While doing research for this post, I found references to many different ways of making red chile sauce. In Mexico alone, there are as many ways to prepare this sauce as there are varieties of chiles! There are even more when you take into account the regional twists.
A Basic Red Chile Sauce
The following is a recipe for a basic red chile sauce, made with ancho chiles (also known as pasilla chiles - see notes). The basic technique was taught to me by my Mexican friend, Arturo Vargas, and helped along with notes from Diana Kennedy's From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients.
How to Make Your Own Tamale Sauce
Why make your own sauce? Making your own red chile sauce is not much different than making your own spaghetti sauce. If you have the time, it's worth doing! Not only do you create a sauce with fantastic taste, but dried chiles are also inexpensive and easy to store.
If you are making up a large batch of tamales, enchiladas, or chili beans, you will likely need a lot of sauce. If you make homemade chile sauce, you can easily make as much tamale sauce, enchilada sauce, etc. as you need.
Do you have a favorite recipe for Mexican or Tex-Mex homemade chile sauce? If so, please let us know in the comments.
What Are Ancho Chiles?
An ancho chile is a poblano pepper that's been allowed to stay on the vine until it's turned red. After it's harvested, it's dried and turns a deep red/purple/brown. Anchos are commonly used in Mexican, Tex-Mex, and Southwestern cuisine.
Their color and their mild heat make them useful in sauces like red chile sauce. For an added dimension to the flavor of this recipe, using half guajillo chiles will bring in some fruity notes that complement the anchos' earthy notes.
Although ancho and pasilla chile peppers are two different species of pepper, in Michoacan, Mexico, anchos are called pasillas. Parts of the U.S. where Michoacans immigrated sometimes interchange the terms pasilla and ancho.
How to Prep Chiles for Sauce
Prepping dried ancho chiles is a simple process.
- Using a sharp pairing knife, slice the pepper in half length-wise.
- Remove the stem and scoop out all the seeds and veins.
- Heat the chiles in a skillet quickly (see Step 2).
- Soften the heated chiles in boiling water (see Step 3).
Avoiding Skin or Eye Irritations While Prepping Chilis
Most of us have experienced the pain of handling chili peppers and then absentmindedly rubbing our eyes. The pepper's naturally occurring chemical capsaicin gets on hands and fingers and becomes an irritant. While perhaps a right of passage for inexperienced home cooks, experiencing that pain once is enough to know you don't want it to happen a second time.
As a precaution, use latex gloves when prepping thee peppers. In a pinch, you can put a plastic sandwich bag over the hand that's handling the peppers.
If you do use your bare hands, wash them thoroughly with soap and hot water right after handling the peppers.
Troubleshooting a Bitter Chile Sauce
This sauce may turn bitter if the ancho chiles are toasted too long or the peppers you've bought happen to be on the bitter side. Take care to only toast the peppers quickly on each side, as instructed in Step 2.
If the sauce does come out a little bitter, try one or a combination of these fixes.
- Taste the water that the peppers were soaked in as instructed in Step 4. That water gets reserved and added back into the sauce. However, if the water is bitter, toss it and use 1 1/2 cups of fresh water in Step 4.
- Mix in a spoonful of tomato paste for some sweetness.
- Add a pinch of sugar, brown sugar, or 1/4 teaspoon of honey.
Swaps and Substitutions in Chile Sauce
- In place of a pinch of ground cloves, use a pinch of ground allspice or nutmeg.
- In place of the 8 crushed peppercorns, you substitute 1/16 teaspoon ground black pepper.
- Use avocado oil in place of olive oil.
- Try other chiles, such as smoked morita peppers.
How to Store or Freeze Red Chile Sauce
Refrigerate the sauce, covered, up to 5 days.
To freeze, pour into freezer-safe containers, remove all air, and freeze up to 3 months. Defrost in the refrigerator. Reheat on the stovetop until just heated through before using.
Ways to Use Mexican Red Chili Sauce
- Red Chile Chicken Enchiladas
- Easy Enchiladas
- Texas Stacked Enchiladas with Corn and Black Beans
- Tamale Pie
Mexican Red Chile Sauce
According to <a href="https://www.amazon.com/Essential-Cuisines-Mexico-Diana-Kennedy/dp/030758772X/">Diana Kennedy</a>, pasilla chiles are a long and skinny variety, while ancho chiles (dried poblanos) are shorter and wider. However, in certain parts of Michoacan, Mexico, the ancho chile is called pasilla. Because of immigration, anchos are commonly known as pasillas in many parts of the U.S.
- 3 dried ancho (sometimes called pasilla in the US) chiles OR 2 ancho and 2 guajillo chiles
- 1 large clove garlic
- 2 black peppercorns, crushed
- Pinch of ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste
- Extra virgin olive oil
Cut the chiles open and remove stem and seeds:
Working on one chile at a time, use a paring knife to cut a slit all the way down one side of a chile. Open up the chile and remove the stem and seeds. Remove as much of the veins as you can.
Reserve a few of the seeds or veins for adding later if you want added heat.
Note when working with chiles, either wear protective gloves or wash your hands very thoroughly with soap and warm water after handling the chiles. Do not touch or rub your eyes if you have been handling chile peppers.
Heat the chiles on a skillet:
Heat a large skillet on medium heat. Flatten out the dried chiles as well as you can and place on the skillet to heat.
Press down on the opened chiles and leave for a few seconds. Turn the chiles over and heat a few seconds more.
You do not want to toast or burn the chiles! If they burn, they'll turn bitter. Just heat them enough to draw out more of their flavor.
Soften the chiles in hot water:
Add the chilis to a small saucepan and add enough water so that they are just covered. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and let sit for 10 minutes, until the chiles have softened and plumped up.
(OR pour place the chiles in a small saucepan and pour boiling water over them to cover. Let sit for 15 minutes, until softened.)
Purée with garlic, seasonings, water or poaching liquid:
Remove the chiles from the pan, reserve the soaking water, and place the chiles in a blender. Add the garlic, salt, crushed peppercorns, ground cloves, and 1 1/2 cups of the soaking liquid (taste the soaking water first, if it seems bitter, use plain water instead).
Purée for 2 minutes, until the sauce is completely smooth. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning. If you want more heat, add in a few of the seeds or veins and purée some more. Add more salt if needed.
Strain through sieve into a skillet, simmer:
Pour the sauce through a sieve into a skillet. Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the sauce.
Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to maintain the simmer, cook for 10 minutes. Skim off the foam.
Remove from heat. Use immediately or pour into a glass jar (plastic will get stained) and refrigerate.