Here in Southern California, enchiladas are one of those comfort dishes available at the many Mexican restaurants dotting our cities. The simplicity of corn tortillas, meat, sauce, and melted cheese just seems to come together in a rich and satisfying way. These complex flavors hide the secret that they are easy to create!
Enchiladas really come down to three components: the tortillas, the filling, and the sauce. Today, we’re focusing on a red enchilada sauce that adds so much of the smoky rich flavor to this Mexican dish. Too often, we tend to grab a can of enchilada sauce instead of making our own. And while that can of sauce from the grocery store will work, it’s just not as good as a homemade sauce.
“Really, what’s the difference?” you ask.
Think of a can of marinara sauce from the grocery store and marinara sauce created from scratch. Both are good and useful in their own way. That can of sauce is handy, convenient, and tastes good enough for a quick supper. The homemade sauce isn’t just good enough–it’s complex, flavorful, and a way to treat yourself and your loved ones to something special. And like homemade marinara sauce, homemade enchilada sauce is an inexpensive, easy, and quick process that uses basic pantry ingredients.
A good broth or stock. Chicken broth is what we usually use when creating this sauce. A vegetable broth is nice for those times when you’re making cheese or vegetarian enchiladas. Beef broth will also work and adds a nice richness to a hearty meaty filling. We’ve even used water in a pinch with good results.
A Fat. In the United States, roux usually starts with butter. Enchilada sauce is a chile sauce which traditionally has Olive Oil instead of butter. Authentic or not, butter will work in this recipe.
Tomato Paste. Some enchilada recipes call for tomato sauce, but we’ve had more success using tomato paste. Just a few tablespoons cooked along with the flour and spices add notes of sweetness without overpowering the chile flavors.
The Dark Roasted Chile Powder is more smoky than spicy hot and creates a nice flavor base for this sauce. The teaspoon of Chipotle adds a slight fruity note as well as a bit of heat. If you are averse to any kind of heat in your foods, feel free to cut back on the chile powders by half, but in their place substitute equal amounts of flour so you don’t lose out on the thickening power of those spices.
To the chile powders, we add cumin, onion powder, minced garlic, and a pinch of dried oregano. All are familiar flavors in many Mexican dishes.
A Bit of Acid. In Mexican cuisine, a balance of flavors is important. The smoky richness of this sauce needs a bit of acid to balance the flavors. We tried lime juice to achieve this balance but had to add the juice of several limes to create the perfect balance which ended up thinning out our sauce. White vinegar seems to work much better with a higher acid content. Just 1 teaspoon does the trick!
If you know how to make a roux or gravy, you know how to make enchilada sauce. If you’ve never created either, know that mastering the technique of cooking flour and fat together to thicken liquid to create enchilada sauce will serve you well when making many other sauces.
Easy steps for creating roux
- Heat pan on medium heat for a few minutes.
- Add oil and heat for about 90 seconds
- Add just a sprinkle of flour to test oil. If oil sizzles, it’s hot enough to begin.
- Add flour and spices.
- Stir to combine.
- Turn heat down to medium-low.
- Stir and cook for about 2 minutes. It is easy to burn the chile powders, so be sure to stir often.
- Stir in tomato paste. Cook for 30-45 seconds.
- Stir in one cup of broth. Stir and combine well before adding the second cup of broth. This step keeps your final sauce from becoming lumpy, so take your time with it!
See? Easy, peasy! Yes, yes, there are quite a few steps, but each one is not hard nor complicated. Mastering this technique opens up your cooking world to all kinds of dishes!
One more tip:
See that funny-looking flat whisk in our cast iron pan. It’s called a Scandinavian flat whisk. It is shaped perfectly to combine flour, fat, and broth when making roux. We don’t often recommend specific cookware, but this is one of those times the investment in this equipment is well worth it.
Vegan and Vegetarian Enchilada Sauce
This recipe is easy enough to create either as vegan or vegetarian. Simply use a vegetable broth or water as your liquid.
Gluten-Free Enchilada Sauce
The flour and maybe the broth in this recipe can add gluten to this recipe. When choosing broth be sure to choose a gluten-free version. Some gluten-free flours work well in roux and others do not. We’re not sure of the difference between the different options, so we’ve come up with a flour-free technique for thickening this sauce without gluten.
Instead of flour, we suggest using 2 ½ tablespoons of cornstarch. Proceed through step three of the recipe omitting the called for flour. After completing step three, transfer 1 cup of the sauce to a medium bowl. Whisk in cornstarch until smooth (this is now called a slurry). Return the slurry to your pan. Whisk it well into the remaining sauce. Continue the recipe as written keeping in mind it will not take the full five minutes for your sauce to thicken.
Red Enchilada Sauce Recipe
Red Enchilada Sauce Recipe
In a medium-sized pan, heat the oil over medium heat until the oil is hot enough that a sprinkle of flour sizzles.
Once the oil is hot enough, add the flour and spices. Whisk constantly for 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste and whisk for another 30 seconds.
Whisk in the broth, one cup at a time. Be sure to whisk the entire time broth is being added.
Bring sauce to a simmer. Cook until just slightly thickened which will be about 5 minutes. During this time, whisk often.
Remove from the heat and stir in vinegar. Taste for seasonings.
Allow the sauce to slightly cool before using it to create your favorite enchilada recipe.