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Mole Sauce: What It Is, Where It Comes From, and How to Make It
There's a lot to learn about this deliciously complex sauce—including how to simplify it.
09-15-2021
America's Test Kitchen

Mole is a staple of Mexican home cooking. It's as sophisticated and delicious a sauce as any we've ever seen, cooked with, and had the pleasure of eating. It's also a sauce that runs the spectrum in prep work and ambition: You can find mole concentrate and have dinner ready in 15 minutes or prepare a mole requiring 50 ingredients and three days to slow-cook. And that's the beauty of mole. Here, now, is America's Test Kitchen's guide to understanding, loving, and cooking with mole.

What Is Mole?

The term “mole” stems from the Nahuatl world “molli,” which means “sauce” or “concoction.” Mole comes from a family of sauces prepared throughout the Oaxaca and Puebla regions of Mexico and is characterized by a complex, layered flavor derived from intricate blends of dried chiles, spices, fruits, and seasonings. 

There are dozens of varieties of mole (some Mexican families have recipes that have been passed down through generations), but in the United States, the best-known type is mole poblano. Poblano-style mole sauce can require upwards of two dozen ingredients and an entire day to prepare. Dried chiles are its defining flavors; most mole poblano recipes call for several different types of chiles, such as guajillos, pasillas, anchos, and chipotles, but these chiles are meant to add only flavor, not spiciness. Mole poblano also has a rich, bittersweet flavor and deep, dark-brown coloring that comes from a special ingredient: cocoa.

The Stories Behind the Sauce

It’s unclear who exactly created mole, but there are some deep-rooted origin stories. In his book New Cooking from Old Mexico (1999), scholar Jim Peyton recalls two of the most popular.

In the first version, a woman named Sor Andrea from a Dominican convent in Santa Rosa was asked to prepare a meal for a visiting dignitary. After praying for inspiration, she “was guided to add nearly all the ingredients in the huge convent kitchen to a more ordinary stew.”

The second version of the story claims that mole was created by one of Sor Andrea’s loyal assistants, an Indigenous woman who was spared by the Aztecs because of her cooking skills. The morning the dignitary was to arrive at the covenant, Sor Andrea wasn’t feeling well, so she asked her assistant to prepare Sor Andrea’s family’s recipe. When Sor Andrea eventually came down to the kitchen, she found that the woman had made her own creation. Annoyed, Sor Andrea went to scold her assistant but was interrupted by a spoon held to her mouth. After one taste, Sor Andrea knew that this sauce was superior to her family’s recipe.

Mole is often made over several days and reserved for special occasions such as weddings, baptisms, and holidays. (Russel Monk/Getty Images)

What Does Mole Sauce Taste Like?

All mole sauces taste a bit different. Some are sweeter, others are spicier, and they have varying consistencies—but they all feature spicy, smoky, and earthy-sweet notes contributed by ingredients such as chiles, nuts, warm spices, raisins, and tomato.

As for texture, mole should be velvety and smooth. (A blender is essential for making this ultrasmooth pureed sauce.) To thicken and enrich the mole, recipes often call for some combination of toasted almonds, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, and sesame seeds.

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Boosting Flavor, One Sauce At A Time Just Add Sauce

In this revolutionary guide, we share three Mexican simmering-sauce recipes for mole poblano, mole negro, and mole verde that will be a great pairing with any protein you're cooking this week. 

 

How to Make Mole

Moles are generally made by frying each ingredient individually in an ample quantity of oil. This step acts to toast each item, bringing out its peak flavor. Next, all the ingredients are simmered in a large pot along with broth or water. The mixture is then pureed and returned to the pot to continue cooking until the flavors meld. Depending on the type of mole and the number of ingredients, this process can take hours.

Our mole sauce recipe uses fewer ingredients to make this classic dish less time-consuming. We streamlined the cooking process by sautéing all our aromatics together (rather than separately) and replaced ground almonds with almond butter for a mole with all the richness and depth of traditional versions.

Know Your Chiles

The Backbones of Mexican Cuisine Chiles 101

With so many different kinds of chiles, it can be tough to know the flavor profile—and heat level—of each one. To sort out the differences, we rounded up a wide selection of the most commonly available chiles and held a blind tasting. View the results in our guide to chile peppers.

 

Can You Make Mole in Advance?

Prepared mole can be refrigerated for up to a week; loosen it with water as needed before using it. The sauce also freezes beautifully for up to one month.

How to Use Mole Sauce

Ultraflavorful mole will elevate anything it’s served with. Here are a few ideas: 

  • Serve over rice
  • Spoon over eggs, roasted or grilled chicken, beef, and pork
  • Use as a base for taco fillings
  • Use as a smothering sauce for burritos