Chef Mike extols the virtues of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
Peek inside the pantry or fridge of any home cook and you’re bound to find certain staples such as eggs, milk, butter, olive oil, garlic, and onions. But every home cook’s larder also holds at least one secret, at least one ingredient that is the uncredited “secret weapon” in their culinary arsenal.
Like Pierre Hermé’s feuilletine or Andy Ricker’s Phu Quoc fish sauce, most home cooks have at least one ingredient they reach for when a dish needs a boost to take it from mediocre to mouthwatering. For the past decade, my own secret weapon has been those tiny cans of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce.
“But wait,” you say, “Isn’t chipotle flavor already in everything from toothpaste to hot chocolate? Can this trendy food marketing buzzword actually be considered a secret weapon when it’s more commonplace than a Pidgey at Renaissance Park?” While the chipotle pepper hopped on Fonzie’s back and sailed over a tiger shark long ago, something magical happens in ciudad savor when those same peppers are submerged in adobo sauce. There’s an alchemy that takes place, turning the whole into so much more than just the sum of its parts.
Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce are actually three ingredients in one tiny, flavor-packed can: smoky chipotle chilies, zesty-sweet adobo sauce, and the ridiculously rapturous combination of the two. Use it as a sauce, marinade base, or quick flavor booster for just about anything that needs a smoky, spicy kick in the culo.
But to understand the beauty of chipotles in adobo we must first understand chipotle peppers themselves. Chipotle peppers are simply smoke-dried jalapenos. Traditionally, most chilies were dried by laying them out in the sun, but jalapeños have such a thick flesh and high water content, they would start to rot before drying. To avoid this problem, jalapeños were smoke-dried (like meat) and chipotle peppers were born.
Chipotles by themselves taste smoky and sweet, but it’s the adobo sauce that makes the real magic happen. The adobo sauce used in canned chipotles is actually a marinade made from tomato, paprika, onions, garlic, vinegar, brown sugar, bay leaves, oregano, and sometimes a touch of sesame oil. In my experience, La Morena brand has the deepest chipotle flavor and richest adobo sauce, with San Marcos coming in a close second. But all of the brands I’ve tried over the years (La Costeña, Goya, Embassa, Herdez, El Mexicano) have varying degrees of deliciousness.
When you open the can, it’s packed with whole chilies surrounded by thick adobo sauce. You can use just the chilies, just the sauce or a combination of the two. If you’re like me and enjoy some heat, purée all of it together or if you have the heat tolerance of a 5-year-old, you can scrape the seeds out of the chilies. Once you open the can, you can store the peppers and sauce for several weeks in an airtight container.
So what can you make with this smoky-sweet canned comestible?
The most obvious use for chipotles in adobo is as a marinade or glaze. Add a healthy dose of pureed chilies and adobo to a chicken, pork, beef or shrimp marinade for a sweet, smoky flavor or raise the umami in your vegetables with a touch of the purée.
A glaze made from two parts adobo sauce, one part tomato sauce and one part honey, brushed on to any roasted meat just a couple of minutes before it’s done will boost spiciness, depth and gives the meat more of a finished “Aaron Sanchez” look.
Want to make intensely flavored Texas-style chili? Grab those chipotles in adobo. Want your braises to taste like a gift from the gods? Bibbity bobbity chipotle in adobe!
The taste of homemade condiments like chipotle and adobo sour cream or mayo may make you fall prostrate on the ground out of pure joy. The ability to regularly enjoy such subtle smokiness and bright creaminess drizzled over tacos and sandwiches can be life altering so brace yourself for a culinary existential experience.
Toss meat or vegetables in adobo sauce before roasted or sautéing, add the pure to pinto or black beans, blend it into your guacamole, spread it across an egg sandwich or omelet, mix it with ranch dressing for a salad or with butter and honey for a southwestern cornbread spread that’ll make grandma a believer.
The best news is that chipotles in adobo can be found in the Latin foods section of most grocery stores or even better, at your neighborhood Latin market. ¡Buen apetito!
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan currently living abroad who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits