Making your own red chile sauce

Dried red chiles

These dried chiles will become a rich, red sauce for enchiladas, menudo or chile con carne.

For me, fall belongs to green chile. In the area my family hails from, vendors will roast your Big Jims and Sandias while you wait, and the glorious smell of roasting peppers hangs in the air of the Mesilla Valley. But winter is the season for red chile. Back before freezers, the No. 1 way to preserve those same green chiles was to tie them into picturesque ristras and hang them outside to dry until you were in the mood for some red enchiladas or menudo. It worked best in dry climates like northern Mexico and the desert Southwest. When my mom would bring some dried peppers home to California after visiting her family, she had to make red chile sauce quickly because the dried peppers would begin to mold in our more moist air.

These days, you can buy dried red peppers pretty much anywhere, even the international aisle of your grocery store. And making a red sauce from scratch is easy and light years better than pre-made enchilada sauce or using powdered chile. In my world, those aren’t even an option, though I’ve found frozen red chile sauce that’s actually a pretty good option. But doing it yourself means you can make the sauce to your taste. There’s not really a recipe, there is a process.

What you want to look for are bags of pasilla chiles, which is the dried version of those long green chiles. They might also be labeled California chile or New Mexico chile. Don’t get guajillos, which are used in different sauces, including mole.

First up, remove the stems of the chiles and remove as many of the seeds as possible. You don’t need to be too precise, because you’ll be straining it later. Put the chiles into a stockpot and cover with water. Bring it to a boil and let simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the chiles have reconstituted. From here on in, it’s all about your own personal taste.

Put the now-soft chiles into a blender, along with some of the water you used to boil the chile, filling about three-quarters of the blender jar. (Don’t fill it to the top, because it’s hot and might explode out of the top when you blend it.) For seasoning, I usually add a couple of cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of dried oregano, a teaspoon of salt, and a couple of shakes of cumin for each blender-full of chile. If you like the smoky flavor of cumin, use a little more. Hate oregano? Skip it.

Chile colorado - or red chile sauce

Two jars of homemade red chile.

Puree the chiles and spices until smooth, adding more water if the mixture is too thick. If you have a food mill, pour the pureed chile in and grind away to get rid of the seeds and skin. If you don’t have a food mill, don’t stress. My mom had us press the chile through a mesh strainer with a spoon for years before her sister finally bought her one.

One you have this magic elixir, have a little taste to make sure there is enough salt and adjust if needed. Make a huge batch of the stuff and freeze it in disposable containers – then you’ll have it ready when you’re hankering for some chile colorado or posole, which my mom will be showing me how to make just in time for a good New Year’s hangover cure.

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Follow Sylvia Ulloa on her journey of discovering and sharing traditional Mexican recipes and Latin-American inspired dishes.
For generations the Latina kitchen is where women (and some very wise men) passed down the traditions and flavors of their culture. The modern Latina cocina draws from those traditions while incorporating new spices and techniques, but every dish still has a story to tell.
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