Know Your Spices: Adobo Seasoning

Is adobo a dish or a seasoning? Is it wet or dry? Find out in this comprehensive explainer on what adobo is, what it means to certain cuisines, and how best to use it.

Adobo seasoning in a brown bowl

Lori Rice

“Adobo” means different things to different people. In the Philippines, it’s an unofficial national stew-like dish indigenous to its people—a wave of savory, sour, and sweet flavors by way of vinegar, garlic, salt, and soy sauce. To some, any red sauce with paprika and chipotle peppers earns the name. To others, it’s a wet rub made from the paste of fresh garlic cloves, salt, peppercorns, oregano, olive oil, and vinegar.

Today, in the U.S., most people associate adobo seasoning(s) with the all-purpose dry spice blend that has become characteristic to Latin American and Caribbean cuisine. The texture can be fine or on the coarser side and its exact proportions vary depending on the manufacturing brand or the individual making the blend.

Adobo seasoning spice in a brown bowl

Lori Rice

What Is Adobo Seasoning?

Derived from the Spanish word “adobar,” which means to marinate, adobo was originally a method of both flavoring and preserving raw food as it sat in a sauce that typically contained paprika, oregano, salt, garlic, and vinegar. As these flavors made their ways to Spain and Portugal’s colonies, they took on identities of their own.

Typically, the flavor profile of dry adobo includes granulated garlic, onion powder, salt, black pepper, and oregano. It may also contain citrus zest and/or turmeric. However, that’s not to say that’s all it ever is.

Celebrated Latinx chefs like Maria Mercedes Grubb of Underground Dining Club in Puerto Rico see adobo a way to express oneself creatively and individualistically while staying within the flavors of and paying homage to an important world culture. “Essentially, for us in Puerto Rico,” sums up Chef Grubb, “it’s a dried spice blend used to season like a seasoning salt or rub or add last-minute ‘yo no se que’ umami to your sauteed dishes, meats, and stews.”

To keep her homemade adobo seasoning bright and bold, Chef Grubb likes to make it in small batches. Her essential elements include garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, turmeric, pimentón, Dominican Oregano, and kosher salt. However, she’ll also often jazz it up with influences from other parts of the world for even more complexity and interest in her recipes.

“Adobo is so open [to interpretation] nowadays since we have more access to spices from across the world!" -Chef Maria Mercedes Grubb

“Adobo is so open [to interpretation] nowadays since we have more access to spices from across the world!” she says with delight. “I take inspo from the Indian panch phoron five-spice blend and will sometimes add nigella to my adobo mix. I also like to mix and match flavors equivalent to Middle Eastern mixes, like seven-spice aromatic blends, Khalta Hara chili blend, or even Japanese Tōgarashi too. So many spices, so many options to make your own adobo based on what you have and what you’re cooking!

Adobo seasoning in brown bowl with spoons

Lori Rice

Adobo vs. Sazon

Adobo and sazon are both very important seasoning blends used in Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, and other Latin American cuisines. They start with the same base, but sazon goes a little further. Depending on the brand, this companion to adobo can be enhanced with the addition of coriander, dried onion, and cumin. MSG may also be part of the blend to make the savory elements pop, and other herbs can also appear in the list, too.

Although regular adobo (particularly blends that use turmeric) will impart a golden color hue to your dish, sazon does it on the regular. The use of some of these peppers and annatto/achiote affects the color of your food, too, imbuing it with a rich, deep visual that looks as savory as it tastes.

Adobo seasoning in bowl

Lori Rice

Varieties of Adobo: Wet vs. Dry

In most Puerto Rican kitchens—Chef Grubb’s included—dry adobo is the variety of choice, although the types of dry adobo are as plentiful as the amount of recipes that use it, especially since many cooks make their own version!

Major manufacturers like McCormick have their own house blend, and Latin American giant Goya Foods has at least 10 in their regular product rotation. Variations introduce greater emphases on certain elements, flavors, levels, or health concerns. For instance, Goya’s adobo lineup have a hot version, several that omit pepper, and others that highlight the inclusion of bitter orange (great for pork), cumin, saffron, lemon pepper, and coriander and annatto.

Personally, my kitchen is never without Goya’s Light with Pepper bottle, to which I then add other herbs and spices to make it my own. Surprisingly for its popularity, this type of adobo has only been around since the 1960s and has become the preferred variety over the more traditional wet adobo paste, which is commonly used as a meat rub.

Adobo mojado, or wet adobe, is more labor-intensive than mixing up dry spices or shaking out a bottle of store-bought dry adobo, but it rewards you with stronger flavor. Its base notes include fresh garlic, pepper, oregano, and salt ground together with oil and vinegar. Cuban recipes add cumin and sour orange juice. Many cooks also riff off this foundation with onions, lime juice, parsley, and cilantro.

Another wet form found in Latin America is Mexican adobo. This is thick, spicy, and smoky made with crushed chilis, spices, vinegar. You’ll typically find this ingredient canned and listed as “chipotle peppers in adobo sauce.” This can be diluted and used as a simmering liquid, adding heat, smoke, and complexity to any dish.

Then there’s Filipino adobo, which is the name of a flavor-packed stew-like dish of variable protein as opposed to an ingredient, and Peruvian adobo, which is also stew-like but usually features marinated pork and distinctive chicha, a fermented corn beverage.

What Does Adobo Seasoning Taste Like?

In a word, delicious. In many more words: zesty, savory, tangy, salty, aromatic, and complex.

Adobo creates a rich bite without being too earthy and brings out natural savory notes of other whole ingredients. It adds a Latin American flair to whatever it is you’re making without hitting you over the head with it. Lighter on the herbaceous side, represented solely by oregano, it leans more heavily into the characteristics of seasoning, which makes it highly versatile for nearly any vegetable, protein, and other carbs.

Where to Buy Adobo

Your standard dry adobo seasoning can be found at any grocery store in the spices, Latin foods, or international aisle. It’s a very affordable blend and packaged as such. Look for it in semi-opaque plastic bottles.

The leading and most recognizable brand, Goya, sells adobo in 8-ounce, 12-ounce, 16.5-ounce, and 28-ounce sizes. Store and major spice brands sell them in the smaller standard jar sizes, which may be made of plastic or glass. You can also buy adobo seasoning in bulk in large clear plastic canisters with resealable, pourable tops or spouts.

Whether you’re making your own or buying, snap up any adobo you find that uses Dominican oregano.

Whether you’re making your own or buying, Chef Grubb recommends snapping up any adobo you find that uses Dominican oregano: “In my opinion, it has more notes than Greek or Mexican.”

How to Store Adobo

Like all spices, adobo should be kept in airtight containers away from heat, light, and moisture. The first three elements will cause the components to lose their potency and aroma; the last can cause caking and chunking.

As always, glass containers with secure tops are the most eco-friendly and flavor-protective way to store spices. Adobo seasoning can be stored indefinitely in your room-temperature pantry. Sure, its flavor will fade, but it won’t go rancid. Just use more and buy or make a new batch!

Adobo Substitutes

If you don’t have a pre-made jar of adobo seasoning to hand, you can make your own if you have the core ingredients. If you have the fresh ingredients for adobo mojado, harness that ambition and make the wet version for an aromatic paste! If that’s the route you choose to take, be aware of the added liquid component, since it can change the balance and texture of the recipe.

Sazon, chili powder, Cajun seasoning, and Greek seasoning can also do in a pinch, but these will alter the color and flavor profile of the dish. They’re close, but in no way the same.

Similarly, adobo can be used as a shortcut for recaito flavors as Chef Grubb does. “It’s kind of my sofrito substitute,” she laughs, and it’s easy enough to shake it on to tomatoes and bell peppers to make it closer to the real deal.

Plantain Lasagna with Beef and Cheese bake the pastelon and add cheese
Marta Diaz

How to Cook with Adobo

As mentioned, dry adobo is impactful and delicious as a rub on meat. In fact, it’s highly preferred over wet for grilling as it’s much less likely to burn. Fresh garlic is sensitive to high temperatures and can scorch, whereas garlic powder in its dehydrated state is better able to take the extreme treatment. On the other hand, wet adobo makes an excellent marinade.

Dry adobo can also be used in much the same manner as any seasoning salt. You can add it to sauces, stews, soups, and at any point in a sauté or stir-fry to punch up the flavor and give it some Latin life. Sprinkle it directly on meat as you’re searing, melt it down into beans, or add it to rice as you’re cooking. Trust us—it’ll give your food a new bold dimension.

The fact that it’s often a customized blend gives you more liberty to riff, too, as you respect the traditional interpretations without appropriating them. Try dry adobo seasoning in this Pastelon (Puerto Rican Plantain “Lasagna”) or mixed into Black Beans and Rice.