Spice Hunting: Chipotle
"Chipotles really are the bacon of spices."
If there were an A-list for spices in the American food mass media, chipotle would be near the top. It appears on the menu of almost every chain restaurant with the merest aspirations toward Southwestern food. Hell, it's the namesake of one of those chains. But beneath the hype is a chile really worth getting to know. It's versatile, bold in flavor, and hot enough to hold its own against other strong flavors.
Chipotles are the dried, smoked versions of jalapeños. Once the chiles fully ripen and begin to lose their moisture, they're no longer suitable for selling fresh. After smoking, the chiles are sold as-is, ground into a powder, or immersed in adobo sauce for canning. This last product is the one we're most familiar with, but let's hold off on it for a minute.
Dried chipotles come in two main varieties: meco and morita. Meco chipotles are a dusty tan, with a milder, less smoky flavor. Morita chiles are the color of dark raisins; these are the smoke, heat, and earth powerhouses most Americans are familiar with. Dried chipotles can be ground and used for for rubs on meat and vegetables (sweet potato, jicama, and celery root come readily to mind). They can be added to chili powders and hot sauces, or baked into sweets with chocolate, winter squash, or assorted seeds (try some in your peanut or pumpkin seed brittle).
Canned chipotles are a whole different creature. Sure, they're smoky, and earthy enough, but their long bath in adobo sauce gives them a pronounced twang that emphasizes their fiery qualities. Adobo, a marinade of vinegar, tomato, garlic, herbs, and spices softens the chile and makes its heat linger on the palate. While dried chipotles have a heat the slowly builds, chipotles in adobo lash out right away and keep stinging. This makes them especially useful for marinades, stewing liquids, and condiments.
Pork loves some acidity, and a simple marinade of chipotles in adobo, vinegar, salt, raw sugar (piloncillo if you want to go the extra mile), garlic, and oregano is perfect on grilled pork chops or braised pork shoulder.
Chipotles are frequent players in my stews, such as chile con carne (which, while I love you all, I'm not sharing my version) and all sorts of bean dishes. Chipotles, particularly those with adobo sauce, are kindred spirits with beans. The chile's earthiness gives character to the bland starchiness of beans, and the trio of sweet, smoke, and heat lift and deepen flavors.
My favorite use for chipotles is in sauces. Barbecue and chile sauces, of course, but also blended with dairy. Scrape out the seeds and blend with crema (Mexican sour cream with a buttermilk tang) or yogurt to top tacos, braised meat, or tart, crunchy cabbage slaws.
These are all fine tips, but the best thing to do with chipotles is use them sparingly. It's easy to overdo them and smoke out your guests. They're also powerful enough to be a crutch flavor. Like bacon, they're best when used for specific reasons, not just as a go-to flavor that may or may not fit with other ingredients.
That said, chipotles really are the bacon of spices. How do you play with them?
About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries. He is known to make ice cream on occasion. You can follow his exotic spice- and ice cream-based ramblings on Twitter.