This week has been totally taco salad-ed. We talked about homemade taco salad shells, dished up a yummy recipe for Vegetarian Taco Salad, and looked at the Tortilla Baker Bowl. With so many options for whipping up your own taco salad, I thought a good, old-fashioned throwdown was in order.
I considered doing baked versus fried shells, but those pros and cons are kind of predictable and true of anything baked versus fried. I will say that fried taco salad bowls are truer to the restaurant style and tend to have that puffy quality to them that so many (myself included) know and adore.
There are several different methods within the “bake” category, though, so I figured that would be the most helpful test. In one corner, we have a clever “food hack” that came my way via LifeHacker.com, in which you use an inverted muffin pan to shape and bake your taco salad shells. In the other corner, we have the Tortilla Baker Bowl, a non-essential (though very nifty) tool I scored for $5 at a discount department store.
Let the throwdown begin.
For both methods, we used standard-sized corn tortillas, which proved to be difficult (duh). I recommend using bigger tortillas, which will give you more depth and room within which to stuff your salad. Ours turned out more snack-sized tostadas (which were also really nice). Corn tortillas tend to be more brittle, which led to some cracks and creases that could have been prevented had we pre-heated them, which I also recommend.
It was a lot harder to get (and keep) a good shape with the muffin-pan method. We had to repeatedly push the tortillas down into the spaces, which after several rounds lent itself to cracks and holes. A small piece of parchment paper and a handful of pinto beans turned out to be a great help to weight them down—in fact, we ended up using it in the baker bowls as well. Muffin-pan shells were of course a little funkier; baker-bowl shells were beautiful and uniform.
Shells baked in the muffin pan were ready a couple of minutes faster than in the baker bowls (roughly 8 versus 10 minutes at 375 F), which was probably because they were closer and more exposed to the heat, rather than being surrounded by a cozy, insulted nest. The ones in the baker bowls were just as crispy, though—as long as we didn’t pull them out too soon or dig into them too quickly. Let both types set up and get crunchy for about 10 minutes after baking.
Both shells were sufficiently crispy (those that didn’t go long enough became leathery, either way we made them). The baker-bowl shells were cooked more evenly and easier to break apart; the muffin-pan shells were toastier on the edges.
Muffin-pan shells formed kind of a pocket in which to stuff salad and toppings, which made them a little easier to eat. Baker-bowl shells were easier to layer and held more salad, making them a little messier. Nothing a fork on the side and a few napkins couldn’t handle. Both held up to their toppings and kept their crunch well.
It was a good match. I was really happy with both baked shells and especially impressed by the resourcefulness of the muffin-pan method. In the end, I preferred the baker-bowl shells, which weighed in with a better filling-to-tortilla ratio and showed how darn fool-proof they were.