tub and pulled out pre-formed tacos with whichever fillings had been requested. I got in line and ordered my own to see what the fuss was about.

As I ate them, it dawned on me: This is possibly the greatest potluck dish that no one north of the border has ever thought of.

What Are Tacos de Canasta?

From what I can tell, canasta tacos are a clever invention of street vendors, many of whom travel by bicycle, allowing them to make the tacos in advance, pack light, and sell the tacos throughout the day without any loss in quality—something that wouldn't work with most other types of tacos.

Lifting an assembled taco out of its serving container

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

To prepare the tacos, they start with a basket, plastic tub, or other large containers, then line it with cloth, which helps insulate the tacos so that they retain their heat. Next, they add a liner of plastic, such as a trash bag, followed by an un-waxed paper like butcher paper.

Then they prepare the tacos with a variety of fillings like refried beans, mashed potato, cooked sausage, and other meats and layer them in the basket, working quickly to retain the heat. It's common to sprinkle thinly sliced onion on each layer, and also to drizzle oil over the whole thing (I saw one recipe that has you pour a full pot of hot oil into the basket right before sealing it up).

Overhead shot of canasta tacos in lined container

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Wrapped up tight, the tacos lightly steam themselves, the tortillas softening while absorbing some of the oil—it's this steaming period that gives canasta tacos their two other common names, tacos al vapor (steamed tacos) and tacos sudados (sweaty tacos). They're very different from fresh-made tacos, but they're delicious.

How to Make Canasta Tacos

The Basket

The first step is finding a basket. The one I used was 9-by-13-by-6-inches, and held about 50 tacos. Even if your basket is larger, though, you can always fill it with fewer tacos or make it smaller by lining it with a thicker layer of cloth; a thick blanket can even work. A too-small basket, on the other hand, will be difficult to work with.

The Fillings

Topped corn tortilla with refried beans

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

One very important thing, which I learned the hard way, is that all of the fillings need to be on the dry side: refrieds and potatoes, two popular choices, are great because they're not particularly wet. I made a batch by filling some of the tortillas with braised beef, and assumed incorrectly that adding some of the braising juices would make the whole thing tastier. Instead, that moisture softened the tortillas too much and they didn't hold together. You can use braised and other long-cooked meats, but just be sure to drain off all excess liquid.

A hand holding corn tortilla topped with braised beef
Watch out for too-juicy fillings like this braised beef: the tortillas don't hold up well to extra liquid. Instead, drain the braising liquid (reserving it for another use, such as a sauce for rice), and use only the drier meat for the filling.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Then, because canasta tacos will be on the dry side, the solution is to serve them with some delicious salsas, like salsa verde, which should be spooned over them liberally.

3 tacos de canasta plated with salsa verde

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

The main question is which fillings to use, and really, as long as you heed my advice and don't put anything too wet or juicy in the tortillas, you can kind of go crazy here. I did beef barbacoa and refried beans, but there's no reason you have to stick to those two. Mashed potato with crumbled chorizo would be delicious, for instance, as would our carnitas recipe or this chicken tinga (so long as the excess sauce was drained well). One thing you should stay away from are meats that are best when cooked to lower temperatures, like steak, since nothing good will happen to it when packed away in the basket, steaming in the trapped heat and humidity.

Tortilla Time

When filling the tortillas, it's important that they be pliable, which means they need to be warmed first. We've written about the best way to do that before: dip the tortillas in water, then heat them in a dry skillet. I didn't use that technique here because it's not practical with such a large number of tortillas. Plus, it's important to fill them quickly so that everything is still hot when we seal up the basket.

So instead, I divided my tortillas into groups of 10, wrapped them very well in foil, and put them in a low 300°F (150°C) oven for about 30 minutes. Then, as I was making the tacos, I could just pull out one packet of tortillas at a time, rip the foil open, stuff the warmed tortillas, and layer them into the canasta in quick succession. As soon as one packet was done, I'd pull the next one from the oven.

Adding Flavor During Assembly

On top of each layer of tacos, I'd scatter some thinly sliced raw white onion, which steams and lightly cooks in the trapped heat once the basket is wrapped up tight.

Spooning hot chile oil onto canasta tacos

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

I also drizzled some hot oil on top of each layer. I looked at a lot of recipes and they all handled this aspect differently: Some used plain hot oil, but that's bland; some called for dipping the tortillas in a water-based red salsa then adding oil separately (this seemed fussy to me, and also added extra water in the form of the salsa, which seemed less than ideal given the trouble I'd had with the braising juices).

I settled on an approach that I saw in a video online, which uses a chile oil to add flavor without extra water. To make it, I seared garlic, onion, and dried guajillo chiles in a dry skillet until charred, then added oil and fried them in it.

Seared garlic, onion, and charred dried chiles in skillet

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

I transferred this mixture to a blender, added a little fresh oil, and blended it thoroughly.

The chile oil that comes out is incredible stuff, and would be delicious used a thousand different ways (spooned on roasted potatoes is just one quick idea).

Pouring blended chile oil into a saucepan

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Once you've filled up the basket, you wrap the paper up, followed by the plastic bag, and finally the cloth. You want to let those tacos stay in there for about an hour before opening them up so that they steam for a bit: perfect for a potluck, since the time it takes to transport your offering is actually a crucial step in the preparation!

Because the tacos aren't reheated before serving, it's important to serve them right away after they've rested for one hour.

Overhead shot of canasta tacos packed in cloth napkins in plastic-lined container

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Overhead shot of canasta tacos unwrapped

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

While I've put together a recipe here, I want to encourage you to think about this more as a matter of construction than a specific recipe. You could easily do a much smaller basket with half as many tacos as the 50 I did. Or you could do a massive basket with 300! You could use just one filling for all of them, or five different fillings—there's no reason to feel constrained. Just make as much or as little of each filling as you want, get as many tortillas as you need, and scale the chile oil and salsas up or down as needed.

Overhead shot of 3 canasta tacos topped with salsa verde

October 2014

Recipe Facts

Active: 40 mins
Total: 100 mins
Serves: 50 tacos

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Ingredients

  • 50 corn tortillas, portioned into groups of 10, each wrapped well in foil

  • 2 medium white onions, thinly sliced (about 4 cups), divided

  • 3 medium cloves garlic

  • 6 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed, seeded, and torn into 1-inch pieces

  • 2 cups canola, vegetable, or other neutral oil, divided

  • Kosher salt

  • Fillings as desired (see notes)

  • Salsa verde or other salsas, for serving

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 300°F (150°C). Set foil-wrapped tortillas in oven and allow to warm for 30 minutes.

  2. Meanwhile, heat a dry cast iron skillet over high heat until lightly smoking. Add half of sliced onion, all of garlic, and all of chiles and cook, stirring occasionally, until blackened and charred in spots. Add 1 cup oil and fry over medium-high heat until garlic and onions are browned and softened, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a blender, add remaining 1 cup oil and a large pinch of salt, and blend to a smooth purée. Transfer chile oil to a small saucepan and keep hot, stirring occasionally so solids don't scorch.

    Chile oil ingredients in a blender

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

  3. Line basket with a cloth or blanket that's large enough for ample over-hanging fabric. Line cloth with a clean plastic bag. Line plastic with sheets of butcher paper.

    A collage of assembling the container for tacos de canasta: lining a basket with cloth, followed by a plastic bag, and butcher paper.
  4. Working in batches, remove a packet of tortillas from the oven. Quickly fill each tortilla with beans or barbacoa, fold it in half to seal the filling, and set the tacos in the lined basket. When 1 layer of tacos is complete, scatter with some of the remaining sliced onion and drizzle hot chile oil on top. Repeat with remaining tortillas, fillings, onion, and oil, until basket is full.

    A collage of assembling tacos de canasta: a layer of filled tortilla, sliced onions, chile oil, followed by another layer of filled tortillas.
  5. Fold butcher paper over tacos, then twist and seal plastic bag closed, pushing out any excess air. Finally fold overhanging cloth over tacos to create a tidy packed basket. Let stand for 1 hour, then open basket and serve tacos immediately, passing plenty of salsa on the side.

    Stages of packing up canasta tacos

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Special Equipment

Blender, basket or plastic container (approximately 9-by-13-by-6-inches), clean plastic garbage bag for lining basket, 1 or 2 large sheets butcher or deli paper (un-waxed) for lining basket

Notes

To fill the tacos, long-cooked braised or simmered dishes drained of excess moisture tend to do best. I'd suggest refried beans, beef barbacoa, carnitas, or chicken tinga. For the braised meats, place the cooked meat in a colander set above a bowl and press with the back of a ladle to drain excess sauce. The sauce can be reserved and served with the tacos on the side.

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
135 Calories
10g Fat
11g Carbs
1g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 50
Amount per serving
Calories 135
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 10g 12%
Saturated Fat 1g 3%
Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 18mg 1%
Total Carbohydrate 11g 4%
Dietary Fiber 2g 6%
Total Sugars 0g
Protein 1g
Vitamin C 2mg 8%
Calcium 22mg 2%
Iron 0mg 2%
Potassium 60mg 1%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)