My Goals

  • Moist, tender pork

  • Pure, balanced chile flavor

  • Full-bodied sauce that coats pork

Before I take you on a deep dive into carne adovada, one of New Mexico’s most celebrated dishes and quite possibly the easiest braise you will ever make, I need to back up and explain how hugely significant chiles are in New Mexican cuisine.

For one thing, the state claims its own unique chile cultivars. The relatively mild peppers, which are sold both fresh—either unripe and green or ripe and red—and dried were first released by New Mexico State University in 1913 and have since become one of the defining ingredients in the local cuisine—not to mention the state’s most lucrative cash crop. New Mexico even passed a law declaring that only chiles grown in the state may be labeled as such. Dishes that feature the peppers typically contain few other seasonings so that the chile flavor can shine.

Ingredient Spotlight: New Mexican Chiles

Chiles are fundamental to New Mexican cuisine. In fact, the state breeds and grows its own unique cultivars, which are sold both fresh and dried. Fresh chiles appear in everything from casseroles to burgers to rice; dried chiles appear in sauces for braised meats such as carne adovada or for enchiladas. Here’s a rundown on the flavor and heat profile of the dried kind and how to substitute for them.

Flavor: Fruity, sweet, slightly acidic

Heat: Relatively mild; Scoville rating: 0 to 7,000 (For reference: Bell peppers rate from 0 to 1,000; jalapeños rate from 1,000 to 50,000; and habaneros rate from 100,000 to 500,000.)

Appearance: Wrinkly; dark red; particularly shiny, tough skins

Substitute: Dried California chiles

Carne adovada is a perfect example. To make it, cooks simmer chunks of pork in a thick sauce made from dried red New Mexican chiles; garlic; dried oregano; spices such as cumin, coriander, or cloves; vinegar; and a touch of sugar or honey. (Adobada, the Mexican preparation on which the dish is based, refers to meat cooked in an adobo sauce of chiles, aromatics, and vinegar.) When the meat is fall-apart tender, the rich, robust, brick-red braise is served with tortillas or rice and beans.

That’s the purist’s version, anyway. But there are also plenty of recipes for carne adovada that vary the flavors by adding ingredients such as raisins, coffee, and/or a mix of other kinds of chiles so that the final result is reminiscent of a mole sauce. A few of these recipes, I found, were plagued by typical braise problems, such as dry meat and over- or underseasoned sauce that is either too scant or too soupy.

Before we developed our own recipe for carne adovada, we prepared and evaluated five published recipes, finding that some featured dry pork and sauces that lacked clear chile flavor.

I got to work on a minimalist braise—one that would feature moist, tender pork in a simple, potent sauce that tasted first and foremost of chiles.

Seeing Red

We salt the chunks of pork butt for an hour before cooking to ensure that they are evenly seasoned and that they stay juicy during simmering.

Most of the recipes I found called for boneless butt roast, which is affordable, streaked with flavorful fat, and loaded with collagen that breaks down during cooking, rendering the meat tender. I cut the roast into 1½-inch chunks, which would be equally easy to eat wrapped in a tortilla or from a fork, and tossed the pieces with kosher salt so that the meat would be deeply seasoned. I didn’t sear it since the meat above the surface of the liquid would brown in the oven.

Most of the simpler sauce formulas went something like this: Toast whole dried New Mexican chiles—as much as 8 ounces—and then steep them in boiling water until their stems soften, which takes about 30 minutes. Then, puree the chiles with enough water to form a thick paste and season it with garlic, spices, vinegar, and a sweetener.

Eight ounces of chiles was a massive pile that I wouldn’t be able to toast or puree in a single batch, so I scaled down to a more manageable (but still generous) 4 ounces. After toasting and steeping them, I processed the chiles with 4 cups of the water they had soaked in, plus a couple of garlic cloves, Mexican oregano (less sweet than the Mediterranean kind), cumin, cloves, white vinegar, and sugar until it formed a loose puree. I poured the sauce over the meat in a Dutch oven, brought it to a boil on the stove, covered it, and (as we typically do with a braise) transferred it to the oven, where it would simmer gently and evenly with no stirring.

After about 2 hours of braising, the meat was fork‑tender. But the sauce was way off—so loose and thin that it didn’t cling to the meat. And despite the load of chiles it contained, the flavor was washed-out.

Reducing the water by half thickened the puree and made its flavor more concentrated, albeit one‑dimensional. I’d have to think about tweaking the flavors. The bigger problem was that the chile seeds and skins hadn’t broken down completely in the blender (New Mexican chile skins are particularly tough), and their texture was more noticeable now that there was less liquid.

Going forward, I made sure to seed the chiles before toasting them. As for the bits of skin, I tried straining them out to make the puree ultrasmooth, but it was a fussy step and the sauce suffered. Not only did it lack vibrancy in both color and flavor—chile skins contain high concentrations of flavor and aroma compounds that give them much of their astringent, floral, and fruity notes—but I found that the tiny insoluble particles of pureed skin and pulp were also responsible for making the sauce viscous enough to cling to the meat.

The trick to smoothing out the puree was refining my processing method. Instead of adding all the water at the start, which left the skins swimming in liquid, I started with just enough liquid to keep the blender running before adding the rest. That way there was more friction to grind the solids.

To make a flavorful puree in which to cook the pork, we start by steeping New Mexican chiles in boiling water for 30 minutes. Once the chiles are softened, we blend them with honey, vinegar, garlic, oregano, cumin, cayenne, cloves, and salt.

The Toasting Is Toast

Back to refining the flavor of the sauce. Bumping up the amounts of garlic and vinegar, switching from sugar to the more nuanced sweetness of honey, and introducing a dash of cayenne pepper for subtle heat were all good moves. But the sauce still lacked the fruity brightness I was hoping for.

Toasting chiles is standard practice when you want to deepen their flavor; it can also add hints of char. But if I was after a sweeter, slightly acidic profile—which dried red New Mexican chiles naturally offer—maybe toasting them was the wrong move.

To find out, I held a side-by-side tasting of my adovada made with toasted and untoasted chiles. Sure enough, the untoasted batch boasted rounder flavor that was fruity, a touch sweet, and slightly astringent. Best of all, skipping the toasting step made the dish even easier to prepare.

The result was bright, rich, just a little spicy, and deeply satisfying—precisely the pure and simple adovada I’d had in mind. It’s what I’ll be making for dinner when I want a bold, hearty braise. And since those flavors also pair brilliantly with eggs and potatoes, I’ll be sure to save the leftovers for breakfast.

One of America's Oldest Cuisines

Often confused with Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine, New Mexican cuisine is an amalgam of many influences that has evolved over hundreds of years and long predates the state’s founding in 1912. Its earliest roots date back to Native American tribes (Pueblo, Apache, and Navajo), which settled in the area centuries before the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620. The cuisine further evolved as new cooking traditions and ingredients were brought by Spanish settlers in the late 16th century, as well as by Anglo American and French newcomers who came to the area in the 1800s. As cattle ranching gained prominence in the 1800s, some cowboy cooking got mixed in there, too.

Keys to Success

  • Moist, tender pork

    Salting the pork chunks before cooking them seasons the meat and helps it retain its natural juices. Braising the adovada in a low oven ensures that the pork cooks gently and evenly.
  • Pure, balanced chile flavor

    We use a generous 4 ounces of dried red New Mexican chiles but skip toasting them to preserve their bright, slightly acidic, fruity flavor. We process them with minimal herbs and spices—just garlic, oregano, cumin, cloves, and cayenne—plus a little vinegar and honey to ensure that their flavor stands out.
  • Full-bodied sauce that coats pork

    We add minimal liquid so that the sauce is full-bodied. Initially grinding the chiles with a small amount of liquid helps the tough skins break down as much as possible; once the skins have broken down, we add more liquid to make a relatively smooth but thick puree with tiny bits of skin that add rusticity, body, and vibrant flavor to the sauce.