Generally speaking, chipotle in English refers to any smoked chile pepper. The Spanish word chipotle is a contraction of chilpotle in the Náhuatl language of the Aztecs, where chil referred to the hot pepper and potle was derived from poctli, meaning smoked. The word was apparently reversed from Náhuatl, where it originally was spelled pochilli. Other early spellings in Mexico are tzilpoctil, tzonchilli, and texochilli.
The most commonly smoked chiles are jalapeños, named for the city of Jalapa in the state of Veracruz. They are also known in Mexico as cuaresmeños, or Lenten chiles. In Puebla, Central Mexico, and Oaxaca, jalapeños are known as huachinangos, while in coastal Mexico and Veracruz they are called chiles gordos.
Smoked chiles had their origin in the ancient civilization of Teotihuacan, north of present-day Mexico City. It was the largest city-state in Mesoamerica and flourished centuries before the rise of the Aztecs. Chipotles also made an appearance in the marketplaces of Tenochtitlán, the capital city of the Aztecs that is now called Mexico City. Certain varieties of fleshy chiles, now called jalapeños, would not dry properly in the sun--their thick flesh would rot first. However, like meats, they could be preserved by the process known as smoke-drying.
Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish friar who lived in Mexico in the early 1500s, described a dish called teatzin which was served in Cholula in the state of Puebla. It contained a combination of chipotle and pasilla sauces for stewing fresh jalapeños and lenten palm flowers.
In 1575, a Spanish visitor to Mexico, Juan de la Cueva, described a dish that combined the seedless chipotles (capones), onions, piñon nuts, and a broth with meat juice and pulque (agave beer). The sauce was simmered with chunks of meat to create pipián de piñon.
For hundreds of years after the Aztecs, smoked chiles were found predominantly in the markets of Central and South Mexico, such as Puebla, Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Chiapas. In Huatasco in the state of Veracruz, a salsa called tlatonile made with tomatoes, peanuts, and chipotles has been made for centuries.
The true chipotle is grayish-tan, quite stiff, and is often described as looking like a cigar butt. It is deeply imbued with smoke and is both hot and flavorful. This main variety is also called chile ahumado (smoked chile); chile meco (blackish-red chile; meco is close to seco, meaning dry); the double terms chipotle meco and chipotle típico, and just típico. Further confusing the issue is a cultivated variety of jalapeño that is also named 'Típico.' Yes, the 'Tipico' variety is often smoked to become a típico chipotle.
Other varieties of smoked jalapeños are often mistaken for the típico chipotle. The most common one is called morita, which means "little blackberry" in Spanish. The color of this smoked chile is dark red, sometimes approaching purple in color. Often the morita is referred to as a smoked serrano chile, but this is inaccurate. Both the típico and the morita are smoked jalapeños; the difference is that the morita is not smoked nearly as long, and thus it remains very leathery and pliable. Not only is the smoky flavor much more intense in the típico, its flavor is much richer.
But the morita is commonly marketed as the típico chipotle because it can bring $2 to $4 more per pound with that name. Unfortunately, most of the "chipotles" being sold in markets in the United States are in actuality the inferior moritas. This is because most of the chipotles produced in Mexico are eaten there, leaving little for export.
To make up for lack of the típico variety to export, producers in the northern states of Mexico, particularly Chihuahua, have turned to the moritas, which are much less expensive to produce. Unfortunately, they call the moritas "chipotles" and sometimes claim that they have never heard of the típico variety. To further confuse the issue, in the interior, the típico is known by brokers as "Veracruz."
Other varieties of smoked chiles include:
Cobán: a piquín chile that is smoked in southern Mexico and Guatemala.
Pasilla de Oaxaca: a variety of pasilla chile that is smoked in Oaxaca and is used in the famous mole negro.
Jalapeño chico: jalapeños that are smoked while still green. Usually, they are culls from the fresh market that need to be preserved, and the smoke-drying process obscures any blemishes.
Capones: This rare smoked chile is a red jalapeño without seeds; the term means "castrated ones." They are quite expensive and are rarely exported.
Habanero: recently, a smoked habanero product has been introduced into the United States. It is used as a very hot substitute for any chipotle.
Of course, the heat scale of smoked chiles varies considerably. The coban and habaneros are the hottest of the smoked chiles and the morita and típico are the mildest. Since jalapeños themselves have medium heat, when smoked they retain the same heat level, which ranges from about 5,000 to 10,000 Scoville Units, measured in the dried form. By comparison, New Mexican chiles are typically 500 to 1,000 Scoville Units, and habaneros range from 80,000 to more than 300,000 Scoville Units. When many chipotles are added to a dish, the result can be quite pungent.
Why did Native Americans smoke chiles in the first place? Perhaps some thick-fleshed chiles such as early jalapeños were dropped near the communal fire and later, a leathery, preserved chile was the result. Since smoking is believed (along with salting) to be one of the earliest preservation methods, it would make sense that the "meaty" chiles could be smoked right along with the meat.
In the town of Delicias in northern Mexico, the red jalapeños are smoked in a large pit on a rack made out of wood, bamboo, or metal. Another nearby pit contains the fire and is connected to the smoking pit by an underground tunnel. The pods are placed on top of the rack where drafts of air pull the smoke up and over the pods. A farm may have a smoker of a different design at the edge of the fields, and it may be a fireplace of bricks with grates at the top and a firebox below. This smoker is for small batches.
Chipotles smoked in the Mexican manner are not always available north of Mexico. And with prices of chipotles topping $15.00 per pound when they are available, an attractive alternative is for cooks to smoke their own chiles. As chile expert Paul Bosland of New Mexico State University commented, "It is possible to make chipotle in the backyard with a meat smoker or Weber-type barbecue with a lid. The grill should be washed to remove any meat particles because any odor in the barbecue will give the chile an undesirable flavor. Ideally, the smoker or barbecue should be new and dedicated only to smoking chiles." The result of this type of smoking is a chipotle that more resembles the red morita than the classic tan-brown típico.
There are five keys to the quality of the homemade chipotles: the maturity and quality of the pods, the moisture in the pods, the type of wood used to create the smoke, the temperature of the smoke drying the pods, and the amount of time the fruits are exposed to the smoke and heat. But remember that smoking is an art, so variations are to be expected and even desired.
Recommended woods are from fruit trees or other hardwoods such as hickory, oak, and pecan. Pecan is used extensively in parts of Mexico and in southern New Mexico to flavor chipotle. Although mesquite is a smoke source in Mexico, we prefer the less greasy hardwoods. Mesquite charcoal (not briquets) is acceptable, and hardwood chips, especially when soaked, can be placed on top to create even more smoke. It is possible, however that the resinous mesquite smoke (from the wood, not charcoal) contributes to the tan-brown coloration of the típico variety of chipotle.
Wash all the pods and discard any that have insect damage, bruises, or are soft, and remove the stems from the pods. Start two small fires on each side of the barbecue bowl, preferably using one of the recommended hardwoods. If you are using a meat smoker with a separate firebox, simply build the fire in the firebox.
Place the pods in a single layer on the grill rack so they fit between the two fires. For quicker smoking, cut the pods in half lengthwise and remove the seeds. Keep the fires small and never expose the pods directly to the fire so they won't dry unevenly or burn. The intention is to dry the pods slowly while flavoring them with smoke. If you are using charcoal briquets, soak hardwood chips in water before placing them on the coals so the wood will burn slower and create more smoke. The barbecue vents should be opened only partially to allow a small amount of air to enter the barbecue, thus preventing the fires from burning too fast and creating too much heat.
Check the pods, the fires, and the chips hourly and move the pods around, always keeping them away from the fires. It may take up to forty-eight hours to dry the pods completely, which means that your fire will probably burn down during the night and will need to be restoked in the morning. When dried properly, the pods will be hard, light in weight, and brown in color. After the pods have dried, remove them from the grill and let them cool. To preserve their flavor, place them in a zip-lock bag.
Ten pounds of fresh jalapeños yield just one pound of chipotles after the smoking process is complete. A pound of chipotle goes a long way, as a single pod is usually enough to flavor a dish.
A quick smoking technique involves drying red jalapeños (sliced lengthwise, seeds removed) in a dehydrator or in an oven with just the pilot light on. They should be desiccated but not stiff. Then smoke them for three hours over fruitwood in a traditional smoker with a separate firebox, or in the Weber-style barbecue as described above. This technique separates the drying from the smoking so you spend less time fueling the smoker.
Chuck Evans has experimented with smoke-drying pods on a large scale with jalapeños grown near Toledo, Ohio. The large red pods had a lot of white "corking", which is a desirable trait for jalapeños in Mexico. Thus they resembled the variety called Huachinango. He took the pods to a local catering firm that specialized in barbecue and used one of their revolving rack smokers. With hickory wood as his smoke source, he smoked the pods at 110 degrees for three days. He was attempting to duplicate the típico ("cigar-butt") variety but the result was much more like the mora or morita, with their bright red-brown leathery appearance.
The second attempt at duplicating the típico variety was in another meat-packing plant in a modern room with climate-controlled, injected smoke. The result was identical to the first try.
Then Chuck repeated the experiment a third time with a primitive smoker in a sausage-making facility. It was a small room with racks set on the ground and smoke that continuously circulated. He left the pods in the room for a week, and the chipotles were closer to the desired tan-brown color, but the pods still had too much moisture in them. He concluded that the raw red jalapeños contained extra moisture to begin with.
Obviously, the Mexicans have perfected the típico technique, while we Americans are struggling to duplicate it with more modern equipment. There is a delicate balance of the pit temperature, the amount of smoke, the type of smoke, and the length of time that produces the perfect chipotle. Perhaps we shall be forced to dig smoking pits in our backyards and begin growing mesquite trees.
Rob Polishook is one of the owners of Chile Today-Hot Tamale, a company that introduced the Smoked HabaneroÔ chiles to American chileheads. When we asked him about his technique for smoking the hottest chiles in the world, he wouldn't reveal his exact trade secrets, but he did give us some general techniques.
"Producing the smoked habanero chile is an intricate and time-consuming process," he wrote. "The habaneros are smoked over a medley of exotic woods, herbs, and spices. The habaneros are smoked for sixteen to thirty hours and must be turned and sorted depending on their density and size at least once an hour. This process ensures that the habaneros do not burn and will have a rich, smoky, citrus, incendiary flavor. Chile Today-Hot Tamale's homemade habanero smoker has smoked thousands of pounds of habaneros. Similar to a chef's favorite pan, it has seasoned perfectly." Rob's final comment is good evidence for devoting a smoker strictly to chipotles.
Many cooks have success storing chipotles in a zip-lock bag in a cool and dry location. If humidity is kept out of the bags, the chipotle will last for twelve to twenty-four months. A more secure method for storing them at room temperature is to keep them in glass jars with a tight-fitting, rubber-sealed top.
Of course, the best storage of all is to freeze them. Use heavy-duty freezer bags and double-bag the chipotles. They will keep for years with no noticeable loss of flavor or smoke.
Making Chipotle Powder
A "dried" chipotle usually has about 80-90 percent of its moisture removed, which is enough, with the smoke, to preserve it and retard bacterial growth, but not enough to create a powder. Therefore, regardless of whether you are using the típico chipotle or the morita, they must be further dried in a food dehydrator or in the oven on the lowest possible heat, until they are so dry that you can snap them in half.
Put on a painter's mask to protect yourself from uncontrollable sneezing, and break the chipotles into manageable pieces. Use an electric spice mill or a coffee grinder to reduce the pod pieces to a powder.
Because they are so desiccated, the chipotle powder stores well in air-tight containers such as small jars. But remember, powders will oxidize and absorb odors from the air or the freezer, so if you intend to freeze the powders or store them in bags at room temperature, triple-bag them first.
In the United States and Canada, dried chipotles are usually sold in the típico or morita forms. They are available from mail-order sources.
Chipotles en Adobo, a tomato-based vinegar sauce, are manufactured by the major Mexican spice and sauce companies, including San Marcos, La Preferida®, Embasa, Herdez®, and La Costeña. In this form, the chipotles have rehydrated and have been flavored by the sauce. For cooks wishing to duplicate this method of preservation, we have provided a recipe for Chipotles Adobados (Chipotle Chiles in Adobo Sauce).
Manufacturers of salsas and hot sauces containing chipotles include Búfalo® Chipotle Hot Sauce, Montezuma® Smokey Chipotle® Hot Sauce and Smokey Chipotle®, Don Alfonso Chipotles en Adobo, El Paso Chile Company, Del Monte, La Preferida®, San Angel, and Coyote Cocina.
Additional products may be found in the Industry Directory, using the keyword "Chipotle" as well as here.
Chipotles Adobados (Chipotle Chiles in Adobo Sauce)
Here's a pickled chile recipe from Tlaxcala. These sweet-hot pickled chiles can be the basis of a sauce of their own if they're further puréed, or they can be served as a condiment with enchiladas and other main dishes. Note that this recipe requires advance preparation.
- ½ pound dried chipotle chiles, stems removed
- Water to rehydrate
- 1 quart vinegar
- 1 head garlic, peeled and crushed
- ½ cup piloncillo, or ½ cup packed brown sugar
- 1 cup roasted and peeled green chile, such as poblano or New Mexican
- 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
- 6 black peppercorns
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- Salt to taste
Soak the chipotles in water until they rehydrate, at least one hour, then drain.
In a saucepan, add ½ of the vinegar, ½ of the garlic and the brown sugar. Cook this mixture for about 20 minutes, then add the chipotles.
In another pan, combine the green chile, tomato, remaining garlic, peppercorns, bay leaves, cumin, remaining vinegar, and salt to taste. Cook for about 30 minutes, covered, over a medium heat. Add the chipotle chile mixture, stir well, and store in sterilized jars.
Yield: About 1 ½ quarts
Heat Scale: Hot
Additional Chipotle Information
This Pepper Profile is adapted from The Pepper Pantry: Chipotles (Celestial Arts, 1997).