[Mostly] Authentic Mexican Enchilada Sauce

Mostly Authentic Enchilada Sauce on http://www.theculinarylife.com

– A recipe for enchilada sauce that brings a little heat and a lot of flavor. –

I have two separate enchilada recipes on my site – one vegan enchiladas recipe with potatoes, Swiss chard, and toasted pumpkin seeds, and another super hearty enchilada casserole with chicken and brown rice –  but no enchilada sauce recipe of my own. So last week I posted a recipe for making super easy homemade enchilada sauce from scratch, and that recipe used tomatoes. Oooooh, that post caused all sorts of drama with the purists!

Anyone deeply familiar with Mexican cuisine knows that traditional enchilada sauce doesn’t actually contain tomatoes – as several folks flamed me last week to remind me. Traditional sauce is made with dried chilies that have been rehydrated and then toasted until they take on a nice, hot, smoky flavor. While dried chilies are indeed more traditional method of making the sauce, the standard American palate is used to tasting tomatoes in red sauce, and every time I’ve made traditional enchiladas for my friends and family, they don’t take to it right away. Americans love their tomatoes, and that’s the whole reason I developed my easy enchilada sauce recipe to begin with. Since it’s been repinned on Pinterest over 4,000 times, I’d say it’s doing pretty well!

Now, I’m not a food snob – I want people to enjoy the food I make. So when people give me flack for putting tomatoes in a red sauce and calling it “enchilada sauce,” I don’t really care. It’s a tasty recipe and that’s all that matters.

That said, I have a huge appreciation for traditional recipes. As I advance my own tastes, I find myself liking new flavors and textures that aren’t familiar to many American tastebuds. But I still need to feed the ones I love, and if they won’t eat it, where does that leave me? Or you, my reader, for that matter? I’ll tell you where: Nowhere.

So I set about developing a hybrid enchilada sauce that uses both tomatoes and dried ancho chilies, calling it [Mostly] Authentic Mexican Enchilada Sauce. This recipe has the tomatoes Americans appreciate, while adding in a handful of the smoky, slow-burn chilies you’d find in more traditional dishes.

I hope nobody takes offense. If you do, please don’t flame me. My index finger cramped up from deleting all the bummer comments last week.

You can make this red sauce as hot as you’d like. As it stands now, it’s not too spicy but will give you a little bit of a sweat if you’re not used to spicy food. If you want to take it up a notch (or five) use a total of four or six dried chilies while keeping the rest of the recipe the same.

I love this recipe because it’s the best of both worlds: It’s familiar while encouraging folks to try new flavors. Consider this a “gateway sauce” for those that want to start exploring more authentic Mexican flavors without jumping cannonball-style into the pool. Serve up your enchiladas with a hot plate of freshly made beans – yes, you can indeed make bean easily without getting them from a can – and you’ve got yourself an incredibly delicious, healthy, and non-boring dinner. Huzzah!


4.7 from 16 reviews
Mostly-Authentic Red Enchilada Sauce
Recipe type: Entree
Cuisine: Mexican
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
If you're looking for authentic enchilada sauce, this recipe is a good cross between Mexican and American tastes. Cumin, oregano, and ancho chilies bring the Mexican flavor, while tomatoes add a tart layer that Americans have grown to love.
You can make this red sauce as hot as you'd like. As it stands now, it's not too spicy but will give you a little bit of a sweat if you're not used to spicy food. If you want to take it up a notch (or five) use a total of four or six dried chilies while keeping the rest of the recipe the same.
I love this recipe because it's the best of both worlds: It's familiar while encouraging folks to try new flavors. Consider this a "gateway sauce" for those that want to start exploring more authentic Mexican flavors without jumping cannonball-style into the pool.
  • 2 large dried ancho chiles (use 4 if you like a little extra heat)
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 small cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 teaspoon fresh chopped oregano leaves
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
  • One 14.5-ounce can chopped tomatoes or 1 pound tomatoes, seeded and chopped
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  1. Rinse the ancho chiles with warm water and pat them dry. Carefully rip out the stems and remove the cores. Slice the chiles in half, then scrape out seeds and veins. Chop the chiles into 1-inch chunks.
  2. Add chiles into a heavy bottom pan with no oil. Turn the heat to medium-high and toast the chiles until they turn brown in some spots, about 4 minutes, but do not let the burn. Add onions and toast until they begin to turn brown also. Add cumin and toast for 30 seconds, just until fragrant. Add olive oil and garlic, cooking for 1 minute, being careful not to let the garlic burn. Add boiling water and chicken stock.
  3. Bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and allow to simmer for 15 minutes, or until the chile pieces are soft and pliable. Remove from heat and stir in oregano, cumin, chili powder, salt, and pepper. Add more seasoning to taste, if necessary adding more chili powder. Allow the sauce to cool about halfway, just until you can stick a finger in it without burning yourself.
  4. Pour the sauce into a blender. Secure the top of the blender and cover it with a towel to prevent it from leaking. Start the blender on low, then gradually turn it up to puree the sauce. Add tomatoes, sugar, and lemon juice, and continue to blend until smooth. Taste and add more salt, sugar, or lemon juice if necessary, blending for a few seconds after each addition.
  5. Return sauce to pan and cook another 15 minutes. Pour over your favorite enchiladas or enchilada casserole.


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Comments from other ninjas:

  1. Meagan Davenport says

    Wow! I actually had no idea enchilada sauce *didn’t* have tomatoes in it … LOL. Sorry the flamers came out of their closets – lame!

    I’ll enjoy both the “mostly” authentic one above … AND the original you posted last week. 😉 Keep up the good work!

    • Stephanie Stiavetti says

      Thanks so much, Meagan. :) I’ll enjoy both recipes, also – I try not to be so picky that it gets in the way of loving real food in whatever way it shows up on my plate. Life is too short!

    • Stephanie Stiavetti says

      No problem! It depends how hot your ground chilies are – they can vary from brand to brand. I’d say add 2 teaspoons when you blend the sauce, taste, and add more from there. Those thing can really sneak up on you, so go incrementally!

  2. John Lopez says

    My family has been making enchiladas for over 100 years. Of the hundreds of family members, I don’t think anyone used tomatoes. Not saying you shouldn’t or that it won’t taste “good”. Just not Mexican.
    Happy cooking.

    • Stephanie Stiavetti says

      Indeed. And, I’d love to see your family recipe, if you’re willing to share. I’ve been having a hard time tracking down a legit recipe – a lot of the ones I’ve seen contain tomatoes in some form.

      Also, how about green enchiladas? Are those legit at all?

  3. wilma rodriguez says

    Rinse off the dried red chiles (12), break off stems and toss dried peppers in your blender with half an onion and 3 garlic cloves, and 4.5 cups of water. Blend for 3 minutes and strain. Heat a pan with oil, pour in the raw chile and allow it to thicken. Salt to your preference.

  4. says

    Green enchiladas are definitely legit. As far as the use of tomatoes goes, Mexican food is astoundingly regional, and I don’t think there’s a single person (besides maybe Diana Kennedy) who’s tasted enchiladas in EVERY form across Mexico. I’m sure there’s at least one cook who might use tomatoes. There is also a dish called “entomatadas” that is similar to enchiladas — they’re usually sauce-soaked tortillas that have been folded over instead of rolled, or perhaps stuffed with beans or cheese. In any case, I think it’s great to encourage people to make their sauce from scratch instead of using canned, tomatoes or not!

  5. Sihi says

    Sorry you had to face all the drama on using tomatoes. This recipe sounds awesome. I’m always looking for gluten free sauce recipes and am thinking adding some of this sauce to rice noodles will just be splendind. Thank you for sharing.

    • Stephanie Stiavetti says

      Thanks so much, Sihi. :) The drama always leaves me baffled! And I think your idea is a great one… let me know how it goes!

  6. Marvin Keeton says

    Thank you for this great reciepe! I am wanting to try to learn more mexican style cooking and this sauce is a super start to my cooking! Thanks again!

  7. leslie says

    I’m always looking for great recipes and just because some ingredients aren’t what people are used to doesn’t matter. If it tastes great eat it.
    People are hilarious! I had a eighty something Mexican national tell me her enchilada recipe and it was chili powder and oil and cook till thickened. I’m Italian and there are a million ways to make spaghetti sauce. People may think they know it all and show through there comments but, they DON’T.

    • Stephanie Stiavetti says

      I totally agree, Leslie! Taste is king in my book, and as long as I’m using fresh, quality ingredients, then it’s all about getting creative and loving what you eat.

  8. Rosalie says

    i loved it and my kids loved. I’m Mexican and I use tomatoes in everything I’m not sure why people are complaining about it. Make it before you comment on the recipe! This recipe is a keeper!!

  9. susan von sacken says

    I just made this sauce tonight it is very delicious! I will always this sauce from now on.
    Thank you!!