Enchilada Sauce vs. Salsa: What’s the Difference?

In a world of global cultural share, you no longer need to travel across country borders to try foods that are homegrown and steeped in local history.

Because of this, there has been an influx of authentic Mexican cuisine around the world bringing the fantastically familiar combination of bright red, spicy salsa that’s served with crunchy tortilla chips or the deep red of a well-made enchilada sauce that spices up your favorite entrée.

While both salsa and enchilada sauce include chiles, tomatoes, and various similar spices, they differ in several important ways. The main places where these two red sauces differ are how they’re made, where they originate, and when they’re used in various dishes.

They’re both flavor-packed stars of their own dishes and are a lot harder to define than you might think. Both foods are staples in Mexican cuisine and are similar enough in taste that they could be confused. So, what are the specific differences between them, and can you use one instead of the other?

The Key Differences Between Salsa and Enchilada Sauce

Before we go into the details of exactly how these two foods differ, here’s a quick reference for the similarities and differences in salsa and enchilada sauce:

Salsa Enchilada Sauce
Is based on tomatoes, but usually includes chiles Is based on chiles, but can include tomatoes
Is used as a condiment to be served with the meal Is an integral part of the dishes it’s a part of, providing a main flavor component
Is thicker and chunky in consistency Is thin and smooth in consistency
Is usually served cold Is usually served hot


It’s worth remembering that there is a lot of overlap between these two categories, so this isn’t a definitive table. A salsa might lean more into the chiles that flavor it, and an enchilada sauce might be served on the side.

To really decide which sauce to use where, let’s take a closer look at what defines a “salsa” and what defines an “enchilada sauce”, and the different variations that fall into each category.

What is Enchilada Sauce?

Mexican Enchilada Sauce in a bowl
Enchilada Sauce

With a name that literally means “to be spiced” or “spicy” in Spanish, enchilada sauce is a smooth chile-based sauce typically used to make enchiladas, but which can be used in other dishes as well.

It’s based on chiles, and it’s seasoned with chili powder, garlic, and cumin, among other things.

Like most Mexican cuisine, enchilada sauce generally has a bit of kick to it, adding a nice spice to the final dish. It can range from a mild ancho chile base to the more daring chipotle pepper, all the way up to, if you’re a little crazy, a serrano pepper base. Enchilada sauce comes in two main groups: red and green.

Red enchilada sauce is the classic version, based in red chiles, and usually containing vinegar, onions, and garlic as the main sources of flavor. Red sauces can contain tomatoes or tomato paste, but don’t require them.

Green enchilada sauce, on the other hand, are based on green chiles, and often contain tomatillos, which are green variants of the tomato common in Mexican cuisine that are often sweeter. These sauces usually contain jalapeños or serrano peppers to add to their spice.

Enchilada sauces shouldn’t be confused with the filling used for tamales, sometimes called a tamale sauce. While a reduction of tomatoes and chiles can definitely be used in tamales, it isn’t usually served on top of and around them like it would be in enchiladas and is, instead, mixed directly in with the meat. They’re similar, but not identical, sauces.

What is Salsa?

Bowl full of Salsa on white background
Mexican Salsa

Ironically, although you wouldn’t normally consider salsa a traditional “sauce,” that’s what the word “salsa” literally means in Spanish. Salsa generally has a thicker, chunkier texture than enchilada sauce, more reminiscent of a chutney than anything else. It’s made primarily of tomatoes, onions, and chiles.

Unlike enchilada sauce, the tomatoes are an essential part of a salsa, giving it a signature flavor and texture.

Salsa is used as a condiment rather than a staple ingredient most of the time, added at the end of a dish’s preparation and served cold alongside the dish rather than mixed into it. It’s usually used on tacos and tortilla chips as a finishing touch. According to the History channel, salsa is the best-selling condiment in North America.

Like enchilada sauce, salsa comes in different varieties, but there are a few more dishes that can be considered a salsa. Again, similar to enchilada sauce, salsas come in a variety of spice levels to suit everyone’s palette.

Although in this case, the spice level isn’t tied directly to the kind of salsa being made, as the heat comes from chiles and spices added later in the recipe.

The most common is salsa roja, the typical “red sauce” that is served alongside tortilla chips at most restaurants, flavored by bright red, fresh tomatoes.

Another popular variant is salsa verde, literally “green sauce,” which relies on diced tomatillos instead of tomatoes, usually served as an option for buffet-style taco dishes.

Pico de gallo also falls into the category of salsa, but it is usually milder than other variations and can be eaten as a salad on its own.

Can you Replace Salsa with Enchilada Sauce?

Since salsa and enchilada sauce are completely different foods based in different flavors, there really isn’t a good way to replace them one-to-one for each other. You’re inevitably going to run into issues, sometimes completely changing the dish you were intending to make into something else.

Swapping out salsa for enchilada sauce means that the final dish will have a different overall taste and texture than it would otherwise, and the same is true the other way around.

You can replace salsa with enchilada sauce in certain dishes, but enchilada sauce doesn’t have the same tart freshness that makes salsa appealing in its most common uses. It also has a different viscosity, and while its smoothness might be its appeal in a casserole-like dish, as a condiment, it gives no texture to your tacos, burritos, or fajitas.

It would make slightly more sense to replace enchilada sauce with salsa, but that too would be an uneven flavor exchange. The resulting dish would have an entirely different consistency, with more whole pieces of the tomatoes and chiles mixed in with the meats and tortillas, so they wouldn’t be as well-saturated with flavor as it would be with the thinner enchilada sauce.

Instead, you could try adding salsa into your enchilada sauce recipe, combining the two rather than fully replacing one with the other.

This means that you get the good aspects of both: if you add salsa into an enchilada sauce just before it goes into the oven, it retains its tart freshness and adds another layer of texture to the dish without missing out on the imbued flavor from the enchilada sauce.

If you add enchilada sauce to a salsa dish, you get the same kind of result, in that you add more to the flavors without taking anything away.

Here is a delicious recipe from Chocolatemoosey.com that demonstrates to combine salsas and enchilada sauces effectively for a delicious dinner dish.

The Benefits of Salsa Versus Enchilada Sauce

While both kinds of foods are undoubtably delicious, it can be difficult to tell when to use which variation. Here’s a helpful list to look to before you get in the kitchen.

Salsa is beneficial in a lot of situations:

  • It adds a bright, citrus tang to finish off a dish
  • It’s served cold to compliment a hot dish
  • It’s best when made with fresh, healthy ingredients

But it also has drawbacks:

  • Salsa can be difficult to keep sanitary because nothing is cooked; you run the risk of salmonella or E. coli infecting your food if it sits out for too long
  • It can be more difficult to get the necessary ingredients when they’re out of season
  • Because everything in it is fresh and raw, salsa goes bad much more quickly than enchilada sauce

Enchilada sauce can also be great for a number of reasons:

  • It can offer a richer flavor when allowed to simmer properly
  • It is an easy-to-make additive for already good dishes
  • It can be stored for a longer period of time between meals

But it’s not without its own drawbacks:

  • It can be hard to control the heat levels of enchilada sauce considering its most basic ingredient already has a degree of spice to it
  • It takes longer to make a decent enchilada sauce from scratch than it does to make salsa, and that’s before factoring in the cooking time of the dish itself
  • Enchilada sauces tend to be heavier and less healthy than salsas

How to Make Enchilada Sauce and Salsa

For both sauces, though the amounts will vary from recipe to recipe, the ingredients will stay relatively consistent, as will the methods of preparation.

Everyone has their own personal touch to add to a recipe, so if you have an idea for an ingredient to improve your dish, by all means try it! A recipe is a guide, not a hard and fast rulebook.

The Basic Salsa Recipe

Making Salsa

When making a salsa at home, you would roughly chop fresh tomatoes, chiles (the type depends on the amount of spice you want in your salsa), and onions, then combine them with fresh cilantro, garlic, and chili powder.

You add salt and pepper to taste, and a few squeezes of lime to brighten it up. Salsas are relatively easy to put together, require no cook time, and should be done immediately before serving for the best results.

The Basic Enchilada Sauce

Making Enchilada sauce in a pot on a stove
Making Enchilada Sauce

To make enchilada sauce, you would start by heating up vegetable oil over medium heat. You want your pot to be warm enough that the oil becomes more liquid but not too hot that it smokes before you start to add in a small amount of flour to thicken the mixture.

Stirring constantly to make sure that no big clumps form. This makes a kind of rue into which you can then stir in either pureed fresh chilis or chili powder, depending on how authentic you want to be.

Once that is combined, you would slowly pour and mix in water and spices (usually garlic, onion, cumin, and salt). At this point, if you wanted to, you could add the tomatoes or tomato paste.

You stir it until it’s smooth and combined, simmer until it’s reached the consistency you need, then pour it over your enchiladas and put them in the oven.

Combining Salsa and Enchilada Sauce

Taking a look back at the Chocolatemoosey.com recipe, in order to combine the two, they suggest adding a premade salsa to your enchilada sauce as it’s cooking, which presents it with a different consistency, and brings the citrus of the lime and flavor of the cilantro into the mix of flavors.

This can complement the fillings of your enchiladas brilliantly, but it also loses the usual sharp, fresh taste of cold salsa added at the table, reducing it to a part of the sauce.

To add an enchilada sauce to your salsa dish, it’s probably a good idea to mix the sauce into the protein that’s functioning as a filling, keeping the salsa as a condiment at the end. That way you get the effects of both sauces working together without mixing.

The Different Histories of Salsa and Enchilada Sauce

Both salsa and enchiladas are Mexican in origin, though this has some caveats. Like most aspects of Mexican culture, the native foods of the area were influenced by Aztec and Mayan tradition at their roots but have been adapted and evolved with the arrival of the Spanish and the mixing of European cultures to become what they are today.

Salsa dates back to the Aztec empire, alongside chocolate and tamales. The use of fresh ingredients that didn’t need to be cooked means that certain kinds of salsa outdate the use of traditional ovens.

Most salsa were and still are used as a compliment to the meat in the dish but have since evolved to have flavor profiles in their own right.

Enchiladas have been around since the time of the Aztecs as well, though the word originated in 1885 in the United States. The first tortillas used by the Aztec people were called “Tlaxcalli,” and they were filled with meats and covered in different kinds of sauce. These were the ancestors of the enchilada.

However, enchiladas, as we know them now, are a “tex-mex” creation. This means that aspects of traditional Mexican food were combined with European concepts to create something that would appeal to Americans rather than strictly following cultural norms of preparation.

To learn more about the difference between “tex-mex” and authentic Mexican foods, you can read this article from Aquiestexcoco.com.

When and Where We Eat Salsa and Enchilada Sauce Now

The world is more connected than it’s ever been before, and therefore, a lot of foods that were once considered to be culturally specific have blended into neighboring societies, and even gained traction around the world through highlights on popular television shows and websites.

This is especially true of Mexican food, which has become more of a fast food staple around the world. Nowadays, you can get chips and salsa or enchiladas for lunch almost anywhere you go. The foods themselves have also grown and changed with the world.

Salsas have become more of a grab-and-go food, the more closely associate with restaurants and fast food of the two, is served inside burritos and tacos or in small side pots with lids.

Its quick preparation means that it has become an excellent, easy addition to a midday meal that can be brought with you to work, school, or outings where you don’t expect to stop very long to eat.

Enchiladas, on the other hand, have always been more of a sit-down meal. They have definitely become more associated with family gatherings and socializing, with some families even taking pride in recipes for the perfect enchilada sauce being passed down generation to generation, to be made only on special occasions.

What’s really interesting about these two foods is that while the situations in which we eat them both have changed dramatically, the general ingredients and make of salsas and enchiladas haven’t changed very much since the days of the Aztecs.

The Best of Mexican Food

Chips and lime wedges with bowls filled with queso, salsa and guacamole
Tortilla Chips with queso, salsa and guacamole

No matter which kind of Mexican food you pick to put on the table, at the end of the day, you can’t really go wrong.

You end up with something spicy and sweet, with just enough bite to make you pay attention but not quite enough to melt your face off (unless you like your peppers that hot, in which case, melt away!), that is sure to wow the family and mean clean plates all around.

Salsa and enchilada sauce are excellent ways to add more fruits and veggies to your diet while changing up the routine. They can also be incredibly fun to make! If you have a little extra time this week, why not try out a new recipe or two?

You could find out if there are any variations on salsas and enchilada sauces that you’ve missed so far that you might love.

Whatever you decide, it’s definitely worth celebrating. Here’s to more experimenting in the kitchen, and to a culture that brought us fantastic foods across borders.

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