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What is Adobo Sauce and Seasoning: A Complete Guide

Adobo is one of those words that can have completely different meanings, depending on where you are located, what you’re talking about, and the food you’re referring to. It can be a seasoning, a technique, a sauce, or an entire dish. So, what is adobo, and why are there so many meanings?

Adobo is a sauce, a cooking technique, a seasoning, and a dish in the Philippines. The sauce is a marinade made from tomatoes, vinegar, salt, garlic, paprika, and oregano. The cooking technique involves marinating meat overnight, then simmering it in the same marinade until tender.

If you’ve ever wondered what adobo is, and have gotten confused about the different terms, then stick around. This article will clear things up for you as well as suggest substitutes if you can’t find or make it yourself.

Bowl full of adobo sauce sitting on top of a wooden table
Adobo sauce can sometimes be thick like a paste. Photo by Alexpro9500

What is Adobo?

Adobo, when referring to the sauce, is a marinade made from tomatoes, vinegar, paprika, oregano, salt, and garlic. Adobo, as a technique, is a cooking method where you marinate meat and then let it simmer it in the adobo marinade. Adobo is also a dry seasoning mix with the same spices that the sauce contains.

It is also a Spanish word for “marinade.”

Adobo refers to several things, including a cooking technique and a sauce, seasoning, and a dish in the Philippines. It’s a versatile word that describes several things and can cause confusion.

When you do an online search for “adobo,” the results show mostly sauce recipes and ads for adobo seasonings. The seasoning includes everything that the sauce contains, without the wet ingredients. It is used as a dry rub for meat when grilling to mimic the flavor of authentic adobo dishes.

Adobo is also the name of a dish. Adobo Chicken, Adobo Pork, and Adobo Beef are all dishes that use the adobo cooking method, as well as the sauce. The fact is that adobo can be anything related to a certain type of food or flavor.

Let’s talk more about the differences between each definition of adobo.

Is Adobo a Technique or a Sauce?

Adobo is a technique and a sauce. The technique came about as a way to preserve meat with vinegar and salt. But in Mexico, adobo is a spicy sauce that uses chilis instead of tomatoes for the base.

The adobo technique was developed before the days of refrigeration, or so it’s thought.

When meat is marinated in vinegar and salt, it slows down the decomposition process and keeps the meat fresher longer. Therefore, in the Philippines, they developed the dish using the adobo technique of cooking the meat to perfection in the marinade.

What is Adobo Sauce Made of?

Adobo sauce is made of tomatoes, vinegar, salt, and other spices. It is usually used for marinating meat. Mexican adobo usually contains chilis and other spices, while Filipino adobo sauce is less spicy.

While many people think of adobo sauce as Mexican in origin, this is not entirely true. In fact, Filipinos used a mixture of vinegar, salt, and soy sauce to keep meat fresher longer in the heat.

Later, when the Spanish came to the Philippines, they discovered this marinade and added their own spin to it.

Subsequently, each culture added other ingredients to the sauce, which included:

  • Tomatoes
  • Chilis
  • Oregano
  • Brown sugar
  • Garlic
  • Cumin
  • Cinnamon
  • Black pepper
  • Oil
  • Allspice

The sauce can be tailored to whatever you have on hand and your taste preferences. If, for example, you don’t want it too spicy, you can omit the chilis.

Even though adobo sauce is customizable, it should contain vinegar and salt, as that is the original formula that the Filipinos used so many centuries ago.

Now, let’s take a look at the differences between Mexican and Filipino adobo.

Mexican vs. Filipino Adobo

Mexican adobo is very spicy, while Filipino adobo is sweet and tangy. The difference is that chilis are used in the Mexican version, while the Filipino version uses tomatoes and sugar, along with vinegar and scallions.

Filipino adobo is more of a technique or complete dish than it is a sauce or seasonings. However, nowadays it can take the form of sauce, seasoning, or a technique.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between Mexican and Filipino adobo.

Filipino Adobo

Many Filipinos deny that adobo is a Spanish dish, as the technique was developed in the Austronesian period long before the Spanish appeared in the Philippines. In fact, they didn’t even arrive in the Philippines until the early 1500s CE, but there is evidence that Filipinos have been using the adobo cooking technique since around 3000 BCE.

The Spaniards who landed in the Philippines noticed the specific cooking style using vinegar and salt to preserve meat and gave it the term “adobo.” However, the Spaniards used a pickling spice as a preservative for their adobo recipes at first, as they marinated their meat for several weeks in this sauce.

Soy sauce, of course, is not part of the original recipe but was added after Chinese explorers visited the island. They learned that soy sauce could replace salt and add a unique flavor to the dish.

Eventually, tomatoes and other spices were added to the Filipino adobo version, which lends to the unique sweet and tangy flavor profile.

Today, Filipino adobo includes other ingredients such as coconut milk, other spices, and vegetables such as ginger and scallions. When these ingredients are cooked down with the meat, it makes a very flavorful and tangy dish.

After the meat is marinated, it is sometimes fried to give it a crispy texture before simmering it in the same marinating liquid.

Mexican Adobo

After the Spanish explorers discovered adobo, they added their own ingredients to the sauce, then took it to the Aztecs, who lived in what is now Mexico.

The Spanish version of adobo includes:

  • Vinegar
  • Salt
  • Olives
  • Paprika
  • Oregano
  • Garlic

Then, the Mexicans took this base recipe and added their spices and unique flavors. Let’s look at the ingredients of a typical Mexican adobo sauce:

  • Chili powder
  • Tomatoes
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Garlic
  • Brown sugar
  • Oregano
  • Salt
  • Cumin
  • Cinnamon
  • Black pepper
  • Allspice
  • Olive oil

Mexican adobo is a fusion of Indigenous and colonial recipes, and it sets itself apart from Filipino adobo because of the chili powder, tomatoes, and cumin.

Another thing that sets Mexican adobo apart from Filipino adobo is that the sauce can either be rubbed on meat while grilling or used as a simmering sauce.

Chicken adobo on top of rice
Chicken adobo is a famous Filipino dish. Photo by Ppy2010ha

What Does Adobo Taste Like?

Filipino adobo has a sweet, tangy garlic taste best suited for lighter meats like chicken and fish. Mexican adobo has an additional spicy flavor that comes from chilis. Both versions have an acidic flavor that comes from vinegar, which is an important part of the recipe.

Since vinegar is used as a base, it also makes the meat very tender because it breaks down the muscle fibers that contribute to the toughness of the meat. Therefore, any meat that’s been marinated in this liquid and simmered for a long time will be tender and cooked just right.

Adobo-cooked meat is perfect for the following dishes and meats:

  • Beef stew meat
  • Taco meat, such as chicken or beef
  • Lean cuts of meat
  • Pork
  • Lamb

Adobo can have other flavor profiles, depending on what ingredients are added.

For example, if you add a bit of honey to the sauce you create, you will have a slightly sweet sauce with a hint of a floral flavor, depending on the type of honey you use.

Or, if you use Italian seasonings rather than the traditional chilis and cumin, you’ll have more of a marinara sauce. You could create an adobo from basically any ingredient, as long as it contains vinegar and salt.

The taste profiles can be as varied as your imagination. For instance, you can create the following adobo sauces or seasonings:

  • Use Italian seasonings instead of Mexican seasonings for a marinara-like adobo
  • Coconut milk and other Thai seasonings can create a fusion adobo
  • Rice or coconut vinegar can be used instead, which creates a different flavor

Adobo is very versatile, and you can play with the flavors as long as you use an acidic component and a salty flavoring. You can make it taste however you like.

With that in mind, let’s now look at the things you can use in place of adobo sauce.

What Can Be Used to Substitute for Adobo Sauce?

The following can be used to substitute for adobo sauce:

  • Hoisin sauce
  • Chipotle sauce with adobo seasonings
  • Homemade adobo sauce
  • Ranchero sauce
  • Chili-garlic sauce
  • Adobo seasonings mixed with tomato sauce

If you find yourself without commercially available adobo sauce, there are some things you can use in place of the sauce without compromising your overall dish. As long as you have an acidic component and salt, then you have a traditional adobo sauce.

Let’s take a detailed look at some of the various things that will make a wonderful adobo sauce.

Hoisin Sauce

Hoisin sauce is typically a Japanese sauce, but it can stand in for adobo sauce. The basic ingredients of hoisin sauce include:

  • Fermented soybeans
  • Chili peppers
  • Vinegar
  • Sesame oil
  • Garlic
  • Fennel
  • Sugar
  • 5-Spice powder

If you consider the ingredients of Hoisin sauce and adobo sauce, you can see that they are very similar. A bottle of hoisin in your cupboard can fill in very nicely when you want adobo sauce and don’t feel like making it from scratch.

Chipotle Sauce with Adobo Seasonings

If you have a bottle of dry adobo seasonings, you can make adobo sauce using vinegar, chipotle peppers, and tomato sauce.

Here’s how to make it:

  1. Cut open chipotle peppers and remove the seeds
  2. Chop the peppers and put them in a hot frying pan with a bit of oil
  3. Cook the peppers until they are slightly soft and have released a bit of juice
  4. Add a can of stewed tomatoes or tomato sauce
  5. Add dried adobo seasoning
  6. Mix well while smashing the tomatoes into a sauce
  7. Simmer until it has reduced by half

Homemade Adobo Sauce

Like the chipotle sauce, you can mix garlic powder, salt, paprika, dried oregano, onion powder, and cumin powder. Add vinegar, soy sauce, and tomato paste and mix well. You can use this for anything you would use a commercially prepared adobo sauce for.

Ranchero Sauce

Ranchero sauce is very similar to adobo sauce in that it contains the same ingredients, minus the vinegar and soy sauce. It contains oil, garlic, salt, tomatoes, chili peppers, and oregano. To make it more like an adobo sauce, add vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic.

Chili-Garlic Sauce

Chili-garlic sauce already has all the ingredients that an adobo sauce has, except for the tomatoes. If you have this on hand in your kitchen, you can add tomato sauce, oregano, paprika, and cumin to it.

If you can mimic the basic ingredients of an adobo sauce, the chili-garlic sauce should work nicely.

Adobo Seasonings Mixed with Tomato Sauce

A jar of dry adobo seasonings will take you far in your kitchen adventures, as it gives you a convenient way to make adobo sauce. Simply take some tomato sauce and tomato paste, add some vinegar, and then enough dry seasonings to flavor.

Simmer it to the right consistency and use as you would adobo sauce.

Closing Thoughts

Adobo is a mixture of several different ingredients in various applications. It is also a technique used to preserve and cook tough cuts of meat. If you want a tangy sauce for your dish, you’ll want to use the Filipino recipe. However, if you want a spicy sauce for your dish, you’ll want to use the Mexican recipe. And remember, anything can be considered adobo if you use the basic ingredients and preparation method.