Long before Claudette Zepeda became a chef, restaurateur, and culinary anthropologist, she was her Aunt Lorenza’s helper in her Guadalajara restaurant. The restaurant’s origins were humble—a pair of Coca‑Cola red tables and plastic chairs—but it quickly grew as word got around about Lorenza’s masterful preparation of pozole rojo, Jalisco’s beloved soup of pork, dried chiles, and hominy. Claudette was tasked with preparing the garnishes to top customers’ bowls, slicing lettuce from the time she was tall enough to reach a tabletop. “My earliest food memory is sitting with a bowl of pozole in front of me,” she told me on a video call.
It is impossible to overstate pozole’s significance. The soup is an artifact predating the 16th century Spanish conquest of Mexico; it was an Aztec recipe centered on their staple food, corn. In Mexico today, pozole is both part of the weekend routine (a nourishing Sunday morning meal to share “as everyone’s licking their wounds from Saturday night,” Claudette said) and a go-to, feed-a-crowd dish for holidays and events. “I knew if we were making pozole on a weekend that my whole family was going to come over,” my colleague Janette Zepeda (no relation to Claudette) told me, reminiscing about her childhood.
Like many beloved, iconic recipes, pozole shape‑shifts from region to region and family to family. The countless variations can be loosely classified by their colors: blanco (a thickened broth with meat and hominy), verde (which adds blended tomatillos and other green ingredients to the mix), and rojo, which gets its brilliant hue from pureed dried chiles.
Garnishing is an essential part of the pozole experience, no matter its color: Rojo could be served with sliced radish, finely chopped raw onion, shredded lettuce or cabbage, lime wedges, crushed dried Mexican oregano, hot sauce, homemade spicy salsa, and/or tostadas. Each diner layers on toppings to suit their taste; then, in some families, everyone sneaks spoonfuls of each other’s pozole, sampling each bespoke creation. Around the table, no two bowls will be quite the same—yet all will contain, Claudette said, “a thousand years of history.”
Pork, Claudette advised as I worked on my own recipe, should be the soup’s dominant flavor—it provides “that richness, that thickness, that unctuous silkiness,” she explained.
Different cuts are used throughout Mexico (with some recipes also calling for gelatin-rich pig’s feet and skin for a richer texture), but I opted for boneless pork butt, streaked with fat for savory flavor and loaded with collagen for body. Some cooks opt to shred the meat post-cook, but I broke the raw pork down into 2-inch chunks, which became so tender after simmering that I could break them apart with my spoon at the table.
Dried Chiles: Pozole Rojo’s Fruity, Aromatic Backbone
Unlike dishes such as birria or barbacoa, where deep, roasty toasted chiles typically contribute to the flavor profile, pozole centers the fruitiness of untoasted chiles. The soup traditionally features bright, pleasantly sharp guajillos and often also dark, raisiny anchos. We steep the chiles until softened and then discard their steeping liquid (it can become bitter over time and contain dirt from the dried chiles) and blend them to make the complex, ruddy puree that gives pozole rojo its name.
Straining the puree into the soup ensures no distracting flecks of the chiles’ skins are present in the finished dish.
I kept the seasonings simple to allow the meaty flavor to shine: just white onion quarters, a handful of peeled garlic cloves, and bay leaves, bundled in a cheesecloth for easy removal later. I added salt and water to cover and then simmered the broth for a couple hours.
Hold the Heat
The chile puree that gives pozole rojo its name should be bold in hue, but gentle in flavor—the soup “should never be superhot,” Claudette said. (Diners who want a little burn, as she often does, can add salsa or bottled hot sauce to their own bowls.) Dried chiles bring so much more than heat to the table, and pozole is a celebration of those understated flavors. Two traditional choices for the soup are bright, floral guajillos and dark, raisiny-sweet anchos. Ratios can vary, but I settled on a 50/50 mix of the two types.
Preparing the puree is a straightforward process: Soak the chiles until they’re pliable and then blitz them with some broth, spices, and aromatics (I reused the cooked onion and garlic that flavored the broth, per a clever tip from Janette). However, there’s one more step before the puree goes back into the pot, and it’s one that both Janette and Claudette strongly endorsed. “In my family, it would be sacrilegious to not strain anything that’s made with dried chiles,” Claudette asserted. No matter how thoroughly you blend the chiles, she explained, flecks of skin will remain in the puree, which adds a distracting, undesirable texture in the finished soup. Janette concurred—the strainer, she said, is her mom’s “best friend.”
Per their instructions, I poured the puree through a fine-mesh strainer set over my pot of broth and pork. As I stirred it in, the ultrasmooth liquid dyed the soup a vibrant brick red.
The broth settled, it was time to focus on pozole’s signature ingredient: plush, chewy kernels of hominy. Hominy is corn that has undergone nixtamalization, a process that renders it chewy and earthy-nutty. Hominy is both pozole’s oldest ingredient—the first recipes contained little more than hominy and water—and its most essential.
Hominy is available dried or canned; I opted for canned for maximum convenience. I drained and rinsed the kernels thoroughly and then added them to the pot with the chile puree. After 20 minutes of simmering, the kernels retained their bite and gently flavored the soup.
Science: How Corn Becomes Hominy
Hominy, the chewy, starchy star of pozole, is whole kernels of dried corn (traditionally maíz cacahuacintle, a Mexican type with giant, thick kernels) that have been nixtamalized, a technique that can be traced back to Mayan recipes of 1500 BCE. In nixtamalization, dried corn is brought to a near boil and then left to soak overnight in hot water and calcium hydroxide (also known as slaked lime or pickling lime). For the ancient Mesoamericans, survival depended on this treatment: Soaking corn in a warm alkaline solution frees its bound niacin (aka vitamin B3), shifts the balance of proteins, and turns corn into a nutritionally complete staple food. As these changes occur, the color of the kernels intensifies, a prominent corn-chip aroma fills the air, and the pectin and hemicellulose in the corn’s cell walls dissolves, rendering the hull soft and gelatinized. From there, the hulls can be removed to create hominy—plump, soft kernels with a more robust buttery, earthy flavor than regular corn—or the hull-on kernels can be ground to make masa, the dough that is the foundation for tortillas, tamales, sopes, pupusas, and many other iconic Latin American dishes.
On to the garnishes. For me, the acidity of lime wedges was a must to cut through the porky richness, and chopped raw onion and a crunchy green (Janette insists on cabbage; Claudette, lettuce) added welcome freshness. I topped my bowl and then took my first taste, reveling in the array of textures and flavors swimming in the belly-warming broth. The only thing better than this? The bowl I’d have tomorrow: When pozole rests, its flavors get a chance to deepen and meld, becoming even more entrancing.