This authentic red enchilada sauce recipe is made with a mixture of Mexican chili peppers that are lightly toasted then rehydrated and processed to form a deeply rich and flavorful sauce. It is one of my very favorites for homemade enchiladas.
I have to admit that I'm kind of a red enchilada maniac. I'll take them any way I can get them - with chicken, vegetarian style, stuffed with cheese, pulled pork, ground beef, however you want to serve them to me. Just gimmee, OK?
It's really about the sauce. Homemade Red Enchilada Sauce, when made from dried Mexican chile peppers, is one of those sauces that can't be beat. It is deeply rich and earthy, authentic, and so massive with flavor, it is difficult to describe how satisfying it truly is. And SO MUCH BETTER than anything you'll find in grocery stores.
I think mankind must have been doing something right in its early days, and the Gods smiled down and said, "Yo, let's reward you with something for good behavior. Boom! Here is some red enchilada sauce." Thank you, ancestors.
I have enjoyed numerous red enchilada sauces in restaurants all over and from friendly kitchens, and you can buy canned sauce, but homemade is vastly superior. I've made them several different ways, and this particular recipe is my own preferred method. There isn't anything difficult about it, no wild ingredients or steps to follow, just simple ingredients and tried-and-true cooking.
Why mess with perfection? Still, you can easily customize this recipe, and I've included some ways you can adjust it to your own preferences, because, honestly, playing with recipes is fun.
So let's talk about how to make enchilada sauce, shall we?
Homemade Red Enchilada Sauce Ingredients
- Chili Peppers. I use a combination of 4 dried ancho peppers (stemmed and seeded), 4 dried guajillo peppers (stemmed and seeded), and 4 dried chiles de arbol (stemmed and seeded). You can use other peppers for this recipe. See the notes section below on Chili Peppers.
- Oil. Use 1 teaspoon olive oil or vegetable oil.
- Onion and Garlic. I use 1 small onion and 4 cloves garlic. You can easily use more or less to your preferred taste. They are great flavor builders and add body to the final enchilada sauce. Onion powder and garlic powder are fine to use for flavoring as well.
- Salt. Use 2 teaspoons coarse sea salt, or to your own personal tastes.
- Water or Broth. For thinning the sauce. Use water as needed, or you can use chicken stock or chicken broth. Start with a half cup or so, then work from there to your own preferred consistency.
How to Make Red Enchilada Sauce - The Recipe Method
Toast the Peppers. First, heat a large pan to medium heat and dry toast the dried chili peppers a few minutes per side, until the skins begin to puff up a bit. Be sure to remove the stems and seeds from the peppers first.
Toasting is an important step, as it helps to release the oils in the skins, which is HUGE for flavor. You can skip this step if you'd like and you will still get a delicious sauce, but I usually dry toast them. Some people use a toaster to toast their dried peppers.
Soak the Peppers. Set the peppers into a large bowl and pour hot water over them, just enough to cover them. Let them soak for 15 minutes to 20 minutes, or until they become very soft.
Food Processor or Blender. Remove the softened red chilies and set them into a food processor or blender.
Next, pour in some of the soaking liquid. You'll notice that it has become quite dark from the peppers. This water has plenty of nutrients leached from the peppers, so I like to use it. You can also use clean water if you'd like, as the steeping water can be somewhat bitter. Add about 1/2 to 1 cup to start.
Cook the Onion and Peppers. Next, cook down some onion and garlic in a pan with oil, then add them to the food processor along with the rehydrated peppers. Add sea salt to your preference.
Process the mixture until the sauce becomes very smooth. It will be very thick at this point. Add in more water, a half cup at a time, until you achieve your desired consistency.
Strain the Sauce. You can strain the sauce, if desired, for a smoother sauce, though it isn't necessary. The choice is yours.
Gorgeous, isn't it? So rich and vibrantly red. And super easy to make. Quick and easy is great for a slow cook like me.
Should I Strain My Enchilada Sauce?
You can strain the sauce at this point if you'd like. I usually strain mine for a smoother sauce, though it isn't 100% necessary. The red enchilada sauce is good as it is, but there there are some slightly bitter notes from the skins that can be somewhat tempered from straining.
I usually strain it to remove some of the bitterness and for a much smoother sauce.
About the Chili Peppers
For my preferred recipe, I use ancho chili peppers, guajillos and chiles de arbol. All are readily available from nearby grocers, or you can find them in Mexican grocers.
If you're unable to find them, purchase them online. You can get large bags of them and use them all the time like I do.
Ancho peppers are dried ripe poblano peppers, and I'd have to say they are very easily one of my very favorite chili peppers to cook with. They add a complex richness you can't find anywhere else.
Guajillo peppers are one of the most common and popular chiles grown and used in Mexico. They add a slightly berry-like flavor to the dish, along with a gorgeous deep red color.
Chiles de Arbol are small and thin Mexican peppers, growing to 2-3 inches long and less than a ½ inch wide. They are a bit hotter for that touch of heat we're looking for.
Other pepper options include dried New Mexican peppers, pasilla peppers, multato peppers, chilaca peppers, California chiles. Try it also with dried chipotle peppers or chile moritas for more of a smoky flavor. So good!
Recipe Tips and Notes
- Add Tomatoes or Tomato Sauce. Adding tomatoes, tomato sauce or tomato paste is a popular variation. Tomato adds a nice touch of sweetness. Traditional, authentic red enchilada sauce does not use tomato, but it really does add an interesting flavor dimension. Give it a try for sure. It's more like my Ranchero Sauce Recipe this way.
- Thin it Out. You can further thin out your enchilada sauce with chicken stock or vegetable broth. Just add a 1/2 cup to 1 cup, bring to a boil, and simmer to your preferred consistency.
- Bitterness. If you use the soaking water from rehydrating the dried peppers to make your sauce, you may end up with some bitter flavor. If you find this unappealing, next time skip the soaking water and use fresh water instead, or use a stock or broth. Or, you can sweeten it up a bit to counteract the bitterness. See below.
- Sweeten the Sauce. If you feel the final sauce is too bitter, you can sweeten it up with a bit of honey, agave nectar, sugar, or even chocolate. I've tried recipes with dark chocolate and they are very good. You don't need much, just a little.
- Fry the Sauce. Some cooks like to cook the sauce in a bit of oil in a pan, essentially frying it, to further develop the flavors and more. I've tried this and like the results, so it's worth a try.
- Seasonings. You'll get LOADS of FLAVOR from this recipe the way it is, but you can easily adjust with other ingredients, like cumin and other chili powders, and particularly herbs like Mexican oregano, marjoram or basil.
- Make it with Chile Powder. You can also make this recipe using chili powders instead of starting with whole dried peppers. Check out my Quick and Easy Enchilada Sauce Recipe for how to make it. Very tasty!
The flavor of this red enchilada sauce is slightly smoky and the color is deep, deep red. I hope you enjoy it.
Uses for Red Enchilada Sauce
You can, of course, use your delicious homemade enchilada sauce to make enchiladas, but this is a highly versatile sauce that can be used for many different Mexican recipes, as well as to flavor your every day meals. It will give all of your soups and stews an authentic Mexican or Tex-Mex flair.
Try this sauce as a topping for tacos, burritos, tortas, swirl them into black beans for a flavor pop, or drizzle it over your favorite grilled meats. Use it to make this Mexican Lasagna Recipe.
I often like to toss a pork shoulder into a slow cooker with a healthy portion of this awesome enchilada sauce for some of the best pulled pork I've ever had. Seriously, so good! I've loved this sauce a long time.
That's it, my friends! I hope you enjoy my homemade enchilada sauce recipe. So good! I really love this recipe, such wonderful flavor. Better than any canned sauce or store bought sauce. Homemade is best!
I’m the biggest fan of tomatillos so I’ve always gone for the Green Enchilada sauce. But since the Red Enchilada sauce is predominantly made from chili peppers, it was a no-brainer for Mike to make this sauce as well. And I realized that there actually is something out there as good as the Green Enchilada sauce. I may be won over to the other side.
Storage & Leftovers
Storing your Homemade Red Enchilada Sauce in an airtight container in the fridge may allow you to store the leftovers for up to 3-4 days. To maximize the storage life, make sure to refrigerate the dish promptly.
If you try this recipe, please let us know! Leave a comment, rate it and tag a photo #ChiliPepperMadness on Instagram so we can take a look. I always love to see all of your spicy inspirations. Thanks! -- Mike H.
Homemade Red Enchilada Sauce Recipe
- 4 dried ancho peppers (stemmed and seeded)
- 4 dried guajillo peppers (stemmed and seeded)
- 4 dried chiles de arbol (stemmed and seeded)
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 small onion chopped
- 4 cloves garlic chopped
- 2 teaspoons coarse sea salt (or to taste)
- Water as needed
- Dry toast the dried chili peppers (stemmed and seeds removed) in a heated pan over medium heat. Toast them a couple minutes per side, until they start to puff up slightly.
- Cool, then set them into a heavy bowl with enough hot water to cover them.
- Let them soak for 20 minutes, or until they become very soft. Remove them and place them in a blender or food processor.
- Reserve 1 cup of the dark soaking water.
- In the same heated pan, add the olive oil. Cook the onion about 3 minutes, or until they become translucent.
- Add the garlic and cook another minute, until they become fragrant.
- Add them to the food processor along with the sea salt.
- Pour in the reserved soaking liquid and process to form a sauce. It will be very thick at this point.
- Add in more water, a half cup at a time, until you achieve your desired consistency.
- Strain, if desired, and serve as needed.