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What is an authentic enchilada made of?

An enchilada is a classic Mexican dish that typically consists of a corn or flour tortilla rolled around a filling and covered with a chile sauce. Enchiladas can be filled with various ingredients like meat, cheese, beans, potatoes, vegetables or a combination. They are a staple in Mexican cuisine and have many regional variations throughout the country. While enchiladas are made and enjoyed all over Mexico, the most authentic and traditional enchiladas originate from the central and southern regions.

When it comes to an authentic, traditional enchilada, there are a few key components that set it apart from other variations you may have tried. An authentic enchilada begins first and foremost with the tortilla. Only a fresh, handmade corn tortilla or a high-quality store-bought corn tortilla should be used, as these will hold up better when rolled and maintain their corn flavor. The fillings are also simple, focusing on shredded chicken, beef, cheese or beans seasoned with onions, garlic and chiles. The sauce is equally important, made from dried chiles that are soaked and blended into a smooth, flavorful red sauce. Additional toppings like lettuce, sour cream, queso fresco and chopped onions add freshness and texture.

So in summary, an authentic enchilada is made up of these core elements:

  • A fresh corn tortilla
  • A simple filling like shredded chicken, beef, beans or cheese
  • A chile sauce made from dried chiles
  • Traditional toppings like lettuce, sour cream, queso fresco and onions

Let’s go through each component in more detail to understand what makes it authentic.

The Tortilla

The foundation of any enchilada is the tortilla. For an authentic enchilada, a fresh, handmade corn tortilla or store-bought corn tortilla is used. A flour tortilla lacks the sweet corn flavor and changes the whole experience. Here’s why corn is so important:

  • Corn has been cultivated in Mexico for thousands of years and is a staple ingredient in Mexican cuisine.
  • Fresh masa (corn dough) has a sweet, nutty flavor that pairs perfectly with the enchilada fillings and sauce.
  • The corn helps the tortilla hold its shape and not become soggy when rolled up around the fillings.
  • The corn flavor pairs better with the chiles and spices used in the sauce and fillings.

Ideally, fresh masa is made into tortillas by hand just before serving. But high-quality store-bought corn tortillas can also be used with great results. The key is finding tortillas made only with corn, water and maybe a little lime or salt. Pre-made corn tortillas can simply be quickly heated before using to soften them up for rolling.

Tortilla Tips

  • Look for tortillas made only with corn, lime and water.
  • Avoid tortillas with preservatives or other additives.
  • Briefly heat store-bought tortillas before using to soften them.
  • For fresh masa tortillas, press out thin and cook briefly on a hot griddle.

Using the right tortilla is the first step in crafting an authentic enchilada. Now let’s look at the fillings.

The Fillings

While enchiladas can be filled with all sorts of ingredients these days, traditional enchilada fillings are simple. The most common authentic fillings are:

  • Shredded chicken – poached or roasted chicken, shredded and seasoned
  • Shredded beef – braised or shredded beef seasoned with chiles and spices
  • Refried beans – mashed pinto or black beans, sometimes mixed with cheese
  • Cheese – shredded Mexican cheeses like Oaxaca, queso fresco or chihuahua

On their own, these fillings may seem plain. But when combined with the complex flavors of the chile sauce, they allow the sauce to shine and become perfectly balanced. Other classic seasoning ingredients liked minced white onion and garlic add subtle flavor to the fillings without overpowering them.

Filling Tips

  • Keep fillings simple and let the sauce be the star.
  • Shred chicken and beef so they absorb sauce.
  • Season beans and cheese moderately.
  • Saute onions and garlic lightly before adding to fillings.

With simple, seasoned fillings rolled up in a fresh tortilla, you have a solid base for your enchiladas. Now it’s all about the sauce!

The Sauce

The sauce is truly what defines an authentic enchilada. Without a flavorful, homemade red chile sauce, an enchilada just wouldn’t be complete. Here are the key elements that go into a traditional enchilada sauce:

  • Dried chiles – Ancho, guajillo, pasilla or a combination
  • Water or broth – For rehydrating the chiles
  • Onion and garlic – For aroma and depth of flavor
  • Tomato product – Tomato sauce, paste or fresh tomatoes
  • Spices and herbs – Cumin, Mexican oregano, bay leaf

The process starts by cleaning and seeding dried chiles, then toasting them lightly to intensify their flavor. The toasted chiles are soaked in hot water or broth until softened. Once rehydrated, they are blended with the remaining ingredients into a smooth sauce. The sauce simmers for 20-30 minutes to meld the flavors. Finally, it is seasoned with salt to taste.

This from-scratch sauce using dried chiles makes all the difference in taste compared to store-bought sauces. The depth of flavor is unmatched and brings an authentic enchilada together.

Sauce Tips

  • Use a blend of dried chile varieties.
  • Toast chiles before soaking to boost flavor.
  • Simmer the sauce to blend flavors.
  • Season with salt after simmering.

With flavorful chile sauce blanketing the tortilla and fillings, the enchilada is nearly complete. Just a few finishing touches remain.

The Toppings

Aside from the sauce, traditional enchilada toppings add freshness and texture. Here are some of the most popular authentic toppings:

  • Shredded lettuce – Usually iceberg for its crunchy texture
  • Crumbled queso fresco – Fresh Mexican cheese with a salty, milky flavor
  • Sliced onions – White or red onions, pickled or fresh
  • Sour cream – For a cool, tangy contrast
  • Chopped cilantro – A fresh herbal note

These toppings complement the other components and give each bite more interest. The lettuce and onions add a pleasant crunch, the queso fresco and sour cream lend creaminess, and the cilantro provides a bright, grassy flavor.

Topping Tips

  • Use shredded lettuce for texture and crispness.
  • Sprinkle queso fresco over the top before serving.
  • Mix in some chopped raw onions for bite.
  • Drizzle with Mexican crema or sour cream.
  • Garnish with fresh cilantro leaves.

With the right toppings, you add fresh flavor and visual appeal to finish off your authentic enchiladas.

Bringing It All Together

Making an authentic enchilada requires carefully assembling each component:

  1. A fresh corn tortilla
  2. A simple shredded or cheese filling
  3. A complex dried chile sauce
  4. Traditional toppings for texture

Follow these steps to assemble your enchiladas:

  1. Soften the tortillas in hot oil or by steaming.
  2. Fill each tortilla with 2-3 tablespoons of filling and roll it up.
  3. Arrange rolled enchiladas seam side down in a baking dish.
  4. Cover enchiladas with the chile sauce to coat completely.
  5. Bake at 350F for 15-20 minutes until hot and bubbly.
  6. Remove from oven and top with lettuce, cheese, onions and cilantro.

And that’s how you make an authentic, fully-loaded enchilada! With all the elements done right, these enchiladas deliver the classic flavors of true Mexican cuisine in every bite.

Key Takeaways

Here are the essential points that make an enchilada authentic:

  • A fresh corn tortilla is non-negotiable for flavor and texture.
  • Fillings are simple, focusing on chicken, beef, beans or cheese.
  • The sauce is made from scratch using dried chiles.
  • Toppings provide crunch, creaminess and freshness.
  • Each component complements the others for balance.

Stick to these guidelines, and your enchiladas will come out perfectly authentic and incredibly delicious!

Enchilada Sauce Recipes

To get that essential homemade enchilada sauce flavor, here are a few excellent chile sauce recipes to try:

Red Enchilada Sauce

Ingredient Amount
Dried guajillo chiles 8
Dried ancho chiles 2
Garlic cloves 3
Yellow onion 1/2 medium
Vegetable oil 2 tbsp
All-purpose flour 2 tbsp
Tomato sauce 8 oz
Chicken or beef broth 1 cup
Apple cider vinegar 1 tbsp
Mexican oregano 1/2 tsp
Cumin 1/2 tsp
Salt To taste
  1. Remove stems and seeds from dried chiles. Toast lightly.
  2. In a pot, boil chiles in water for 5 minutes to rehydrate.
  3. In another pot, saute onion and garlic in oil. Stir in flour to make a roux.
  4. Add rehydrated chiles, tomato sauce, broth, vinegar and spices.
  5. Blend sauce until smooth. Simmer for 20-30 mins.
  6. Season with salt to taste.

Green Enchilada Sauce

Ingredient Amount
Tomatillos 1 lb
Green chiles 3
Yellow onion 1/2 medium
Garlic cloves 2
Cilantro 1/4 cup
Vegetable oil 1 tbsp
Chicken broth 1/2 cup
Salt To taste
  1. Remove husks from tomatillos, rinse and quarter them.
  2. Broil tomatillos with garlic and onion for 5 mins, flipping once.
  3. Add tomatillos, garlic, onion, chiles and cilantro to a blender.
  4. Blend with oil, broth and salt until smooth.
  5. Simmer sauce for 15 mins to blend flavors.
  6. Adjust salt as needed.


An authentic enchilada is all about perfecting and balancing each component – the corn tortilla, simple fillings, complex sauce and fresh toppings. With quality ingredients and care taken to follow traditions, you can make incredible enchiladas right at home. There are many recipes to explore, but the guidelines remain the same. Stick to those fundamentals, and your enchiladas will impress any Mexican food lover with their authentic flavors. Just be prepared for requests for second helpings!