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Is enchilada sauce spicy or not?

Quick Answer

Enchilada sauce can range from mild to very spicy depending on the type of peppers used and the quantity included. Most pre-made canned enchilada sauces are mildly spicy to accommodate a wide range of palates. However, homemade and restaurant-made enchilada sauces often pack more heat through the use of hotter peppers like jalapeños, serranos, and guajillo chiles. The spiciness level can be adjusted by controlling the amount and type of peppers used.

What is Enchilada Sauce?

Enchilada sauce is a chili pepper-based sauce used to flavor enchiladas and other Mexican dishes. The main ingredients in enchilada sauce are dried chile peppers, spices like cumin and oregano, tomatoes or tomatillos, garlic, and onions. Some recipes also include a small amount of flour or corn starch to thicken the sauce.

There are two main types of enchilada sauce:

Red Enchilada Sauce

Red enchilada sauce gets its color and flavor from dried red chili peppers like ancho, guajillo, New Mexico, and California chiles. This style of sauce has a rich, earthy flavor.

Green Enchilada Sauce

Green enchilada sauce is made with tomatillos and green chile peppers like jalapeño, serrano, and poblano peppers. It has a bright, tangy flavor.

Within these two categories there is a lot of variation in spiciness based on the types and amounts of peppers used.

How Spicy are Different Chili Peppers?

The spiciness of enchilada sauce depends largely on the types of chile peppers used. Here is a guide to the spiciness levels of common enchilada sauce peppers, from mildest to hottest:

Mild Peppers

– Ancho: 1,000-2,000 Scoville heat units
– Guajillo: 2,500-5,000 SHU
– New Mexico: 1,000-2,000 SHU
– California: 500-2,000 SHU
– Poblano: 1,000-2,000 SHU

These mild chile peppers provide rich flavor with only mild heat. They are very commonly used in enchilada sauces, particularly red sauces.

Medium Peppers

– Jalapeño: 2,500-10,000 SHU
– Serrano: 10,000-25,000 SHU

Jalapeños and serranos can provide a punch of heat but are still mild enough for many palates. They are common in both red and green enchilada sauces.

Hot Peppers

– Cayenne: 30,000-50,000 SHU
– Chipotle: 10,000-15,000 SHU
– Habanero: 100,000-350,000 SHU

Just small amounts of these very hot peppers can make an enchilada sauce mouth-burning spicy. They are typically used sparingly.

Spiciness of Pre-Made Enchilada Sauces

Most mass-produced, pre-made canned enchilada sauces have only mild heat. They are designed to appeal to the widest range of consumers including children and those who prefer less spicy food.

Here are some examples of the Scoville heat unit ratings for popular canned enchilada sauces:

Brand Product Spiciness (SHU)
Old El Paso Red Enchilada Sauce 500-1,000 SHU (mild)
Rosarita Red Enchilada Sauce 1,000-2,000 SHU (mild)
Herdez Salsa Casera 1,000-1,500 SHU (mild)
La Victoria Green Taco Sauce 1,000-1,500 SHU (mild)

As you can see, most major bottled enchilada sauces range from 500-2,000 SHU, firmly on the mild end of the scale. They typically rely on peppers like guajillo, California, and New Mexico rather than hotter jalapeños or serranos.

However, some brands like Herdez do offer hotter “salsa picante” versions that use more peppers like jalapeños and bump up the spice level to around 5,000-7,000 SHU. So check labels carefully if you are looking for more heat.

Spiciness of Homemade and Restaurant Enchilada Sauces

When made from scratch at home or in restaurants, enchilada sauces often have a much wider range of spiciness. The cook has total control over the types and quantities of peppers used.

Some guidelines for spiciness of homemade and restaurant enchilada sauce:

– Mild: 1,000-3,000 SHU
– Medium: 3,000-5,000 SHU
– Hot: 5,000-10,000+ SHU

If you see enchilada sauce described as “verde” or “roja” that is typically an indicator that it will be on the hotter end, with more peppers like jalapeños and serranos in the mix.

Some tips for controlling the heat if making enchilada sauce yourself:

– For mild sauce, stick to ancho, guajillo, and New Mexico chiles.
– For medium, add 1-2 jalapeños or serranos to the mix.
– For hot, use peppers like cayenne, habanero, or chile de arbol.
– For exact spice level, add peppers a little at a time until desired heat is reached.
– Remove peppers’ ribs and seeds to reduce heat.

Adjusting Spice Level of Enchilada Sauce

Here are some tips for adjusting store-bought or homemade enchilada sauce to your desired spice level:

To Make it Hotter

– Add a minced jalapeño or serrano pepper.
– Add cayenne pepper, ground chipotle powder, or hot sauce a dash at a time.
– Use chicken or vegetable broth instead of water when thinning to concentrate the spicy flavor.

To Make it Milder

– Add more tomato product like tomato sauce or canned diced tomatoes.
– Add extra onions or garlic, which dilute the heat.
– Replace some of the hotter peppers with milder varieties like guajillo or New Mexico.
– Add a tablespoon of brown sugar.
– Stir in some cream or sour cream.

Serving Tips for Enchilada Sauce

Here are some tips for serving enchilada sauce to suit different levels of heat tolerance:

– Offer hot sauce like Cholula or Tapatio on the side so guests can add more heat to taste.
– For kids or those avoiding spicy food, serve a milder store-bought or homemade version.
– For adventurous eaters, use hotter peppers and less tomato product for extra punch.
– For a wide range of tastes, make two versions of sauce: one mild and one spicy.
– Place garnishes like sliced radishes, cilantro, lime wedges, and chopped onion on the table so diners can cool their mouths between bites.
– Serve with rice, beans, and tortillas to temper the heat.


Enchilada sauce can range from very mild to fiery hot depending on the type and amount of chili peppers used. Most pre-made canned sauces are mildly spicy, while homemade and restaurant versions often pack more heat. Cooks can control the spice level by adjusting the quantities and varieties of peppers. Serving the sauce with cooling garnishes and sides can help satisfy different levels of heat tolerance. Whether you prefer a gentle warmth or mouth-burning kick, there’s an enchilada sauce out there for you!