Mexican Tortilla Soup with Frizzled Tortillas

Over the years, I have eaten this much-lauded soup in every restaurant and café I could find it.

I love the concept—toasted chiles, tomatoes, garlic, corn tortillas, and cumin soup base with fried tortillas, avocado, and sour cream embellishments—but not always the execution. Restaurant renditions vary considerably, as do recipes in American Southwest and Mexican cookbooks.

Some recipes use a soup base that is more tomato than stock. Some reverse that with hardly any tomato at all. Others use a variety of chilies, both fresh and dried, but no cumin. Others use cumin, but no chilies.

Some tortilla soups are silky purees, while others are rustic chowders. Some are thick stews, while others are watery broths.

In my favorite version, there is a silky puree with subtle taste and aroma of corn tortillas (the result of cooking these into the soup base), heady aroma of toasted cumin, and textural play of garnishes, such as crispy-fried shredded tortillas, crumbled cotija cheese, avocado, tomato, and sour cream.

When prepared with care and thoughtfulness, tortilla soup is an extravaganza, a completely magnificent meal-in-a-bowl.

From numerous tortilla soup adventures in the OtherWorldly Kitchen over the years, I have hit upon a soup base of caramelized onions, which is the distinction that sets this version apart from all others I have tried. The preparation for this soup begins in exactly the same way as for French Onion Soup.

For a fun evening with foodie friends, serve this soup with this movie or this music.

Mexican Tortilla Soup with Frizzled Tortillas

This lovely soup has a rich, complex flavor and gorgeous silky texture. I sometimes add cooked chicken to the garnishes, but this is unnecessary and even extraneous.

Because this soup requires time and effort to produce, and because it is so singular and satisfying, I always serve it as a main course. As a first course, it’s a hard act to follow.

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 pounds onions, peeled, cut in half vertically, and sliced
1 teaspoon sugar

3 dried ancho chilies

6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced or pressed
½ cup brandy, optional
½ cup dry red wine, optional

six, 6½-inch diameter corn tortillas, cut into 1-inch pieces 
2 jalapeno chilies, stemmed, seeded, ribbed, and minced

1 tablespoon ground cumin (tastes even better if you lightly toast the seeds in a dry saute pan and then grind them yourself)
2 bay leaves

6 cups vegetable or chicken stock, plus more as needed
3 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped (or three 14.5-ounce cans chopped tomatoes)

fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

½ cup canola oil
three, 6½-inch diameter corn tortillas, cut into narrow strips

1 cup grated or crumbled cotija cheese, optional
½ cup green onion, chopped, optional
1 medium tomato, seeded and chopped, optional
1 avocado, peeled, seeded, chopped or sliced, and quickly tossed with fresh lime juice, optional
½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped, optional
1 cup sour cream, whisked to smooth, optional
6-8 lime wedges

  1. Melt the butter, add the onions, sprinkle with sugar, and slowly sweat the onions, partially covered, until they are deep brown. This takes 45-60 minutes, sometimes even longer, depending on the heat level and onions. You will need to stir only occasionally during the first 30 minutes, more often during the next 15 minutes, and frequently in the final 15 minutes.  NOTE   I can’t overemphasize the importance of this step. If the onions are cooked too rapidly, they will burn; if too briefly, they will not lend the necessary color and depth of flavor to the finished soup. So take your time, cover partially, and sweat the onions until they are deep brown, translucent, and soft.
  2. While the onions are browning, put the ancho chiles into a small, dry sauté pan set over medium heat. Toast for 2 to 3 minutes, turning often and pressing flat against the pan with a wooden spoon. The chiles will soften, puff slightly, and give off a lovely fragrance. Remove from the heat, cool briefly, remove the stem and seeds, and tear into small pieces. Put the chiles in a mixing bowl and cover with boiling water. Let hydrate for 30 minutes, and then drain, reserving 1 cup of the water.
  3. When the onions are brown, stir in the garlic, and then carefully add the brandy and reduce to about 2 tablespoons. Add the red wine and reduce by half.
  4. Add the toasted, hydrated ancho chiles, cut tortillas, jalapeno chiles, cumin, and bay leaves. Heat, stirring, for 2 minutes.
  5. Add chicken stock, reserved 1 cup ancho chile water, and tomatoes. Stir, cover partially, and simmer slowly for 30 minutes.
  6. Fish the bay leaves from the soup. Then, either puree the soup with an immersion blender, or for a super silky texture, in batches in a blender.
  7. Adjust the consistency of the soup by adding additional stock if necessary. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  8. If you have time, cool and refrigerate the soup overnight to develop the flavor more fully. (Highly recommend as it makes a big difference.)
  9. Before serving, heat the oil in a small sauté pan until a drop of water sizzles when flicked on the surface. Fry the tortilla strips, turning with tongs, until crisp. Remove to paper towels to drain. Prepare the other embellishments as indicated above.
  10. When ready to serve, reheat the soup if necessary and adjust seasoning if necessary. Ladle soup into individual, wide rimmed soup bowls, and top each serving with cooked chicken and fried tortillas. Add some or all of the embellishments. Serve with lime wedges.

Serves 6-8.


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Copyright 2012 Susan S. Bradley. All rights reserved.

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  1. says

    Wow, this looks so good! I would love to make something like this for me and my family. We all love Mexican food so much, so I know we would all love it. Plus, there’s just something about homemade Mexican food that you just can’t replicate.

  2. says

    Love your site, your apple pie remains my fave to this day…but lots of great recipes. I have to avoid gluten, but have had success using AP GF flour in many of your recipes.
    This is my favourite soup too and I love the sound of your version. I can’t do onions though sadly (I miss them but since ditching them on the fodmap diet, my heartburn and digestive issues have almost disappeared). Do you think think this would be okay without them? I know you mentioned that they really make the soup for you…

    thanks in advance!

    • says

      Dana, thanks so much! :-) Onions add a lot of dimension to this soup. but there’s so much flavor here, I think you will still like it even without the onions. Give it a go and let me know what you think.

    • says

      Dana, looks like WordPress ate my earlier reply. :-) I love onions so am biased, but of course try the soup without. There is a lot of flavor coming from other ingredients, so I think it will still be tasty. Let me know how it turns out. I have a couple of family members who can’t eat onions.

  3. Kim says

    Made this recipe exactly as listed except I had only dried Panca peppers on hand instead of ancho chilies, the soup was fantastic! Will definitely make again :)

  4. Bonnie says

    Yikes I am in the middle of making this. I don’t see the liquid that I reserved from the anchos added. Did you just add it with the stock and tomatoes?


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