Just as marinara is just one of Italy's many tomato sauces, Mexico's tradition of the chili-based mole sauce is more varied than you might think. Along with the classic reddish-brown sauce most of us think of when we hear the word "mole," the sauce can have different hues and flavors, depending on the varieties and amounts of chilies, spices and other ingredients used. One thing they all share, however, is an intricate preparation method.
Regional variations abound when it comes to mole, but a few key categories tie most versions together, according to Rick Bayless, food writer and author of "Authentic Mexican." Thickeners, such as almonds or sesame seeds, give mole sauce its body, while dried chilies provide its bite. It's customary to use more than one kind of dried chili in the sauce. For sweetness, turn to raisins, along with roasted vegetables like onions and tomatillos. Mole seasonings are those more often associated with desserts in the U.S. These include unsweetened chocolate – preferably the authentic Mexican kind – as well as cloves and cinnamon.
Creating homemade mole is a multistage process. Many of its components are prepared separately to bring out their individual flavors. For example, dried chilies are dry-toasted in a skillet to accent their smoky side. The chiles are then soaked and pureed, along with their soaking liquid, into a paste. Similarly, spices and thickening ingredients are toasted in butter or lard, then pureed. The vegetable components can be roasted in the oven before they, too, are pureed. After the ingredients finally combine in the saucepan, they're taken off the heat, pureed once more, then poured back into the pan until they reach the preferred thickness.
Considered Mexico's most famous mole sauce, mole poblano is a thick, dark sauce most frequently spooned over turkey or chicken. The sauce includes toasted, soaked and pureed dried pasilla, mulato and ancho chilies. These are combined with roasted and pureed onion, garlic, tomato and tomatillo. The spices toasted for the dish include black peppercorns, cloves, allspice berries, coriander and cinnamon. Other elements of the sauce are raisins, toasted sesame seeds and almonds, and chunks of tortillas and bread. All are pureed together after their separate preparations, seasoned with Mexican chocolate and brown sugar, then cooked over medium heat until thickened.
Oaxacan mole sauces are also celebrated both within and outside Mexico's borders. Mole negro, or black sauce, has a sweet side somewhat reminiscent of mole poblano. Setting the two versions apart is mole negro's extra chocolate, as well as dark-hued herbs such as hoja santa. Rojo mole is a red sauce with more dried chillies and fewer sweet ingredients than the black kind. Mole verde is a green version that gets its color and distinctive flavor from green-hued ingredients like cilantro, pumpkin seeds, jalapeno peppers and extra tomatillos.