Esquites, also known as Mexican Street Corn Salad, is one of my all-time favorite summer-sides and a must make recipe!
Esquites is the salad version of Mexican Street Corn (Elote) so it’s easier to eat and even more delicious (just when you didn’t think that was possible!). Esquites is tangy, salty, sweet, spicy, smoky, fresh, juicy, crunchy, light and creamy all at the same time AKA it’s an addicting rainbow of bright flavors and textures in every fiesta bite! This Mexican street corn salad is made with charred, caramelized sweet corn, sweet red bell peppers, crunchy cucumbers, zesty red onions, juicy tomatoes, spicy jalapenos and zippy cilantro all enveloped in a light, creamy lime dressing with plenty of cotija cheese. You can use fresh or frozen corn and you can char the corn on the grill or stovetop for a year-round favorite Mexican Street Corn Salad. Esquites can be served warm, chilled, or at room temperature so it’s perfect for a backyard barbecue or prep-ahead potluck side.
Between this esquites recipe and my corn salsa, corn avocado salsa, corn salad and grilled corn on the cob, you have all the tools you need to elevate corn this summer! So, pick up a big batch of corn next time you’re out and get ready for the most delicious corn recipes of our life!
Welcome to esquites – your new favorite way to eat corn! If you’ve never heard of esquites before, prepare to fall in love! While American “grilled corn” traditionally means grilled corn with butter and salt, Mexican grilled corn (elote) is synonymous with charred corn enveloped in mayonnaise and Mexican Crema with cilantro, lime and chili powder then rolled in Cotija cheese. Esquites is the easy-to-eat, off-the-cob version of elote.
Esquites is one of the most popular snacks sold by street vendors all over Mexico. This Mexican corn salad is usually served in cups so you get all of the classic flavor of elote without all of the mess AND it’s way easier and and faster to make than rolling each individual piece of corn in dressing and cheese.
Esquites is a fabulous side for any occasion and now that we’re at the height of corn season, you’re going to want to make it for every occasion. You can easily whip it up for your adoring family at dinner time, for picnics, potlucks, pool parties, barbecues, etc. and it will always be a hit!
Most importantly, this Mexican corn salad is nothing short of addicting! Both Patrick and I couldn’t stop eating it – devouring it hot and fresh, sneaking big spoonful’s straight from the fridge, and serving it with every meal until it was gone. The chili powder, jalapeno pepper and garlic add just the right kick, the lime juice brightens the entire salad, the Cotija cheese adds a salty punch, and that charred smoky flavor just takes it over the top. What we’re left with is sweet, smoky bursts of corn, a creamy kick of heat and fresh pops of tangy lime. So, let me be clear, Mexican corn salad is HEAVEN. And this esquites recipe is heaven in your home!
In short, you’ll love this Esquites recipe because:
- It’s easy! No rolling individual pieces of corn in sauce and cheese, just whisk together the dressing in a bowl then add all of the salad ingredients to the same bowl – that’s it! That also means only one bowl to wash!
- Charred corn. Sweet corn is already delish but grilling fresh sweet cobs of corn right on the sizzling grill or charring frozen corn in a hot cast iron skillet enhances their natural sweetness delivering smoky, succulent, sweet corn you will be eating with a spoon. The option of charring frozen corn also means you get to enjoy this esquites recipe year-round.
- Texture heaven. This Mexican corn salad is creamy, cheesy and crunchy! Not only does it boast sweet, juicy corn but the bell peppers, cumbers and tomatoes boast contrasting textures all swaddled in light creamy dressing.
- Best Dressing. Which brings me to the dressing. You will go crazy over the dressing! It’s irresistibly creamy, tangy, punchy and takes minutes to whisk together.
- Versatile: You can customize your Mexican corn salad with any of your favorite add-ins such as avocados, black beans, mangos, more jalapenos, etc. You can even add chicken, carne asada or any other protein to make it a complete meal.
- Make ahead: You can make this esquites recipe in advance then bring it out when it’s time to serve for stress free entertaining, lunch or dinners without the last-minute hustle.
- Crowd pleaser. EVERYONE loves this Mexican street corn salad! It’s a favorite dish for potlucks, pool parties, picnics and HOME because it’s quick and easy to make, goes with everything, doesn’t wilt with time or heat and is best served warm or at room temperature.
Esquites is more than just a Mexican street corn salad. It is woven into Mexican culture (soon you’ll taste why!) and deserves appropriate adoration. Here are a few facts about beloved esquites:
What does esquites mean? Esquites means “toasted corn” in Spanish. It refers to the method of grilling the corn or toasting the kernels in a skillet.
What is Esquites? Mexican street corn salad is made from grilled corn kernels sliced off the cob or kernels toasted in a skillet then mixed with a creamy dressing made from mayonnaise, Mexican crema, freshly crumbled cotija cheese, lime juice, and chili powder.
Of course, there are multiple variations of Mexican corn salad, especially between different states in Mexico. In Aguascalientes, esquites is made with bacon, mushrooms, and strips of chile. In Hidalgo, it’s made with pulque, onion, chile, and epazote. In Tampico, the corn is boiled instead of charred. In Sonora, the corn is cooked with molasses. (Ode to esquites) And in this Carlsbad Cravings version, there are red bell peppers and cucumbers for a delightful crunch.
Who eats esquites? Mexican corn salad is one of the most popular street foods in Mexico sold at street stands, food trucks and restaurants. It is also a constant at social get-togethers (convivios) from birthday parties to casual dinners to celebrations and hopefully will become a constant in your home too!
How do you eat Esquites? Mexican street corn salad is most commonly served in disposable cups which makes for a fun, easily transportable party side. It is best served warm, but is still scrumptious at room temperature or even cold.
What’s the difference between Elote and Esquites?
Esquites and elote both share very similar ingredients but the method of serving differs. Elote is grilled or charred corn slathered with a creamy mayonnaise, chili powder, cilantro, lime sauce then dusted with Cotija cheese. Esquites takes all of these same tasty elements and combines them in an easy-to-eat salad form. So, essentially, elote is Mexican street corn served on the cob and esquites is Mexican street corn served off the cob.
What is In Mexican Corn Salad?
The beauty of of Mexican corn salad is the juxtaposition of the fresh, vibrant ingredients with the creamy sauce. Corn, onions, jalapenos and cilantro are essential but the red bell pepper, tomatoes and English cucumber are optional. If you omit any of the latter ingredients, increase the corn by a cup or two. For this esquites recipe, you will need:
- Corn: for the best Mexican street corn salad recipe, you want the freshest corn possible. Fresh corn is both sweeter and juicier and can often be found at farmers markets. To find the freshest corn, you want to focus on the smell and feel of the corn rather than the look of the kernels. The corn should smell sweet and the be firm when pressed and free of blackened tassels.
- Vegetable oil: use vegetable oil or another oil with a high smoking point that is neutral in flavor to grill or char the corn.
- Cotija: is known as “Mexican Parmesan” because it is wonderfully salty, hard, and crumbly. It is traditionally found with the specialty cheeses and should be readily available.
- Red bell pepper: I recommend red bell pepper because it is sweeter than other colors, but you can substitute if you only have other peppers on hand. I like to dice the bell peppers small so they’re about the size of corn kernels.
- Tomatoes: use cherry tomatoes, halved or you may sub Roma tomatoes, just make sure to remove the watery flesh before chopping.
- English cucumber: is optional but I love the fresh crispness the chopped cucumbers add. I like English (hothouse) cucumbers so you don’t have to peel them, but you can certainly substitute with a peeled cucumber.
- Red onion: I like the fresh pop of red onion but you may also use green onions. If you’re not a fan of raw red onions, then submerge the chopped onions in ice water for 10 minutes to dilute their harsh bite.
- Jalapeno: remove the seeds and the white veins of your jalapenos because these pack the fieriest heat. Use one jalapeno for mild and then you can add additional jalapeno to taste.
- Cilantro: adds a zippy, tangy, zesty pop to the esquites. Measure the cilantro by pushing ½ cup cilantro leaves (and some stems) into the measuring cup until finely packed and then chop. Of course, you can use more or less to taste. I like to add most of the cilantro to the salad and then reserve a little to for garnish.
Is There a Substitute for Cotija Cheese?
If you can’t find Cotija cheese, substitute with queso fresco and if that’s not available then substitute with feta.
FRESH CORN VS FROZEN CORN
This Mexican street corn salad is tasty with fresh corn or frozen corn! Sweet corn is already delish but grilling fresh sweet cobs on a sizzling grill or charring frozen corn in a hot cast iron skillet enhances their natural sweetness and infuses them with a slightly smoky flavor.
That being said, I am always going to advocate for fresh corn for this esquites recipe while it is in season – it’s just so FRESH but more importantly, you can’t beat the texture or the smokiness of grilled sweet corn. It’s also super easy – just husk, brush with oil and grill – no need to wrap in foil, soak the husks, etc. You can even purchase pre-husked corn and/or grill the corn earlier in the day or week to use later.
Frozen corn is also fantastic in Mexican corn salad because it is frozen at peak freshness and you can still char it in a skillet. Both Trader Joes’ frozen corn and Costco are next level. Frozen corn is also awesome because it means you can keep it stocked to make this esquites any time – all year-round. The only downfall of frozen corn is it won’ be quite as crunchy.
Canned corn would be my very last choice to use in esquites because it is more processed and doesn’t taste as fresh. There is a HUGE difference between using fresh corn and canned corn in this Mexican CORN salad recipe.
How to use frozen corn IN Mexican Corn Salad
- This esquites recipe calls for 5 ears of corn which means you’ll need approximately 5 cups of frozen corn.
- Make sure you purchase SWEET frozen corn and not just yellow corn – there’s a huge difference.
- Don’t thaw the corn before adding to the hot skillet to char.
MEXICAN CORN SALAD DRESSING INGREDIENTS
The dressing for this esquites recipe is magical. It is delightfully creamy but still tastes bright and fresh due to the lime juice. Without the mesmerizing dressing, we would just have veggies, but with the dressing we have a tantalizing balance of fresh, creamy, cheesy, smoky, spicy and tangy. To make the dressing, you will need:
- Mexican crema or sour cream: both will work great in this esquites recipe so if you already have sour cream on hand, use that. If you aren’t familiar with Mexican crema, it is soured and thickened cream (basically heavy cream and buttermilk) that tastes milder and less thick than sour cream. It can often be found next to sour cream or in specialty markets. Look for crema Mexicana, which is typically the thickest crema variety sold, for the best sticking power.
- Mayonnaise: even if you don’t like mayo, I highly encourage you to add it to this Mexican Corn salad. Mayo is used in creamy dressings because it binds the dressing ingredients together and keeps them from separating. So, you won’t taste the mayo but you will taste all the flavor that is added to the mayo. Please use real mayonnaise and not miracle whip.
- Lime: you will want to use fresh lime juice for this esquites recipe. It gives the corn a fabulous fresh, tangy, zesty flavor.
- Garlic: you can use one minced garlic clove or ¼ teaspoon garlic powder.
- Salt: corn LOVES salt! It awakens all the flavors! I use sea salt but you can also substitute with the same amount of kosher salt or half the amount of table sat.
- Seasonings: chile powder, ground cumin, smoked paprika and pepper round out the flavor profile.
Can I use Greek Yogurt instead of Mexican Crema or sour Cream?
If you’re looking to save some calories, you can go all sorts of non-traditional and substitute Greek yogurt for the Mexican crema/sour cream. You may want to reduce the lime juice by ½ tablespoon to start and add more if needed because Greek yogurt is tangier than sour cream/crema.
HOW TO MAKE ESQUITES (Mexican Corn Salad)
STEP 1: MAKE DRESSING
- Whisk together Mexican crema or sour cream, mayonnaise, lime juice, garlic, chili powder, ground cumin, smoked paprika, pepper and sea salt in a large bowl; set aside.
- Make sure to use a bowl large enough to hold all of the salad ingredients, because we will add them directly to the dressing.
STEP 2: SHUCK CORN
- Peel off the outer leaves of the corn until you only have one layer of leaves remaining around the ear.
- Grasp the tops of the leaves and the tassel together in one hand and pull down firmly in one motion all the way to the bottom to remove the final layer of leaves and and silk.
- Clean the cob by picking out any remaining silks.
STEP 3: Cook Corn on the grill or stove
You have 4 options to cook corn: cook on the grill, char on the stove, boil in a pot or roast in the oven. I suggest grilling the corn if you’re using fresh corn; if you don’ have a grill, I suggest the skillet method, but ultimately it’s up to you.
HOW to GRILL CORN ON THE COB
Grilling corn on the cob is very simple for this recipe. Simply brush the corn with olive oil and char all over. The high radiant heat promotes the most flavor compounds to be developed from Maillard reaction than any other cooking method for maximum smoky, succulent, sweet corn flavor. To grill corn:
- Clean, grease and heat grill to high heat.
- Once hot, add corn and close the lid.
- Cook 2-3 minutes on each side, rotating the corn until all of the sides are lightly charred, about 10-12 minutes, closing the lid in between rotations.
HOW TO CHAR CORN IN A SKILLET
If it’s not corn season, or you don’t have access to a grill, you can still char fresh or frozen corn in a cast iron skillet.
- Heat one tablespoon vegetable oil in large cast iron skillet over high heat.
- Add the corn and cook, stirring occasionally, until corn starts to char, approximately 5 minutes for fresh and 7 minutes for frozen.
- Transfer kernels to immediately to the dressing so they don’t continue to cook.
HOW TO ROAST CORN
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Place a baking rack on top of prepared baking sheet.
- Place corn brushed with oil directly on the baking rack.
- Bake for 35 minutes or until corn is tender, turning half way through.
HOW TO BOIL CORN
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
- Add corn and cook 8-10 minutes or until tender.
- Carefully drain corn and pat corn dry.
STEP 4: CUT CORN OFF OF COB
Place an ear of corn, tip side down, on a cutting board, while firmly holding the opposite end. If you have a Bundt pan, it is helpful to place the tip of the corn in the center hole to stabilize it. Using a sharp knife, cut downward, starting at the top and working your way down using a gentle sawing motion; rotate the corn and repeat.
STEP 5: COMBINE
Add corn kernels to the dressing in the large bowl along with chopped bell pepper, red onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, jalapeno and cilantro. Stir until evenly combined. Taste and season with an additional salt, pepper and/or lime juice to taste.
IS MEXICAN STREET CORN SALAD SERVED HOT OR COLD?
Esquites is traditionally served warm – not warmed, just slightly warm from the freshly grilled or charred corn. That being said, the salad is also delicious at room temperature. If you refrigerate the salad ahead of time, bring it to room temperature before serving.
HOW TO SERVE, STORE AND ENJOY LEFTOVER ESQUITES
- SERVE: Mexican corn salad is best served right away once dressed. The dressing is made with perishable sour cream and mayonnaise so it shouldn’t sit out any longer than two hours.
- STORE: Cover tightly with plastic wrap or store in an airtight container. Store in the refrigerator for 3-5 days.
- LEFTOVERS: Refrigerated esquites isn’t as cream so I recommend gently warming on the stove or in the microwave, just until warm but not hot. This will amp up the creaminess once more.
TIPS FOR MEXICAN CORN SALAD
This Mexican Corn Salad is pretty straightforward, but there are some tips and tricks for the best esquites of our life!
- Use fresh corn immediately. Fresh corn is the sweetest and juiciest used within the first 1-2 days. The sugars begin converting to starch soon after the corn is harvested. Make sure you store your corn in the refrigerator to stall this process.
- Shucking tip. You can microwave your corn for a minute or two before shucking which will make stubborn silk come off easier.
- Purchase shucked corn. If you want to save some time making Mexican corn salad, purchase already shucked corn – no dealing with all that pesky silk!
- Grilled corn vs boiled corn. I highly recommend grilling your corn for this esquites because you will not only get sweet and juicy but complex and smoky flavor and it soaks in more flavor from the lime and seasonings. That being said, if you don’t have a grill, my second choice would be charring the corn in a skillet.
- Prep ingredients before cooking corn. Esquites is best served warm or at room temperatures, so have all of the salad ingredients chopped and ready to go before you char the corn. This way you an add the warm corn directly to the salad and dressing and combine immediately.
- Ingredient substitutions. If you don’t like cilantro, you can swap it for parsley; if you don’t like Cotija, you can swap it with feta; if you don’t like red onions, you can swap them for green onions.
- Customize salad. All of the ingredients in this esquites recipe are just a guideline. You can use more or less of each ingredient, add other vegetables or omit some completely. Just be aware to evenly add or subtract ingredients to keep the dressing to salad ratio the same.
- Make it spicy! If know you love heat, use two seeded, deveined jalapenos or one jalapeno with the seeds in. You can also swap the jalapeno for a serrano pepper.
- Chili powder to taste. Authentic esquites served from street carts traditionally comes with a jar of chili powder served on the side so you can sprinkle it on to taste. For this Mexican corn salad recipe, I suggest using the amount of chili powder specified in the dressing then sprinkling more on to taste if desired – just remember to taste first!
- Salt to taste. Corn LOVES salt. I always add more salt to taste – so make sure you taste the salad first and if it tastes like it’s missing something, it’s probably salt!
- Prep ahead. This Mexican corn salad requires some prep but the good news is you can break up the grilling the corn and chopping or you can prep all of the ingredients ahead of time for an easy recipe win that comes together in minutes (directions to follow).
Make ahead Esquites
Esquites isn’t quite as creamy once refrigerated so you don’t want to just combine the salad ingredients, refrigerate and serve. Instead, you have three options:
- Let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.
- Better yet, rewarm it lightly on the stove or in the microwave to help it become creamy again.
- If the latter isn’t an option (if you are taking to a potluck for example), then store the dressing and salad separately in airtight containers in the refrigerator and combine shortly before serving then let the Mexican corn salad rest at room temperature for 15-30 minutes before serving.
MEXICAN STREET CORN SALAD VARIATIONS:
I personally love this Mexican street corn salad exactly as written but feel free to add in anything your heart desires. If you add additional ingredients without omitting any, you will want to double the dressing and add it as needed to reach desired consistency. Here are a few ideas:
- Add protein: make Mexican corn salad a meal by mixing in your favorite chopped protein (details to follow).
- Add avocado: chop and add just before serving. Use avocados that are ripe but on the firmer side so they don’t get mushy in the esquites. If you add avocados, keep in mind the leftovers will not keep for as long or as well because the avocados will brown and get mushy.
- Add black beans: rinse and drain one 15 oz. can black beans. Black beans will drastically change the flavor profile of your salad into a hearty, richer flavor that won’t taste as quite as fresh – still delicious, just different.
- Add mangos: add a sweet juicy pop. They are particularly a good idea if you decide to add black beans.
- Add other veggies: broccoli, cauliflower, jicama, mushrooms, etc.
- Add olives: they offer a delectable tanginess if olives are your thing.
- Add bacon: because bacon makes everything better. I recommend thick-cut bacon so its wonderfully meaty texture doesn’t get lost in the salad. You will want to add the bacon to the Mexican corn salad at the end right before serving.
- Add grains: add quinoa, couscous, or rice to make it a quinoa/rice Mexican corn salad along with additional olive oil and seasonings.
- Make it green: add leafy greens or kale to make it a green corn salad.
- Add pasta: c
HOW TO SERVE ESQUITES AS A MAIN DISH SALAD!
You can easily transform Mexican street corn salad into a main dish by adding by adding a protein. You will want to double the dressing (use more or less to taste) so the esquites is still nice and creamy. Any of the following protein options would be delicious:
- Add chicken. You can make your favorite Mexican chicken specifically for this recipe or use rotisserie chicken or leftovers. It’s particularly fabulous with: chipotle chicken, chili lime chicken, and cilantro lime chicken.
- Add shrimp. My cilantro lime shrimp used in my burrito bowls would be superb in this salad and transform it into a meal.
- Add beef. You can add ground beef like in my taco salad or chopped carne asada steak or beef barbacoa.
- Add pork. You can add carnitas, salsa verde pork or chipotle pork.
- Add turkey. You can use the turkey in my turkey tacos recipe.
HOW TO USE LEFTOVER ESQUITES
If you happen to have the pleasure of leftover Mexican corn salad, there are number of ways which you can use it:
- On tacos! Garnish your favorite ground beef tacos, pork tacos, chicken tacos, or steak tacos with esquites.
- Make your own tacos: pile Mexican Chicken, carnitas, carne asada etc. with esquites along with pico de gallo, avocado crema or guacamole etc. and stuff inside warm tortillas.
- Topping for everything else! Pile on your favorite tostadas, chilaquiles, burrito bowls. fajitas, salads, quesadillas, etc.
- Stuffing for burritos: Mexican corn salad is delicious in chicken burritos, beef, bean and cheese burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, etc.
- Add to grains: Add esquites to rice, quinoa, or couscous to make it a quinoa/rice corn salad along with additional dressing.
- Add to warm grains: Alternatively, you can add warm Mexican corn salad to Mexican rice, or Avocado Rice along with optional cheese and black beans.
- Add to pasta: Add esquites to taco spaghetti, salsa verde mac and cheese, chili mac and cheese or literally any of your favorite pastas along with green chilies and salsa.
WHAT TO SERVE WITH MEXICAN CORN SALAD?
I often am asked what to pair with my Mexican recipes and the answer is this Mexican corn salad! Here is a summary of my favorite combinations but please do not limit yourselves to my list alone:
- TACOS: Carne Asada Street Tacos, Chili Lime Chicken Tacos, Honey Chipotle Chicken Tacos, Blackened Fish Tacos, Buffalo Chicken Tacos, Baja Fish Tacos, Tacos Al Pastor
- ENCHILADAS: Red Chicken Enchiladas, Green Chile Chicken Enchiladas, Beef Enchiladas, Street Corn Verde Honey Lime Chicken Enchiladas, Cheesy Jalapeno Chicken Enchiladas, Enchiladas Verdes
- BURRITOS: Smothered Baked Chicken Burritos, Carne Asada Burritos, Beef Bean Cheese Burritos, Wet Burritos
- MEXICAN SOUPS: Chicken Fajita and Rice Soup, Cheesy Taco Soup, Mexican Chicken Corn Chowder, Chicken Tortilla Soup. Street Corn Verde Chicken Tortilla Soup, White Chicken Chili. Chipotle Mango Chili, Caldo de Pollo.
- FAJITAS: Skillet Chicken Fajitas, Grilled Steak Fajitas, Sheet Pan Shrimp Fajitas, Slow Cooker Chicken Fajitas, Chipotle Honey Lime Chicken Fajita Chicken Bowls, Sheet Pan Fajita Salmon with Cilantro Lime Butter, Fajita Chicken Wraps with Creamy Avocado Dip
- SANDWICHES & BURGERS: Every cheesy or meaty sandwich/burger needs a fresh side salad. This esquites recipe is delicious with: BBQ Beef Brisket Sandwiches Philly Cheesecake Sandwiches, French Dip Sandwiches, Italian Beef Sandwiches, BBQ Chicken Sandwiches, Best Burgers and BBQ Bacon Burgers.
- POTLUCK MAIN DISHES. Every potluck or BBQ needs sides equally as delicious as the main course. This esquites pairs well with many protein mains, regardless of whether they are Mexican or not: Apricot Steak, Grilled Pork Tenderloin, Honey Mustard Chicken, Crockpot BBQ Chicken or Oven/Grill Barbecue Chicken, BBQ Ribs and BBQ Beef Brisket.
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