Chipotle Pepper Guide: Heat, Flavor, Pairings, and More

Chipotle peppers are a type of smoke-dried jalapeño. They are primarily used in Mexican and Mexican-inspired cuisines, such as Tex-Mex and Southwestern dishes. Chipotle peppers originate from a region in Mexico known as Chihuahua. The process of smoke-drying jalapeños dates back to the Aztecs, who used this method to preserve the peppers. The name “chipotle” comes from the Nahuatl word “chilpoctli”, meaning smoked chili.

Chipotle peppers have a unique flavor profile. They are moderately hot, with a similar heat level as fresh jalapeños (2,500 to 8,000 Scoville heat units.) The smoke-drying process gives them a distinctive smoky flavor, which is often described as earthy, sweet, and slightly spicy. In addition to being used whole, chipotle peppers are commonly ground into a powder or canned in a sauce called adobo.

Chipotle pepper nutrition
Chipotle morita, alongside chipotle paste

Chipotle pepper fast facts

Scoville heat units (SHU)2,500 – 8,000
Median heat (SHU)5,250
Jalapeño reference pointEqual
Capsicum speciesAnnuum
Size2 to 4 inches long, dried
FlavorSmoky, Earthy, Sweet

How spicy are chipotle peppers?

On the Scoville scale, chipotle peppers are the same overall range as jalapeños: 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville heat units. But expect the heat to be in the higher level of that Scoville heat range. Chipotle are made from ripe red jalapeños, so the capsaicin in them is at its peak as they remained longer on the vine prior to picking. Capsaicin is what gives chilies their heat, so expect a higher overall median heat from chipotle compared to unripened fresh green jalapeños. 

Compared to an ancho – another popular dried pepper made from fresh poblanos, the chipotle is a significant step up. Anchos range from 1,000 to 1,500 SHU, so they are at least three times milder, if not more. 

When compared to other chilies on the Scoville scale, the chipotle, though, is only moderately spicy. It has a more eatable level of heat than the cayenne pepper (30,000 to 50,000 SHU) that it often sits next to on the spice rack. And compared to higher-heat fresh or dried habanero (100,000 to 350,000 SHU) and ghost peppers (approximately 800,000 to one million SHU), the chipotle pepper falls well below in overall spiciness. 

For more differences between the chipotle and other chilies, take a look at some of our chipotle-focused comparisons below:

Chipotle pepper types

What you usually see in the North American market derives from morita chilies. These are chipotles made in Chihuahua in Mexico, and they can be recognized from the dark purplish hue. In the southern areas of Mexico, there’s another version (called meco) which is gray in color. You typically don’t see this variety make its way north as often.

Both types provide fiery smokiness, but they each have their own distinct characteristics. We outline below. For more information on either dried chili, visit their individual profiles provided. You can also learn more through our in-depth Meco vs. morita comparison.

  • Chipotle peppers in general:
    • Smoke-dried jalapeño peppers
    • Rich, smoky flavor
    • Used in Mexican cuisine
  • Chipotle Meco:
    • Also known as “chipotle tipico”
    • Grayish-tan color
    • Stiff and dry texture
    • Smoked for a longer period
    • Earthy, more intense smoky flavor
    • Learn more in our meco profile
  • Morita Pepper:
    • Dark purple to black color, rustic brown
    • Softer, more pliable texture, 2 to 4 inches long
    • Smoked for less time than mecos
    • Slightly sweet, fruity flavor with a hint of smokiness
    • Learn more in our morita profile

What is the chipotle smoking process like?

Jalapeño peppers are allowed to mature on the vine from green to their ripe red hue, losing their moisture and increasing their heat in the process. They are then picked for smoking.

Making chipotle is much like how you’d smoke dried meats, The ripe jalapeño chilies are placed for days in an enclosed smoking chamber. They are flipped multiple times during the smoking process, allowing the smoke to penetrate the skin of the jalapeño. For an easy example to imagine, think of the drying like a grape to a raisin (prolonged heat), and then just add smoke. Lots and lots of smoke.

In terms of volume, you probably guessed that in the drying process, the weight of these chilies drop. So if you’re looking to experiment with making chipotle peppers yourself, know that you’ll need about ten pounds of jalapeños to equal one pound of chipotle pepper.

Cooking with chipotle peppers

Chipotle peppers are really very versatile. It’s just as good added to BBQ (perfect for smoky BBQ sauces), Tex-Mex, and Mexican dishes as it is on snacks like popcorn. Give it a shot – sprinkle some chipotle powder with a dash of oil over your favorite popcorn and shake well. You can also add chipotle to eggs for a smokier take on breakfast. It makes for an excellent huevos rancheros seasoning. 

You can also grind the whole peppers down to chili flakes and use them instead of traditional crushed red pepper. It’s a slightly milder heat with that delicious smoky flavor. Try pairing that with tropical fruits in salsas, salads, or even on pizza.

More cooking tips:

  • Dried chilies can still cause chili burn. Capsaicin oil is still plenty present in dried peppers like chipotles. Don’t go thinking because it isn’t fresh, you don’t need to worry about chili burn. Still use precautions: Wear kitchen gloves while handling, especially during cutting. And learn how to treat chili burn if it does happen.
  • Remember, chipotle are picked for drying at their highest heat peak. They are picked and dried when red, so their level of capsaicin is at the highest it would be in the fruit. And drying chilies does not remove their capsaicin. Consider that when using. While you’ll still find milder chipotles out there, there’s less of a chance of that than with green jalapeños. Or put another way: It’s easier to over-spice a dish with chipotle. Don’t use a heavy hand. Add the minimum you think required and build up from there.
  • The smokiness of chipotle can overpower subtler flavors. It’s not just the heat that can be heavy-handed. If you’re trying to add more spiciness to a dish that’s using chipotle, you may be better off using a more neutral-in-flavor chili like cayenne. You get the spiciness you want without drowning out the nuance of your dish in smokiness.
  • Your best chipotle substitute depends on availability and need. Smoked paprika can work in a pinch as it has a comparable smoky flavor, but there’s very little heat. Other dried Mexican chilies (like pasillas) work, too. For more alternatives, check out our chipotle substitutes post

Common chipotle pepper ingredient pairings

The flavor of this smoked chili is certainly distinct, but you’ll find that chipotle is quite versatile. These are just some of the most popular ingredient pairings you’ll see with it.

  • Tomatoes: Chipotle peppers and tomatoes are a classic pairing, often found in salsas and sauces. The acidity and sweetness of tomatoes help balance the smoky heat of chipotle peppers, creating a well-rounded flavor profile.
  • Garlic: Garlic’s pungent, savory flavor complements the smoky spiciness of chipotle peppers. Its robust taste stands up well to the strong flavors of chipotle, enhancing the overall taste of the dish.
  • Cumin: Cumin’s earthy, warm flavor pairs well with the smoky heat of chipotle peppers. It’s often used in Mexican and Southwestern cuisine to add depth and complexity to dishes.
  • Honey: A popular combination for glazes and dipping sauces, honey and chipotle are distinctly different, but the flavor combination is undeniably unique and delicious.
  • Chocolate: The earthy, reach sweetness of chocolate is a perfect pairing for the smoky spiciness of this chili. The pairing is the base for many fiery desserts.
  • Lime: The acidity and freshness of lime can cut through the smoky heat of chipotle peppers, providing a refreshing contrast. Lime juice is often used to brighten up the flavors in spicy dishes.
  • Onions: Onions, especially when cooked to bring out their sweetness, balance the smoky heat of chipotle peppers. They add a depth of flavor and sweetness that contrasts nicely with the spicy pepper.
  • Cilantro: Cilantro brings a fresh, citrusy flavor that can lighten the smoky and spicy flavor of chipotle peppers. It’s commonly used in Mexican and Southwestern cuisine to add a refreshing note to spicy dishes.
  • Beans: The mild, earthy flavor of beans, such as black or pinto, pairs well with the smoky heat of chipotle peppers. Beans absorb the flavors of the chipotle, making them a delicious addition to many dishes.
  • Avocado: The creamy, mild flavor of avocados provides a cooling contrast to the smoky heat of chipotle peppers. Avocados can help balance the heat in dishes, making them more palatable for those who are sensitive to spicy foods.
  • Corn: The sweetness of corn provides a nice contrast to the smoky, spicy flavor of chipotle peppers. It adds a burst of freshness and sweetness that helps balance the overall flavor of the dish.
  • Cheese: Certain types of cheese, like queso fresco or cheddar, can mellow out the heat of chipotle peppers. The creamy, salty flavors of cheese complement the smoky spiciness of chipotle, adding a comforting element to the dish.

Some of our favorite chipotle pepper recipes

100 Spicy Recipes from
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UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on May 7, 2024 to include new content.
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