My love affair with chipotle peppers started a few years ago when I first tasted them in a sweet potato mash – the spiciness and the smokiness combined make them so much more interesting than regular spicy peppers. I am not a natural convert to Mexican cuisine that, until 16 years ago, I couldn’t really claim to know. My first forays were tentative and not always successful and I still don’t care for nopales nor do I ever crave tacos. But working in a kitchen heavily populated by Latinos, I slowly started appreciating all kinds of delicacies and I have come to love tamales, fish in achiote and chilaquile.
A chipotle starts out as a jalapeno – as jalapenos ripen and become bright red they start losing their moisture which is when they get picked to become chipotle. The transformation happens in smoking chambers where the jalapenos are placed on metal grills – in air tight rooms smoke is piped in for several days until the chiles are completely dried up, so much so that 10 pounds of jalapenos only make 1 pound of chipotles. Chipotles chiles can be bought in this form or in a paste that is easy to add to all kinds of dishes, such as soups, stews or sauces. Ground chipotles are also the base for adobo.
Not all smoking happens naturally with wood and fire but some manufacturers resort to the much easier and quicker way of using liquid smoke. If you, like me, have ever wondered how liquid smoke is made, the short answer is that smoke produced by burning wood is channeled into containers where it condenses and then passed through water and finally bottled. As to the safety of liquid smoke, let’s just say that the European Commission is still not convinced it should be used as a food flavoring. Just think about that next time you reach for that bottle.