I have been making red enchilada sauce for many years. It can be a bit of a production, but it’s so good and so simple that I can’t even imagine buying the stuff in jars. Because it is a production, making guajillo chile enchilada sauce is a project that I save for weekends so that I can have the sauce in the fridge and freezer for easy meals during busy times—the “saucy two-step” strategy from the Flipped-Out Food Playbook.
This enchilada sauce involves dried guajillo chiles: you can find these in most groceries, but definitely in Latin American markets. The chiles should still be somewhat supple—kind of like stiff leather—rather than brittle. Getting them ready for the sauce is a simple matter of cutting off the stem, emptying the seeds, and stripping off the membranes. The finished sauce is not particularly hot, but it has a rich, smoky flavor you’ll love.
Making red enchilada sauce: then
When I first began making this enchilada sauce, I would simply rehydrate dried guajillo chiles in water with some garlic cloves, then buzz the entire mixture in a food processor, run it through a food mill, and simmer until thickened. The sauce often required sugar, since the rehydrated chiles tend to be a bit on the bitter side. It also lacked…something.
Making red enchilada sauce: now
I have since managed to complicate the guajillo chile enchilada sauce-making process. And granted, the sauce is a tad less authentic than it might be. It’s totally worth it, though. The inspiration came, in part, from reading Rick Bayless’ cookbook (Mexico, One Plate at a Time—yes, I LOVE to read cookbooks). For his red enchilada sauce recipe, Bayless quickly toasts his dried chiles (he uses anchos rather than guajillos) in a cast iron skillet before rehydrating them. Genius! This brings a bit of smokiness and caramelization to the party.
I now also like to rehydrate the toasted chiles in hot beef broth. As the chiles rehydrate, I char some additional vegetables: the caramelization adds enough sweetness that I no longer have to add sugar. To char the veggies, I lightly grease my skillet with lard (you can also use canola oil or cooking spray) and set it over medium-high heat. Next, I slice a large yellow onion into 1/4″-thick rings. When the skillet is heated, I add the onion slices, 3 cloves of garlic (skins and all), and 2 medium tomatoes. Then, when the onions begin to blacken slightly, I give them a flip. I rotate the tomatoes as their skins begin to blacken, and turn the garlic when dark-brown spots begin to appear on the husk.
Puréeing and frying the red enchilada sauce
Then I throw the veggies into the food processor—along with the rehydrated chiles and about half of the rehydrating liquid—and purée until smooth. To remove any seeds, husks, and skins, I run the mixture through a food mill into a bowl (you could also use a coarse-mesh strainer: make sure to press on the solids to get every drop of liquid!).
I next melt about a tablespoon of lard in a large saucepan over medium-high heat and carefully add my sauce, letting it sizzle for about 30 seconds before turning the heat down to low. Trust me: the frying step deepens the rich flavor of the sauce—you won’t want to skip it. I now simmer the sauce for about 30 minutes until it thickens slightly. Although it’s not traditional, I like to add a bit of cumin to to the simmering sauce for another hit of smokiness.
If you really like smoky flavor, you could also add 1-2 chipotle chiles (the kind that comes in a can with adobo sauce) to your mixture before you purée your sauce. Proceed with caution, though: chipotle is a very strong flavor and can easily dominate the flavor profile of your sauce.
If you can’t find good tomatoes, just add a cup of tomato sauce to your purée. You can also use tomato sauce to adjust the thickness to your preference.
The addition of charred vegetables, rehydrating the chiles in beef broth, frying the sauce, and adding cumin—while not necessarily authentic—all deepen the flavor profile tremendously from the sauce I was making before.
Leftover sauce is even better, since the flavors have a chance to meld and get happy. If I’m not using all of my red enchilada sauce in the next 1-2 days, I freeze it for easy meals later on.
Red enchilada sauce is perfect for—obviously—enchiladas, but also chilaquiles, carne adobada, and smothered burritos.
- 8-10 dried guajillo chiles
- 1 medium onion, cut into ¼" rings
- 2-3 medium tomatoes
- 3 medium garlic cloves in their husks
- 1 tbsp. flavorful lard, divided
- 2 cups beef broth
- ¼ tsp. salt, or to taste
- 1-2 canned chipotle chiles (optional)
- 1 cup tomato sauce (optional)
- 1 tsp. cumin (optional)
- Bring the beef broth to a simmer over medium heat. Cut the tops off of the guajillo chiles and empty the seeds. Cut the chiles into pieces that can lay flat in a skillet; strip out the membranes.
- Set a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Using a paper towel, spread about ⅓ of the lard evenly on the bottom of the skillet. Working in batches, add the pieces of chile to the skillet. Toast briefly until the chile becomes fragrant and begins to darken in color (this takes about 15 seconds). Flip and repeat on the other side. Add to the beef broth. Repeat until the chiles are all toasted. Remove the broth and chiles from the heat.
- Meanwhile, re-coat the skillet with another ⅓ of the lard. Add the onion slices, tomatoes, and garlic cloves. Rotate or flip the vegetables as they begin to develop a dark brown char. Remove and set aside. When the chiles have rehydrated for 45 minutes, add them to a food processor along with the charred vegetables, the chipotle chiles (if using), and half of the broth. Purée until smooth. Pass through a food mill or a coarse-mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Pour the remainder of the beef broth over the solids and into the bowl (pressing once again on the solids).
- Place a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the remaining lard. When the lard is melted and sizzling, CAREFULLY add the purée (use extreme caution because the sauce tends to splatter). Fry the sauce for 30 seconds and reduce heat to low. Add the cumin (if using) and salt. Simmer for 30 minutes, or until the sauce darkens and thickens slightly. Check the seasoning, adjusting as necessary. Cool and keep in the refrigerator or freezer.