Enchilada sauce is one of the most distinctive sauces from Mexican cooking, and also one of the most popular for people to use in their own cooking. Its delicious tanginess, spice, and complex layers of spices make it one of the best tools for adding healthy flavor to your foods.
But, if you don’t have enchilada sauce, don’t want to make it at home, or your grocery store ran out, you might be looking for good substitutes. Enchilada sauce is pretty distinctive, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other options out there that will give you a similar delicious flavor.
Here are some of the best replacements for enchilada sauce you can use in a pinch. But first, let's talk about what enchilada sauce is so you're better prepared to find a good substitution.
What Is Enchilada Sauce?
Enchilada sauce is made with a combination of broth, chili peppers either fresh or dried, with vinegar, aromatic spices and vegetables, and sometimes tomatoes. Some recipes are thickened with flour to give the sauce a richer texture.
Red Enchilada Sauce
Red enchilada sauce is usually made from dried and rehydrated chilies, which often turn red during the drying process. They are blended together with liquid, sometimes water, sometimes broth, sometimes vinegar or a combination of all three, to create a smooth slurry that can be combined with the other ingredients and cooked to create the right flavor and texture.
This sauce often uses garlic and onions to help round out the flavors. The vinegar can also give enchilada sauce a sort of savory fermented taste, without requiring actual fermentation.
Green Enchilada Sauce
Green enchilada sauce is essentially the same as red enchilada sauce, with the exception that the sauce is made with fresh chilies. It can also contain tomatillos, but not all recipes call for them.
The chilies that go into enchilada sauce are also usually roasted ahead of time, which adds to the umami of the sauce, provides a similar smokey flavor to the dried chilies, and also deepens both the sweetness and the savory taste of the ingredients.
Green enchilada sauce can taste fresher and stronger, depending on the recipe, but it can also be a bit more variable since drying out the chilies used in red enchilada sauce tends to bring out the capsaicin and create a more uniform and predictable flavor than fresh chilies, which can had a wide range of both flavor and heat.
Looking for a delicious enchilada alternative? Check out our chicken enchilada bubble-up!
Why Would You Want To Replace Enchilada Sauce?
There are a few reasons to find a substitute for enchilada sauce. For one thing, you might not be able to find enchilada sauce, especially when grocery stores and manufacturers are dealing with a shortage of chilies due to weather conditions or a bad growing year.
Replacements can also give you a wider variety of flavors, or work as a replacement if you’re cooking for someone with an allergy, or who is looking for a different spice level than you can get in enchilada sauce.
Or you could need a substitution because of an allergy.
There are a lot of reasons to look for a substitution. Fortunately, there are good options no matter what kind of substitution you’re looking for.
Not sure what the difference between enchiladas and chimichangas is? We can help clear that up with this article comparing the two dishes.
Delicious Substitutes For Enchilada Sauce
Taco sauce has a similar taste profile to enchilada sauces. Like enchilada sauce, it's made with tomatoes, garlic, chilies, and various other spices and aromatics. It does have a different flavor, but the main problem with using taco sauce is that it’s thicker. It’s meant as a condiment rather than a cooking sauce.
Fortunately, that problem can be pretty easily fixed by adding water, stock, tomato juice, or another thinning agent. You might need to add a few more spices or aromatics to your meal, but you’ll be able to get a similar flavor.
Restaurant Style Salsa
Restaurant-style salsa is another good alternative, especially since it tends to have a much smoother texture compared with other salsas. It also comes in a range of spice temperatures, ranging from mild to very hot, which can give you a lot of control over the final heat of your dish.
This kind of salsa and Enchilada sauce also often have a similar texture and ingredient list, though enchilada sauce is blended smoothly and usually cooked longer to break down the vegetables and add a smoky flavor.
Ranchero sauce is another good option. It’s similar to enchilada sauce in taste and texture. The biggest difference is that ranchero sauce has tomatoes, and is usually a tomato-based sauce, while enchilada sauce is usually made without tomatoes.
If there are tomatoes in an enchilada sauce there are usually fewer of them than in ranchero sauce.
Of course, the fact that there are fewer chilies in ranchero sauce often means that it’s milder than enchilada sauce would be. You can add more spices and enchilada seasoning if you want to get the flavor a little closer. Adding more chilies, fresh or dried, to the sauce can also help give you a more similar flavor.
Picante is a specific kind of salsa made from chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, and spices. It’s pretty similar to enchilada sauce, though often a bit thinner and less spicy. Like Ranchero sauce, the addition of tomatoes thins out the sauce, adding sweetness and acidity.
This sauce can be a good option for people who want the classic red enchilada flavor but don't want all the spice and heat.
Picante sauce also provides a lot of the same smokey flavor, making it a solid substitute even though it’s milder.
Sofrito sauce is made with habanero chilies, as well as bell peppers, plum tomatoes, onions, garlic, and cilantro. It sometimes includes other fresh herbs and other chili peppers, depending on the recipe and the brand.
Sofrito is a Puerto Rican sauce, while enchilada sauce is Mexican.
Homemade Enchilada Sauce
If you can’t find enchilada sauce at the store, another alternative is to make your own at home. There are a lot of different recipes out there, and when you make your own enchilada sauce you can control the ingredients, the heat level, and everything else about the sauce.
You just need to be prepared that enchilada sauce can take some time to make, so you’ll need to plan for extra prep time when you want to make enchiladas or another meal with enchilada sauce.
Tomato sauce is a good way to replace enchilada sauce if you’re looking for a milder alternative. It’s easy to take a pre-made tomato sauce and spice it and add other ingredients to get closer to a real enchilada sauce.
Remember that most enchilada sauce doesn't have many tomatoes, if any, so the results will still probably be sweeter and slightly more acidic than regular enchilada sauce.
Chile Colorado Sauce
Chile Colorado sauce is another tomato-free substitute for enchilada sauce that works really well in part because they are very similar sauces with similar taste profiles.
Chile Colorado sauce is made with rehydrated guajillo chiles. Guajillo chiles are the dried form of mirasol chiles and are one of the most important dried chiles in Mexican cuisine.
So, the nice thing about this sauce is that it's a traditional Mexican option, offers similar taste and texture, and the dried chilies provide even more savory smokiness than a typical enchilada sauce.
Salsa Verde is a fantastic replacement for green enchilada sauce. Most salsa Verde is a little simpler than green enchilada sauce, often just a mix of tomatillos and jalapenos without other spices. Enchilada sauce is often a bit more complicated, including onions, garlic, spices, and other additions.
But, that means that salsa Verde is a good base and that you can easily add the other ingredients to get a finish almost identical to green enchilada sauce.
Love Mexican food? Here are 23 Mexican breakfast recipes that pair brilliantly with enchilada sauce, salsa verde, and a lot of the sauces in this list!
Mole sauce is very different from enchilada sauce, but it’s a fun alternative and pairs well with similar ingredients, so it’s a great pivot if you can’t find the enchilada sauce you’re looking for.
Traditional mole is a combination of chiles, spices, nuts, and plenty of other ingredients, including chocolate or cacao. Most mole has chocolatey notes but doesn't taste very strongly of chocolate or even cacao.
That’s because of the complex mixture of spices and aromatic ingredients.
However, it does tend to be more savory, nutty, and smokey than enchilada sauce. It can also be slightly more bitter.
Chili gravy is about as far from Mexican cuisine as you can get while still using similar spices and ingredients. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad replacement for enchilada sauce.
Chili gravy is a Tex-Mex invention, which has a beef gravy base similar to any other brown gravy, but with the addition of tomatoes or tomato paste, onions, garlic, and chilies.
Depending on your taste preferences, you can also make chili gravy with beef gravy and spices, without having to use fresh ingredients, which can save a lot of time and effort.
This is a good option if you are cooking for someone who isn’t used to Mexican cooking, if you need to be able to control the heat level to make a milder sauce, or if you’re looking for a thicker or more savory alternative.