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Taste Test: Olo's Chipotle Paste Vs. Canned Chipotle Chilies

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I go through a lot of canned chipotle chilies—those are dried, smoked jalapeño peppers, usually sold packed in a vinegary sauce—at home. I use them in most chili-based braised meat dishes I make, like Carne Adovada or Beef Barbacoa. I'll use them in regular chili to add some depth. I'll fold them into my Quesadillas Fritas, or just blend them up with some mayo for an awesome spread.

Point is, I personally don't have much of a problem with working through a can before they start to expire. It takes a long time for that to happen; I mean, by their very nature, chipotles are designed not to go bad. They're smoked, which is a powerful preservative, then packed into a salty, vinegary sauce, which further inhibits bacterial growth. That said, there have been, on occasion, a few instances in which my opened cans of chipotle chilies languishing under wraps in the back of the fridge have become accidental science experiments over the course of a few months, and I can certainly imagine a home cook who only uses them on occasion asking, "Why should I buy a whole can when I only need a couple of chilies?"

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Fair question. Enter Olo Foods' Chipotle Paste, a pureed chili paste made with real chipotle chilies that comes in a vapor-proof metal tube. Created by Tessa Lowe in Seattle, she promises that it's the solution for those who want "smoky chipotle flavor on hand at all times." It's available on Amazon ($6.99).

I used to have the exact same problem with my tomato paste, until I started buying it in tube form. Now it sits in my fridge with a nearly indefinite shelf-life.

If Olo's chipotle paste could stand shoulder to shoulder with canned chipotles in food, it may well be the solution you folks are looking for. I put it through a few paces to find out.

Side-by-Side Comparison

To test it out, I tasted it side-by-side with chipotles in adobo in four different ways: plain (straight out of the packaging), blended into a chipotle mayo, folded into the cheese for a quesadilla, and stirring into some chili.

The primary difference between the two, I discovered, is ingredients. Canned chipotles come packed in an adobo sauce—that's a rich sauce made with onions, garlic, spices, and vinegar. It adds a bit of acidity, a bit of sweetness, and a rich complexity to the chipotles. Indeed, I'd say that the flavor of a canned chipotle has as much to do with the sauce as it does with the chipotle itself.

The Olo tube, on the other hand, is a much more spartan affair with nothing in it but chipotles, water, salt, and Citric Acid.

Tasted side-by side unadorned, the Olo stuff is a little waterier, without the complexity and sweetness of the canned version with the adobo. Citric acid—a natural product used in processed foods to either add flavor, act as a preservative, or to help canned foods keep their texture—adds a bit of brightness, but it's not the same sort of clean flavor you find with the vinegar-spiked canned chipotles.

Short answer: the food made with the Olo product tastes different than that made with the canned chipotles. Not necessarily worse, mind you, but just different.

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For the chipotle mayo made with Olo, I found I needed to add both a bit of extra lime juice, as well as a pinch of sugar to get the balance I was looking for that came straight out of the jar in the canned chipotles. Once those adjustments were made, however, the chipotle mayo was awesome.

For chili, the differences were less noticeable. Both added heat and smokiness to the background, without overpowering the rest of the ingredients.

In a quesadilla, the canned chipotles came out on top again, mainly for textural reasons. When I fold them into a quesadilla, I like to chop them by hand so that they stay in small pieces. The pureed chilis end up coating all the cheese, making the quesadilla a bit runny. I'd stick to using the stuff in more liquid-based dishes where texture is not an issue.

Is It Worth It?

So is it worth it? Depends on who you are and what your cooking style is like. Personally, I don't need it, as I go through my cans fast enough. If you are looking to use it simply for adding smoky heat to soups, stews, and sauces, but don't generally cook very often with canned chipotles, it might be the product for you.

I have to admit, I did find myself using it in places where I wouldn't normally use chipotles—a few dollops drizzled onto pizza, a little squirt in my chicken soup—the convenience factor alone will incline you do do it.

Olo Chipotle Paste is available on Amazon for $6.99.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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