By Dave DeWitt and Chuck Evans
Why did Native Americans smoke chiles in the first place? Perhaps some thick-fleshed chiles such as early jalapeños were dropped near the communal fire and later, a leathery, preserved chile was the result. Since smoking is believed (along with salting) to be one of the earliest preservation methods, it would make sense that the "meaty" chiles could be smoked right along with the meat.
In the town of Delicias in northern Mexico, the old-fashioned way to smoke chiles was fairly primitive. Red jalapeños were smoked in a large pit on a rack that was made out of wood, bamboo, or metal. Another nearby pit contained the fire and was connected to the smoking pit by an underground tunnel. The pods were placed on top of the rack where drafts of air pulled the smoke up and over the pods. A farm may also have had a smoker of a different design at the edge of the fields, and was usually a fireplace made of bricks with grates at the top and a firebox below. This smoker was for small batches.
Chipotles smoked in the Mexican manner are not always available north of Mexico. And with prices of chipotles topping $15.00 per pound when they are available, an attractive--though time-consuming--alternative is for cooks to smoke their own chiles. As chile expert Paul Bosland of New Mexico State University wrote, "It is possible to make chipotles in the backyard with a meat smoker or Weber-type barbecue with a lid. The grill should be washed to remove any meat particles because any odor in the barbecue will give the smoked chiles an undesirable flavor. Ideally, the smoker or barbecue should be new and dedicated only to smoking chiles." The result of this type of smoking is a chipotle that more resembles the red morita than the classic tan-brown típico.
There are five keys to the quality of the homemade chipotles: the maturity and quality of the pods, the moisture in the pods, the type of wood used to create the smoke, the temperature of the smoke drying the pods, and the amount of time the fruits are exposed to the smoke and heat. Remember that smoking is an art, so variations are to be expected and even desired.
Recommended woods are fruit trees (apple, peach, apricot) or other hardwoods such as hickory, oak, and pecan. Pecan is used extensively in parts of Mexico and in southern New Mexico to flavor chipotle. Although mesquite is a smoke source in Mexico, we prefer the less greasy hardwoods. Mesquite charcoal (not briquets) is acceptable, however, especially when soaked hardwood chips are placed on top to created even more smoke. It is probable, however that the resinous mesquite smoke (from the wood, not charcoal) contributes to the tan-brown coloration of the típico variety of chipotle.
Wash all the red pods and discard any that have insect damage, bruises, or are soft and remove the stems from the pods. In a Weber-style charcoal unit, start two small fires on each side of the barbecue bowl, preferably using one of the recommended hardwoods. If you are using a meat smoker with a separate firebox, simply build the fire in the firebox.
Place the pods in a single layer on the grill rack so they fit between the two fires. For quicker smoking, cut the pods in half lengthwise and remove the seeds. Keep the fires small and never directly expose the pods to the fire so they won't dry unevenly or burn. The intention is to dry the pods slowly while flavoring them with smoke. If you are using charcoal briquets, soak hardwood chips in water before placing them on the coals so the wood will burn slower and create more smoke. The barbecue vents should be opened only partially to allow a small amount of air to enter the barbecue, thus preventing the fires from burning too fast and creating too much heat.
Check the pods, the fires, and the chips hourly and move the pods around, always keeping them away from the fires. It may take up to forty-eight hours to dry the pods completely, which means that your fire will probably burn down during the night and will need to be restoked in the morning. When dried properly, the pods will be hard, light in weight, and brown in color. After the pods have dried, remove them from the grill and let them cool. To preserve their flavor, place them in a zip-lock bag and then freeze them. Ten pounds of fresh jalapeños yields just one pound of chipotles after the smoking process is complete. A pound of chipotles goes a long way, as a single pod is usually enough to flavor a dish.
A quick smoking technique involves drying red jalapeños (sliced lengthwise, seeds removed) in a dehydrator or in an oven with just the pilot light on. They should be desiccated but not stiff. Then smoke them for three hours over fruitwood in a traditional smoker with a separate firebox, or in the Weber-style barbecue as described above. This technique separates the drying from the smoking so you spend less time fueling the smoker.
Chuck has experimented with smoke-drying pods on a large scale with jalapeños grown near Toledo, Ohio. The large red pods had a lot of white "corking", which is a desirable trait for jalapeños in Mexico. Thus they resembled the variety called 'Huachinango'. He took the pods to a local catering firm that specialized in barbecue and used one of their revolving rack smokers. With hickory wood as his smoke source, he smoked the pods at 110 degrees F. for three days. He was attempting to duplicate the típico ("cigar-butt") variety but the result was much more like the morita, with their bright red-brown leathery appearance. The second attempt at duplicating the típico variety was in another meat-packing plant in a modern room with climate-controlled, injected smoke. The result was identical to the first try.
Then Chuck repeated the experiment a third time with a primitive smoker in a sausage-making facility. It was a small room with racks set on the ground and smoke that continuously circulated. He left the pods in the room for a week, and the chipotles were closer to the desired tan-brown color, but the pods still had too much moisture in them. He concluded that the raw red jalapeños contained extra moisture to begin with.
Obviously, the Mexicans have perfected the típico technique, while we Americans are struggling to duplicate it with more modern equipment. There is a delicate balance of the pit temperature, the amount of smoke, the type of smoke, and the length of time that produces the perfect chipotle. Perhaps we shall be forced to dig smoking pits in our backyards and begin growing mesquite trees.
Rob Polishook was the founder Chile Today-Hot Tamale, a company that introduced smoked habanero chiles to American chileheads. When we asked him about his technique for smoking the hottest chiles in the world, he wouldn't reveal his exact trade secrets, but he did give us some general techniques. "Producing the smoked habanero chile is an intricate and time-consuming process," he wrote. "The habaneros are smoked over a medley of exotic woods, herbs, and spices. The habaneros are smoked for sixteen to thirty hours and must be turned and sorted depending on their density and size at least once an hour. This process ensures that the habaneros do not burn and will have a rich, smoky, citrus, incendiary flavor. Chile Today-Hot Tamale's homemade habanero smoker has smoked thousands of pounds of habaneros. Similar to a chef's favorite pan, it has seasoned perfectly." Rob's final comment is good evidence for devoting a smoker strictly to chipotles.
Pasta de Chipotle (Chipotle Paste)
Pasta is the Spanish word for paste, not macaroni. This paste, which keeps well in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks, is added to soups and salsas and to vinaigrette dressings to perk up the flavor of the salad. It's also great as a marinade or basting sauce for roasts, ribs, chicken breasts, and shrimp.
2 cans chipotle chiles in adobo sauce (or one cup chipotles rehydrated in wine vinegar)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and puree. Transfer to a clean jar, cover, and store in the refrigerator.
Yield: About 2 cups
Heat Scale: Hot
Salsa de Chipotle (Chipotle Chile Sauce)
From Tlaxcala, Mexico comes a wonderful sauce that utilizes any type of smoked chile. Most commonly used are smoked red jalapeños. This is a table sauce served at room temperature to spice up any main dish, including meats and poultry. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.
10 dried chipotle chiles
4 mulato chiles, or substitute anchos
1/2 onion, chopped
10 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
10 black peppercorns
10 cumin seeds
1/2 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup tablespoon vegetable oil
1/4 cup vinegar
1 cup water
In a bowl, soak the chiles in hot water until soft, about 4 hours. Remove the seeds and stems.
In a food processor or blender, combine the chiles, onion, garlic, olive oil, sesame seeds, peppercorns, cumin seeds, cinnamon stick, Mexican oregano, and salt and process to a paste.
Heat the olive oil and vegetable oil together in a saucepan and fry the paste over medium heat until it is aromatic, stirring constantly for about 5 minutes. Add the vinegar and water, remove from the heat, and stir well.
Yield: About 2 ½ cups
Heat Scale: Hot
Smoky Chipotle Pesto
From our friend J.P. Hayes of Sgt. Pepper's Hot Sauce Micro Brewery in Austin comes this excellent pesto designed to be served over homemade bread, pasta or use as a pizza topping. Mix it with mayonnaise or ranch dressing and it's a tasty dip. J.P. gave a dramatic demonstration of preparing this pesto without electricity at the 1996 Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival.
1 can chipotle chiles in adobo (or 1/2 cup chipotles rehydrated in wine vinegar)
1/4 cup tomato paste
8 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons cider vinegar or lime juice
1 cup grated Parmesan or romano cheese
1 cup pumpkin seeds (pepitas) or piñon nuts, toasted
1 cup canola oil
Combine the chipotles, garlic, and vinegar in a food processor and puree. Add the cheese and pumpkin seeds. With the processor running, drizzle in the oil until the desired consistency is reached (you may not need all the oil).
Yield: 2 1/2 cups
Heat Scale: Medium
Smoked Black Bean Dip
Here's a smoky twist on refried beans that are used as a dip for chips or a filling for burritos or soft tacos.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 white onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 chipotle chiles in adobo, minced (or 2 chipotles reydrated in wine vinegar)
1 cup cooked black beans
Diced yellow bell peppers for garnish
Cilantro leaf for garnish
Heat the oil in a skillet and add the onion and garlic and saute until the onions are soft, about 5 minutes. Add the cumin, salt, and chipotles and cook for about two minutes.
Puree the beans in a food processor with a little water until you have a smooth paste. Add the paste to the mixture in the skillet and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Heat Scale: Medium
Thanks to Harald Zoschke for his photographic assistance on this project.
Other articles in the Chipotle Flavors series: