The chipotle pepper is a smoked or dried jalapeño pepper that originated in the area surrounding Mexico City. People who lived there before the Aztec civilization are thought to have invented it. The peppers may have been smoked to keep them from rotting, since the jalapeño is prone to quickly deteriorating when stored.
The pronunciation of the word chipotle is a widely discussed topic among pepper aficionados. Many traditionalists recognize the word's roots in the Nahuatl language indigenous to what is now Mexico. By their reckoning, the word should be pronounced "chee-poatl," with just two syllables and a shortened "uh" sound between the final two consonants. Due to the current rise in popularity of the use of these peppers in restaurants in the United States, however, the Spanish pronunciation is far more common: "chee-POAT-lay."
The process used to make them is similar to that for drying meat. Usually, meat or vegetables are allowed to dry in an enclosed space while exposed to wood smoke. This method of preservation works well for many types of foods.
The chipotle pepper, naturally, resembles a jalapeño, but it tends to be brown and shriveled. It loses little of its heat through the smoking process, and many enjoy both its spiciness and the natural wood smoke taste that accompanies it. Though its first applications were in traditional Mexican dishes, the chipotle now enjoys a broad range of uses throughout the US.
While shoppers can purchase chipotle peppers whole, they are also available as a salt, a seasoning, and in chili paste. The paste is usually canned, adding further to the chipotle’s durability. Canned products may also contain other peppers to moderate the "heat" as it is added to chilis, soups, or to meat prepared for tacos and other fillings. It also makes an excellent rub for grilled meats or vegetables.
Jalapeños, whether smoked or fresh, can produce either medium or high heat dishes. Using whole chipotles in recipes, especially when the seeds are also included, results in hot, though not super hot dishes. A diner who is unaccustomed to a heat of about 7,500 Scoville Heat Units may find the chipotle pepper hot to the point of uncomfortable. A mild pepper, conversely, is measured at about 1,000 Scoville Units. Sweet peppers rank zero on the Scoville scale.
Cooks can remove some of the heat from a chipotle pepper by carefully cutting the pepper in half and gently removing the seeds and the white membranes holding the seeds to the inside of the pepper. Although there is capsaicin in the flesh of the fruit as well, this will remove most of the heat. Caution should be taken not to touch the eyes during this procedure, as the pepper can still be extremely irritating to the eyes and skin. In large recipes, however, using a small amount of the pepper can provide flavor without creating a dish that is too hot.
Recipes that include this pepper greatly vary. They are used in traditional Mexican food, but fusion cuisine includes them as well. Some cooks add them to chicken with spinach, shrimp glazes, and even brownies. These newer recipes give the chipotle pepper a wide range of applications in fine cuisine.