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.

27 Responses to “How to make homemade enchilada sauce in three easy steps”
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