The Secret to Great Enchiladas Is Patience

Categories: How To

Enchiladas rojas.
Making enchiladas is more a test of stamina and endurance than culinary prowess. The ingredients are simple and few, and there's not much fancy footwork required. That said, anyone who regularly makes a South of the Border variety of the dish deserves your utmost respect and admiration. It is a very, verrry tedious process.

So labor-intensive, in fact, that occasionally someone attending one of Sylvia Casares's enchilada classes tells her they'd rather just get their fix at one of her Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen locations. She's also recently added a food truck to her arsenal ("No Borders Gourmet Street Food"), serving breakfast tacos and lunch at private events and Wednesdays through Fridays at The Menil. According to Casares, if you want a great enchilada, you have to put in the work, a statement that would become an overriding theme of the class she taught Wednesday night at Central Market.

The upstairs room of the Central Market Cooking School was packed to the gills. I'd heard rave reviews about the monthly cooking classes she teaches at her Westheimer location, and it wasn't hard to see why -- the joy she derives from cooking is truly infectious. "Look at that color! Isn't it gorgeous!" she exclaimed energetically as she blended cooked Cascabel and Chiles de Arbol into a brick red mixture that would become the base of her salsa roja. She also reiterated the importance of using the right ingredients at every step of the process, even going so far as to grind her own cumin in a mortar and pestle. "When you start moving away from fresh ingredients, that's when you start losing flavor. It's always best to go back to the purest form of an ingredient."

Casares's recipes are copyright, but she hopes to finally complete the cookbook she's been working on by the end of this year.

A few more of Sylvia Casares's cooking tips, listed below:

  • Thin, white corn tortillas work best for enchilada. She recommends the H-E-B store brand.

  • The sauce used to coat the white corn tortillas should always be cold or room temperature, never hot. Allow plenty of time for cooling or make it a day in advance.

  • Adding one large red tomato to your tomatillo sauce will reduce tartness.

  • For soft, restaurant-style enchiladas place the already sauce-coated tortillas, one-by-one, into a medium skillet of heated vegetable oil for 2-3 seconds on each side, using a Teflon spatula to flip them over. I can't begin to tell you what an enormous difference this makes in the texture of the dish.

  • For traditional Mexican enchiladas, use queso fresca (a low-fat, soft, crumbly cheese that doesn't melt). For a more Tex-Mex variety, use cheddar.

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Jay Francis
Jay Francis

(Disclaimer: Sylvia and I have been friends for years).

Sylvia, in her classes refers to the dried chile as a cascabel or cascavel and this was picked up by the Lauren in this article. When I first heard the use of this word, I was amused because in Mexico the cascabel is a Meyer lime sized round chile with a lot of seeds in it, hence, the rattle noise. The actual chile used here is that ancho which is the red ripened and dried Poblano chile.

So I did some research and found that the San Antonio spice company Bolner's Fiesta uses the cascavel name on its packaging, thus this naming would be picked up in South Texas where Sylvia is from. Since then, I've also seen the name cascabel show up on ancho chiles packaged in California. But if you're shopping at Flores Spices or other venues, you're going to be wanting the ancho chile, not the cascabel.

Another difference in technique, Sylvia comes from a South Texas tradition of coating the tortilla with the puree and then putting it into the oil. However, my experience is that the puree just comes off into the oil, slowly burning over time. Shucking tradition, I would recommend frying the tortillas in the oil first to soften them, cooking your puree separately, then dipping the tortillas into the puree. From a technical standpoint, this makes more sense to me. But then again, Sylvia's enchiladas are terrific, so who am I to criticize?

Kevin Shalin
Kevin Shalin

I agree with you Jay, I was at Sylvia's class the other night, and noticed that when she dipped the tortilla in the oil, a lot of the puree seemed to come off. That said, I was way in the back and it was a little difficult to see. The end product though was amazing and the puree definitely shined through.

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