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What Makes a Chile a "Chipotle"?
The first hot pepper that I specifically remember eating was a jalapeno. I was about 10 years old and on a beach vacation with my best friend's family. We were out to dinner at a restaurant that was on the fancier side for a beach town and ordered loaded nachos as an appetizer for the table. Being kids, we thought it would be fun to dare each other to eat jalapeno slices and see how long we could wait before taking a sip of water. From that day on I decided that jalapenos did not taste good and I had no interest in eating them ever again (I also survived on a diet of chicken tenders and mac and cheese).

Fast forward almost 15 years to 2015. Within the past year I have discovered the full potential of chiles and understand that most of the time they are not meant to be eaten by themselves, whole. I also understand now that most chiles are used not only for their heat, but also for their variety of flavors - whether it is earthy, smoky or chocolaty. Chipotle chiles are no different.

They Start as Jalapenos
To be able to fully understand the history of a Chipotle chile, you must first know a little bit about the Jalapeno, because that is what all Chipotles start out as. Jalapenos are a medium sized and medium heat chile pepper that originated in Mexico. These chiles are typically picked when they are green, but can turn a deep crimson when fully ripe. They can also be found in a variety of colors courtesy of cultivars created by the Chile Pepper Institute. When these chiles were first eaten in the town of Xalapa (pronounced ha-lah-pa) in the state of Veracruz, they were very abundant. So much so that they could not consume all of the chiles quickly enough before they would go bad. It would also be convenient to save some chiles for a later date in case the crop wasn't as prosperous the next season. They needed a way to keep these chiles edible for long periods of time, and there came the idea to smoke the chiles.

Why Smoke a Chile?

In a region of Mexico, now referred to as northern Mexico City, the Aztecs smoked meat to preserve it. When their chile harvest became abundant, they needed a way to preserve these as well. Jalapeno chiles have rather thick walls that do not dry as quickly as other chiles that have thin walls. Most chile peppers can be dried within one to two weeks, while Jalapeno chiles can take three or more weeks to dry and tended to rot before fully drying. Because of this, the Aztecs realized that they could preserve these chiles much more quickly and efficiently by smoking them over a fire. Not only did smoking help preserve the chile, but it also enhanced the flavor. This act of smoking the chile is what changes a Jalapeno into a Chipotle chile. There are two different types of Chipotle chiles that are classified by the process and amount of time that they are smoked. These two types of Chipotle chiles are Chipotle Moritas and Chipotle Mecos.

Smoking Jalapeno chiles is done in a large, closed smoking chamber to ensure the smokiest flavor possible. The chiles are typically spread flat on metal racks or grills to ensure the most smoke reaches the chiles. Wood is lit in a firebox and the smoke is then pushed into the chamber. The chiles are stirred every few hours to mix in the smoke. Depending on the type of chile, they can take anywhere from several days to a week to fully dry.

Morita Chiles
Morita chiles, which means "small mulberry" in Spanish, are what many people have come to associate with the term "Chipotle" chiles in the United States. Morita chiles are primarily produced in Chihuahua, located in Northern Mexico. These chiles are picked by farmers when they have just turned red. They are smoked for a few days until they are dry and they are leathery and pliable when finished. The shorter smoking time, compared to Meco chiles, helps retain a little bit of the Jalapeno's fruity flavor. These chiles are dark red when finished and are more aesthetically appealing than Meco chiles. Morita chiles are used in traditional Mexican cuisine, but are also very popular in Americanized Mexican dishes.

Meco Chiles
Meco chiles are the Morita chiles' cooler and harder to get a hold of big brother. Although lesser known to those just starting their journey into the world of chiles, these Meco chiles are well known and sought after by chile enthusiasts - and for good reason. During growing season, when farmers pick some green Jalapenos they leave some on the plant to let them grow larger and fully ripen to a dark crimson red. These special chiles will become Chipotle Meco chiles.

Meco chiles are picked at the end of the growing season in Central and Southern Mexico. They are then smoked for up to a week when they will be completely dry. These chiles are larger and take longer to smoke than Morita chiles. The longer smoking time gives these chiles a more intense flavor and the end texture is similar to a prune or a dried, crinkled potato skin. These chiles are primarily used in Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisines.

Now that you know the difference between Morita and Meco chiles and how they differ from Jalapenos, you're one step closer to being a true chilehead (which is quite an honor around here).

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