How to make homemade enchilada sauce in three easy steps

Whenever I ate enchiladas growing up — which means whenever my mom decided to make them, around once a year — we used canned sauce.

It was completely fine. I had no problems.

When it finally occurred to me as an adult that one could make homemade sauce (and that it would perhaps be better to make one’s own sauce if you were living in Mexico), I had no desire to. That would take like two days of roasting and grinding and stewing, right?


I had an epiphany a few days ago that changed my whole enchilada outlook: it’s possible to make a really good sauce — eons above of the canned stuff — in about 30 minutes.

The trick is that you don’t need to use dried chiles. Ripe tomatoes and fresh serranos, mixed with a little garlic, provide a pretty exceptional flavor on their own. While this sauce doesn’t have the roasty complex notes that dried chiles provide, it’s still really, really good — a light, kind of sweet tomato pudding that leaves a rush of heat inside your mouth.

My source here is a Diana Kennedy recipe. I found her Salsa de Jitomate, Sierra de Puebla and Michoacán inside The Art of Mexican Cooking. (Sometimes I like to curl up on the couch with that book, and watch old reruns of Felicity.)

The recipe calls for boiling the tomatoes and chiles whole, and then blending them with garlic and some of the tomato water. Then you fry the sauce in a little oil. From there you either keep it warm to assemble the enchiladas right then, or freeze it to use later.

And that’s it. Sauce = done.

The only real work comes in assembling the enchiladas. Traditional Mexican enchiladas aren’t baked — they’re served warm, directly after you roll them up on the stovetop. (My recipe for homemade enchiladas with quintoniles, corn, rajas and onion is coming, by the way.)

To save time, prepare this sauce one day before. Warm it on the stove when you’re ready to begin.

Also, if you’re the zany type that likes to mix genres, like me, you might try using this sauce in an Italian-inspired dish. It has such an intense tomato taste, I could see using it as a pasta sauce or even a pizza sauce. If you’re going to go that route, don’t blend the sauce too much — keep it a bit chunky.

Salsa de Jitomate, Sierra de Puebla and Michoacán
From Diana Kennedy’s The Art of Mexican Cooking

Note: I used ripe Roma tomatoes, because they’re ubiquitous in Mexico and cheap. Any ripe tomato would work fine, although I’d stay away from cherry or grape tomatoes, because they might make the sauce overly sweet.

The original recipe called for four serrano chiles; I’ve made this sauce twice using three chiles, and it had varying degrees of heat. It really depends on how hot your chiles are — I’d start with three if you’re unsure.

The recipe doesn’t specify the amount of water needed to boil the tomatoes, but I’d recommend filling the pan so the tomatoes are about 2/3 covered with water. I recently took a class on how to make Mexican salsas, and the instructor recommended this technique, so the tomatoes don’t fill with water and fall apart as they start to soften and break open.


1 1/2 pounds of tomatoes (see note)
3 serrano chiles, whole, stems removed
2 cloves garlic
Canola, vegetable or avocado oil (anything tasteless)

1. In a large sauce pan or olla, cover tomatoes about with water and bring to a slow, roiling boil. Cook until the chiles have softened and turned a muted green color, and the tomatoes soften and start to open slightly, but still retain their shape. Remove from the sauce pain and drain, reserving 1/3 cup of the cooking water.

2. Chop chilies and garlic roughly, and toss into a blender jar with your reserved tomato water. Then drop in the tomatoes — my blender is slow, so I added them one at a time — and blend until liquified.

3. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add your tomato sauce and cook, until the sauce is thoroughly warmed and has turned a deep red color. Add salt to taste. At this point you can keep it warm on a low flame, if you’re going to make enchiladas right away.

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26 Responses to “How to make homemade enchilada sauce in three easy steps”
  1. rachel

    I tried to make enchilada sauce from a rachel ray recipe and it was awful. If I ever try it again, I will try yours!

    • Lesley

      I’m glad, Rachel! If you ever make them, definitely let me know how they turn out.

  2. Mike

    Rachel Ray is cute.

    Mexico 2
    Uruguay 1

  3. Susan

    Just to be nit picky . . . in Oaxaca where I live, this would be a recipe for entomatadas (in tomatoes) rather than enchiladas (in chiles). Whatever you call it, it’s really good. They serve it here for breakfast mostly. Also, a little crema on top never hurts.

    • Lesley

      Hi Susan: I actually thought the same thing, and looked up the definition of entomatadas in my Mexican gastronomic dictionary before I posted. The book described them as tortillas dipped in a spicy tomato-based sauce, and rolled up like enchiladas, but without the filling. So I figured I was on the right track by calling this enchilada sauce, not entomatada sauce.

      This recipe is more geared toward folks who want to use it for enchiladas, though. I guess to the Oaxaqueños I might’ve used just a wee bit of poetic license. :-)

      And you’re right — crema on top never hurts. Unless you’re trying to cut back on dairy, like me right now.

  4. Binky

    Weeel, this does sound more like a tomato sauce, but by virtue of the addition of any chile, the tortillas made with it are enchiladas rojas. We don’t like the canned stuff either, but like to experiment with different dried chile combinations and really, the only draw-back is the time it takes to clean the dried pods. Don’t people there use powdered chiles to expidite these recipes? Chile powders/paprikas don’t keep too long, but it seems like they’d be popular in th DF. We can manage red and green enchiladas here (with inferior tortillas), but no mole, the stuff in jars is horrible.

    • Shannon

      Plenty of good chile powders on offer in larger markets like San Juan, but its hard to know what you’re getting, but I don’t think many cooks use it for chile sauces. Know what you mean about inferior chiles, but look around, more and more US cities have better tortilla factories all the time.

  5. shelikesfood-Jessica

    I just love your blog!!
    I was looking at your homemade enchilada sauce recipe and it’s for the classic red sauce. I was wondering if you had a delicious recipe for the enchilada verde sauce?

    • Lesley

      Hi Jessica: I do. I just haven’t posted it yet…. it’s been on my list for the past two months. I promise I’ll get to it soon, and I’ll send you a heads-up when it’s live.

  6. Norman Wakefield

    Just followed this recipe. I lived in Mexico as a child and again after high school for five years. This recipe really reminds me of some of the sauces I had when living in Mexico. Thanks so much. I used tomatoes and chiles serranos direct from my garden. The chiles are pretty spicy, but I love it, and the flavor is excellent!

    Thanks so much.

    • Lesley

      Hi Norman: I’m so glad it worked out for you! Thanks for commenting.

  7. Stuart Brock

    That sauce sounds great. Homemade enchiladas are amazing!

  8. Huacheetah


  9. Donna S

    My ex is from Mexico & he taught me how to make enchilada sauce from scratch. It’s really easy & you are right, most of the work is the tortillas and assembly.
    The sauce though is simply 8-10 chile guajillo (with the seeds & veins removed, leave the veins if you want a little more heat), a garlic clove, salt, & water. Boil the chiles for about 10 min or so. Put the chiles, garlic clove, water (about a cup), & ‘maybe’ a teaspoon of salt (I always just eyeball it) in the blender & blend for about a minute, til the chiles are uniform tiny pieces. Pour through a metal strainer (the one that looks like window screen material). If it’s too thick, add a little water.
    I always dip my tortillas in the sauce then fry them. For filling I use queso fresco (crumbled) & chopped onions. We top with shredded lettuce, sour cream, & fried potatoes & carrots (the potatoes & carrots are fried in the oil from the enchiladas & salted).
    It’s requested for birthday dinners at my house.

    • Lesley

      Thanks for sharing, Donna. I’m hoping to post an ancho-guajillo enchilada recipe soon. Also, I had potato- and carrot-topped enchiladas in Querétaro and LOVED them. Would love to recreate that sometime.

  10. Dawn

    Made this today to go with my Cheese Enchilada recipe. Amazing, wonderful and fantastic. HOT but next time I will follow your advice of only 2 peppers and remove more of the seeds. My mouth is on fire but it was sooooo good. I shared your link so people can try your recipe.
    Thanks for sharing this recipe.

    • Lesley

      Hi Dawn: I’m so glad it worked out! Thanks for sharing your experience.

  11. Tamara B

    Thanks for the super simple recipe. We have tons of tomatoes in our garden, and organic enchilada sauce is expensive. I’m not the best cook, but this looks both easy and fun…and I wont be wasting my tomatoes. I will post again after I make this today. Thanks again, not all of us can be 5 star chefs, LOL!!!

    • Lesley

      Thanks Tamara, let me know how it works out for you!

  12. Jim Doughty

    Thank you is all I can say. This way saved me money in the long run as it froze great. All three of my kids loved it and they usually don’t like anything new that Daddy makes for dinner. Thank you again.

    • Lesley

      Hi Jim: Thanks for sharing! I’m so glad it worked out.

  13. wisteria

    Could you use bottled chili sauce and add fresh garlic and a jalapeno?

    • Lesley

      By bottled chili sauce, do you mean salsa? I think bottled hot sauce or salsa would be too acidic and salty for enchiladas. If you found canned enchilada sauce, though, you could try doctoring it up with fresh garlic and onion. I’ve never done that but it might work. I would not add a jalapeño to canned enchilada sauce, since the sauce already contains dried chiles and the flavors would be too dissimilar.

      • wisteria

        No there is a chili sauce that is by the ketchup. I use it with grape jelly for sweet and sour meat balls. Thanks for the suggestions though I am trying it tonight:)

  14. Heide M.

    Thanks for posting this recipe.

  15. Heidy

    I just made my sauce and it is delicious never thought making enchilada sauce would be this simple thanks for the recepie

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