A chipotle (pronounced /tʃɨˈpoʊtleɪ/ chi-POHT-lay; Spanish: [tʃiˈpotle]), or chilpotle, is a smoke-dried jalapeño which tends to be brown and shriveled. It is a chile used primarily in Mexican and Mexican-inspired cuisines, such as Mexican-American and Tex-Mex.
There are many varieties of jalapeños which vary in size and heat. In Mexico, the jalapeño is also known as the cuaresmeño and gordo. Until recently, chipotles were almost exclusively found in the markets of central and southern Mexico. As Mexican food became more popular abroad, especially in North and South America in the late 20th century and into the 21st century, jalapeño production and processing began to expand into northern Mexico to serve the southwestern United States, and eventually processing occurred in the United States and other places, such as China.
Typically, a grower will pass through a jalapeño field multiple times, picking the unripe green jalapeños for market. At the end of the growing season, jalapeños naturally ripen and turn bright red. There is an extensive fresh market for ripe red jalapeños in both Mexico and the United States. They are kept on the vine as long as possible. When the jalapeños are deep red and have lost much of their moisture, they are selected to be made into chipotles. Many U.S. growers instead plow the red jalapeños into the ground.
The red jalapeños are moved to a closed smoking chamber where they are spread out on metal grills. Wood is placed in a firebox, and the smoke enters the sealed chamber. Every few hours the jalapeños are stirred to improve smoke penetration. The chiles are smoked for several days until most of the moisture is removed. At the end of the process, the chipotles have dried up in a manner akin to prunes or raisins. The underlying heat of the jalapeños is combined with the taste of smoke. Typically ten pounds of jalapeños make one pound of chipotle.
In recent years, growers have begun using large gas dryers.
Most chipotle chiles are produced in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. This variety of chipotle is known as a morita (Spanish for blackberry or black raspberry; literally “little purple one”). This is a description of how the chipotle looks. In central and southern Mexico, chipotle chiles are known as chile meco, chile ahumado, or típico. Whereas moritas from Chihuahua are purple in color, chile meco is tan/grey in color and has the general appearance of a cigar butt. Almost all of the chipotle chiles found in the United States are of the morita variety. Almost all of the chipotle meco is consumed in Mexico, though some is exported to generally be available only in Mexican grocery stores abroad.
Chipotles can be purchased in many different forms, including chipotle powder, chipotle pods, chipotles en adobo in a can, concentrated chipotle base and wet chipotle meat marinade.
In addition to moritas, other varieties of chiles can be smoke-dried, including red jalapeños, serranos, habaneros, New Mexican chiles, Hungarian wax chiles, Santa Fe Grande chiles, and a milder jalapeño called the TAM (a cultivar named for Texas A&M University). Lesser-known varieties of smoked chiles include: cobán, a piquín chile native to southern Mexico and Guatemala; pasilla de Oaxaca: a variety of pasilla from Oaxaca used in mole negro; jalapeño chico: jalapeños, smoked while still green; and capones: a rare and quite expensive smoked red jalapeño without seeds. “Capones” translates roughly into “castrated ones.”
Chipotles, often a key ingredient, impart a relatively mild but earthy spiciness to many dishes in Mexican cuisine. The chiles are used to make various salsas. Chipotle chiles can also be ground and combined with other spices to make a meat marinade known as an adobo.
Chipotles have a definite heat, but also a distinctive smoky flavor. The flesh is thick and so the chile is best if used in a slow-cooked dish rather than raw. Add whole chipotles to a soup, stew or in the braising liquid for meats. Chipotles are also a fine accompaniment to beans or lentils.