Christmas Enchilada Sauces

Pitmaster John Lewis shares his recipes for the borderland red and green chile sauces of his childhood

Photo: Cat Taylor

Red and green “Christmas” sauces over enchiladas at Rancho Lewis in Charleston.

“Red or green?” 

It’s a simple question you’re bound to hear when ordering a meal in and around El Paso, Texas, where the Charleston, South Carolina–based pitmaster John Lewis grew up. “It refers to the red chile sauce or fire-roasted green chile sauce that tops pretty much any dish served on the border,” Lewis says. 

Although their flavors differ, red and green sauces are both made from chile peppers. “Green sauce comes from the less-ripe, under-matured version of the pepper,” Lewis says. “It will have grassy flavor notes, and when it’s fire-roasted to remove the outer skin for cooking, it gains a slight smoky, charred flavor.” 

As the chiles ripen, though, they turn red. “The sugars concentrate just a little bit more, and with the dry, cold weather that occurs in the [Hatch, New Mexico] region, the pepper quickly starts to lose its water content,” Lewis says. Once dried, the chiles become shelf stable, and at Rancho Lewis, Lewis’s Charleston cantina, he opts for sun-dried chiles. “It makes the world of difference in flavor. It’s a less bitter end product, with the slight sun-ripened and dried flavor.” 

New Mexico’s Hatch Valley, just an hour north of El Paso, is thought of as the chile capital of the world; Lewis sources his red chiles from the Hatch gourmet grocer Chile Fanatic year-round. Traditionally, green chiles are only available during the harvest season in August and September, so Lewis orders them by the ton during late summer, then fire-roasts and stores them in the restaurant’s freezer for use throughout the year. “For the home cook, and my go-to at my house, though, my friends at Zia Green Chile make a fantastic canned product that is available online in most grocery stores,” he says. 

But the question remains: red or green?

“The answer for me is always ‘Christmas,’ and that means your dish will be topped with both,” Lewis says. He pairs them together on the Christmas burrito at Rancho Lewis, but they also frequently don enchiladas, huevos rancheros, potatoes, burgers, and grilled meats. “They work on anything you might prepare,” Lewis says. “And you’re going to want to try both.”


  • Christmas Enchilada Sauces (Yield: 1 quart of each)

  • For the green chile sauce

    • ¼ cup lard or vegetable shortening

    • 1 medium yellow onion, diced

    • 2 large cloves garlic, minced

    • ½ tsp. dried oregano

    • 1 16 oz. jar roasted green chile (Lewis uses Zia)

    • 2 cups, plus 2 tbsp. low-sodium chicken broth

    • 2 tbsp. cornstarch

    • 1 tbsp. white vinegar

    • 2 tsp. Kosher salt

    • 2 tsp. granulated sugar

  • For the red chile sauce

    • 6 oz. dried hatch red chile pods (Lewis says: “Choose chile pods that feel flexible when bent. Ones that crack when bent in half are too old and don’t have life left in them.”)

    • Water as needed

    • 8 cloves garlic

    • ¼ cup lard or vegetable shortening

    • 3 tbsp. granulated sugar

    • 5½ tsp. Kosher salt

    • 1 tbsp. white vinegar

    • 1½ tbsp. cornstarch

    • 2 tbsp. reserved chile steeping water


  1. Make the green chile sauce: Heat a stock pot over medium heat and add lard until melted. Add diced onion and cook until translucent. Add garlic and oregano and cook until garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add jar of green chile and 2 cups of chicken broth and bring to a simmer.

  2. Meanwhile, in a bowl, whisk cornstarch and remaining 2 tbsp. chicken broth together to form a slurry. Continue to simmer sauce for about 10 minutes to allow flavors to meld, then add vinegar, salt, and sugar, followed by cornstarch slurry, and bring back to a simmer for 1 minute, allowing the sauce to thicken. 

  3. Make the red chile sauce: Wearing gloves (these chiles can burn your hands), remove the stems from the chile pods, then open up and remove the seeds. While doing this, break down the chile pods into manageable-sized pieces that will fit into a small stock pot. Once finished, the 6 oz. of chile pods should equal about 4 oz. of cleaned chiles. Place pods in stock pot and add enough water to submerge the chiles. Cover the pot and heat until at a simmer, then turn heat off and steep chiles in the hot water, covered, until rehydrated, about 30 minutes.

  4. Strain rehydrated chiles from steeping liquid and reserve the liquid. Place chiles in a blender, with garlic cloves, and 5 cups of the steeping water. Blend on high speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Pass the chile puree through a fine mesh strainer, using a rubber spatula to push it through. This will separate the skin and any seeds still present. You should end up with slightly more than 5 cups of chile puree. 

  5. Combine chile puree, lard, sugar, salt, and vinegar in a stock pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Meanwhile combine cornstarch and 1½ tbsp. chile steeping water, whisk to form a slurry. Once chile puree mixture is at a simmer, add cornstarch slurry and bring back to a simmer for one minute to allow sauce to slightly thicken. 

  6. Serve both over your favorite dish.