It's fall, y'all, and you know what that means! Let the chili bonanza begin. One of the worst things about summer is that you look like a total weirdo eating a nice healthy helping of chili; however, cool weather definitely calls for cozying up with a hot bowl.
But the problem with conjuring up the best chili ever is the fact that what makes a chili truly great is so subjective.
Take beans, for example. Chili is commonly made with a variety of beans, yet many chili competitions forbid them, and putting them in chili may even get you into legal trouble in Texas. Heck, even using tomatoes can start an argument. Worse, there isn't even one right way to serve chili once it's cooked — by itself in a bowl, with cornbread, on a baked potato, over Fritos, with tortilla chips… or in some backward cities, over spaghetti (really, Cincinnati?). President Obama likes it over rice (his status as the former leader of the free world doesn't make that less weird, but I did try it, and it doesn't suck).
But no matter how you make or serve your chili, there are some time-honored techniques and tips to help you make your favorite chili recipe the best.
If you're planning to use beans, you'll get the best results cooking dried beans (soaked overnight) in salted water for about two hours — the salted water will actually help keep the bean skins smooth and intact. Chili cooks for a long time, and canned beans will turn to mush. They also have a high sodium content. If you don't have any option but to use canned, rinse them well first, and add them during the last hour or so of cooking.
Fresh tomatoes are a great option, but most chili recipes tend to call for canned diced or crushed tomatoes. If you use a quality brand of canned tomato like Muir Glen or San Marzano, you can skip all the extra work of blanching and peeling fresh tomatoes without sacrificing too much flavor. Acidic foods like tomatoes can hinder the natural tenderization of meat during the cooking process, so you may want to add in those tomatoes toward the end of your simmer time.
It has been said that ground beef is for tacos and sloppy Joes, not chili, and there seems to be some truth behind that snark. Browning the meat is a critical step that adds a tremendous amount of flavor to the chili, and ground beef simply cannot brown properly while it cooks in its own fat and juices. A better option is to use a nice marbled cut of flavorful beef that isn't too tender (so it doesn't break down too much or disappear altogether while cooking).
Whichever cut of steak you choose (short rib or a round trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch pieces is a good choice), thoroughly dry it with a paper towel to promote more even searing. Don't bother letting your meat rest, regardless of what your recipe says. That's an old wives' tale. The enemy of even browning is moisture, not cold (thus the reason you use liquid to deglaze).
Season and cook the meat on high heat with a tablespoon or so of oil for about five minutes, until the meat can be moved around the pan easily. If possible, sear your steak in the same dish you plan to cook your chili, but drain or skim off as much fat as you can. (Or remove the meat temporarily, and use the fat to soften the veggies).
Sauté finely chopped onions, garlic or any other vegetable before any liquid is added to draw out as much flavor as possible. Onions, chili peppers and garlic are common ingredients, but don't be afraid to experiment with sweet bell peppers, corn, hominy, celery or even cactus.
Premixed chili packets and canned spices in general are inferior to the bold and complex (and totally customizable) flavor you can get from fresh whole spices. Replacing your stock chili powder with a balanced mix of dried chilies made into a puree (more on that later) and toasted, freshly ground whole spices will have a huge impact on your chili, so stock up on cumin seed and coriander. Also, season your chili in stages, robust spices first so they can build a nice, deep flavor and delicate spices last. Don't skip over more uncommon spice choices like Mexican oregano, cinnamon, star anise and clove, which, when used correctly, can really enhance meat flavors and balance some of the spices.
Throwing a spice packet into a slow cooker is fine for a quick meal, but perfect chili needs the complexity and richness you can only get from toasting a custom mix of dried peppers. Chilies can be fruity, smoky, fresh or sweet, all with varying levels of heat. Mastering their personalities is what makes chili more art than science. Toast the dried peppers over high heat, cook them down in water or stock, and puree it for your chili. You won't go back to powder again.
Before you start measuring out store-bought beef stock, go homemade. A stock made with marrow bones is far, far better than a couple of teaspoons of powder or sodium-packed canned stuff.
You can't rush the perfect chili. Using a heavy-duty pot or Dutch oven will maintain an even heat while cooking, which is important when you're cooking low and slow. Bring your chili to a boil, and simmer for at least two hours. Going back and forth between covered and uncovered cooking will keep the chili from becoming too watery or too thick, and a wooden spatula (instead of a spoon) will make better contact with the bottom of the pot when stirring.
Ingredients you might not expect in chili can elevate your dish from everyday to outstanding with minimal effort. Add a bit of Mexican chocolate, unsweetened chocolate or cocoa powder to enhance subtle flavors and add instant depth and complexity. Brewed coffee and espresso powder can also be used to take your chili in new directions.
Some cooks use cornmeal to thicken their chili, but that can be really gritty. Flour can ruin the entire pot. Others use tortillas or tortilla chips like you would in tortilla soup. A cornstarch slurry will always work without affecting the flavor, but lightly mashing the beans and vegetables with a potato masher to release their natural starches may be the best method of all.
For extra punch, try some ingredients known to tantalize that elusive fifth taste. Some of these may sound strange in chili, but they work really well when used correctly. Try fish sauce, soy sauce, anchovies or yeast extracts like Vegemite or Marmite.
Almost every serious chili cook has a secret ingredient they think makes their chili the best. They run the gamut from clever to weird. Experiment (at your own risk) with beer, Sriracha sauce, pickle juice, jalapeño brine, chorizo sausage, red wine, vinegar, nutmeg, carrot puree, butternut squash and peanut butter.
Originally eaten with camp bread, chili is now commonly eaten with cornbread or saltine or oyster crackers on the side. Additionally, toppers like shredded cheese, sour cream, fresh cilantro and chopped onions (including green onions) are popular, so make sure they're available for guests who might be expecting them for their perfect bowl.
Originally published January 2016. Updated October 2017.
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