Everything You Wanted To Know (or not) About: Chipotles and Adobo

Thursday, May 5, 2011

I've been wanting to write this post for a while.

If you love Mexican, Latin, South American, and American Southwestern/Tex Mex foods, you need to know about chipotles. They are basically smoked jalapenos, often canned in an adobo sauce, that can range from just slightly spicy to extremely spicy (depending on the pepper at time of harvest). They are most often used pureed in marinades, or for vinaigrettes especially when paried with citrus fruits, and even used to flavor desserts and cocktails. The chipotle is prized for its beautiful deep brick-red color and intense but not overpowering smoky flavor and smell. They look more formidable than they really are to work with, so I'm here to get you comfortable with them so you won't be intimidated to work with them in your kitchen.

Notice the deep rich color of the adobo sauce, and the dried nature texture of the pepper.
The jalapeno peppers used to make chipotles are very specific. They are the very last peppers of the season, left on the bush to achieve its reddest color. They will naturally begin to dry on the plant in the hot sun as they lose their moisture inside, and it is when they achieve this slightly shriveled appearance that the jalapenos are then picked. They are transfered to huge smoking houses where they are slow-smoked by wood chips for a few days. This process both draws out any remaining mositure in the peppers while infusing it with the flavors and aroma of the wood chips being smoked. The result is heavy and a huge secret weapon in your kitchen.

These smoked jalapenos are now called chipotles. You can buy the chipoltes in their dried form, much as you would dried fruit and then use them to flavor soups or dishes. Or, they are taken and often combined with adobo.

Adobo is a very concentrated wet spice blend used in Latin cuisines. It is most often a combination of paprika which is what gives adobo its distinct deep dark red color, oregano, salt, pepper, and vinegar. Variations include the addition of spices such as cumin or acid (sometimes lime juice is substituted for the vinegar) depending on the region and resulting cuisine. Adobo originally came about as a means to preserve meat. Paprika, made from peppers, has a natural antibacterial property that helps preserve meats actually quite well. So when cattle were slaughtered, the extra meat was preserved for months in huge vats of these adobo sauce. Adobo in fact was used as a means of preservation for various proteins including cattle, fowl, fish, and even vegetables.

As time progressed and refrigeration came about, adobo then morphed into more of a flavoring cooking technique rather than one of preserving foods. The addition of chipotles only added to the color and flavor, and the result was a marriage made in heaven. Chipotles in Adobo was thus born, and is now a main ingredient for marinades for flank steak and chicken in a lot of South American dishes. The addition of cut onions, garlic, fresh cilantro, lime, and malbec wine round out the flavors of the marinade.

Similarly, the adobo sauce part of the chipolte can be used to infuse flavor and smell in vinaigrettes. It pairs just beautifully with oranges in particular, so if you're serving a citrus salad or tuna tartare the addition of chipoltes in adobo would work very nicely. The smoky flavor and color also acts in the same fashion cinnamon does, making it an interesting ingredient for chocolate-based desserts like cookies, flan, and even cheesecakes. You can even use chipotle peppers or the adobo sauce to flavor cocktails. A Southwestern take on the Bloody Mary would be lovely with the inclusion of a little chipotles in adobo with the V8.

In terms of working with the peppers and adobo, the biggest concern is the color and staining. I never work with chipotles or adobo on a wooden cutting board; it will stain. I like using plastic cutting boards when working with something like this. The food processor or blender will be your best friend for chipotles, especially if you're using them in the capacity of marinades or vinaigrettes. The peppers themselves chop extremely easily, so it's easy to make a quick paste right on your cutting board. Classic pairings for marinades with the chipotle include onions, garlic, cumin, oregano, citrus juices, red wine, cilantro, mint, and meats or fish. Again, the heat of your chipotle will depend on the peppers themselves at time of harvest, so not all cans are made alike. Make sure you taste your peppers before using them to adjust with seasonings accordingly; you may have to chop up a raw fresh jalapeno to make up for the heat.

Here's a very basic marinade using chipotles in adobo to use for your next grilled dinner. Enjoy!

Chipotle Marinade for Chicken or Shrhimp:
4 chipotles in adobo pluse some of the adobo sauce
6 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 cup olive oil
cayenne pepper to taste (optional)

Combine the chipotles in adobo, garlic, cumin, salt and pepper to taste, and orange juice in a food processor and pusle to chop up the peppers and garlic. With the processor on, gently stream in the oil until a nice puree forms. Taste and adjust with salt and pepper to taste, and cayenne pepper if needed to taste. Pour marinade over chicken or shrimp and let marinade for 1 hour, preferably up to 4. Grill as desired and discard any leftover marinade.

*This marinade is good for 1 lb of large shrimp or about 2-3 large chicken breasts.

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