Mole is a traditional Mexican sauce made from a mixture of ingredients that typically includes chili peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, spices, chocolate, nuts, and seeds. The key components that give mole its distinctive rich, complex flavor are dried chilies, chocolate, and a variety of spices.
Here are some of the main ingredients commonly used to make traditional mole:
- Dried Chile Peppers – Ancho, pasilla, mulato, and chipotle chilies are commonly used. They provide heat, color, and a rich, smoky flavor.
- Tomatoes – Roma or vine-ripened tomatoes add sweetness and texture.
- Onions – White, yellow, or red onions are sauteed to mellow the flavor.
- Garlic – Provides an aromatic base and flavor depth.
- Spices – Cumin, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, and black pepper add warmth and complexity.
- Chocolate or Cacao – Adds richness, slight sweetness, and helps thicken the sauce.
- Nuts – Peanuts, almonds, sesame seeds, or pine nuts provide crunch and nutty flavors.
- Stock – Chicken or turkey stock provides savoriness.
In addition to these core ingredients, there are many variations on mole that also incorporate additional elements like herbs, fruits, seeds, chilies, and thickening agents.
Origins and History
Mole traces its origins to ancient indigenous cuisines in Mexico where complex sauces were often used to enhance the flavor of meats, vegetables, and other ingredients. The name “mole” comes from the Nahuatl word “mōlli” which means sauce or concoction.
Over the centuries, mole evolved into many regional variations influenced by Spanish colonization. The use of ingredients like nuts, chilies, and chocolate reflect influences from Spanish, African, and European cuisines. The most famous type of mole is Puebla-style mole poblano which contains chili peppers, chocolate, almonds, and sesame seeds.
Other well-known mole variations include:
- Mole verde – made with green tomatillos, pepitas, and herbs
- Mole negro – black mole that heavily features ancho chilies
- Mole amarillo – yellow mole with a tomatillo base
- Mole coloradito – reddish mole with ancho and guajillo chilies
Today, mole remains an iconic part of Mexican cuisine though recipes can vary widely by region and family traditions.
Making Mole from Scratch
Making authentic mole from scratch is a labor of love requiring patience and care. Here are the basic steps:
Toast and rehydrate dried chilies – The dried chilies are toasted to intensify the flavor before rehydrating in hot water or broth until softened.
Blend chilies into a smooth paste – Once rehydrated, the chilies are blended with some of the rehydration liquid until a smooth paste forms.
Saute aromatics – Onions, garlic, and other aromatics like herbs are sauteed to create a flavor base.
Grind spices – Whole spices like cumin, cinnamon, coriander are freshly ground into a powder.
Simmer mole base – The chili paste, sauteed aromatics, ground spices, chocolate, and broth are simmered together for up to an hour to meld the flavors.
Thicken mole – Crushed nuts, seeds, masa harina, or corn tortillas are added near the end to thicken the mole.
Adjust seasoning – More broth, salt, herbs, or spices are added to adjust and balance the flavors.
This from-scratch approach helps build deep, complex flavor but requires significant time. Many cooks prepare mole over two or more days.
Mole can also be prepared more quickly by using storebought shortcuts found at Hispanic markets or online:
- Mole paste – Premade paste combines dried chilies, spices, chocolate, and thickeners.
- Mole powder – Shelf-stable powder dissolves quickly in heated broth.
- Mole sauce – Premade mole sauce just needs heating and seasoning.
These shortcuts reduce hands-on cooking time dramatically. However, the mole won’t have quite the depth of flavor as homemade. Cooks may adjust by adding extra spices, chocolate, broth, or chilies.
Key Cooking Tips
Here are some helpful tips for cooking perfect mole every time:
- Use a mix of chili varieties for depth of flavor
- Toast spices and chilies well to intensify the flavors
- Simmer the mole gently and long enough to blend the flavors
- Add broth and spices gradually until desired consistency and taste
- Cook mole in cast iron or nonreactive pans to prevent reactions
- A little goes a long way – mole freezes well for future use
Mole complements many ingredients but is classically served with:
- Turkey or Chicken – Rich, robust mole pairs beautifully with poultry
- Pork – Often paired with tender pork chops or simmered pork
- Beans – Ancho-spiced mole makes black beans shine
- Rice – Simple white rice soaks up the complex flavors
- Peppers – Roasted or stuffed poblano peppers balance the spice
For easy mole enchiladas, you can dip corn tortillas in the sauce and wrap around chicken or cheese before baking. Mole also shines when served over fried eggs for breakfast or basted on seafood like fish.
Making Vegetarian/Vegan Mole
For vegetarians or vegans, mole can be prepared using vegetable broth instead of chicken broth. Additional ways to adapt traditional mole recipes include:
- Replace poultry with sauteed mushrooms, potatoes, or jackfruit
- Use cashews or seed butters for thickening instead of nut meats
- Add pureed cooked squash for natural sweetness and body
- Garnish with sliced avocado rather than queso fresco
- Stir in toasted pepitas and almonds for crunch
With so many rich ingredients like chili peppers, nuts, seeds, and chocolate, mole delivers deep umami flavors even without meat or dairy. Vegetarians and vegans may also opt for mole verde which relies less on chocolate and nuts.
Buying Quality Ingredients
The ingredients you select can make all the difference in mole. Here are some tips for choosing the best:
- Chilies – Seek out dried chilies grown in Mexico for authentic flavor. Ancho, pasilla, mulato are common.
- Chocolate – Use high percentage Mexican cacao or baking chocolate. Avoid Dutch processed.
- Spices – Buy whole spices whenever possible to freshly grind. Toast before using.
- Nuts – Choose raw, unsalted nuts ideally with skins intact if peanuts or almonds.
- Tomatoes – Select ripe roma or heirloom tomatoes for depth of flavor.
- Onions – Yellow, white or red onions all work well. Sweet onions add depth.
You can often find high quality dried chilies, Mexican chocolate, and spices at Latin markets and specialty stores. Take the time to source top ingredients for authentic mole.
Common Additions and Substitutions
While traditional mole recipes have basic ingredients, cooks often add their own twist with additional items:
- Pumpkin or squash – For extra body and sweetness
- Plantains – Contribute starchy sweetness
- Raisins or prunes – Fruity depth and chew
- Sesame seeds – Toasty flavor and thickening
- Anise or fennel – Licorice notes
- Dried chilis – Chipotle, guajillo, pasilla for smokiness
In a pinch, some substitutions can work though may alter the flavor profile:
- Regular chocolate if no Mexican cacao
- Dutch process cocoa as alternative to Mexican chocolate
- Almonds or cashews if no sesame seeds or pine nuts
- Oregano or marjoram for Mexican oregano
- Tomato sauce instead of fresh tomatoes
Feel free to experiment with ingredients to create your own signature mole. Just maintain the balance of rich flavors by adjusting seasonings.
Mole Varieties by Region
Moles vary greatly across different regions of Mexico. Here are some of the most iconic regional moles and their distinctive characteristics:
- Mole poblano – Rich, dark mole with chocolate, chili peppers, almonds, sesame
- Mole de caderas – Uses goat meat and has a hint of spiciness
- Mole negro – Nearly black mole with ancho, pasilla, mulato chilies
- Mole amarillo – Vibrant yellow mole with costeño chilies
- Mole coloradito – Brick red mole with ancho and guajillo
- Mole de Xico – Very dark mole flavored with hoja santa herb
- Mole huasteco – Light mole featuring plantains and piloncillo
There are likely hundreds of mole variations with new regional moles still being discovered. Part of mole’s appeal is the diversity of flavors across Mexico.
Popular Variations Beyond Mexico
As mole has spread beyond Mexico, many cultures have put their own spin on the sauce:
- Philippines – Uses coconut milk and leans sweeter
- United States – Pumpkin mole popular during fall months
- Europe – Cremini mushrooms sometimes used instead of traditional ingredients
- India – Mole flavored with curry spices like turmeric, cumin and ginger
There is no limit to mole variations. Cooks worldwide continue to innovate by integrating local ingredients and traditions.
Storage and Leftovers
Like many sauces, mole can be stored and enjoyed for several days after preparation:
- Store mole in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to one week.
- The flavors continue improving over several days of storage.
- Mole also freezes extremely well for months of storage.
- To freeze, store mole in freezer bags or containers leaving head space.
- Defrost mole sauce in the refrigerator before reheating gently.
- Leftover mole is amazing served over enchiladas, tacos, grilled meats, stir fries, and more.
A batch of homemade mole can provide multiple delicious meals throughout the week. The sauce tends to thicken upon storage so add broth as needed when reheating.
Mole represents Mexican culinary history and tradition at its finest. While the ingredients list may seem complex, mole yields incredible depth of flavor with the right balance of sweet, savory, spicy, and bitter notes. With so many regional varieties, there is a mole for virtually every palate to love and enjoy.
Making mole does demand time and patience but the satisfaction of creating this legendary sauce is well worth the effort. Even beginning cooks can successfully prepare simpler mole recipes. Choose high quality dried chilies, spices, chocolate and simmer with care to let the flavors develop and meld. Serve your homemade mole over rich meats, enchiladas, tamales, or simply beans and rice for an unforgettable dining experience.