Red or Green Enchilada Sauce for a Mild or Spicy Flavor

Three chicken enchiladas with tomatillo sauce, cheese and avocado

StockFood Creative / Getty Images

Originally a Mexican street food, enchiladas didn't have a filling—they were simply rolled tortillas dipped in chili sauce. The version we all know and love today often varies from its origin, and widely from each other, since enchiladas are now filled with a variety of diverse meats, vegetables and cheeses. Yet what enchiladas still have in common is their red or green topping. Although these sauces are different in colors, they have distinct flavors and use unique ingredients.

The Difference Between Red and Green Sauce

Green enchilada sauce is generally a mixture of green tomatillos and green chilies, along with ingredients like onions, garlic, vinegar and other spices. The tomatillo, also known as the Mexican husk tomato, is a staple in Mexican cuisine. They can be eaten raw or cooked and bring the greenish color to green enchilada sauce and salsa verde (verde means "green" in Spanish). Additionally, tomatillo has a slightly herbal taste and is somewhat fruity and tart in flavor.

One common mistake people make is believing that a green sauce isn't spicy. Most green enchilada sauces use green chilis, which includes jalapenos and serrano, tipping off the spicy scale. As with any color chili, green sauces range from mild to hot.

Red enchilada sauce, on the other hand, is typically made from a variety of red chilies, vinegar, onions, garlic and spices. Some "quick" versions of red enchilada sauce may use red tomato sauce or paste as a base. Just like green enchilada sauce, red sauce can range from being mildly spicy to knock-your-socks-off spicy — it all depends on the chili.

How to Choose Your Enchilada Sauce

One way you can choose between red and green enchilada sauce is by looking at the ingredients. This will give you an idea of the flavor profile and the level of spice included. Obviously, seeing vegetables and spices like green peppers in one or jalapenos and chilies in the other speaks to the kind of taste you can expect. Rather than overthink the color, consider the type of enchilada you're having — bean, beef, chicken or vegetable — and ask yourself what type of sauce would pair nicely with that. You may want to experiment a little if you're cooking at home. Alternatively if you're eating out, you could ask the server to recommend a sauce for the meal you're ordering.

Enchilada Types

For breakfast, you can make an avocado and black bean enchilada with a green topping. If you want something a bit sweeter, you can opt for a sweet corn and jalapeno enchilada full of cheesy corn. For lunch or dinner, you can get creative with an enchilada soup with your choice of meat, beans, corn and toppings. For a tasty dessert enchilada, try a fresh fruit one full of blueberries, strawberries, bananas and creme filling.

Enchiladas can vary in calories and healthy ingredients because they can be stuffed with almost anything. To make them a bit healthier, you can opt for a bean or vegetable enchilada over a chicken or beef one. You can also use low-fat cheese and a plain tortilla — rather than a fried one — to bake it with. Using little or no cheese and a green or red chili sauce will also help you lower fat.