Classic Tortilla Soup with All the Trimmings

Classic Tortilla Soup with All the Trimmings
This image courtesy of Christopher Hirsheimer

Like guacamole, tortilla soup has a place, I feel, in practically ever collection of Mexican recipes. Especially everyday recipes. It’s a filling, flavorful meal that can be made with little effort, but one that sings with an unmistakable Mexican harmony: Earthy dark pasilla chile. The softening crunch of toasty corn tortillas. Soul-satisfying broth. And creamy-rich avocado and cheese. A note about the pasilla (sometimes called negro) chile: Its unique flavor defines tortilla soup in central Mexico. In Michoacán, in west-central Mexico, it’s ancho chile. In your kitchen, it might turn out to be another chile, like New Mexico or even a little smoky chipotle (be forewarned that chipotle will make the broth quite spicy). Though for these everyday recipes I’ve relied heavily on the easier-to-use powdered dried chiles, finding powdered pasilla can be harder than finding the whole pod I’ve called for here. Should powdered chile be at your fingertips (be it powdered piaslla, ancho or beyond), replace the pod with about 1 tablespoon, added to the blender when pureeing the onion and garlic. In Mexico, it’s more common to crush toasted chile pods over the finished soup than to add chile to the base. You can follow that lead, or do both, as I do in my restaurants.


Total Timeunder 1 hour

One Pot MealYes

OccasionCasual Dinner Party

Recipe CourseMain Course

Dietary ConsiderationEgg-free, Peanut Free, Soy Free, Tree Nut Free

MealDinner, Lunch


Taste and TextureCheesy, Crisp, Herby, Spiced, Tangy

Type of DishChicken Soup, Hot Soup, Soup


  • 1 large dried pasilla (negro) chile, stemmed and seeded
  • One 15-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice (preferably fire-roasted)
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or olive oil
  • 1 medium white onion, sliced ¼ inch thick
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 quarts chicken broth
  • 1 large sprig fresh epazote, if you have one
  • Salt
  • 4 (about 1 ¼ pounds total) boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, cut into ½-inch cubes
  • 1 large ripe avocado, pitted flesh scooped from the skin and cut into ¼-inch cubes
  • 1 ½ cups (6 ounces) shredded Mexican melting cheese (such as Chihuahua, quesadilla or Monetary Jack, brick or mild cheddar)
  • A generous 4 cups (about 6 ounces) roughly broken tortilla chips
  • 1 large lime, cut into 6 wedges, for serving


  1. Quickly toast the chile by turning it an inch or two above an open flame for a few seconds, until its aroma fills the kitchen. (Lacking an open flame, toast it in a dry pan over medium heat, pressing it flat for a few seconds, then flipping it over and pressing it again.) break the chile into pieces and put it in a blender jar, along with the tomatoes with their juice. (A food processor will work, but it won’t completey puree the chile.)

  2. Heat the oil in a large (4-quart) saucepan over medium-high. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until golden, about 7 minutes. Scoop up the onion and garlic with a slotted spoon, pressing them against the side of the pan to leave behind as much oil as possible, and transfer to the blender; set the pan aside. Process until smooth.

  3. Return the pan to medium-high heat. When it is quite hot, add the puree and stir nearly constantly until thickened to the consistency of tomato paste, about 6 minutes. Add the broth and epazote, if using. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes. Taste and season with salt, usually about a generous teaspoon (depending on the saltiness of the broth).

  4. Just before serving, add the chicken to the simmering broth. Divide the avocado, cheese and tortilla chips among the serving bowls. When the chicken is done, usually about 5 minutes, ladle the soup into the bowls. Pass the lime separately.


  1. Vegetarian Tortilla Soup: Use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth and omit the chicken. Or replace the chicken with 1/2–inch cubes of firm tofu (I Like to cut ½ inch slices and sear them in my grill pan, then cut them into cubes before adding the soup).

  2. Tortilla Soup with Greens: Add a couple handfuls of sliced chard leaves (or practically any other green) to the soup along with the chicken. Tougher greens like collards and kale should be added before the chicken; soft ones like spinach or arugula should go in when the chicken is half done.

Contemporary Riffs on the Tortilla Soup Theme:

Goat cheese can replace the melting cheese. Rotisserie or grilled chicken can stand in for the raw chicken breasts (add it at the last second. Ditto for grilled duck breast or confit-style legs. Blue corn tortilla chips are delicious, though perhaps not as pretty.


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A very simple recipe that shines with quality ingredients. I made my own chicken stock and used an ancho chile instead of a pasilla. Topped with homemade tortilla strips, lime, cotija, and fresh guacamole, this is a meal in itself.

Oh, I see the chicken in the ingredients! Sorry!

The recipe doesn't mention chicken in the ingredients list, but then later it refers to adding the chicken.


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