Unroll Your Tortillas for These Smoky, Repeat-Worthy Chicken Enchiladas

In my saved-but-never-made file of recipes, enchiladas of all varieties dominate. From black bean and sweet potato to chicken with salsa verde to Tex-Mex chile con carne, enchiladas never sound anything but completely appealing: tortillas fried and sauced, stuffed and rolled, slathered in cheese, showered with cilantro.

If only their assembly didn’t demand so much! From the seemingly complicated sauce-making to the frying of the tortillas to the dipping of each tortilla in sauce to the filling and rolling, enchiladas often feel, for me at least, out of reach.

So when I saw the 35-minute estimated time frame to make the smoky chicken enchiladas in the Wall Street Journal’s “Slow Food Fast” column last weekend, I read on. And when I learned that the enchilada sauce simmers for a mere 7 minutes and that there would be no frying or dipping or rolling, and that a lasagna-style assembly would be employed, I set to work—this preparation I could handle.

Photo by Alexandra Stafford

Incredibly, a 9x13-inch casserole bubbling with layers of tortillas, chicken, sauce, and cheese emerged from my oven as quickly as promised, and a few days later, on a weeknight no less, the miracle repeated.

Photo by Alexandra Stafford

Thanks to a few tricks and big-flavor ingredients, the enchilada sauce tastes far more complex than the effort it demands. First, onions and garlic char under the broiler. They then simmer with a can of tomatoes and rehydrated ancho chilies or, for ease, a few chipotles in adobo sauce. In less than 10 minutes, the spicy, smoky sauce is ready to be puréed and layered with shredded chicken, which poaches as the sauce simmers with grated cheese, tortillas, fresh cilantro, and scallions.

Photo by Alexandra Stafford

While I consider this sauce to be the essential element here, the rest of the ingredients can be tailored to your liking. Chef Spike Gjerde hopes you will use the best corn tortillas you can find, but I’ve had success with flour tortillas and a mix of corn and flour tortillas, too. (Psst: Have you seen how he makes oyster pie?) I’ve used both cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese, though any number of good, melting cheeses could work here. And while I’ve yet to try anything but chicken, I imagine many combinations of vegetables, beans, and meats would take well to this weeknight-friendly but entertaining-worthy, and life-changing-for-the-enchilada-fearing, recipe.

Is there a dish you've been wanting to make forever, but avoided, out of fear that it would turn out blah? Let us know in the comments!

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  • Helen Lucy Miles
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I write the blog alexandra's kitchen, a place for mostly simple, sometimes fussy, and always seasonal recipes. My cookbook, Bread Toast Crumbs is available everywhere books are sold.


Helen L. July 21, 2017
How protein per serving? Looks yummy and delicious. I will try this for my family. Please allow me to share some of my recipes @ http://www.chickenenchiladarecipes.org/
kim May 8, 2017
I love it when a "dragon" displays such deep verisimilitude to a grumpy troll, venting under a bridge no one even cares about crossing! ;)
kim May 8, 2017
PS ~ Perhaps a few hearty LOLs might be helpful?
kim May 8, 2017
Dear Smaug ~ I'm from West Texas, and many many many people (including some I know from Mexico)make their enchiladas like this at home. Is it really a big huge deal? It works brilliantly to feed a hungry family quickly and more importantly ~ WELL! It makes the cook happy too, especially on a weeknight. I work and raise a 3 year and feed a hungry husband every single night with home made fresh food, much of which I find on this fantastic site. I'd LOVE to sit and read through the seminal works of anyone regarding "real" Mexican food. But I can't. I'm busy. So this one works for me, and having grown up eating and making Mexican and Tex Mex my whole life, I have no problem with it. But I do envy your life. You seem to have a lot of time on your hands! Congratulations on winning grump of the day. Smaug indeed!
Smaug May 8, 2017
For the thousandth time- I don't object to people eating this stuff. What I object to is that many people- including widely read food authors- seem unaware of the functions of the chiles that are the backbone and the defining flavors of Mexican and Tex Mex cuisine, and seem willing to propagate that lack of knowledge. Many people in Italy eat canned spaghetti sauce regularly too, but I don't see people on here recommending it as the way to go. You seem to be enough of a grump to engage in this tirade and to tell me all about myself, on the basis of no information whatsoever, so I guess I should be happy to win over such formidable competition.
Gardener May 9, 2017
Well said Kim.
Sandra B. May 7, 2017
Alex, you have become my go-to new recipe guru! I made this tonight and it was fantastic! Used 2 chipotles, 12 oz TJ's Mexican blend cheese, corn tortillas. Really great!
Fresh T. May 8, 2017
I totally agree.
Alexandra S. May 9, 2017
Sandra, thank you!! That means the world :) So happy this turned out well for you.
Alexandra S. May 9, 2017
Thank you, Dana!!
arielcooks May 7, 2017
This is what we call "enchilada stack" down here in SoCal. Trader Joe's makes corn-whole wheat combo tortillas that are wonderful in it. You can tailor it for anything: vegehoonians included. Using strictly corn torts should take care of the gluten-intolerant eaters at your table, too.
Alexandra S. May 9, 2017
Love those TJ's corn-flour tortillas. Whole Foods sells their own brand, which I also love.
lois May 7, 2017
I copied this recipe from the WSJ but was too nervous to make it for company last night. So glad someone else has vetted it for me! I will definitely make it soon.
Alexandra S. May 9, 2017
Lois, yay! I love when that happens, too :)
Ttrockwood May 6, 2017
This style of enchilada casserole has been around forever! I love how easy they are to make - and they freeze well! I do a vegan version with sweet potatoes, black beans and spinach and use a cashew cream and sliced avocado on top when serving. It's gotta be corn tortillas though, the corn flavor is important i think.
Alexandra S. May 6, 2017
Oh that sounds so good! I need to try the cashew cream. I love cashew milk, but I've yet to try making the cream. Soon!
Gardener May 6, 2017
Alexandra, I chanced upon your recipe yesterday and tried it last night. Delicious! After a busy work day, pulling this casserole together quickly and easily for a dinner enjoyed by all was a total win (with leftovers for lunch - win win). Enchilada-like, lasagna-like ... whatever; it's just good. Thank you! Will make again.
Alexandra S. May 6, 2017
So happy to hear this, Gardener! And yes to leftovers! I love these cold.
Deanna May 6, 2017
Thanks for the great recipe, I look forward to trying it. What would the approximate equivalent of cooked meat be? I often have leftover meat I could use in this recipe. Thanks.
Alexandra S. May 6, 2017
Hey Deanna, The original recipe calls for 1½ pounds shredded rotisserie, poached or roast chicken. Hope that helps!
Deanna May 6, 2017
Yes it does. Thanks!
Sandra B. May 6, 2017
Excited to try this and I like that it has a short ingredient list!
Alexandra S. May 6, 2017
Short is always nice, right? :)
Fresh T. May 4, 2017
Oh Ali! I think I'm going to have to try this one and let you know how it goes. I just had an early Cinco de Mayo party and we're currently OD-ing on the leftovers and goodies. I made carnitas and chicken tinga with all the fixins' and some wicked fun coconut margaritas. We've been turning the leftovers into quesadillas, pizza toppings, and empanadas...... But, I think I still need more Mexican food in my life! These enchiladas are perfect! - sorry for rambling! :)
Alexandra S. May 4, 2017
Dana, your feast sounds amazing! When the leftovers clear, I say go for these :)
Smaug May 4, 2017
Does no one in New York make a proper red sauce?
Alexandra S. May 4, 2017
What does making a "proper" sauce entail? Don't hate it before you make it! This sauce is so, so good. I'm obsessed. I've made more enchiladas this past week than in my entire life. Kale and mushroom enchiladas are happening tonight. Can't wait.
PHIL May 4, 2017
Why so smug Smaug? its her riff on the sauce.
Smaug May 4, 2017
How about don't use "hate" OR "hater" to dismiss others' ideas as the product of prejudice. I have nothing against your sauce as an abstract- if you like it, by all means eat it. What bothers me is that it represents a basic misconception of the dish. Mexico is a huge country with many influences and tomato based enchiladas do exist, they're far from the norm. As with chili, the hint is in the name; it's about chiles. The usual red sauces contain no tomatoes at all (and, Lord help us, are not thickened with flour). The only essential ingredients are dried chiles and water, though most add some onion and garlic, maybe use stock, maybe some allspice and/ or cinnamon, usually salt, but these things are mere tweaks of a sauce that is basically a chile puree. Numerous recipes can be found in any decent Mexican cookbook, from the seminal works of Elena Zelayeta through Dianne Kennedy to Rick Bayless, or whoever's au courant these days. In sum, I don't object to your dish, I object to the promulgation of a too common misconception.
Smaug May 4, 2017
Why the gratuitous insults, Phil (sorry, no clever alliterations immediately suggested themselves)? It has nothing to do with me, other than that I feel that journalism entails a certain degree of responsibility, especially a site like this that is regarded as educational. I suspect that if I proposed a Bolognese sauce made of pureed potatoes (they're solanums too, right) and ground Macadamia nuts I'd hear about it. It might be quite good but it would need a new name- this site (like so much of the internet) seems to go out of it's way to promote linguistic entropy, and I like language.
Alexandra S. May 4, 2017

Clearly you know a lot about Mexican cuisine as a whole and about the variances in recipes throughout the country.

The point of this post is merely to encourage anyone, especially those pressed for time, that a very tasty enchilada-like dish can materialize quickly thanks to a smart technique and a few big-flavor ingredients. Creating an "authentic" enchilada or enchilada sauce was not the goal here.

By saying "hate" I was by no means trying to suggest your comment to be prejudice. You described the sauce as not being "proper"— was I wrong to imply you considered it in turn to be less valid? Your tone came off as dismissive.
Smaug May 5, 2017
Since my objection to the dish is semantic, not intrinsic, I ask the question; why use the name enchilada? My feeling is that people will take this as being a representative enchilada sauce. Why not, for instance Chilaquile casserole- a dish it more closely resembles though you'd probably want to deep fry the tortillas first? Why not "Auntie A's tomato surprise? Why not lasagna- I mean, tortillas, noodles what the heck? The answer, I think, is that we're so constantly bombarded by sales pitches that we've started "marketing" at each other. Enchiladas is a recognizable name, so people will be more likely to pay attention to the recipe. The same reason so many unrelated desserts are named after key lime pie- the only lime dish, other than jello, with any name recognition. The same reason anything flat with some stuff on top is called "pizza". The same reason, for the matter of that, that writers keep making up weird characters and calling them "Sherlock Holmes". I feel that this sort of thing weakens the language, which has enough problems, and promotes ignorance, which we are all born with a plentiful supply of- no need to seek it out.
I am not, by the way, by any means an expert on Mexican cuisine, though I have a great respect for it, but I have taken the trouble to research the dishes that I make- it's not like information is that hard to come by.
Alexandra S. May 5, 2017
You make some great points about semantics, but can I ask you this: might someone find your suggestion to call this dish lasagna just as offensive? That lasagna, too, is a recognizable name that we use over an over again to describe anything with layers of noodles and sauce and filling but that bears little resemblance to a “true” lasagna?

I didn’t think to look up the origin/history of enchiladas (as I’ve never thought to look up the history/origin of lasagna) till last night when I opened Rick Bayless’s Mexico One Plate at a Time. And you’re right, probably I should do this more, but again, what excited me about this dish was how flavorful and fast it came together, not that the sauce tasted like an authentic enchilada sauce, though after reading RB’s intro to the enchilada chapter and his two recipes for enchiladas, I don’t think this sauce is necessarily that far off.

One recipe in the book calls for toasting dry ancho chiles, rehydrating them, and puréeing them with the soaking liquid—there are no tomatoes in this sauce. It sounds like the sauce you've described. The other recipe called for 3 pounds of fresh (or canned) tomatoes that you broil until they blacken in spots, then you purée them with fresh chiles, then you cook it down further with chicken stock. This is probably more similar to the sauce here.

In the intro to the chapter, Bayless talks about two types of enchiladas: 1. The one you describe, what Bayless calls a “racy street-style enchilada in which the tortilla is tightly clad with red chile sauce as it sears on a hot iron griddle” 2. And another type, more commonly found in the home kitchen or in a cafeteria—these are served any time of day and "their sauces vary widely, from simple tomato or tomatillo to vibrant red chile or mole...Some come with a dusting of dry grating cheese; others have sliced onion, cilantro or parsley, or a spoonful of cream; and still others are blanketed with the oozy melted cheese we typically associate with enchiladas north of the border."
PHIL May 5, 2017
Not an insult, an observation. You comment ,since not followed with LOL or a smiley face can only be viewed as negative for really no reason. And yes enchiladas can and have been made with tomatoes. She is not Carl Bernstein , she is a food blogger. ease up dude.
Smaug May 8, 2017
Yes someone might find the term lasagna just as inappropriate (not really offensive), that's why I brought it up- it's just as appropriate and just as inappropriate. What bothers me about this is that the misconception being spread is a common one- I see similar recipes (not all from New York) frequently. You understand that people read this stuff and take it to heart- how many will come away with this recipe thinking they have enchiladas "solved". Another point- the chile based sauces are REALLY easy to make, unless you feel like introducing complications, at least as simple and quick as this.
Smaug May 8, 2017
Dear Phil If s"smug" isn't an insult to you, you can have it. Being a long term user of the English language, I do not feel any necessity to resort to "LOL"s, emojis and similar goofiness. The post was perhaps more abrupt than necessary, but I see it over and over, recipes attempting to make chili based dishes by throwing some chile powder or a couple of Chipotles in a pot of tomatoes. Everything red is not made of tomatoes.