Chipotle: Everything you need to know

Chipotle adds a unique combination of smoke, tang, umami and chilli heat.
Chipotle adds a unique combination of smoke, tang, umami and chilli heat. Photo: iStock

What is it?

It's a Mexican smoked chilli. To make a chipotle from scratch, you would need to grow a jalapeno chilli, let it ripen until it is full-flavoured and deep red, pick it, then slowly dry it over a pecan wood fire for a week until most of the moisture is removed and it has taken on a rich smoky aroma. You might then grind it to a powder or into flakes, or preserve it in a can of tomato-based adobo sauce. The word chipotle is from the Nahuatl chil poctli, which literally means "chilli smoked".

Why do we love it?

It's the combination of smoke, tang, umami and chilli heat that changes any dish in which chipotle is used. Chipotle is fundamental to Mexican cuisine and has been introduced into the Australian kitchen over the past decade or so. Chipotle sits on the bottom third of the Scoville scale, which measures chilli burn. Capsicum measures 0 Scoville units, and Trinidad Scorpion 2 million, while chipotle sits at 8000. However, chipotle's chilli heat builds as you eat it, so use caution.

Food. Neil Perry's meatballs in chipotle sauce. SMH GOOD WEEKEND Picture by WILLIAM MEPPEM GW120512

Neil Perry's meatballs in chipotle sauce. Photo: William Meppem

Who uses it?

Sarai Castillo, head chef at Melbourne's Tres a Cinco, was born in Guadalajara, Mexico. She remembers shopping for chillies in the market near her home. "Usually we soak it in water and cook it in a tomato sauce but sometime you fry it dry in oil with garlic to make salsa macha. I use it on our mushroom empanada." Castillo uses chipotle to make albondigas con chipotle, meatballs in a rich tomato sauce, and chilaquiles, originally a breakfast dish fried tortilla chips with a chipotle-rich tomato sauce, feta, sour cream and fried egg.

In Sydney, Mexico City-born Rosa Cienfuegos of Tamaleria in Dulwich Hill and Itacate in Redfern remembers eating chipotle in tortas, crusty rolls filled with avocado, veal schnitzel and Oaxacan cheese. In Sydney, she makes tinga de pollo, pulled chicken in a rich smoky chipotle sauce served on a burrito with mozzarella cheese, potato and nopales (cactus paddle).

How do you use it?

Some recipes call for ground or dried chillies while many modern recipes use tinned or jarred chipotles in tomato-based adobo sauce. When using dried chipotle, soften them in hot water for 30 minutes with a plate placed on top to keep them submerged.

  • Make meatballs in chipotle sauce or add the rich smoky flavour to a dish of white beans.
  • Or step beyond the Mexican template and use anywhere you want smoke and heat. Add a few teaspoons of chopped chipotles in adobo sauce to mayo or aioli to serve with grilled sweetcorn, chips or burgers.
  • Add to home-made baked beans or blend chipotles in adobo with twice as much tomato sauce and brush over chicken before grilling for a simple hot-sweet glaze.

Where do you get it?

When it comes to chipotle in adobo, look for La Costena brand in supermarkets or San Marco brand online at essentialingredient.com.au.

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Buy dried chipotle at Mexican and Latin American stores such as Latin Foods and Wine in Melton, Victoria, or Mexico City Foods in Mortdale, Sydney, or buy online at elcielo.com.au.

Richard Cornish has turned​ his focus to ingredients. Suggest an ingredient via email to brainfood@richardcornish.com.au or tweet to @foodcornish.