Mole in 43 Steps


If I told you one of the most traditional Mexican sauces took over roughly over 30 separate ingredients and over 43 steps to create would you make it? Probably not. And I knew I wouldn’t have made it either if I hadn’t found myself with a newly presented sense of adventure. And an extra Saturday to spend in the kitchen.

Mole is something I’ve always wanted to make myself. Yet every cook I’ve spoken to always proclaimed how laborious it is, how messy it can be, how involved the whole process really is. And you know what? They were right. And was it worth it? Absolutely.

Mole is a Mexican sauce that is flavored with nuts, chiles, spices, and sometimes chocolate (yes, chocolate) and cinnamon and served with chicken or turkey. The word comes from the Aztec world “Molli” which means stew or sauce, but to call Mole a “sauce” would be like calling the Mona Lisa simply a drawing. It’s so much greater than the sum of its parts. Deeply intriguing, intensely flavored with characteristics like no other sauce, mole is never the same and has been referred to as “a hundred dishes in a hundred homes.” There’s Mole Poblano, Mole Negro Oaxaqueno, Mole de Pasillas,  Mole Verde, with recipes as varied as the flavors themselves. There’s no one standard method of preparation, but the one thing everyone can agree is on that Mole is the national dish of Mexico, prepared throughout the country in different styles.

I grew up eating mole made by my grandmother, never realizing the work and dedication it took to create this rich, deep brown stew. In fact, I always thought it was a little funny tasting; it was sweet and savory yet bitter, with obvious flavors of chocolate and peanuts. Of course that didn’t stop me from devouring it every time she made it, a pile of fresh flour tortillas right next to my bowl of chicken mole.

Mole is made by cooking dried chiles into a sauce, adding ground nuts, herbs and other ingredients and then stewing slowly. Chicken or turkey is added and then the whole thing simmers, resulting in a rich, delicious, deep reddish brown dish. I wanted to take pictures of the process, but after the first few steps I realized that photography would have only made matters worse. The numerous steps and order required complete concentration, and I shudder to think what it would have been like to make mole by myself. An all day affair, making mole is neither quick nor easy–but worth every bit of effort.

It’s said that cooking and eating uses each of the five senses simultaneously. Perhaps this explained why I found myself on a flavor, aroma and emotional overload when we first began to fry the dried peppers. I was taken back, our kitchen was filled with smells that I hadn’t encountered since I was a child. It smelled like a real Mexican home–a combination of chiles, spices, seeds and herbs that is unmistakable. The only thing that was missing was my gracious and beautiful abuelita sneaking me pieces of food along the way.

In the next few weeks I’ll be experimenting with different recipes and writing about the results here.  Tonight will be the second part of my first Mole endeavor when we add chicken to the stew–we only initially made the sauce to experience the numerous steps.

I need a nap.

Buen provecho!


Puebla-style Fiesta Turkey in Mole Sauce

This recipe is from Bon Appetit, May 2003. It’s involved and takes some time but is a good mole recipe–it’s well balanced, not too bitter and not too sweet.

13 cups water
1 4-pound whole boneless turkey breast with skin, halved lengthwise
1 large white onion, peeled, quartered
1 head of garlic, outer skin removed, cut crosswise in half
1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt

1 cup lard or canola oil
8 dried mulato chiles, stemmed, seeds and membranes removed
6 dried pasilla chiles, stemmed, seeds and membranes removed
5 dried ancho chile, stemmed, seeds and membranes removed

Nuts and seeds
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 cup whole almonds
1/4 cup pecans
1 tablespoon unsalted roasted peanuts
1/4 cup shelled pepitas
3 tablespoons sesame seeds

1/4 cup canola oil
1 large ripe dark-skinned plantain, peeled, thickly sliced
1 pound tomatillos, husked, rinsed, coarsely chopped
1 pound plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2/3 cup raisins flavorings
1 large white onion, peeled, cut into 8 wedges
12 large garlic cloves, unpeeled
5 whole cloves
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
5 whole allspice berries
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon aniseed
1 1-inch piece canela* or cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon fine sea salt

3 tablespoons canola oil
1 3x2x1-inch bread slice from firm French roll
3 5- to 6-inch-diameter corn tortillas, coarsely chopped
6 ounces Mexican chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup chopped piloncillo** or (packed) dark brown sugar
2 cups (about) low-salt chicken broth (if necessary)

For turkey:
Combine all ingredients in large pot. Bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until turkey is just cooked through, skimming foam, about 35 minutes. Transfer turkey to bowl; cover and chill. Strain and reserve broth in pot.

For chiles:
Heat 1/2 cup lard in large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, fry all chiles until beginning to blister and change color, about 15 seconds per side (do not burn). Using tongs and shaking off excess lard, transfer chiles to another large pot. Add 4 cups reserved turkey broth; bring to boil. Reduce heat; simmer uncovered until chiles are very soft, about 35 minutes. Strain liquid into 4-cup measuring cup; add enough reserved turkey broth to measure 4 cups. Chop chiles. Working in batches, puree chiles and 4 cups chile broth in blender until smooth.

Heat remaining 1/2 cup lard in same pot over medium heat until almost smoking. Press chile puree through large mesh strainer into pot (mixture will sputter and bubble vigorously). Stir until puree thickens enough to form path on bottom of pot when wooden spoon is drawn across, about 15 minutes. Remove chile puree from heat.

For nuts and seeds:
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add almonds and stir until color deepens, about 1 minute. Add pecans and peanuts; stir 1 minute. Add pepitas; stir 30 seconds. Transfer to blender. Add sesame seeds to skillet; stir 1 minute. Transfer 2 tablespoons sesame seeds to small bowl and reserve for garnish. Place remaining 1 tablespoon sesame seeds in blender with nuts. Add 1/2 cup reserved turkey broth and blend until thick puree forms. Add nut-and-seed puree to pot with chile puree. Cook over very low heat, stirring often, while preparing fruits.

For fruits:
Heat 1/4 cup oil in same skillet over high heat. Add plantain and sauté until golden, about 3 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels. Add tomatillos and tomatoes to skillet; sauté until slightly softened, mashing with fork. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer until thickened, stirring often, about 25 minutes. Add raisins and plantain; simmer 10 minutes, stirring often. Cool slightly.

Working in batches, puree tomatillo mixture in blender with 2 cups reserved turkey broth. Strain mixture through sieve into chile-nut puree, pressing on solids to extract as much mixture as possible; discard solids in sieve. Continue cooking puree over very low heat while preparing flavorings, stirring often.

For flavorings:
Cook onion and garlic cloves in dry heavy medium skillet over medium heat until beginning to brown and soften, turning often, about 15 minutes. Cool slightly. Coarsely chop onion; peel garlic. Place in blender.

Stir cloves in same skillet over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Transfer cloves to spice mill or coffee grinder; add peppercorns and next 7 ingredients. Grind finely. Add to blender. Add 1 cup reserved turkey broth; blend until smooth. Stir spice mixture into chile-nut puree. Simmer mole over very low heat 30 minutes to blend flavors while preparing thickeners, stirring often (mole will bubble thickly).

For thickeners:
Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add bread slice; fry until golden, about 1 1/2 minutes per side. Transfer to blender. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons oil and tortillas to skillet; sauté 2 minutes. Transfer to blender with bread. Add 2 cups reserved turkey broth; blend until smooth. Add to mole; simmer 10 minutes.

Add chocolate and piloncillo to mole; simmer over low heat 20 minutes, stirring often, scraping bottom of pot and adding more turkey broth (or chicken broth if necessary) by 1/2 cupfuls if mole is too thick (up to 2 cups more broth may be needed). Season with salt. Continue simmering over low heat until streaks of oil form on mole surface, about 10 minutes longer. (Can be made 3 days ahead. Cool slightly. Chill uncovered until cold, then cover and keep refrigerated. Rewarm over low heat, stirring and adding more broth if desired, before continuing.)

Cut turkey into 1/3-inch-thick slices. Add to hot mole; simmer until turkey is heated through, about 10 minutes. Arrange turkey slices on platter. Spoon mole over; sprinkle with sesame seeds.

*Mexican cinnamon sticks with a delicate, floral flavor.
**Mexican raw sugar shaped into hard cones. If neither is available, substitute an equal weight of packed dark brown sugar.


  1. says

    Wow! I love Mole sauce and have always wanted to make one myself. But I’ve always looked at the recipes and said, “Hmmmm, well, maybe I’ll just go out and order it in a restaurant.” Great post and boy do I take my hat off.

  2. says

    Thanks for sharing this awesome and in-depth recipe with us! I always wanted to make mole. Now that I have your great recipe underhand, I will have to get cooking!

    I love complicated recipes with many different ingredients, so this one is just perfect for me…

    Your pictures are mind-blowing, as usual!

  3. says

    I was trying to think of something humorous and witty to say, but after reading through the recipe, I was too exhausted.

    (I can imagine how you felt after typing it all out!)

  4. angela says

    Matt: Mom and I took the shortcut and used mole from a jar when she was here last month. We dissolved it with chicken broth and added peanut butter and chocolate. Of course, nothing like grandma’s, but it did the trick (I had such a craving.) How can it be that grandma died and didn’t leave her recipe? If anyone figures out how to contact the dearly departed and pump them for info, let me know. I’ve got a few questions….

  5. says

    I’ve saved that copy of Bon Appetit for precisely that recipe–but have never gotten around to making it. Nice work and great pics.

  6. says

    I’ve made mole a couple of times and while it’s crazy laborious, it’s such a reward to see your friends’ surprised yet pleased faces when they take that first bite.

  7. says

    I once attempted a far easier recipe… and by the end swore to never, ever even THINK about making mole again! Needless to say, I’m beyond impressed. Your abuelita would be very, very proud :)

  8. says

    I will mirror Melissa’s comments about following a more simplified (dumbed down?) mole recipe and needing a vacation afterward. The results were not spectacular either, but I fear it was because the recipe was not good. Some shortcuts just take you over bad roads and deliver you in Shantyville.

  9. says

    All I can say is WOW! Mole is one of the things I’ve always wanted to make but have always been intimidated, not to mention terminally lazy. Seeing as we have just had a blogger Mexican cooking day over here in London, maybe the time has come to try mole too! Btw, I love the photo of the ingredients.

  10. says

    I can’t bear to mark this post as “read” in my RSS reader because the photo is so hauntingly beautiful — I come and look at it at least twice a day. I think you should sell prints. :)

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