Day of the Dead Recipes

El Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is one of the most important and colorful celebrations in Mexico. Far from a sad or scary occasion, Muertos is a festive family commemoration of loved ones who have passed on, with homages and tributes in all households and major public places. As with any party, food plays a major role.

Observed each year on November 1st and 2nd, the Day of the Dead combines elements of a harvest festival, mystical beliefs of the Mexican pre-Colombian natives, and Roman Catholic views and motifs brought by the Spanish colonizers. Fruits and crops of the season often have multiple meanings when eaten at this time, or when placed on the altares (altars) prepared by each family to welcome the spirits of their beloved deceased. Our collection features recipes and customs traditional to all parts of Mexico, but keep in mind that each region and family has their own take and traditions to celebrate their dead.

  • 01 of 10

    Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead)

    Pan de Muerto

    The Spruce

    Literally "bread of the dead," this bakery product is placed on the altar during the festivities and enjoyed by the families of the deceased. The loaf’s shape, toppings, and recipe vary from region to region. The loaf can be round, half-moon shaped, bow-shaped, or shaped like a human; it can be topped with white or colored sugar, sesame seeds, glaze, or icing. The variety most common outside of Mexico consists of a semi-spherical sweet loaf adorned with smaller pieces of dough in the shape of stylized bones and topped with a light glaze and white sugar.

    The bread inside varies all the way from a very plain, airy white bread to a heavy, moist, egg-rich sweet bread. The top of the loaf is sometimes decorated with smaller pieces of dough in the shapes of bones, tears, or flower petals. The dough is made of butter, sugar, aniseed, flour, eggs, and orange zest and proves for 90 minutes. Once shaped it has to prove again for 1 hour. Give yourself 4 hours to prep and bake this delicious treat.

  • 02 of 10

    Calabaza en Tacha (Candied Pumpkin)

    Calabaza en Tacha
    photo (c) Mockford & Bonetti / Getty Images

    Candied pumpkin, another classic tradition, is often placed on the Day of the Dead altar as an offering for the deceased and is served as breakfast, dessert, or snack for the living. Simply cooked slices of fresh pumpkin in piloncillo glaze are by themselves a Mexican favorite, but raisins, sweet potatoes, guava, and even the toasted seeds of the pumpkin itself elevate the dish.

    In some places, the vegetable is candied whole with some holes made to add spices and let the heat work its magic inside. The pumpkin is then cut into portions before serving—seeds, stringy inside fibers, and all. You need a pumpkin, brown sugar or piloncillo, orange, cinnamon, and water. Ready in 1 hour and 15 minutes.

  • 03 of 10

    Tamales

    Mexican Tamales
    Corn-husk wrapped Mexican tamales. photo (c) Miguel Malo / Getty Images

    Although there are as many types of tamales as there are savory fillings, tamales, no matter their flavor, are a favorite food during El Día de los Muertos celebrations. The main part of most fillings is made out of corn, an ancestral grain endemic to Mexico, carrier of powerful symbolic meaning. It's not difficult to see why you'd celebrate your ancestors with a meal that has been part of the culture for centuries.

    Our recipe for corn and green chile tamales is just one out of hundreds that you could try, but it is representative of the traditions and importance of homemade food cooked with love and respect for the ingredients and the people who are eating it. It's time-consuming but delicious; plan ahead as you'll need 2 hours and 15 minutes to serve these vegetarian tamales.

  • 04 of 10

    Atole

    Atole and Tamales
    photo (c) maogg / Getty Images

    A hot cup of this thick and hearty maize-based drink is just the thing to warm you up inside and out on a cold November evening, regardless of whether you're cozily ensconced at home or spending part (or all) of the night at the cemetery overlooking the tombs of your loved ones. 

    Though consumed all year round, this comforting beverage is especially appreciated at the Day of the Dead and during the December holidays. Atole is a Mexican drink with indigenous roots, made out of milk, piloncillo, cornflour, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt. Cook the ingredients for 25 minutes, stirring constantly, and enjoy hot.

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10

    Mole

    Easy Mexican Mole Sauce
    The Spruce.

    The origins of the dish are uncertain but the stories told about this ancient dish all point to an accidental blend of American and European ingredients that gave life to a rich, dark sauce. With many regional variations, mole is a Mexican culinary treasure.

    Each family recipe is well cherished and passed on from one generation to the next. So what can be more appropriate to celebrate someone's life than a dish that has been loved by so many ancestors? Mole is present in all Day of the Dead festivities. Our recipe is an easy version, but still with many ingredients. It takes a little under 2 hours.

  • 06 of 10

    Sugar Skulls

    Sugar Skulls
    photo (c) maogg / Getty Images

    You will find these distinctively decorative and edible objects on almost every family’s ofrenda (offering) for the dead. The skulls are made of white sugar mixed with egg whites and pressed into molds. They are allowed to dry, becoming hard, and then adorned with brightly colored icing as well as occasional non-edible items such as colored foil or sequins.

    Colorful mountains of large and small sugar skulls are sold by market vendors in Mexico during the weeks leading up to Muertos. You need to plan ahead, as the candy needs to dry overnight.

  • 07 of 10

    Churros

    Churros: Cinnamon Sugar Fried Doughnut Sticks
    Tastyart Ltd Rob White / Taxi / Getty Images.

    Sweet fried dough is irresistible no matter the preparation or ingredients. Churros have become increasingly popular thanks to the arrival of numerous Mexican immigrants to the United States. Tasty churros are now found everywhere in the U.S, as easily as tacos or other Mexican treats.

    Humble in origin, churros are liked by all and offered on altars to welcome the deceased. For this recipe, you need to make a simple batter of eggs, flour, buttermilk, butter, sugar, and vanilla. Once the dough is mixed and piped into the hot oil, stuff it with Nutella, dulce de leche, or jam or simply sprinkle it with sugar. Ready in 50 minutes.

  • 08 of 10

    Jamoncillo de Leche (Milk Fudge)

    Milk Fudge
    Milk Fudge. Clarkson Potter

    Easy to make and visually beautiful, these tasty morsels of milk fudge are shared by friends and family to celebrate the Day of the Dead. Make them ahead in big batches and pack them in colorful bags as gifts for friends and family.

    Mix on the stove condensed milk, evaporated milk, butter, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt. Much like the Brazilian brigadeiro, the sugar in the milk will caramelize and the mixture will thicken after 30 minutes or so. Split the mixture and add food coloring. Prep and cook in 45 minutes, shape and let cool for 2 hours.

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10

    Camote (Sweet Potatoes)

    sliced baked sweet potatoes

     magnez2/Getty Images

    As simple as a baked potato, camote or dulce de camote, is traditionally eaten during the festivities. An ancestral meal, nutritious and packed with vitamins and fiber, sweet potatoes are sold all over the country from street stands and are a well-liked healthy snack.

    For this preparation, you need potatoes, honey, and butter, and 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size of the potatoes, to have perfectly baked ones. Alternatively, you can make dulce de camote by peeling, cubing, and boiling the potatoes in water, piloncillo, and baking soda for 40 to 50 minutes until soft and dark in color. Ready in 1 hour and 10 minutes.

  • 10 of 10

    Champurrado (Hot Chocolate)

    Mexican Hot Chocolate

     Lisa Romerein/Getty Images

    Early November celebrations of the dead can mean long hours outside, honoring the deceased in cemeteries, or walking around in the festive parades. Champurrado, the Mexican version of hot chocolate, is sold from street stands and packed in a thermos to share with friends and family during the vigil hours.

    Corn, water, milk, chocolate, piloncillo (or brown sugar) and occasionally aniseed or cinnamon simmer for 20 minutes. Whisk continuously to mix well and make it foamy and airy.