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What is Chipotle?

Dried Chipotle Pepper

While Mexican food in Australia is becoming more popular contrary to the “Tex-Mex” variety it is used to, more and more Australians explore seasonings and spices used in Mexican cooking. One of the most commonly used terms in most Mexican restaurants is chipotle.

Underneath the smoke and heat that gives chipotle peppers their distinctive flavour, it imparts sweetness that you cannot get from fresh jalapenos. Chilli peppers play a huge part in Mexican cuisine. The heat and flavour of peppers add a unique characteristic to a dish.

What makes chipotle so popular among food enthusiasts, and what is chipotle exactly?

Jalapenos is a very common ingredient in Mexican cuisine, and it is also the main ingredient in making chipotle. The word chipotle means “smoked chilli”. Smoke-drying is early food preservation practised by Mesoamericans, which the Aztecs then adopted in the later centuries.

Typically, jalapenos are picked while they are green. However, the ones turning ripe are left on the bush for as long as possible or until they become bright red and lose most of their moisture, and then harvested at the very end of the growing season to make chipotle.

Making chipotle is a mixture of smoke and patience.

When ripe-red jalapenos are harvested, they are brought to an open-smoker fuelled by firewood. Temperatures are maintained to 65 and 75 degrees Celsius, allowing the jalapenos to dry and smoke for six days.

When chipotle is made traditionally, the peppers are placed in a closed smoking chamber and then spread on metal grills. However, recently, manufacturers have started to use large gas dryers, which also uses a firebox for wood to burn, then smoke fills a sealed chamber that engulfs the jalapenos within.

Every few hours, the peppers are stirred to make sure each one is smoked evenly; this continues for several days until almost no moisture is left. Finally, the end product is a shrivelled pepper that looks like prunes but tastes divine. The underlying heat of jalapeno peppers combined with the smokey flavour gives the chipotle its distinctive taste.

Chipotle is primarily sourced from Mexico.

They produce two different varieties called Morita and Meco.

  • Morita, which means “small mulberry”, is mostly sold and used in the US and is commonly found in the US. This variety is grown mainly in the Chihuahua state and has a darker colour with a reddish-purple exterior. They are smoked for a lesser time and is commonly considered inferior to the Meco.
  • The larger kind, Meco, is used domestically and never make it across the Mexican border. However, it is sometimes sold at Mexican specialty markets.

Also known as Tipico, or chilli Ahumado, Meco is also associated with Christmas, where people reconstitute and stuff this variation to make a traditional dish popular amongst Mexican locals. Meco is greyish tan in colour and has a dusty looking surface that resembles a cigar butt. It is also smokier in taste and is preferred by many natives.

  • Another variation is the chipotle Grande. This variation is smoke-dried Huachinango chilli with a similar flavour profile to the jalapeno but is larger and sold at a higher cost. Chipotle Grande can sell for three to four times as much as a jalapeno.

Many natives like to pair this variation with spices like annatto, cumin, oregano, ginger, and tomato powder. It is usually paired with traditional dishes like bean soup, tomatillo, pimento cheese, salsa, and grilled flank steak.

Chipotle is sold in various forms.

These are flakes, powder, canned, whole, or meat marinade.  Chilis are a key ingredient to many recipes because it imparts an earthy-spicy flavour. Chipotle is ground and used in a meat marinade called adobo, which is very popular in the United States.

There are many ways to use chipotle in your cooking. For example, you can roast them until they swell and add them to your salsa or slow cook them until fragrant and add them to your soups. While chipotle can be used raw, many still prefer to cook them before use.

For some Mexican sauces, chipotle is toasted and then sauteed in oil or lard before turning it into a puree. These chilis also pair nicely with vegetables, scrambled eggs, or even used in baked goodies such as cakes or brownies.

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