Let’s face it: the way you make guacamole says a lot about you (peas, anyone?). The ubiquitous Mexican dip is simple enough that a kid could stir it together. But not just anyone can mix avocado, onion, cilantro, lime, and salt—the five essential ingredients—into a mash that’s just right: salty, tangy, rich, and super addictive. To make sure that everyone who tastes your guacamole gives it the co-sign, follow these tips gleaned from the guacamole royalty of the restaurant world.
1. The Ingredients
- Avocados: You need your avocado to be at peak ripeness. The fruit should feel firm but have some give when you press down on the skin. Preserve perfect avocados in the fridge for a few days; let not-quite-ripe ones sit out on the counter until the texture is right. Aarón Sánchez of Paloma and Johnny Sánchez swears by the Mexican avocados from Michoacán. “They’re smaller, creamier, and the only four-season avocado,” he says. You may not be such a purist, but if you find a source of avocados you like, stick with it.
- Onions: “The onions have to be white,” says Roberto Santibañez of Fonda. The yellow-skinned supermarket bulbs are sulfurous, and their flavor is too strong when raw—Santibañez calls it “pointy.” They’ll overpower your guacamole. White onions, on the other hand, make sense. They’re mild and crunchy and much less sharp than their yellow counterparts.
- Cilantro: wash the bunch way ahead of time and let it dry completely. That way cut leaves won’t brown around the edges. Use both leaves and stems, says Santibañez: The stems of cilantro have a tartness to them that balances out the leaves’ flavor, which sometimes reads as soapy.
- Spice: some chefs like jalapeño, some like serrano, and some say either works. Use the entire pepper (except for the stem), seeds and ribs included. There’s too much flavor in the ribs and seeds to eliminate them, even if you think you can’t stand their heat.
- Lime and salt: Add lime and salt to taste, an instruction that translates to “throw in way more salt than you’d probably feel comfortable sprinkling.” Avocado is seriously neutral and will remain so until you salt it aggressively. Squeeze in lime at the end to offset the richness.
2. The Texture
You want your flavorings—the onion, cilantro, and pepper—to be cut finely enough to distribute evenly throughout the guacamole. On the other hand, you want to keep the guacamole itself chunky. These are in opposition.
So this is a two-step process. First, and before you even touch the avocados, blitz the cilantro, pepper, and onion together with salt, either in a food processor, by finely mincing on a cutting board, or by using a traditional volcanic mortar and pestle, called a molcajete. This creates a paste that’s spicy, pungent, bright, and smooth enough to permeate the guac.
Then, grab your avocados. Open them up by cutting around the pit, then dice each half. Add the avocado to some of your cilantro-pepper-onion mince and mash it up a little as you stir. (Reserve the extra to stir in as you go to balance all the flavors.)
“The beauty of making guacamole by hand is you can control the texture,” says Dave Vendley of Calexico. “Leave some chunk so when you pick some up, you get some chunks and some smoothness.”
What you don’t want—ever—is the texture of mashed potato purée, some homogenous goop that tastes a little bit like lime juice if you were to close your eyes.
3. The Balance
This is where you display your mastery. The goal of guacamole is to break up the rich avocado mash with stronger-flavored ingredients, and, in doing so, create a perfect balance of flavors and textures.
“What we’re into is dialing up the flavor,” says Vendley. “The biggest mistake people make is not to push the envelope a little. Avocado can handle a lot—it’s a big, neutral, fatty fruit. It can take a lot of lime, cilantro, salt, and spice. Don’t be afraid to push it, to get the heat and the acidity to the level you want.” Don’t push all at once, though. Add seasoning little by little, tasting as you go. Try not to go overboard, but if you do, add extra avocado.
Tomatoes are up to you; some chefs use them, some don’t. Stir them in at the last minute so they don’t make the guac watery.
With the lime, adding to taste is hard. Guacamoles have gotten really, really sour, says Santibañez, because chefs are using the citrus to prevent browning. “They use so many limes, and then the guacamole is tart!” he says. “It’s not supposed to be that way. A few drops is probably enough for one avocado.” The idea here is to balance the fattiness of the avocado—not pucker every time you dip.
Guacamole just means a sauce—“mole”—made from avocados. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation. So while starting simple is a good idea and staying simple is perfectly valid, “the possibilities are endless,” says Vendley.
You can add extra ingredients into the guacamole or on top of it. At Calexico, Vendley pulses cooked bacon with pickled jalapeños before folding that into the avocado mash. Sánchez puts imported, toasted grasshoppers on top—or, more mildly, dusts on chili powder. The New York Times likes peas in theirs. I used crumbled Mexican chorizo, queso fresco, and pepitas to make my bowl of guac a whole meal.
No chef I talked to puts garlic in his guacamole. However, guacamole has regional variations in Mexico, and there is one—a smooth, thinner guacamole often squirted onto tacos—that features garlic, and is balanced out with epazote, according to Santibañez.
Always eat guacamole fresh. This is an easy mandate because you can do everything but mash the avocados well in advance. Prep the onion, cilantro, and pepper; squeeze the lime and mince the tomatoes. Then, when you’re ready to serve, cut open the avocados, dice them, and mix them into the prepared seasonings. Make sure everything is room temperature. Coldness “stunts the flavor and also gives the perception that it’s been made hours before,” says Sánchez.
For scooping, find the freshest tortilla chips. If you have a tortilleria nearby, or a restaurant that makes its own tortilla chips, buy from there. Regular packaged chips are obviously good too. Serve the chips warm. Try putting them on top of the stove, says Santibañez—the residual heat will warm them up, which softens up the fat in the guacamole and makes it taste even more toothsome. Besides chips, you can also serve small fresh corn tortillas with your dip.
Promote guacamole from the appetizer tray by serving some with grilled food. “It brings back added fat that is grilled off in the barbecue, and brings a cooler, richer texture that goes with meat when you grill it,” says Vendley.
Don’t forget the avocado toast option either: pile spicy guacamole on your bread and top with scrambled eggs.