My Goals

  • A satisfying ground beef filling

  • Rich chile flavor

  • Intact tortillas

  • Balanced richness

With traditional Mexican enchiladas, if a cook swaps out the cheese or chicken that is typically used as the filling for beef, there are no shortcuts. Fresh corn tortillas are lightly fried and rolled around a filling of tender, slow-braised shredded beef; smothered with a sauce made from dried chiles; and topped with crumbled cheese. It's not hard to imagine the resulting enchiladas—they're deeply flavorful, complex, and entirely satisfying. There's only one downside: The recipe can take quite a while to prepare, given its reliance on slow-cooked meat and a long-simmered sauce.

Then, of course, there are speedier Tex-Mex versions that use ground beef, store-bought tortillas, loads of shredded cheese, and chili powder–infused tomato sauce. When I tried a few recipes to see how they compared with their Mexican cousins, some fell short: The fillings lacked the depth and velvety texture of braised beef, and the sauces were so full of tomato that they tasted overly acidic. Many of the enchiladas were also greasy and weighed down with too much cheese. I wanted to do better. I set out to incorporate the best elements of both Mexican and Tex-Mex enchiladas in my own quick—but still deeply flavorful—version.

Traditional Mexican beef enchiladas require hours of cooking. We set out to develop a quicker version that’s still rich and delicious.

Not So Cheesy

I got started on the filling by sautéing finely chopped onion with plenty of minced garlic. Once the aromatics softened, I added a pound of 80 percent lean ground beef (to mimic the fat content of a beef steak or roast that might be used for the shredded version) seasoned with cumin and salt. I rolled the beef in store-bought corn tortillas that I'd briefly fried, topped them with a generic chile sauce, sprinkled on some cheese, and baked them for about 15 minutes.

It was a deflating first effort: The meat tasted bland, and its relative fattiness caused the greasiness problem I'd encountered in earlier versions. Switching to 90 percent lean beef helped the latter issue but made the filling taste too lean and dry. I needed to improve the texture of the beef without making it greasy.

Mixing the meat with a couple of spoonfuls of my sauce helped hydrate it and also deepened its flavor, as did including ground coriander for citrusy tang. But the meat still seemed too lean. Some recipes call for sprinkling cheese over the filling prior to rolling it in the tortillas, so I gave that a try using a bit of shredded Monterey Jack, a great melter. But the cheese never fully coated the meat; it just sat in a gooey layer between the meat and the tortilla. To get the creamy-cheesy-beefy filling I had in mind, I doubled the amount of cheese (from 3 ounces to 6), but this time I stirred it directly into the hot beef after it finished cooking. The cheese melted beautifully, enrobing and enriching the beef. Lastly, I freshened up the filling's flavor by stirring in chopped cilantro.

Incorporating melted cheese into the beef enhances the flavor and adds richness to the filling.

Chasing Chile Flavor

With a moist and flavorful—and fast—beef filling ready to go, I shifted my attention to the sauce. Many Tex-Mex recipes call for a quick tomato-based concoction augmented with jarred chili powder, but a traditional Mexican enchilada sauce is a slow-cooked affair based on dried chiles. To guarantee complexity, I started with raisiny, mildly spicy dried anchos. I stemmed and seeded the chiles, tore them into pieces, and toasted them in a skillet to release their flavor before rehydrating them in beef broth (to bolster the ground beef's flavor) in the microwave.

It takes only a few minutes and some pantry items to make a rich, slightly sweet, earthy sauce that tastes like you spent all day in the kitchen.

Next, I sautéed a second batch of garlic and onions and, rather than add tomatoes, stirred in ¼ cup of tomato paste along with some earthy cumin. The tomato paste contributed concentrated sweetness without tasting overly tomatoey. I whizzed the onion mixture in a blender with the anchos and their hydrating liquid. And to mimic the flavor of a sauce made with multiple types of dried chiles, I also included some canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce. Just 1 tablespoon added smoky spiciness—and it was as easy as opening a can. Finally, I simmered the sauce until it was thick enough to coat the tortillas.

But reducing the sauce turned out to be too lengthy a process and made me wonder if I could thicken it a different way. I tried using a roux (a cooked paste of flour and fat), as some recipes recommended. But tasters complained that it made the sauce seem artificially thick and robbed it of its vibrant flavor. Blitzing a tortilla into the sauce thickened it nicely (traditional recipes sometimes call for using masa harina, or corn flour, for this purpose) but left me one wrapper short when building a dozen enchiladas. Ultimately, reducing the amount of broth from 3 cups to 2 worked best. My chile sauce had deep, faintly sweet, and spicy flavor—all in minutes.

As I prepared to assemble the enchiladas, I realized that the filling and sauce both included a mix of onion and garlic. I sautéed enough for both in a single batch and then split the mixture between the two components, simplifying the process and saving time.

Rolling Along

It was time to examine the tortillas. The traditional method of flash-frying tortillas in oil softens them enough to be filled and rolled. Could I eliminate the oil by just warming the tortillas in the microwave? I gave it a try and then filled the tortillas, slathered them with sauce, sprinkled them with a modest amount of Monterey Jack cheese, and popped them into a hot oven. Things seemed promising until serving time. The tortillas were so soggy that they fell apart into a raggedy mess when I tried to lift them onto plates. A fellow test cook posited that in addition to softening, the oil in the traditional method actually waterproofed the tortillas and kept them from absorbing too much sauce.

A light brushing of oil is all it takes to ensure that the tortillas cook up soft and pliable without getting sogged out by the enchilada sauce.

With that in mind, I tried giving the tortillas a light spritz of vegetable oil spray before briefly warming them in the oven. The spray helped but didn't fully mitigate sogginess. I had better luck using a pastry brush to fully cover both sides of the tortillas with a light coating of oil before briefly baking them.

I made a final batch, filling the oiled and baked tortillas with my cheesy cumin-and-coriander-spiced beef, ladling on the chile-laced sauce, and sprinkling extra cheese over the top. After baking for 15 minutes, the cheese was lightly browned and the tortillas were pliable without becoming waterlogged. My colleagues devoured the enchiladas, garnished with fresh cilantro, sour cream, scallions, and lime wedges.

Keys to Success

We combined the best of both Mexican enchiladas and Tex-Mex enchiladas for our fast and flavorful version.

Flexible Tortillas

Usual Way: Flash-fry tortillas in oil.

Our Way: Brush tortillas lightly with oil and bake briefly.

Deep Chile Flavor

Usual Way: Slow-cook sauce made with multiple dried chiles.

Our Way: Make quick, flavorful sauce using dried anchos and canned chipotle.

Streamlined Aromatics

Usual Way: Season sauce and filling with separate batches of aromatics.

Our Way: Sauté 1 big batch of aromatics and add half to each component.

Rich Beef Filling

Usual Way: Braise beef, then shred it.

Our Way: Sauté ground beef, then mix in shredded cheese for extra richness.

Keys to Success

  • A satisfying ground beef filling

    Enhancing the beef filling with melted cheese and enchilada sauce gives it a richness reminiscent of long-braised beef.
  • Rich chile flavor

    Using whole dried chiles, rather than a commercial chili powder, delivers a depth of flavor and a complexity that chili powder can’t match.
  • Intact tortillas

    Tortillas often turn to mush when baked in sauce if they aren’t fried first. We found that it worked just as well to simply waterproof them with a light brushing of oil.
  • Balanced richness

    Many enchilada recipes bury the contents in so much melted cheese that they feel too weighed down. Scaling back on the cheese and adding fresh herbs and a spritz of lime helps balance the heavier elements of this dish.