Esquites will always remind me of my childhood—a walk down to the main plaza in downtown San Luis Potosi meant we were going to see the street vendors. Of all the vendors, from ones selling potato chips served with salsa and lime to freshly fried churros and fruit ice lollies, I was most excited to see a man on a bike pushing a little cart with a big pot of steamy esquites.
Esquites, also known as elote en vaso, is a very special way to prepare corn in Mexico. White Mexican corn kernels are gently fried in butter, then cooked with epazote leaves (an herb) and chiles. Once the pot of corn releases its distinctive sweet aroma, it is ready to serve with a variety of toppings.
Traditionally served hot in plastic or Styrofoam cups with some of the cooking liquid, the esquites is topped with mayo, a dollop of crema, ground chiles, a good amount of lime juice, a sprinkle of queso cotija, and a generous dash of spicy salsa. It’s a flavor bomb and a party in your mouth—from spicy and creamy to sour and sweet.
At home, I serve esquites as a starter or a snack. It is nice to serve my guests a bowl of warm buttery corn and set out the fixings on the side so that everyone can customize their own. Then I follow up with tacos for a nice Mexican-themed dinner party.
The Best Corn for Esquites
If you live in Mexico, it is easy to source white corn elotes, the most authentic corn for esquites. Elotes means “corn.” They are less sweet than the sweet corn found in the U.S.. Now for the rest of us who live outside of Mexico, I recommend the following:
Fresh corn: For this recipe, I use fresh sweet corn—peak summer corn always tastes better.
Frozen corn: Uncooked, frozen corn is a good alternative for when corn is not in season. Simply defrost it before using.
Canned corn: This is my last resort. Warm it up with the butter and salt—no need to cook it for long time as it is already cooked.
What is Cotija Cheese?
Cotija is a type of cheese from the town of Cotija in Michoacan. The cheese is made with cow’s milk and is aged for about 100 days. It is slightly salty and commonly used to garnish snacks, tostadas, beans, tacos, and even salads. Instead of cotija cheese, use queso fresco, feta, or Parmesan cheese.
Easy Ingredient Substitutions
- Can’t find Mexican crema? Use sour cream or crème fraîche instead.
- Chile powder: I like to use ground ancho, guajillo, or piquín chiles or tajin.
- Queso fresco: grated or crumbled queso fresco can be used, as well as cotija cheese.
How to Plan Ahead
Want to save yourself some time? Cook the corn the day before you plan to serve it, but don’t add any toppings. Fully cool it down, transfer it into a lidded container, and keep it refrigerated. Right before serving, reheat it in a saucepan over medium heat. Then you can add the toppings!
Celebrate Peak Corn Season
- Creamed Corn
- Lobster and Grilled Corn Panzanella
- Sweet Corn Gnocchi Skillet
- Tarragon Corn
- Spicy Corn Fritters
Prepare the corn:
Position a shucked ear of corn upright in a large bowl. Use a sharp knife to shave the corn kernels from the cob, working down towards the bottom of the bowl. Remove the kernels like this for all the ears of the corn. Discard all but 2 cobs. You’ll add it to the corn while it cooks.
Cook the corn:
Heat a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the butter and let it melt. Add the corn, reserved cobs, garlic, bay leaf, and salt, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring continuously. Add 2 cups water and bring it up to a boil. Then, reduce the heat to low heat and cover your pot with a lid. Simmer the corn for about 25 minutes, until cooked through.
Season the esquites:
Remove the saucepan from the heat. Scoop out and discard the garlic, bay leaf, and cobs. Stir in the mayo, 2 tablespoons ground ancho chili, the juice of 2 limes, half of the queso fresco, and the cilantro. Taste and add more salt, if necessary.
Serve the esquites:
Scoop the corn, including the cooking liquid, into serving bowls. I set out the fixings (sour cream, ground chile, limes, queso fresco, and hot sauce) on the side so that everyone can add them to their liking. I top mine with a spoonful each of sour cream and queso fresco, a sprinkle of ground chile, a squeeze of fresh lime, and a few dashes of hot sauce.
Refrigerate leftovers tightly covered for up to 3 days. Reheat it in a saucepan over medium heat until nice and steamy, 5 to 6 minutes. You can also reheat it in the microwave for about 1 minute.
You can freeze any leftovers for up to 1 month. Defrost fully overnight in the fridge before reheating.
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