You might think Taco Salad is one of those throw-it-together, last minute, nothing-else-to-eat kind of meals. WRONG. Taco Salad is a show-stopper dinner, if you do it right. Plus it’s healthy! I’ll show you all my tips (and the best ingredients) for Taco Salad, Done Right. Plus two taco salad dressing recipes to choose from! Originally published April 17, 2021.
Table of Contents
The Best Taco Salad Recipe
The other day Eric and I tied sweaters around our shoulders and went to the country club to play tennis. As one does.
Just kidding. We just went to the local park where they have cracked and terribly neglected courts. We pulled our tennis rackets and balls out of the trunk of our car, where they live permanently, just in case the mood for a quick tennis excursion strikes us unexpectedly, which happens exactly never. (I think when we bought the gear years ago we were too lazy to figure out where to fit them in our rather cramped garage, so they just never made it out of the trunk.)
Then we hit the courts. Literally, meaning we definitely hit the tennis ball on the actual court many many times. Whether or not anyone watching would have been able to identify it as tennis is up for debate.
I am just not what you would call a sporty person, you guys. I try to have confidence, but usually when a ball is flying at me, all the sporty desire inside of me vanishes, and my brain can only focus on one task: get as far away from that ball as you can if you want to survive. Or die trying. This rapid shift usually results in me absurdly flailing around like one those inflatable-dancing-mans you see at car dealerships. It ain’t pretty.
I have to make up for my athletic failures somehow. I’m on a roll with the healthy recipes lately, did you see my P.F. Chang’s Chicken Lettuce Wraps Copycat? So satisfying and delicious, and super low carb. Today’s recipe is amazingly low carb too! Let’s get those summer bods ready! ;) Who needs to workout if you’re eating salad every day?? (Although sometimes I think I get a better workout playing my version of avoid-the-tennis-ball rather than traditional tennis. Have you seen how those inflatable men can move??)
Taco Bowl Salad done right
Maybe you’re thinking, taco salad? Meh. I’d rather have tacos.
I get it, tortillas are tough to beat. But I’m telling you, when you use the right ingredients and commit to making your own dressing, you will have a change of heart. You will go from thinking of taco salad as a second class healthy substitute to real tacos, to thinking mid-salad-chomp, “Dang. This is legit amazing.” And suddenly salad is no longer substandard.
Taco Salad ingredients & toppings
First things first, we need some lettuce. I prefer Romaine; it’s the perfect blend of leafy green and CRUNCH. Green or red leaf is fine, or iceberg will do in a pinch. Chop your lettuce into nice easy bite size pieces; we aren’t feeding dinosaurs. And for heaven’s sake, get yourself a salad spinner. One of the best kitchen purchases you will ever make! It simplifies the salad-making experience so much. Here is the exact salad spinner I have.
One of my best taco salad tips is to mix your herbs in with your greens. And by herbs in this case, I mean cilantro and green onions. I toss both of these ingredients in with my romaine, right in the salad spinner, and give it a whirl. It helps distribute them properly so that you get ultimate flavor in every bite of salad. Chopped cilantro tends to clump up and stay in little bits. This is a good way to spread the cilantro love. If you aren’t a cilantro lover, GET OUT OF HERE. I’m just kidding. Kind of. Try to change your ways. I know, I know, it’s a gene and not your fault. Maybe ;)
Here is my ultimate ingredient list for the best taco salad. Full recipe can be found below.
- Taco meat
- Shredded cheddar cheese
- Tomatoes, either cherry tomatoes or chopped roma, red vine, etc.
- Sliced radishes
- Red onions
- Avocado and/or guacamole
- Sliced jalapenos
- Green onions
- Chips. Juanitas or Fritos are the best options. Doritos close 3rd.
- Sour cream, even if you are using dressing. Just live your life, okay people.
- Dressing of some kind. (not optional!) More about my two favorites below.
Optional ingredients that are not required, in my opinion. Some of these are subs for things listed above.
- Cotija, Queso Fresco, or a packaged Mexican cheese blend (to replace cheddar)
- use white onions in place of red onions
- black olives. You will note that this is not on the required list above. Eric made me add it in.
- Pico de Gallo or 5 Minute Restaurant Style Salsa
- black beans or pinto beans. I feel that this ingredient isn’t necessary if you are using taco meat. If you aren’t, see recipe notes for how to jazz up beans to make this a great meatless meal!
- Crema Mexicana in place of sour cream. I LOVE this stuff. It’s kind of like creme fraiche, but more buttery tasting. It’s like a richer, pourable sour cream. I always find it in my store near the Cotija cheese. I live in California though, where it’s easy to find Mexican ingredients. (If you live midwest or east coast, have you ever seen Crema in stores?)
What are the best chips to use for taco salad?
Yes, I really wrote a whole section just about chips. IT’S IMPORTANT.
Juanitas are the way to go. Have you ever tried Juanitas tortilla chips? I don’t know if they are available everywhere, but if you can get your hands on them, buy out the store and tell the manager to order more. That’s how good they are. I’ve never had a tortilla chip like it anywhere. I eat them by themselves, no dip necessary. These days my carb conscious self won’t even bother with tortilla chips if there’s no dip, but I make an exception for Juanitas.
The next best option, in my opinion, is to use Fritos. I love the corny flavor that Fritos lend, they are not the same as regular tortilla chips. They are super delicious on salad.
I know many of you grew up eating Doritos with your taco salad. I had never even heard of this, but I noticed the trend right away when I started researching recipes. I still say try out Juanitas if you can find it, but Doritos is gonna be a pretty amazing option too.
How to make Taco Salad
It really isn’t hard. The most time consuming part is chopping up all the toppings!
Start by browning your taco meat. Drain the fat (I used 80% ground beef). Now it’s time for the seasoning: guess what guys, I love using regular ol’ McCormick’s premium taco seasoning for my ground beef. Super basic. (UPDATE 2023! I finally figured out a homemade version! Here’s my homemade Taco Seasoning recipe!)
We do Taco Tuesdays that are open to the neighborhood during the summer, and I have friends ask me all the time what I put in the taco meat. Umm, the package you buy at the store?? It really is just good stuff, no shame in that. (UPDATE: It’s true I still love and use the Premium McCormick’s taco seasoning..but I love my new homemade taco seasoning even more 🖤)
One thing I will say: not all taco seasonings are created equal. I prefer the McCormick’s taco seasoning they sell at Costco. It’s labeled “Premium.” The ingredient list is actually different than the same brand that comes in a little packet. The Premium blend uses yellow cornmeal as a thickener instead of cornstarch, and I think it lends a richer flavor. (My new homemade taco seasoning recipe uses 6 tablespoons of cornmeal, I’m not messing around 😂 it’s amazing I’m in love.)
Don’t dry out your taco meat by cooking it too long after adding the water and seasoning; you want to still see a little liquid at the bottom of the pan. You want drippy, juicy taco meat! Yum.
Tips for the Best Taco Salad Recipe
Here are my secrets to get yourself to the BEST taco salad situation:
- You must make a dressing, even if it’s an easy one.
- Avocados are required, either fresh or in guac form.
- Taco meat must be beef. Sorry turkey, but no, you are not the best.
- Mix herbs (cilantro and green onions) in with your lettuce. Chop your lettuce into small easy-to-bite pieces.
- Don’t skimp on the cheese! Cheese is everything!
You must use Juanitas or Fritos. The end. Forever and ever amen.
Taco Salad Dressing
Let’s talk dressings, one of my required ingredients. You really can go wild when it comes to dressings for your taco salad, there are so many good options. Buttermilk Ranch and Thousand Island come to mind. But I love to make my own of course! I’m including two dressing options that are both delicious, one is stupid simple, one is a little more involved but to DIE for.
Creamy Salsa Dressing: this is simple. Take the sour cream (or Crema Mexicana!) and the salsa that you were already planning to put on your taco salad, and mix them up beforehand. Add in a little taco seasoning and the juice from one lime to give it that acidic kick. I prefer to use Restaurant Style Salsa, either this homemade version or one from the store. Restaurant style just means that it’s blended rather than super chunky.
Creamy Tomatillo Cilantro Ranch: this is the dressing that I put on these Cafe Rio Burritos. It’s made with mayonnaise, sour cream, serrano pepper, tomatillos, cilantro, and a dry packet of buttermilk Ranch. It’s so incredibly tasty!! Definitely make this one if you have the time, it is well worth a quick process in the blender.
How to store the Best Taco Salad
All of the ingredients for this taco salad can be stored separately in the fridge (or on the counter, if we’re talking chips). They’ll last 3-4 days in the fridge. Make up a taco salad whenever you’re ready to eat it; mixing dressing and toppings with the lettuce beforehand will just leave you with weird wilted soggy lettuce (gross).
How to meal prep this Taco Salad Recipe
Taco salad is perfect for meal prepping. Everything can be done ahead of time. Chop your lettuce and add in the green onions and cilantro, and get them as dry as possible. Wrap in a paper towel and place in a ziplock. Place your meat or beans in one container that can be heated up in the microwave. Then add all your other vegetable toppings to a separate container.
Tomatoes are going to give you the most trouble. Overnight is okay, but if you are planning for the whole week, I would take a minute to chop your tomatoes and add them to your veggie container the night before you plan to eat it. Add chips, dressing, salsa, and sour cream last minute. Perfect healthy meal that will last you all week!
Taco Salad FAQs
Taco salad is hearty enough to be served on its own as a meal, but it also makes a delicious side dish next to Baked Mexican Meatballs, Creamy Chicken Enchilada Soup, or Slow Cooker Pork Tacos with Mexican Coleslaw.
Totally! While there may be a couple richer ingredients in this recipe, overall taco salad is healthy. I mean, it’s loaded with protein from the beef (or beans, if you’re going meatless), has tons of veggies, and you can always use a lighter hand with the cheese, dressing and chips if you want to be boring. I mean healthy.
At the end of the day, it’s a salad. Don’t overthink it, I say!
Taco salad and nacho salads are similar, but have different base layers. Taco salad starts with a bed of lettuce and gets topped with meat, cheese, tomatoes, onions, guac, sour cream, chips, etc etc. Nacho salad starts with a layer of chips and then gets topped with all the same stuff, except maybe also some queso (aka melty creamy cheese) rather than shredded.
More Tex Mex meals and salads!
- Easy Rotisserie Chicken Nachos << Talk about a 30 minute dinner! So quick and easy!
- Cafe Rio Sweet Shredded Pork << use the Creamy Tomatillo Dressing to make the BEST burritos.
- Beer-Battered Fish Burrito Bowl << with Orange Avocado Salsa! Yum!
- Crispy Chicken Salad with Buttermilk Ranch << Turning sandwiches into salads is my jam.
- Watermelon and Lime-Steak Salad with Roasted Corn << the perfect summer salad, for real.
- Asian Cabbage Salad << it’s a classic for a reason.
- Easy Baked Mexican Meatballs << these are super easy and tasty!
- Creamy Chicken Enchilada Soup << this was the first meal my mother in law made for me. To say it’s nostalgic is an understatement!!
- Mexican Chicken Soup from Salt and Lavender
- Taco Casserole from The Cozy Cook
- Sheet Pan Ultimate Nachos from House of Nash Eats
For the taco meat
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1/4 cup homemade taco seasoning, or McCormick's Premium Taco Seasoning
- 3/4 cup water
For the salad
- 1 head Romaine lettuce
- 1/2 cup green onions, chopped
- 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
- 1 & 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
- 1 & 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, or chopped tomatoes of any kind
- 8 radishes, thinly sliced
- 1/2 red onion, chopped
- 2 avocados, chopped (and/or 1 cup guacamole)
- 1 cup frozen corn, thawed
- 1-2 jalapeños, sliced
- Juanitas tortilla chips, or Fritos, crushed
- sour cream, to taste (optional)
- restaurant style salsa, to taste (optional)
- sliced limes, to garnish
Creamy Tomatillo Cilantro Ranch (Dressing Option 1)
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1 (.4-oz) package Buttermilk Ranch Seasoning
- 1 serrano pepper, roughly chopped
- 2 tomatillos, halved
- 1/2 bunch cilantro
- 1 lime zest
- 1 lime Juice
- milk, if the dressing is too thick
Creamy Salsa Dressing (Dressing Option 2)
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1/3 cup Restaurant Style Salsa
- 1 teaspoon taco seasoning, **
- 1 lime Zest
- 1 lime juice
- Start with the taco meat.**Brown 1 pound ground beef in a skillet on the stove, over medium heat. Break up the meat into small pieces. Once it is no longer pink (3-5 minutes), remove from heat. Tilt the pan and scoop the grease into a foil-lined bowl (then refrigerate and toss when solidified). Return the pan back to the stove and set over medium heat. Add 1/4 cup homemade taco seasoning. (Or use 1/4 cup Premium Taco Seasoning. Or a regular taco packet will do, but add in a tablespoon of cornmeal along with the packet.) Add 3/4 cup water to the pan. Let the mixture come to a simmer. Turn off the heat when there is still thickened liquid at the bottom of the pan. If you cook until all the liquid has evaporated, you will have dry taco meat; no thanks. Set aside and keep warm, covered.
- Prep the lettuce and herbs. Chop the romaine into bite size pieces and dry in a salad spinner (or dry off with paper towels). Add 1/2 cup chopped green onions and 1 bunch of chopped cilantro. Spin to mix, or add to a large bowl and toss together.
- Prep your toppings. Grate 1 and 1/2 cups cheddar cheese. Chop 1 and 1/2 cups tomatoes. Thinly slice 8 radishes. Dice half a red onion. Chop 2 avocados (or make a quick guacamole with them by adding a bit of lime and salt). Thaw out 1 cup of frozen corn (I usually stick it in the microwave for 20 seconds and then let it finish thawing on the counter). Slice 1 or 2 jalapeno peppers. Crush some Juanitas or Fritos, but leave some whole for garnishing.
Decide which dressing you want to make:
- Creamy Tomatillo Cilantro Ranch (Dressing Option 1). In a blender, add 1/2 cup mayonnaise, 1/2 cup sour cream, 1 package ranch seasoning, 1 serrano pepper (roughy chopped), 2 halved tomatillos, half a bunch of cilantro, and the zest and juice from 1 lime. Blend until smooth. Add milk 1 tablespoon at a time if it is too thick. (Leftover dressing will keep in the fridge for 3 weeks!)
- Assemble the salad. Divide the lettuce mixture between 4 large plates or wide bowls. Add about a quarter of the taco meat to each bowl. Add about a quarter of each topping ingredient to each bowl. Cheese, tomatoes, radishes, red onion, avocados, corn, jalapeños, and crushed chips. Top with sour cream, salsa, extra whole tortilla chips, and dressing of your choice. And guacamole and extra avocados if you want. Squeeze a lime over the whole thing for an extra zing.
- Alternatively, you can place all the toppings in bowls on the table, and guests can build their own salad. If trying to impress, it’s actually really helpful to post a list of ingredients nearby for people to check as they build. There’s nothing sadder than getting halfway through eating your salad only to realize you’re missing the guac!