These cheese enchiladas are pretty simple and, honestly, pretty perfect. The red chile sauce alone garnered rave reviews from our testers. So did the quick prep time. We think you’ll love’em too.
My Mexican-born friend Gilberto Martin del Campo, who taught me how to make a green chile sauce, also showed me how to make these enchiladas. This is how a lot of people in Mexico prepare them and is very unlike the gloppy “cheese enchiladas” of the typical Tex-Mex place this side of the border.
The day I realized that I could make my own sauce for enchiladas was a day when life’s lovely possibilities glowed a few degrees brighter. The sauce turns ordinary corn tortillas and a dribble of sour cream into a feast. The method of frying a sauce-coated tortilla probably seems unusual, but you’re not frying the tortillas to get them crisp and golden. The idea is to make them supple, tasty, and hot. If possible, buy locally produced, real handmade corn tortillas. Sometimes Gilberto will put some queso fresco in the center of the tortilla before he folds it, which is a lovely variation. Make a platter of these enchiladas and serve them for a light supper or lunch. Of course, it will be difficult to fill the platter because the cook usually wants to eat them straight from the frying pan.–Martha Holmberg
WHAT IS COTIJA?
“A slightly dry and crumbly cow’s milk cheese with a nice tang,” is how author Martha Holmberg describes cotija [pronounced koh-TEE-hah], a Mexican cheese named for a town in the state of Michoacán. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. You’ll find the mild, reticent-to-melt cotija in many grocery stores stateside, although, in a desperate moment, a dryish feta will work instead, notes Holmberg. Nothing’s quite the same as the real thing, though, so go on. Get your cotija on.
For the red chile sauce
- 12 dried New Mexico chiles (or substitute ancho chiles)
- 2 ancho chiles (which are, by definition, dried)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, lard, or rendered chicken fat
- 1/2 yellow onion sliced
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt plus more as needed
- 3 large garlic cloves smashed
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar plus more as needed
- 1/2 cup homemade chicken stock, low-sodium canned chicken broth, turkey broth, or vegetable broth
For the enchiladas
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- Twelve (6-inch) corn tortillas
- 1/2 cup crumbled cotija cheese
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
Make the red chile sauce
- Break open both types of chiles, discard the stems, and shake out the seeds. Depending on how brittle the chiles are, you can use your hands or use kitchen scissors. The chiles contain a natural chemical that can irritate your skin or eyes, so be careful. If your skin is particularly sensitive, wear rubber gloves. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water when you have finished.
- Place a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the chiles, and toast them by pressing them flat onto the hot surface with a metal spatula, turning them once. Once they change color and you can start to smell them, they’re ready. This can happen in as short a time as 15 seconds a side. Don’t toast them too long or they’ll scorch. Pour the chiles into a medium bowl, add hot water to cover, and let soak until quite soft, at least 30 minutes.
- While the chiles are soaking, in a medium skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and salt and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion starts to sizzle. Then reduce the heat to low and continue to cook until the onion is very soft and sweet and is starting to caramelize, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic, cumin, and sugar and cook for another 30 seconds or so. Remove from the heat and set aside until the chiles are ready.
- Drain the chiles, reserving the soaking water. In a blender, combine the chiles and the onion mixture and process until puréed, adding enough of the broth to create a smooth purée and stopping to scrape down the sides of the blender. Add the remaining broth and process, adding a little of the soaking water if needed to get a nice pouring consistency reminiscent of very thick canned tomato juice. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more salt or sugar if needed. You should have about 2 cups. (You can refrigerate the sauce in an airtight container for up to 1 week or freeze it in resealable plastic bags for up to 2 months.)
Assemble the enchiladas
- Heat the oven to 250°F (120°C).
- To keep things from getting messy (well, uh, from getting too messy), set up your workstation like this: Pour 2 cups chile sauce into a shallow dish, such as a pie plate. If you’re right-handed, set the dish of sauce to the left of the stove, place the stack of tortillas within easy reach on the same side of the stove, and set a large baking dish (a 9-by-13-inch dish is a good size) to the right of the stove.
- In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Dip a tortilla into the chile sauce, coating it on both sides. Let a little bit drip off, and then place the tortilla in the hot oil—be careful, as it will spit and sizzle. If there’s room in the skillet, coat a second tortilla and add it. Cook for 30 seconds, turn, and cook on the other side for a few more seconds until the tortilla is floppy and hot. You’re not trying to crisp the tortilla, merely warm it until it’s bendable. Slip tongs or a long, thin metal spatula carefully under the middle of the tortilla, lift it carefully, and let any oil drip back into the pan. Move the tortilla to the baking dish, carefully fold it in half, and then in half again to make a loose triangle.
- Repeat with the remaining tortillas, adding more oil to the pan as needed, and snugging the tortillas together in a neat single layer in the baking dish.
- Crumble the cheese evenly over the folded tortillas and pop them in the oven to warm, 5 to 7 minutes.
- In a small bowl, stir together the sour cream and lime juice and drizzle over the enchiladas. Serve immediately.
Richer & thicker variationYou can add 1/2 cup sour cream to the sauce just after you add the broth to make a richer, though less authentic, version of this enchilada sauce.
Recipe Testers' Reviews
This recipe represents the simplest, and arguably most traditional, type of enchilada. “Enchilada” translates roughly as “chilied,” and at its most basic, an enchilada is a tortilla in a chile-based sauce. Fillings are just extra.
The cooking method outlined in the recipe works, if you follow it exactly. I’ve made many an enchilada in my day, folded, stacked, and rolled, and have done many variations of the frying and sauce-dipping steps. For some types, it works best to fry in oil then dip in sauce, and for others, to do it in the opposite order, as in this recipe. For this folded enchilada, I recommend the method in the recipe. I didn’t find that 1 teaspoon lime juice was enough to thin the sour cream to a drizzling consistency, but it’s not that big a deal. You could also use Mexican crema here, if available, or crème fraîche.
The sauce is simple and easy and will work well on enchiladas or as a cooking element in other recipes, such as rice. The chiles are the star here, so treat them well, starting with the toasting. It took about 3 minutes to toast the chiles. I recommending rinsing them briefly (very briefly, you don’t want them getting soggy), and drying them before toasting. The instructions don’t mention turning them, but you should turn them while toasting, and make sure they don’t scorch. You want them fragrant, but not blackened. I did need to add quite a bit of soaking liquid to get a sauce-like texture, about 1/2 cup. I also recommend taking the time to adjust the seasonings as recommended. I added a bit more sugar and quite a bit more salt.
These were so authentic they brought back fond memories of our extended family from Mexico that we don’t see very often. In addition to the chicken stock I used 1/4 cup of chile water to thin the sauce to a thick tomato sauce consistency. The yield ended up being a little over 2 1/4 cups. It only took my peppers 1 minute each side for them to smell. It mentioned that they’d change colors but my dried chiles were so dark you didn’t notice a change in color, just the smell.
The onions sizzled immediately due to the fact that you were putting them into a hot skillet with oil. I did add an additional 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon sugar, as they sauce tasted a little flat. This addition gave it the taste I desired. The cotija cheese was worth the trip to five different stores, as it added the most authentic Mexican flavor. The author is correct: this isn’t a clean job. My stove is covered with sauce and grease, but they were so worth the mess. The sour cream with lime juice was very thick, certainly not drizzleable (yep, made that word up), so I thinned it with buttermilk until it was able to be drizzled. The kids loved tonight’s meal.
Originally published April 30, 2013