The history of chipotle chiles is rich and flavorful
By Mick Vann,
12:15PM, Sun. Aug. 26, 2012
Chipotle chile’s name derives from the Nahuatl word chilpoctli, which means “smoked chile pepper”, AKA chile ahumado, chile meco, and chilpotle.
Chilpotle is closer to the actually spelling of the original Nahuatl word, but over time, dropping the “l” before the “p” found favor as the more popular spelling, perhaps because the old-school chilpotle is a little more difficult to pronounce, and folks opted for the easier route.The Aztecs used this smoking process to preserve all kinds of foods, which allowed the foods to be stored for long periods of time. It is speculated that the thick-fleshed jalapeños were smoke-dried because they tended to rot before drying, otherwise.
Whatever you call it, a chipotle chile is a large jalapeño chile that is first dried, and then smoked (although it can also be dried over smoke, to give it a more intense and flavorful smokiness). Jalapeños are named after the town of Jalapa in Véracruz State, and are also known by the names cuaresmeño or gordo. In its dried form, the traditional chipotle chile is a dull tan to deep coffee brown in color with a wrinkled, ridged surface. It is usually 2 to 4-inches long and 1-inch across, with medium thick flesh. The taste profile is smoky and sweet, exhibiting subtle tobacco and chocolate flavors with a Brazil nut finish, with deep, complex heat; the piquancy is rounded and slowly fading, not sharp and intense, usually in the 5,000 to 10,000 Scoville unit range. They are commonly used in soups, stews, sauces, salsas, marinades, salads, stuffed with fillings, and these days, in desserts.
There are two main types of chipotles: morita and meco. Morita, which means “small mulberry” in Spanish, is grown primarily in Chihuahua State; smaller than the meco, with a dark reddish-purple exterior. They are smoked for less time, and considered inferior to the meco. Most of the chipotles consumed in the States are moritas. The larger chipotle meco, also known as chile ahumado or típico, is a grayish-tan in color with a dusty looking surface; some say it resembles a cigar butt. They tend to be smokier in taste, and are the preferred chipotle of most natives. They are also sometimes called chile navideño because they are reconstituted and stuffed to make a very traditional dish popular at Christmas time. Most chipotle meco never makes it past the Mexican border, although you can occasionally find it for sale here in Mexican and specialty markets.
Chipotle grande is a smoke-dried Huachinango chile with a similar flavor profile, but the chile is larger, and they cost more; fresh in the market, they sell for 3 to 4 times as much as a jalapeño, when you can find them. A Huachinango is a fresh red jalapeño grown in Puebla and Oaxaca, measuring 4 to 5-inches long by 1½ -inches wide, with a thick, sweet flesh and a rounded, complex spiciness. A chipotle tamarindo is even larger than the grande, acquiring its name from the shape of the tamarind fruit pod; it costs even more than the grande, and is the most prized of stuffing peppers. When you see a chipotle labeled jalapeño chico, it is a jalapeño that was smoked while it was immature and still green. Every now and then you might find chipotles capones (“castrated chipotles”), referring to a smoked red jalapeño without seeds; these tend to be much milder. In the market you’ll find chipotles as whole chiles, as powdered chile, and canned, packed in adobo sauce.
Chipotles are principally grown and smoked in Véracruz, Oaxaca, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, South Texas, and Southern New Mexico. As much as 1/5 of the total Mexican jalapeño crop, some 620,000 tons in 2009, and 30% of the total chile varieties grown, is smoke-dried into chipotles. Jalapeño farmers pick green chiles for market, but allow some to ripen red, to be smoke-dried for chipotles. The longer they are left on the plant, the drier they get, and the easier they are to process. This is often done towards the end of the season, since maturing fruit signals the plant to stop chile production; ripe mature seeds have been produced and its job of procreation is done. Once harvested, the ripe chiles are moved to a smoking chamber, where they are placed on racks and dried for several days (or longer) with low heat and wood smoke. Every few hours they are stirred around to expose them to more smoke; the smokier, the better. It’s said that it takes about 10 pounds of fresh red chile to make 1 pound of dried chipotle. Creative and unscrupulous producers have started to use large capacity gas driers, spraying the chiles with liquid smoke to mimic the traditional process. Smell your chiles carefully; liquid smoke often has an unpleasant artificial chemical fragrance.
Americans are most familiar with the canned variety, packed in adobo sauce. Adobo sauce originated in Spain as a marinade or food preservative, and was widely adopted by all of the areas visited by the Spanish explorers. The adobo sauce used with canned chipotles is technically a marinade, in this case, usually made of tomato, powdered dried chiles or paprika, brown sugar, salt, onions, vinegar, garlic, bay leaves, and oregano; some brands and home cooks add a small amount of sesame oil. La Morena brand has the most intense chipotle flavor and the best flavored adobo sauce, with accents of rich tomato, garlic, dried chile, and a touch of sesame; San Marcos is the brand known best in Austin stores, and probably next best of the many brands offered (La Costeña, Goya, Herdez, Embassa, El Mexicano, La Victoria, Roland, etc.). San Marcos (and other brands) also makes a canned chipotle sauce that is basically pureed chipotles en adobo; easy to use straight from the can. Canned chipotles are often of the morita type, because the smaller size is easier to fit whole into the small cans. In Central Mexico, when chipotles are preserved in a sweet-tart brown sugar and vinegar marinade they are called chipocludo; chipotles canned in a seasoned sauce are called chipotles adobado, or en adobo.
To cook with dried chipotles, they can be lightly toasted on a dry comal or skillet, just until they get fragrant and swell slightly; overcooking them makes them bitter. Once toasted, the seeds and ribs can be removed to lower the heat level if desired (but why would you?), and the chiles can then be ground or used whole. For some traditional Mexican sauces the toasted chiles would then be sautéed in oil or lard before being pureed. Alternatively, the chiles can be soaked in warm water or stock until they become pliable, and then added to a dish or stuffed. With both methods the stem is removed before use. If using the canned chiles en adobo, you can use only the drained chiles, or use the marinade as well. Try chipotles in salsas, in queso, in soups and stews, in chile con carne, in cooked sauces, in pickled vegetable mixes, in scrambled eggs or chilaquiles, stuffed and baked, added to cake or brownies; the list goes on endlessly. No matter how they are used, they punch up the flavor of any dish, making it better.