How to make the perfect huevos rancheros – recipe

<span>Felicity Cloake’s perfect huevos rancheros.</span><span>Photograph: Robert Billington/The Guardian. Food styling: Loïc Parisot.</span>
Felicity Cloake’s perfect huevos rancheros.Photograph: Robert Billington/The Guardian. Food styling: Loïc Parisot.

Huevos rancheros, or ranch-style eggs, is, according to the world’s most popular free encyclopedia, a tribute to the generous mid-morning meals served on Mexican farms; or, more succinctly, in the words of food writer Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, “Mexico’s favourite egg dish”. I suspect it’s among America’s most popular breakfasts, too, not least because, as chef Enrique Olvera observes, “it is so simple – tortilla, egg, salsa – and yet so satisfying”.

That said, what’s simple in the Mexican kitchen, in which cooked beans, salsa and corn tortillas are everyday staples, is likely to be slightly more involved in the likes of the UK, where a little more advanced planning is needed. Given how many great Mexican meals involve all of the above, I’d suggest preparing a feast, and using the leftovers to soak up any tequila still hanging around behind the eyeballs the next morning. Huevos rancheros is a killer hangover cure, or so I’m reliably informed.

The salsa

The most important element of the dish – without salsa, this would just be a common-or-garden egg sandwich, albeit one with a Latin American accent. The five versions I try all have very different takes, from the blessedly simple, stick-everything-together-in-a-pan-and-simmer approach of Lambert Ortiz’s salsa ranchera to J Kenji López-Alt’s four-stage toast-fry-simmer-and-blend recipe for tomato-chile salsa. Adriana Cavita, the Mexico City-born London chef and restaurateur and author of Cocina Mexicana, even has me making two different sauces, red and green, an approach that turns huevos rancheros into the more acrimonious sounding huevos divorciados. Though one feels quite enough to deal with before breakfast, I enjoy her tangy green tomatillo salsa so much that I strongly urge you give it a try some time; fresh tomatillos pop up at my local farmers’ market in summer, and the tinned variety is available online all year round.

Anyway, back to salsa roja … Most recipes start with chilli, onion and garlic (if you can find milder, sweeter white onions, they’d be my preference, though ordinary brown ones will do just fine). The chilli is usually jalapeño or serrano, though López-Alt decides to use dried ancho and tinned chipotle for a “richer, smokier, and more brooding” flavour. Though indisputably tasty, and by far the most complex flavourwise (as well as the hottest), my testers and I prefer a fresher flavour first thing in the morning, ideally in the form of the green jalapeño chillies that give Cavita’s salsa roja its pleasantly grassy character. Sadly, British retailers are not renowned for giving us any hints as to the variety of chilli imprisoned in those little plastic bags (beyond the obvious fact of their colour); fresh jalapeños are available online, and in many greengrocers, but if you can’t find any, you could also use standard green chillies which, Sainsbury’s magazine informs me, are likely to be serrano (why they can’t just be labelled as such is not explained).

Tomatoes are, however, the main ingredient in this salsa. Fresh are, of course, usual in Mexico, and ideal in general, especially if you’re making this in peak fresh tomato season. Tinned tomatoes are a better choice flavour-wise in the UK at this time of year, though, and, as López-Alt points out, they also speed up the process.

In her salsa ranchera recipe in the Essential Cuisines of Mexico, the late Diana Kennedy notes that “there will always be arguments among cooks about whether the tomatoes should be used fresh or broiled [grilled]. I prefer them broiled for flavor and texture, although it is a little more trouble to make.” Two of the recipes I try – from Cavita’s book and Olvera’s Tu Casa Mi Casa – the former also gives instructions to “asar” the vegetables over hot coals in the traditional fashion), but though the smoky flavour proves popular with my testers, charring tomatoes in a dry pan is indeed a pain, especially if they’re tinned. Blackening just the drier chilli and onion feels a good compromise, though you could, as Olvera allows, simmer the whole thing in a pan instead.

This fresher salsa doesn’t need López-Alt’s peppery Mexican oregano, and I’m going to save his fresh coriander for the topping. Season with salt, then see if you think it needs his soy sauce or lime juice, too, or Lambert Ortiz’s pinch of sugar; I don’t, but it’s entirely up to you.

The beans

Not strictly necessary – Olvera’s recipe doesn’t even mention them, though he does give a variation with a bean sauce elsewhere – but beans are extremely nice, and, apparently, something we should all be eating more of, so I’m very pro their inclusion. Cavita uses basic frijoles de la olla, or pot beans, simmered with onion, garlic and coriander (or hoja santa, a Mexican herb I can’t track down in London), but everyone else turns them into the refried kind, with Lambert Ortiz observing that, though she “could not imagine it without frijoles refritos … soupy beans are often preferred”. Certainly the paste-like refried beans are easier to keep on the tortilla if you plan to eat this dish with your hands, rather than a knife and fork.

According to Cocina Mexicana, “there are over 70 varieties of beans in Mexico, and any will work with this recipe”, but black or pinto seem to be the most common. As Daniel Gritzer reluctantly concedes in his piece on refried beans for Serious Eats, you “can use canned beans”, but, in his experiments “they didn’t compare to the batches made with beans that had been cooked from dried – the flavor wasn’t as earthy or layered”. You’ll probably need to simmer tinned beans to soften them further anyway, so, though you’ll save a bit of time using them, it probably isn’t worth it. (That said, my local supermarkets carry an ever-decreasing range of dried beans and pulses, so I acknowledge you may not actually have a choice if you haven’t time to track them down elsewhere.)

Despite or perhaps because of having grown up with Old El Paso refried pintos straight from the tin, I find I like the sweeter, earthier flavour of the black beans Bricia Lopez and Javier Cabral use in their book Oaxaca. That may also be something to do with the avocado leaves they add to the pot, an ingredient that’s new to me, but that yields an unexpected anise note that I absolutely love. Again, you can order them online, if that takes your fancy. Alternatively, Lambert Ortiz uses bay leaves, Gritzer fresh epazote (good luck with finding that!) or oregano (easier), while Cavita recommends dried hoja santa or, more accessibly, fresh coriander.

I’m not going to add chillies on the basis that there are enough in the salsa, though if you can’t get enough of the things, by all means feel free to; Lopez and Cabral and Lambert Ortiz deploy chiles de arbol and serrano or pequin chillies, respectively.

You will, of course, need to fry the beans once you’ve mashed them (I favour the rougher texture of doing this by hand, because blending makes the texture a bit gritty). I like the lard mentioned by Lambert Ortiz, because my own memories of Mexico involve a great deal of lard, but you do need the good flavourful kind, not the bright-white, heavily processed stuff. Bacon dripping is a good substitute, while, if you don’t eat pork, oil makes a very adequate replacement.

The tortillas

Small corn tortillas are required here; if the big flour variety is the only thing readily available near you, you’ll be pleased to know that you can pop corn tortillas into your online basket along with the avocado leaves, dried beans and jalapeño peppers, and freeze any excess.

Interestingly, it seems the tortillas are always fried for this recipe, rather than simply heated. Opinions vary on how long for, though. Olvera describes them as “lightly poached in oil to soften them and to protect them from falling apart once they are covered with salsa”, while Lopez and Cabral fry each one “until it puffs up and gets golden brown and crispy”, so I suppose it depends on whether you want a giant crunchy tortilla chip or a flexible wrap. (Alternatively, if you don’t want to add more oil, follow the directions in Lily Ramirez-Foran’s excellent book Tacos and put a frying pan on a high heat for five minutes, then lower the heat slightly and heat the tortillas for about 40 seconds on each side, until soft and bendy.)

The extras

Cheese is a popular accompaniment; cotija (for which suggested substitutes include feta, cheshire, lancashire, wensleydale, or ricotta salata), parmesan, or, for Cavita, your favourite variety, though I’m not sure I’d enjoy stilton here.

The eggs

There’s not much to say about eggs; you should know how to fry them to your liking. If not, here’s a guide.

Perfect huevos rancheros

Prep 15 min
Soak 3 hr+
Cook 90 min
Serves 4

For the refried beans (optional)
250g black, pinto or other dried beans
1 onion
, peeled and halved
3 garlic cloves
, peeled and squashed
3 avocado leaves
2 tbsp lard or oil, plus extra to taste

For the salsa
1 white onion (ideally), or 1 brown onion, peeled
1 fresh green jalapeño chilli, or other medium-hot green chilli
1 garlic clove, peeled and squashed
1 tbsp oil or lard
400g tinned chopped tomatoes
, to taste (optional)
Lime juice
, to taste (optional)
8 small corn tortillas
8 eggs
1 small bunch fresh coriander
Sliced avocado
, to serve (optional)
Crumbled feta, or wensleydale, lancashire or cheshire cheese, to serve (optional)

Soak the beans in cold water for at least three hours, and preferably overnight. Drain the beans, put them in a large pan with half the onion and all three garlic cloves, and cover with fresh cold water until it comes about 5cm above the top of the beans.

Bring to a boil, then cover the pan, turn down the heat and simmer until soft and not at all chalky in the centre – how long that takes will depend on the age and type of beans, but you’re looking at at least an hour; make sure there’s always plenty of water in the pan.

For the salsa, cut the onion in half across the middle, rather than through the root. Wrap one half and save for another use, and cut the other half in half again, so you end up with two thick layers of onion rings.

Put a heavy-based dry frying pan on a high heat and, once it’s almost smoking, add the onion and chilli and char, turning regularly, until blackened all over. Remove from the pan and, once cool enough to handle, remove and discard the chilli stalk (and the pith and seeds, too, if you’re averse to heat, though it shouldn’t be too spicy) and roughly chop both it and the onion.

Put the oil in a saucepan on a medium heat, then briefly fry the garlic until it’s beginning to colour. Add the chopped onion and chilli and the tomatoes, bring to a boil, then turn down the heat, cover and simmer gently for 10 minutes.

Blend smooth, then season with salt to taste; add a pinch of sugar if you like it sweeter or some lime juice if you prefer it tangier.

Finely chop the remaining half-onion.Toast the avocado leaves, if using, in a hot, dry frying pan on a medium heat for a minute, until aromatic, then lift out. Add the fat to the hot pan and, once it’s hot, add the onion and fry, stirring, until soft and starting to colour. Crumble the avocado leaves into the pan.

Add the beans, keeping back their cooking water for the time being, and fry for a couple of minutes. Add a ladleful of the cooking water, then mash until smoothish, but still with some texture.

Add a little more water, and continue to cook until the mix breaks down into a spreadable paste. Add more fat if you like a richer finish, then season to taste and keep warm.

When you’re ready to serve, gently reheat the salsa. Cover the base of a small frying pan with oil or lard and put it on a high heat.

Once hot, drop in a tortilla, fry for about 20 seconds on each side, until soft, then drain on kitchen paper and wrap tightly in a clean tea towel to keep warm while you repeat with the remaining tortillas. Once all the tortillas are cooked and wrapped up, fry the eggs to your liking in the same pan.

To assemble, put two tortillas on each plate and put an egg on each. Dollop some salsa over the egg whites, sprinkle on some chopped coriander and top with avocado and/or crumbled or grated cheese, if using. Serve with the beans.

  • Is huevos rancheros your favourite Mexican breakfast – and, if not, what is (assuming you have one)? Are you crunchy or soft tortilla, black or pinto beans, pot or refried, or no beans at all? And what kind of salsa do you prefer?

  • Discover this recipe and over 1,000 more from your favourite cooks on the new Guardian Feast app, with smart features to make everyday cooking easier and more fun