Long before becoming the name for the ubiquitous chain, chipotles have been a staple of Mexican cuisine, lending smokiness along with simmering spice to all kinds of dishes. Whether mixed into mayo for fish tacos, rubbed into a pork roast for carne adobada, or simply pureed with onions and garlic for a quick salsa fresca, chipotle peppers are a versatile staple that adds complexity to any meal.
How Chipotles Are Made
The word chipotle is actually a mixture of two Nahuatl words: “chilli”, meaning pepper, and “poctli”, meaning smoked.
Despite their complex flavor, the process of making chipotles is pretty straightforward. The process starts with sun-ripened, bright red jalapeno peppers. When their skins begin to wrinkle, farmers pick the peppers that eventually become chipotles.
The freshly-harvested chiles are then slowly smoked over mesquite wood for hours, even days. This slow process draws out any remaining moisture (concentrating their flavor and improving shelf life), and imparts that decadent smoky flavor that chipotles are renowned for.
Jalapenos for chipotles are grown across Mexico, from Veracruz and Oaxaca all along the Pacific coast to Sinaloa, Sonora, and the drier desert climate of Chihuahua. These days, however, it’s not uncommon to see chipotle farms in Southern Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
There are two main types of dried chipotles. In the United States, you’ll generally find chiles moritas. Moritas are gently smoked but still somewhat pliable with a glassy, crimson color and chewy texture. Their smoky flavor still stands out, but these chiles also have a brighter, fresher tone that lends itself to salsas, dressings, and marinades.
On the other hand, chile meco, also known as chile ahumado or chile tipico (smoked chile and typical chile, respectively) is sold almost exclusively in Mexico. These chiles are smoked until their skins are totally dried out, leaving them with a dry, dusty appearance. In Mexico, these chiles are prized for their pungent smokiness.
Dried chipotles are sold either in bulk or one-pound bags. These peppers need to be reconstituted before using in any recipe. To do so, first wash your chiles to get rid of any dirt or other lingering particles. Then, immerse the chiles in boiling water and let them steep for about 10-15 minutes, or until pliable. Afterward, destem the peppers and scrape off any seeds for a milder heat.
Canned Chipotles in Adobo Sauce
The cultural exchange between the Spanish and Indigenous Mexicans helped make Mexican cuisine into one of the world’s most unique and vibrant culinary traditions. The blending of New World ingredients with Old World techniques birthed many of Mexico’s most iconic dishes like al pastor, chorizo, and yes, chipotles in adobo.
Adobo is a traditional Spanish technique where meats or seafood are simmered in a rich sauce with vinegar, garlic, onions, paprika and tomato. By simmering in adobo, foods could be preserved for storage. Additionally, they become infused with quintessential Spanish flavors.
It’s hard to know when and where chipotles in adobo originated, but those unassuming little cans have become the most well-known version of chipotle peppers, and are sold around the world. Because of their smaller size, chipotles in adobo will almost always be moritas.
Are Chipotle Peppers Spicy?
Since they’re still essentially jalapenos, chipotle peppers do have some spice. In Scoville units, they fall somewhere in the middle, from around 5,000-10,000. To compare, Habaneros range from 100,000-350,000 Scoville units. The heat from chipotles generally builds over time, and tends to linger after the meal is done.
Storing Chipotle Peppers
A freshly opened can of chipotles in adobo sauce will keep for about a week. Longer than that, and it’s best to freeze them. Personally, I like to puree my chipotles and then pour the mixture into a silicone ice cube tray. This way, I can portion exactly what I need for whatever recipe I’m working on. If you just opened a can and want to store it in the fridge, press a small square of plastic wrap down on top of the peppers to help keep them from spoiling.
Although they’re harder to come by, if you’re feeling adventurous it’s worth seeking out chile mecos at a specialty Latino grocery. Mecos are delicious in soups and roasts, and ground into a powder they make a fantastic seasoning for any chicken, meat, or seafood dish. Chile mecos also tend to be larger than moritas, making them the essential chipotle pepper for chiles navidenos, a classic Mexican Christmas dish.
Recipes Using Chipotle Peppers
- Chipotle Flourless Chocolate Cake
- Spicy Citrusy Black Beans
- Chipotle Turkey Pozole
- Honey Chipotle Brussels Sprouts
- Enfrijoladas with Black Beans, Avocado, and Cotija