Holy Mole: You Need to Make This Spicy, Chocolatey Mexican Sauce

Maybe you’ve tasted rich, dark mole sauce ladled over your steaming plate at a Mexican restaurant. But what is that spicy, chocolately-scented drizzle all about? Why are some sauces ruby red and others look like a black gravy? There are actually seven different types of this delectable traditional sauce. Here’s your guide to preparing and eating the mysterious Mexican mole.

What is Mole, Exactly?

You may have heard it pronounced all sorts of ways, but really, it’s very simple: MO-lay.

As for its origins, that’s a bit more complicated. The most common origin story is that the word “mole” comes from the Nahuatl word (from the Aztec culture) “milli” or “mōlli” which means sauce, or concoction. So in a way, “mole sauce” means “sauce sauce.”

The legend tied to the Nahuatl origin story is that the sauce came from pre-Hispanic times, when the Aztec king Moctezuma served mole to the conquistadors, thinking they were gods. Which brings us to the next point, about another food of the gods of sorts:

Is there Really Chocolate in Mole?

Many people think of mole as “chocolate sauce,” but chocolate isn’t included in all mole sauces. When it is, it’s just one of many ingredients that make up the sauce. Mole NegroMole Poblano, Mole Colorado–each of these types of mole may contain a few ounces of chocolate, but when the end result is nearly a gallon of sauce, it’s clear that chocolate isn’t the biggest flavor component of the dish.

 

Mole ingredients
Mole sauces include dried chiles, nuts, seeds, chocolate (sometimes), and more

 The Seven Types of Mole

Although there are many different variations on recipes for mole, there are seven main classic types of moles in Mexican cuisine (you thought there was just one, right?). The amount and types of dried chiles you use, along with what you serve it with, are ways to customize mole depending on your tastes. Let’s start with the basics and you can build from here:

  1. Mole Poblano. A red mole with lots of dried chile flavor, this is considered the national dish of Mexico. This version, from the state of Puebla, is the most widely known and is often served on dishes such as stewed meats, like braised beef or pork, as in this recipe.
  1. Mole Negro. Dark, bitter, savory, and sweet, this is the most typical mole you’ll find on menus in the United States. It has more chocolate than others, usually, as well as sweet spices like cinnamon, clove, and cumin.
  1. Mole Coloradito/Colorado. Brownish-red in color, this sauce includes the common elements of dried chiles, sweet fruits, and other sweet-savory ingredients, but is thickened with mashed plantains (a starchy fruit similar to bananas). It’s lovely with chunks of pork (precook it) or on enchiladas like these from Rick Bayless of Chicago restaurants Frontera and Topolobampo.
  1. Mole Manchamantel. Known as “the tablecloth stainer,” this mole is often made with the Spanish sausage chorizo (whose drippy orange grease stains everything it touches), tomatoes, and ancho chiles, as well as fresh pineapple. It’s often served with chicken or pork.
  1. Mole Amarillo. Chocolate-free, and made without the dried fruits that often dot the red and brown moles, it’s a spicy sauce that can be found inside chicken empanadas or served alongside vegetables. Try out this recipe for Mole Amarillo, with chicken, beef, or veggies like chayote, served alongside fresh tortillas.
  1. Mole Verde. The color can range from bright to light green, depending on the ingredients. Made with cilantro, lots of pumpkin seeds (pepitas or pipian), jalapeños, and tomatillos, it can have lots of bright, citrusy flavor and herbal notes, and is best as a topping to chicken breasts or thighs, served with black beans and rice. Atop these vegetarian tamales also sound like a great idea.
  1. Mole Chichilo. Made with a base of beef stock and thickened with masa (dough made with corn flour), it’s the rarest mole made, often prepared for special occasions. This recipe features the sauce served with beef filets and dumplings made from masa and chicharrones (deep fried pork rinds) called chochoyotes.

The Secret Sauce: Finding the Best Dried Chiles

Mole takes a lot of time to make, traditionally, since dried chiles need to be toasted, onions sauteed and browned. Plus, the order in which the ingredients are added matters; each one needs to be cooked for a different amount of time.

Much of the success of your mole recipe will depend on the quality of the dried chiles you find. Chose chiles that are pliable and flexible, which indicates that they are fresher. If they’re brittle, they’re likely very old and as a result will have weaker flavor.

While there are definitely recipes that include shortcuts, your end result will be a deeper flavor if you take the time to cook ingredients well and use an authentic recipe.

Tamale
A delicious chicken tamale steamed in a banana leaf for flavor with a spicy mole sauce

How to Serve Mole

As one legend of the origin of mole sauce tells it, nuns in Mexico put together a random assortment of ingredients upon hearing that the archbishop was coming to visit. The only meat they had on hand was an old turkey who wandered the grounds, and so they cooked it and ladled their sauce over the top.

Ladling mole over meat is the most common way to serve it. Of course, you can also combine the meat and sauce together before serving for tacos. Tortillas, black or refried beans and rice make nice accompaniments, of course.

Mole can also be added to masa (the starchy dough made from corn) or meat when wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks for tamales; served in a bowl alongside tortillas for dipping; or drizzled over eggs for breakfast.

Mole is also lovely served on enchiladas: shred chicken and tuck it inside tortillas with minced onions, queso fresco, and a drizzle of mole, and then smother the top of the enchiladas with mole. You can bake a sheet pan of enchiladas with mole and serve a bit of extra on the side fresh from the stovetop for two different textures and intensities of the sauce. 

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