Homemade Enchilada Sauce From Scratch (no cans)

If you love enchiladas like our family does, then you must try making homemade enchilada sauce.

Until recently, I used only canned enchilada sauce. In California, I had several to choose from, but I would usually go with the least expensive one. I do remember finding the El Torito brand of enchilada sauce at the 99¢ Only Store and that was my favorite – and it was cheap. I stocked up on it, but I quickly ran out and could never find it again.

Here in Virginia, I’ve felt lucky that the local grocery store at least carried ONE brand — even though I’m not crazy about that brand. Which made me ask myself – why do I keep buying products that I think are average at best? Could I possibly make it better?

Well, I did think I could make it better, so two years ago, for the cheese enchiladas I make every Christmas Eve, I decided to try making a homemade enchilada sauce. I figured it couldn’t be that hard, so I searched for one that seemed like a good one to me and settled on a Martha Stewart recipe. The end result was was one of the best that I had ever used for my enchiladas. It convinced me that homemade sauce was far superior over most canned varieties.

But while we really liked that homemade sauce, I (as usual) wasn’t completely satisfied. I really wanted to make enchilada sauce 100% from scratch – no canned tomato sauce or other items – all the work done by me.

And that’s what I did today.

In the How To Cook Everything iPhone app, there is a recipe for Salsa Roja (a salsa recipe). One of the variations available for Salsa Roja is Red Enchilada Sauce, so that’s the recipe I used.

The recipe is easy — it’s not complicated or hard to understand. But it can be a bit time consuming considering the prep work needed. I doubled the recipe and chopped everything by hand: 4 lbs of tomatoes, 4 large onions, and cilantro. I minced 8 cloves of garlic and 4 chiles. If it sounds like I am complaining, I’m not. I can get into a groove when chopping, mincing, and other prep that I actually find the whole process very relaxing. My mind drifts of into worlds of how our upcoming move will go, designs of my next digital scrapbooking product, and what’s on my “to-do” list for the next day. Some of my best thinking happens when I am quietly preparing dinner.

While all the prep work took longer than many of the meals I made, it was worth the effort. Seriously. This enchilada sauce has so much flavor that when I finally went to make my enchiladas, I made the chicken filling very simple. I wanted my sauce to be the star of the show.

The recipe called for guajillos dried chiles, which are a medium heat chile. I’ve never bought these before, or cooked with them, but I found them in the produce section of Walmart for about $6 for the entire bag. I suppose that some stores might sell them on the ethnic or Hispanic food aisle.

The first thing you need to do with them is rinse them (they can be a bit dusty). Then cut the tops off of them and dump the seeds and membranes out. The seeds and the membranes (parts that used to hold the seeds in place) are what has the most heat in a chile, so I tried to be careful to get all of them out. We can handle a bit of heat, but I considering that I’ve never cooked with these, I didn’t want any big surprises.

In a dry skillet, toast your chiles. I placed them in the pan and turned the heat on medium and using a spoon, I pressed down on the chiles to allow them more contact with the heat of the pan. When I did this, I could feel and hear the chile popping and cracking – this is what I wanted it to do as this is when it’s actually toasting the skin. As soon as I felt and heard that noise, I flipped my chile over to do the other side. It’s a quick process; it only takes about a minute per side.

After toasting, the chiles are ready for soaking to rehydrate them. In my Pyrex measuring cup, I added about 4 cups of water and soaked my chiles. After about 30 minutes or so, you can see how the water becomes discolored from the chiles. This water is potent – and might be needed further in my recipe, so I set it aside.

While the chiles were soaking, I chopped the onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. I also minced the garlic. The original recipe says to work with peeled and seeded tomatoes – but I used the entire tomato. Not sure if I broke a rule in the culinary world or not.

When the chiles were nice and soft, I removed them from the water. Remember, I didn’t discard the water, I set it aside in case I needed it later (which I did).

I minced the chiles. I think their color is beautiful – I love how deep and rich they are.

Yay! Now I am ready to start cooking my sauce! In my largest skillet, I heated the oil and then added the onions, garlic, and chiles. I cooked them until the onions were soft. It smelled so good at this point! I also tasted it since I was worried that it might be too hot for our sensitive taste buds, but no, it was perfect!

Next, I added the tomatoes, sugar, and some salt and pepper. Stirred that up and brought it to a gentle simmer.

Here’s how it looked after simmering for about 20 minutes or so. I found that while it was simmering, that the mixture did get a bit thick, so I thinned it out with a bit of my chile soaking liquid. At the very end, I turned off the heat and added the cilantro and the lime juice. Then I let it cool a bit.

Time to pull out my beloved blender! In batches, I blended up my mixture so that I would get a nice, smooth consistency. You could do it with an immersion blender, but I don’t have one of those fancy things, so it’s the blender for me. No biggie…it’s easy to do. Just make sure the mixture is cooled slightly, that you only fill it up about half way, that you put your lid on (very important!) and that you keep a dish towel on top of the lid and put pressure on the lid with your hand as you blend it in short, quick pulses.

And now it’s all blended, nice and pretty. The final sauce had a very slight spiciness, but not much at all. Even my husband said, “these aren’t as spicy as I thought they would be.” So, if you want more spiciness, you maybe want to leave more of the seeds in the beginning. I’m happy with the level of heat, so I will make this exactly the same way next time.

The recipe below makes about 4 cups of homemade enchilada sauce – which I think is enough for a typical 13×9″ pan of enchiladas (of course, this could vary, depending on how much you like to use). I doubled the recipe, so I ended up with about 8 cups. My opinion? If you are going to go to the work to make it once, and you are fairly certain you will like the final result, don’t make just one batch. Enchilada sauce freezes well, so you can do the work once, but have more for future meals.

Homemade Enchilada Sauce from Scratch

2 large guajilla dried chiles, rinsed, toasted, soaked (soaking liquid reserved), and minced
1/4 cup oil
2 large onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 lbs Roma tomatoes, chopped
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
3 tablespoons lime juice


1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add chiles, onions, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft (about 5 minutes).

2. Add tomatoes, sugar, and some salt and pepper.

3. Bring mixture to a simmer, where it’s bubbling gently. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Mixture will begin to thicken – but if it becomes too thick, use your reserved chile soaking liquid to thin it out a bit. If you are concerned with your liquid being too spicy, you can also thin it out with some plain water. Turn off heat.

4. Stir in cilantro and lime juice. Taste and add more salt and pepper as desired. Allow to cool slightly.

5. Scoop some of the mixture into your blender. You will want to work in small batches. Take great care to fill blender only 1/2 full, cover with lid, and place a folded dish towel on top of lid. Place your hand on top of the dish towel and apply pressure to the lid with your hand. Pulse in short bursts of power until fully blended and smooth. Pour blended mixture into a clean bowl and continue with the remaining mixture.

6. Use in your favorite enchilada recipe.

As prepared by HomeCookingMemories.com from Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything app

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  1. KImmy says

    That sauce looks amazing! I'm like you … love prepping … very soothing and relaxing … especially if I have a glass of wine to sip while cooking.

    • says

      Thanks Lindy! And so true that authentic enchilada sauces doesn’t include tomatoes at all. One of my favorite no-tomato enchilada sauce recipes is based on one from Rick Bayless. One of these days I’ll get around to sharing it. Do you have a favorite enchilada sauce recipe? As someone who loves Mexican food, I’m always looking to try new ones.

      • says

        Yes, I do. Actually it’s my mother-in-laws that is easy and good. Usually when I make it fresh, I use all fresh chilies, but this one is easier and tasty, just not as red and pretty…

        Cheers Lindy!

        I’m going to link your site on mine as a fav…feel free to do the same :-)

        • says

          Thank you for sharing this, Lindy! We make different enchiladas often and am always trying new sauce recipes, so I will definitely save this and try.

  2. Hilleri Vaughn says

    This was awesome. I changed a few things, didn’t need as much and didn’t have all the ingredients. Instead I used 4 roma tomatoes, 4 chilies, 4 cloves of garlic and instead of cilantro, I subsituted. I used 1/4 cup of parsely, 1 teaspoon of corriander seeds crushed and all the juice from a lime. I also used a little bit of the broth from the roast I was slow cooking on the side as some juice to thin it out. (Husbands idea) THIS WAS FANTASTIC!! I used it for shreddded beef enchiladas and the kids, the hubby, and I were so impressed, I got an applause for the wonderfuness they got to enjoy from my all day cooking!! =)

  3. I_Fortuna says

    HI, sorry, this is more Tex-Mex than authentic Mexican enchilada gravy (sauce). Authentic Mexican enchilada gravy uses no tomatoes or tomato products even though the canned ones do. Tomatoes are an addition for non-Mexican tastes. Also, there is no cumin or oregano (crucial for many Mexican dishes) and way too much garlic. I think this would be a good sauce for some things it just is not authentic enchilada gravy made as you would find it in most Mexican homes and restaurants.

    • says

      It’s very true this isn’t a *true* Mexican enchilada sauce, but we found it to be one of our favorites and something we enjoy using for enchiladas. Since posting this originally back in 2010, I’ve made & enjoyed other non-tomato enchilada sauces (my favorite is one by Rick Bayless), but this enchilada sauce by Mark Bittman is still one of our favorites. Thank you for visiting and sharing about authentic enchilada sauce….I’m sure your comment will be helpful to those wanting something more true Mexican.


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