Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.
The Incredible, Adaptable Comfort Food
“Comfort food.” Just those two simple words make me smile. Comfort food is a respite after a tiring day, warmth in a winter storm, a “hug in a bowl” when you’re feeling down.
Some of you might immediately think of a savory stew, a bowl of soup, or a hot mug of cocoa with marshmallows as your personal comfort food. For me, the ultimate comfort food is the enchilada—and here’s why.
Enchiladas can (and do) adapt to any season and any dietary preference. They will warm you on a chilly day or satisfy you while dining on the patio in the midst of summer. They can quell the craving of the boldest carnivore or be made totally meat (and dairy) free. There are even gluten-free options. In short, when it comes to enchiladas, there’s something for everyone.
Before we get started, let me give you a brief heads up on what an enchilada is (and isn’t). Next, I’ll share my go-to recipe, and then we’ll explore some alternatives for that adaptable comfort food.
What Is an Enchilada?
By definition, enchiladas are a dish made of corn tortillas rolled around a filling and covered with a spicy red sauce. They originated in pre-Columbian Mexico, near the Yucatán, some 7,000 to 9,000 years ago. The type of sauce is important; in fact, the name enchilada is derived from the word enchilar, which literally means “to season with chilis.”
Enchiladas, Burritos, and Chimichangas: What’s the Difference?
Enchiladas, burritos, and chimichangas—they look very similar, don’t they? So what’s the difference? The key to distinguishing these three items is the type of wrapper that's being used.
Enchiladas vs. Burritos vs. Chimichangas
Typically protein (and not much else)
Anything goes (and lots of it)
Stuffed like a burrito
How to eat
It's messy. Get a knife and fork!
Handheld (but have a napkin at the ready)
Crunchy hand-held goodness
How to Make Authentic Enchilada Sauce
Enchilada sauce—there are countless recipes online, and you can find bottles or cans of the stuff in almost any grocery store—but look at the list of ingredients in that recipe or on the label. If you see “tomato,” this is not an authentic red enchilada sauce.
The “real deal” relies on whole chiles roasted to release their essential oils, then simmered with other vegetables to soften. There are no tomatoes. The lovely red hue comes from the chiles. Don’t get nervous—I won’t make you do all of that work. Here’s a recipe that relies on a flour roux, chili powder (the work of roasting, simmering, and straining already done for you), broth, and spices to create a luxurious enchilada sauce 100 times better than anything you will buy at the store.
Authentic Red Enchilada Sauce Recipe
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/4 teaspoon dry oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 cup chicken (or vegetable) broth
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- Combine the flour and olive oil in a small saucepan. Simmer over medium heat for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
- Whisk in the dry ingredients and then the chicken broth. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.
Slow Cooker Enchiladas Recipe
Putting enchiladas into a slow cooker is the easy part. But how do you take them out (unless you plan to simply dig in with a big spoon)? That was my dilemma when planning this recipe. Here’s what I did:
- First, you will need to make an aluminum foil sling to aid in removing those enchiladas. I measured the width of my cooker (at the bottom of the crock) and the depth (multiply by 2) and then added 12 inches. For me, the result was a 34-inch length of heavy-duty foil.
- To minimize mess, and ensure that all of that yummy enchilada makes it out of the cooker, I cut a piece of parchment paper to sit on top of the foil sling. Here’s a hint for how to do that easy-peasy. Trace around the lid. You will probably need to trim your circle (or oval) a bit, so give it a test fit to determine how much needs to be cut off. Then fold it in half, and in half again. Trim. Ta-da!
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 pound ground beef or ground turkey
- 1 cup minced yellow onion
- 2 tablespoons taco seasoning
- 1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
- Red enchilada sauce (recipe above)
- Yellow corn tortillas
- Shredded cheddar cheese (about 1 cup)
- Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Crumble in the ground meat and cook for about 3 minutes. Add the onions and taco seasoning. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is no longer pink.
- Stir in the black beans and simmer 1 minute more to blend the flavors. Remove from the heat and set aside.
- Now it’s time to assemble the enchiladas. Spoon 3 tablespoons of sauce into the bottom of the slow cooker (on top of the parchment paper).
- Do you have large corn tortillas that perfectly fit your slow cooker? You’re lucky indeed. However, if like me, you had corn tortillas that didn’t quite measure up, you can trim them to fit (see my photo above of how I trimmed my tortillas to fit). Place one layer of tortillas in the slow cooker.
- The next layer is the meat/bean mixture: spoon in 1 1/4 cups of that, please.
- Next, 3 tablespoons of sauce, then 1/4 cup of cheese.
- Repeat the layering (tortillas, 1 1/4 cups of meat/beans, 3 tablespoons sauce, and 1/4 cup of cheese. I did this four times before I ran out of the various components.
- The last ingredient is the cheese on top. Put the lid on your slow cooker or Crock-Pot, set the temperature at “low,” and step away for 4 hours.
Alternative Enchilada Fillings
Enchiladas are adaptable. Maybe you have leftover chicken from Sunday’s dinner, or a rotisserie chicken, or Thanksgiving turkey. Go for it. Want a non-meat enchilada? You can do that too. Here’s how.
- Rotisserie Chicken: You can revamp this recipe by using leftover rotisserie chicken in place of the ground beef or turkey. Three cups of shredded meat will work perfectly.
- Vegetarian: A vegetarian option is a healthy (and satisfying) option for this meal. Simply replace the meat with a second can of beans and 1 cup of fresh or frozen corn (no need to defrost).
- Vegan: Can this dish go vegan, too? Why yes! Start with the vegetarian option (above). In place of traditional cheese, you can use vegan cheese. Keep in mind that there are two varieties—the nut-based cheeses and the oil-based cheeses. For melty gooeyness, you should opt for oil-based cheese.
Wait, Aren't Enchiladas Supposed to Be Rolled?
Yes, I understand your disappointment; traditionally, enchiladas are indeed supposed to be rolled. In this, I have failed you, but let’s do a reality check—corn tortillas are difficult (nearly impossible) to work with. They split, they crumble, and they make us miserable. Baking enchiladas in a slow cooker is the perfect excuse for layering (instead of rolling) those enchiladas.
FAQs: Your Enchilada Questions Answered
And now let's address some of the many questions I've heard about enchiladas.
What is the difference between red and green sauce?
There is a difference between red and green sauce, and it’s not merely a matter of color.
- Red chili sauce: Made with red chiles. The flavor is mildly spicy, warm, and comforting. I like it with ground beef or turkey.
- Green chili sauce: Made with green chiles. Some cooks add tomatillos and jalapeños for color and extra “kick.” I tend to choose a green sauce to pair with chicken, seafood (shrimp is terrific), and veggies.
My go-to recipe for green enchilada sauce is from the blog Gimme Some Oven. Ali relies on canned green chiles (the roasting has already been done for you) to make her sauce quick and easy. She briefly sautees fresh garlic and onion, adds jalapeño for heat (as little or as much as you want), and whirs everything in a blender with cumin and chicken or vegetable broth. Her green enchilada sauce is packed with flavor and also happens to be gluten free.
Can I use flour tortillas?
Yes, of course! If you prefer the taste or texture of flour tortillas, you may go ahead and use them instead of corn tortillas. (Technically speaking, however, you will no longer have an enchilada; you’ll be enjoying an equally satisfying, tasty burrito.)
How can I prevent soggy tortillas?
Enchiladas “baked” in a slow cooker will be soft and fork-tender. If you prefer a more dense, chewy texture, briefly fry the tortillas in hot oil (about 10 seconds per side). This creates a barrier to prevent the enchilada from soaking up too much sauce.
How can I keep my corn tortillas from breaking?
This is a very common problem, and it's the reason I created layered instead of rolled enchiladas. If you want a completely authentic, rolled enchilada, use fresh corn tortillas and give them a brief “dip” in oil (see the question above about how to prevent soggy tortillas). This will make your tortillas pliable and more forgiving.
© 2021 Linda Lum