The best red enchilada sauces have rich earthy flavors that soak into the tortillas and filling, adding warm Southwestern flavors and richness to the enchiladas.
Our goal with this recipe was to create a homemade enchilada sauce recipe far superior to store-bought canned enchilada sauces with rich southwestern flavors and a fuller, more robust body.
The ingredients needed to be accessible to cooks who may not have access to high-quality dried chilies. It also needed to be simple enough to make alongside a batch of enchiladas for a weeknight dinner.
What makes this enchilada sauce recipe stand out is how much flavor it delivers with simple pantry ingredients that can be kept on hand. It also has the advantage of making three cups of sauce which is enough for a whole batch of enchiladas.
Ingredients for Red Enchilada Sauce
As an integral component of Southwestern and Mexican cuisine, there are infinite variations of enchilada sauce that go way beyond red or green.
Authentic enchilada sauce recipes traditionally use dried chilies, such as ancho, guajillo, or cascabel, as the primary ingredients. The chilies are toasted, then cooked with other ingredients, strained or pureed, and cooked again to deepen the dish’s flavors.
This recipe simplifies this process by using ground chilies and chili powder to develop layers of flavor without having to toast the chilies or use an immersion blender to puree the sauce. It also uses crushed tomatoes to add body and umami flavor.
What makes it superior to canned sauces, which can be runny and have a tinny flavor, is the control over what ingredients go into it and the ability to adjust the flavors and texture to fit the cook’s preferences.
The ingredients used in this recipe include:
Crushed Tomatoes – Our research found recipes using almost every type of tomato. From tomato paste to diced tomatoes to tomato sauce, there is a recipe that uses each type while extolling its virtues. It’s worth noting that there are many recipes that rely solely on dried chilies.
Crushed tomatoes became a bit of a Goldilocks ingredient. The diced tomatoes were so chunky that they needed to be pureed, the tomato sauce was so thin that it lacked body, while tomato paste added so much sweetness that it overpowered the other ingredients.
Crushed tomatoes, which are a mixture of diced tomatoes and tomato puree or paste, add richness and just enough thickness to give it body.
Chili Powder – A good chili powder is a must have pantry staple for anyone who enjoys Southwestern or Tex-Mex cuisine. In the States, chili powder is usually a blend of ground chilies, cumin, garlic, and oregano.
The chili powder provides the base seasoning in this recipe, with the other herbs and spices building on this foundation, adding layers of flavor and complexity.
Ground Ancho Chilies & Ground Chipotle Peppers – The ground version of ancho and chipotle chilies is an easy way to bring their complex flavors and heat to dishes without having to grind whole peppers.
Ancho chilies have slightly floral flavors, a hint of smokiness, and very little heat. Ground chipotle peppers have a smokiness so deep you can smell the fire burning and heat that pops your taste buds. Used in moderation, ground chipotle can transform a dish without overpowering it.
Mexican Oregano – Mexican oregano is a plant native to Mexico with more citrus and floral notes than Italian or Greek oregano. It can be found in dried form from spice shops or in many grocery stores.
Apple Cider Vinegar & Lemon Juice – The apple cider vinegar and lemon juice work together to add brightness and acidity. Together they help balance out the earthiness of the ground chilies.
Cinnamon, Allspice, and Cumin – The complexity in this recipe come from the cinnamon, allspice, and cumin. The cinnamon adds a touch of sweetness and some bite, while the cumin adds some heat and distinct flavors.
Allspice has a fruitiness and undertones of must that gives jerk seasoning its distinct taste. The allspice provides depth and complexity in this dish while rounding out the other flavors.
Chicken or Vegetable Stock – Using chicken or vegetable stock helps to add flavor compared to just using water. Using a low-sodium stock or broth lets the cook control how much salt to add. Using vegetable broth is an excellent way to make intensely flavored vegetarian enchiladas.
One of the best things about making homemade sauces is that they provide a palette that allows cooks to shape them to their preferences and the specific dishes served. Here is a list of variations to make this homemade enchilada sauce your own.
We recommended adding a 1/2 teaspoon at a time and allowing everything to simmer for a few minutes before tasting to let the flavors come together before making additional changes.
Hotter – The most straightforward way to add heat is to use cayenne, chipotle, or hot sauce.
Smokier – For a smokier version, add ground chipotle or smoked paprika.
Sweeter – If the sauce is too acidic or could use some sweetness, add some agave syrup or honey; both sweeteners will sweeten while enriching the sauce’s flavors. Granulated sugar can be used but adds nothing other than sweetness and calories.
Brighter – If the sauce tastes a little dull, add a teaspoon or two of lemon or lime juice.
Gluten-Free – This recipe can be made gluten-free by substituting gluten-free flour for the all-purpose flour or by using a cornstarch slurry to thicken the roux.
For more information on different types of enchiladas, read our deep dive into How to Make Enchiladas. It has all the information on types of tortillas, fillings, and more to help cooks make the best enchiladas.
How to make Red Enchilada Sauce
The first step is to make a roux using equal amounts of vegetable oil and flour. The oil should be heated over medium-high heat.
Once the oil has come to temperature, add in the flour, which has been mixed with the dried spices. Incorporating the spices into the flour allows the heat to bring out their flavors and aromas.
After the roux has cooked for a few minutes, slowly add some stock and continue whisking until it starts to thicken. Continue adding the stock while stirring with a whisk.
Once all the liquid has been incorporated, the crushed tomatoes, lemon juice, and apple cider vinegar can be added, and the heat can be turned to a low simmer.
The sauce should continue to cook on a low simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, allowing the flavors to come together and deepen as it thickens. It has finished thickening when it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
If the sauce is too thick, add one or two tablespoons of stock at a time while continuing to stir until it reaches the desired consistency. It’s worth noting that it will thicken as it cools.
The simplest way to thicken a sauce that is too thin is to turn the heat up to medium and allow it to continue to reduce. It needs to be stirred regularly while it reduces to avoid burning.
Reducing it to the desired thickness is a much better way to thicken it than adding more flour directly to the pan, which isn’t recommended because it can give the dish a floury taste.
Enchilada sauce can be made several days ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator. If you want frozen enchilada sauce on hand, make a double batch of this recipe anytime you’re making enchiladas.
The sauce should be stored in an airtight container and can be kept in the fridge for a couple of weeks. It can also be frozen in a freezer-safe container for three to six months. It should be defrosted in the fridge before being used.
Uses for Enchilada Sauce
A good homemade red enchilada sauce can be used in a wide variety of Mexican and Southwestern dishes. Here are a few of our favorites.
Beef Enchiladas – This classic beef enchilada recipe uses ground beef, two kinds of chilies, and lots of cheese to create cheesy beef enchiladas perfect for a weeknight dinner.
Turkey Enchiladas – These healthy turkey enchiladas use ground turkey, pinto beans, and this red enchilada sauce to create bold, delicious flavors.
Enchilada sauce can be substituted for the taco sauce in this Classic American Taco recipe or these Turkey Tacos. It can also be used to make smothered burritos, soups, stews, and dips.
Try this Chicken Enchilada Recipe with a creamy green salsa verde for a different take on enchilada sauce.
If you’re interested in learning more about enchiladas, read our in-depth guide, How to Make Enchiladas, which is filled with tips, techniques, and ideas to help cooks make the best homemade enchiladas.
- 3 1/2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 3 1/2 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 1 15 oz can tomatoes, crushed
- 2 cups chicken stock, low-sodium preferred.
- 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 3 tsp chili powder
- 1 tsp ancho chili powder
- 1 tsp cumin, ground
- 1 tsp Mexican oregano
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp allspice
- 1 tsp chipotle , ground
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- ½ tsp black pepper
- Mix the chili powder, ancho chili, cumin, Mexican oregano, garlic powder, allspice, chipotle, cinnamon, salt, and pepper with the flour.3 1/2 tbsp all-purpose flour, 3 tsp chili powder, 1 tsp ancho chili powder, 1 tsp cumin, 1 tsp Mexican oregano, 1 tsp garlic powder, 1 tsp allspice, 1 tsp chipotle, ½ tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp kosher salt, ½ tsp black pepper
- Heat the vegetable oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and spice mixture, whisking as it cooks to make a roux.3 1/2 tbsp vegetable oil
- Continue cooking the roux for a minute or two until the spices become fragrant before adding the stock. The stock should be added slowly as the roux is whisked.2 cups chicken stock
- Once the stock has been incorporated, turn the heat down to a low simmer and add the crushed tomatoes, lemon juice, and apple cider vinegar. Once the sauce starts to simmer, turn the heat down slightly and continue to stir regularly until it thickens.1 15 oz can tomatoes, 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar, 1 tbsp lemon juice
- The sauce should simmer for at least 10 to 15 minutes to let the flavors develop.
The nutrition information shown is an estimate based on available ingredients and preparation.
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