The word chipotle, which was also sometimes spelled chilpoctle and chilpotle, comes to English originally from the Nahuatl word chilpoctli by way of Mexican Spanish. The Nahuatl word chilpoctli means "smoked chile", formed from chil (="chile pepper") + poctli (="smoke"). The original Nahuatl word was spelled "pochilli" and has apparently become reversed. Other early spellings from Mexico are tzilpoctil, tzonchilli and texochilli.
A chipotle (pronounced chee-POTE-lay) is a smoke-dried jalapeño chili used primarily in Mexican, Mexican-American, Tex-Mex, and Mexican-inspired cuisine.
There are many varieties of jalapeños which vary in size and heat. In Mexico, the jalapeño is also known as the cuaresmeño and gordo. Until recently, chipotles were almost exclusively found in the markets of central and southern Mexico. As Mexican food became more popular in the United States in the late 20th century and into the 21st century, jalapeño production and processing began to move into Northern Mexico and the United States.
Typically, a grower will pass through a jalapeño field multiple times, picking the best green jalapeños for market. At the end of the growing season, jalapeños naturally begin to turn red. There is an extensive fresh market for red jalapeños in both Mexico and the United States. Many U.S. growers disk the red jalapeños into the ground. They are kept on the vine as long as possible. When the jalapeños are deep red and have lost much of their moisture, they are selected to be made into chipotles.
The red jalapeños are moved to a closed smoking chamber where they are spread out on metal grills. Wood is placed in a firebox, and the smoke enters the sealed chamber. Every few hours the jalapeños are stirred to improve smoke penetration. The chiles are smoked for several days until most of the moisture is removed. At the end of the process, the chipotles have dried up in a manner akin to prunes or raisins. The underlying heat of the jalapeños is combined with the taste of smoke. Typically ten pounds of jalapeños make one pound of chipotle.
In recent years, growers have begun using large gas dryers. Some processors have even started to use liquid smoke. These techniques produce what most culinary experts believe to be an inferior chipotle chile.
Chipotles are a key ingredient that impart a relatively mild but earthy spiciness to many dishes in Mexican cuisine. The chiles are used to make various salsas. Chipotle chiles can also be ground up and combined with other spices to make a meat marinade known as an adobo.