Do I Have to Fry the Tortillas for Enchiladas? (No! here’s how)

My family loves Mexican food but we don’t always need some of the high fat that can come with it. So I was wondering do I have to fry the tortillas for enchiladas?

Here’s what I found out in investigating:

Enchiladas are made with corn tortillas, which are tough unless fresh. The tortillas must be softened to prevent cracking when being rolled, which is why they are usually quick fried. You can soften without frying by using a comal, steaming, or spraying with oil and baking.

So here, we’re reviewing all the alternatives to frying and answering all the top questions that can come with those methods.

If you’re looking to buy any small kitchen appliance, don’t forget to check out my Recommended Products Page (click to see my page) which breaks down all my best picks by category.

I always hand select items that I either own, have used, or have researched well to ensure they are great items. I also give not only top of the line as well as inexpensive alternatives so my choices work for any budget.

How do you heat corn tortillas so they don’t break?

As we discussed, traditionally you would dip that corn tortilla into a skillet of hot oil or a deep fryer for a quick fry.

In Mexico, when the other ingredients are ready to roll the enchiladas, the corn tortillas are quickly fried. When I say quickly, I’m talking about 8-10 seconds, flipping often with tongs, until they just start to crisp up and darken in color.

You don’t want them to get crisp like tortillas chips; remember we’re trying to make them easier to roll.

Then after pulling the tortillas out of the hot oil, you would traditionally coat both sides in a red or green chile sauce that was heated in a skillet. With tongs, gently coat both sides and now you’re (literally) ready to roll.

The frying gives us 3 benefits that you just don’t get if you don’t heat them at all.

First, it allows the tortilla to soak in the red chile sauce without falling apart.  Next, it deepens the flavor. The sugars naturally occurring in the tortilla start to caramelize and break down the proteins.

Lastly, it allows us to roll them without them cracking or splitting down the middle (something all enchilada makers have likely experienced at some point). But don’t worry too much about the oil. The tortillas don’t actually soak up a ton of oil since they aren’t super absorbent to begin with.

But still, I wondered, “do I have to fry the tortillas for enchiladas?”

There are more questions that come up, so let’s keep researching.

How do you soften corn tortillas without frying them?

Using a comal

There are a few alternatives to frying them in oil.

The first, and probably what I would do, is to warm them on a comal. A comal in some parts of Mexico would be made of clay. I used to have a clay one I loved that eventually got dropped and broke. Unfortunately, the clay ones can be very hard to find.

So cast iron comal to the rescue.

Cast iron ones are easy to find in great cooking stores, Mexican markets, and of course on Amazon. They season easily (which you do with all cast iron), and clean up easily. Essentially a comal is a flat cast iron disc with a handle. Not a skillet because the sides just come up maybe 1/8 of an inch and the surface is totally flat. Most often they are about 8″ around.

Set the comal on a stovetop burner with the heat somewhere between 25-50% of the full heat. Place a stack of tortillas on the comal (with no oil) and occasionally flip and rotate the tortillas to keep them heated evenly without burning.

No comal? You could also wrap a stack in foil and place them in an oven-proof dish and bake on a medium temp of around 325°.

Steaming the tortillas

Steaming is another popular alternative to frying or warming the tortillas. When I say “popular”, I’m also talking chiefly about the US as I doubt many in Mexico would do this.

The big downside I see is that by definition, steam adds moisture (ie: water) to the tortillas. This has a tendency to make them fall apart more, and no one likes mushy enchiladas.

If you must steam, the keys would be to not steam them for too long.

So I would wrap a stack of tortillas in a clean cloth towel. You can put them in a steamer if you have one or damp the towel lightly (before putting the tortillas inside) and then microwave for about 1 minute.

Let me be clear, here, while this can work, it’s my least favorite way to make enchiladas. But it is an alternative to frying the tortillas for enchiladas.

Spray and Bake

I would definitely use this method over steaming.

It actually combines aspects of traditional frying tortillas for enchiladas as well as heating on a comal. Using a baking sheet, spray the pan and then lay the tortillas flat on the pan. Spray with spray oil, flip and spray the other side and then heat in an oven at 325° for about 5-8 minutes.

It’s ok if the tortillas touch or overlap a little, but don’t stack them.

When done, proceed with dipping them in the red chile sauce and continue. Another variation on this method is used by renowned Mexican food chef Rick Bayless (who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and getting one of my cookbooks of his signed).

He sprays one side the tortilla with oil and then stacks them, placing them on a baking tray and putting into the oven at 350° for about 3-4 minutes.  Then remove and wrap in a clean cloth towel, removing one at a time to fill and roll.

Can you use flour tortillas in enchiladas?

The short answer is yes, you can use flour tortillas instead of corn to make enchiladas.

The good news is you don’t need to dip them in hot oil.

The (possible) bad news is it’s not technically an enchilada at that point, but more of a burrito (typically not cooked) or chimichanga (more often deep fried). Both of those, however, are really more US inventions than true Mexican food.

So purists would not call them enchiladas if you use flour tortillas.

That being said, that doesn’t mean they will taste bad, it just not authentically Mexican food at that point. The foodie equivalent of using flour tortillas instead of naan bread for Indian food or some fresh herb other than basil to make a pesto with.

How do you roll corn tortillas without them breaking?

No matter which method you used to soften the tortillas (frying, steaming, heating), the trick is to dip them in the chile sauce fairly quickly and then fill them and roll them.

So timing is the key here.

Thus, we need to make sure all our ingredients to stuff the enchiladas with are ready. Get the filling prepped, the cheese grated, and the red chile sauce heated in a skillet on low heat. Then make sure your glass baking dish is on standby and that you coated the bottom and sides with a little of the red chile sauce.

Then, and only then, are you ready to fry the tortillas and start to make your enchiladas.

Did I answer all your questions about do I have to fry the tortillas for enchiladas?

In this article, we explored the world of enchiladas and specifically how to get the tortillas soft enough to roll without cracking.

The short answer was no, you don’t have to fry the tortillas for enchiladas, but frying probably gives the best flavor and gets you the best results.

Frying also has the least likely chance of the tortillas cracking or splitting. Lastly, it helps minimize mushy enchiladas (although that could still happen if you leave them frying too long).

BUT there are some alternatives to cut the calories and fat that come with frying anything, and we explored all the alternatives and the pros and cons of each.

What method to soften the tortillas work best for you?

If you’re looking to buy any small kitchen appliance, don’t forget to check out my Recommended Products Page (click to see my page) which breaks down all my best picks by category.

I always hand select items that I either own, have used, or have researched well to ensure they are great items. I also give not only top of the line as well as inexpensive alternatives so my choices work for any budget.

Photo credits:

Mmm… enchiladas by jeffreyw is licensed by CC2.0


Jeff Campbell

Jeff was a leader for Whole Foods Market for over 2 decades and is now a recovering foodie. When he's not spending time in the kitchen, he can usually be found with his wife & 3 daughters, he can usually be found practicing martial arts, making music, or blogging on his other sites. Click to learn more about me

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