help my chili taste better
October 13, 2008 12:49 PM   Subscribe

I'm making chili for dinner tonight and it tastes kind of sour. I want to learn how to taste things so that I can add to adjust the flavour while cooking, but I don't know what to add. Help my chili taste better!

So, this is what's in the chili so far:
- ground beef
- diced onion
- 2 packets of hot chili seasoning
- enough tomato sauce and/or paste to get the right consistency
- cans of beans: dark kidney, light kidney, chili and black
- can of chopped chipotle peppers in sauce
- 2 cans of diced green chilis

I've made chili a bunch of times. Sometimes it's awesome and sometimes it's not. I don't know what the difference is exactly as I don't always have exactly the same ingredients. I just took a small bowl for lunch to try it and it seems kind of sour. So I think maybe I should add sugar, but don't know if that would be correct. Is it? I want to be able to correct recipes on the fly like this. I appreciate any guidance.
posted by disaster77 to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I would try brown sugar or perhaps molasses...just a bit at first. It could be that the sweetness levels of the tomatoes could vary.
posted by answergrape at 1:07 PM on October 13, 2008

I'm not sure what's in your seasoning, but yeah, I always include a couple of spoonfuls of brown sugar in the spice mix when I make chili. That would be my first inclination to correct a sour taste -- just stir a pinch into your bowl and see how it changes the taste.
posted by Siobhan at 1:08 PM on October 13, 2008

Did you use the paste this time? I find that paste gives more of a tinny flavor over sauce. I have corrected with brown sugar or honey in the past. Just go slow and add a little, taste, etc.
posted by thebrokedown at 1:08 PM on October 13, 2008

Also, try adding bits of cinnamon or cocoa - it'll give the sauce a bit of richness along with brown sugar.
posted by suedehead at 1:21 PM on October 13, 2008

I'll often throw in a couple bottles of dark beer to tone down the tartness of the tomatoes while it's cooking.
posted by Greg Nog at 1:26 PM on October 13, 2008

Having made chili for years I find that the number one way to increase the sweetness is chopped onions. Real onions. You will be amazed.
posted by JayRwv at 1:28 PM on October 13, 2008

Onions and cocoa.
posted by mds35 at 1:30 PM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's possible the cans of diced green chilis were in vinegar - did you drain and/or rinse them before adding? Otherwise it's not clear what might have made it sour, unless something was up with the tomato sauce. In any case, as others have said you can add small amounts of brown sugar (or honey; some years ago I made a chili recipe that had honey in it) to balance the taste.
posted by aught at 1:30 PM on October 13, 2008

Grated carrot also makes things sweeter. Sounds funny, but it works.
posted by handee at 1:30 PM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Definitely add some brown sugar. And some beer, if you plan on cooking it a bit longer (mm, beer).

This won't help you this time, but here's a trick I learned from Alton Brown: to get your chili to thicken up, use tortilla chips. They disintegrate so you can't even tell they were there. All you're left with is a really thick, delicious chili. This will let you avoid messing with a bunch of tomato paste and sauce in the future, which I'd bet aren't helping you control the flavor.
posted by Ms. Saint at 1:32 PM on October 13, 2008

Yes, canned tomatoes can be very acidic (the level varies). Add sugar, molasses or brown sugar, a little at a time, until the sourness is balanced. Cocoa powder will add more depth of flavor, because it's bitter. General advice: try thinking about the basic flavors of your food "bitter" "sweet" "salty"... and if you taste your pot of chili (or whatever), and it seems to be too much of one of those, add the others to balance it out somewhat. at least that's how I tend to think about seasonings.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 1:34 PM on October 13, 2008

Yes, carrots. I use them in beans and rice recipes, and they add a little sweetness, and awesome color. I chop them up in the food processor.
posted by glycolized at 1:34 PM on October 13, 2008

As mentioned above, the acidity of the tomatoes will vary from can to can. I like the idea of using a touch of molasses -- you want to add a bit of sweetness, but it needs to be a 'dark' kind, you know? Savory sweetness, if you know what I mean.

One trick: When you use tomato paste, brown it a bit before adding liquid. When you're cooking your aromatics (onions, garlic, whatever else), add the tomato paste to the pan. Once it's a bit caramelized, then add liquid. It really helps add depth to the flavor of the tomato paste.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:43 PM on October 13, 2008

In addition to cumin, chili powder, garlic and chipotles, my chili has honey, instant espresso and a bit of cocoa and cinnamon.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:02 PM on October 13, 2008

Along the same lines as the brown sugar, maybe try honey. I also rarely use tomato paste, but add a lot of ingredients so it is still pretty thick, including things like carrots, onions, and such. Whatever I have on hand that goes.
posted by synecdoche at 2:05 PM on October 13, 2008

Seconding the cinnamon suggestion. I made a beef-tomato-bean chili this weekend and added cinnamon, cumin (ground in a coffee grinder with coffee residue still in it), chipotle, and beer (porter), in addition to the usual suspects.
posted by pmbuko at 2:14 PM on October 13, 2008

People have suggested using cocoa, but a bit of dark chocolate works too.
posted by mixed greens at 2:17 PM on October 13, 2008

Some things that can help add body, richness, and / or sweetness to chile:

Good quality mole paste (a little goes a long way since it also adds some spiciness)
Brown sugar
Grated dark chocolate (or mexican chocolate)
A slurry of masa harina & cold water
posted by dersins at 2:34 PM on October 13, 2008

Cinnamon and cumin, definitely. Also got a tip from a fellow mefite here who puts a small cup of coffee in her big pot of chili. I've tried it and it tastes great. Molasses is good too--I'm enjoying last night's leftover pozole that I made with a few tsps of dark molasses and I love the richness and slight sweetness it brings. Mrs. taco would rather not have it in pozole, though she doesn't mind it in chili.

And liquid smoke. That stuff's good too.
posted by Tacodog at 2:34 PM on October 13, 2008

Grated carrot also makes things sweeter. Sounds funny, but it works.

I won't burn up the bandwith here by expounding on just how goddamned good my chili is, but I swear by the grated carrot as well.

I usually cook mine for a day or two at least, and since you are a bit into the cooking process already, I would say maybe boil the carrots first (till nice and soft) before introducing them to Dr. Choppy and adding to the mix. Otherwise they are a little gritty texture wise compared to everything else.

Last minute save....seriously....a drained can of petite diced tomatoes right at the end, and a fresh basil leaf if you have one. Just makes the whole thing pop and taste fresh.

Also, no matter what you did up front, a good dash of your basic salt and pepper.

I am about due for another batch methinks. Stop by for a bowl, bring your own damned crackers, and stay the hell off my lawn when you come.

Now that the hive is regaling in the redolence of my superior chilimanship, I await your pathetic pleas for my recipe (especially my vegetarian chili....made from the meat of at least three different vegetarians), your subtle attempts to finagle a decent beer pairing, and these coy forays into what brand of tomatoes I use.

I have a sudden inpulse to put on an apron, but many years of therapy have taught me this might not actually have anything to do with chili.
posted by timsteil at 2:55 PM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Brown sugar and cinnamon are my standbys. I do my chili by gut, tasting as I go and seasoning to taste. It has always worked so far!
posted by restless_nomad at 3:46 PM on October 13, 2008

You asked about correcting on the fly, and one way to think about the current situation is that your current dish is too "bright" (acidic and/or salty) and you want to think about making it "darker" by pumping up the sweetness or smokier flavors. As people have suggested, things like molasses, cinnamon and chocolate are good for this. I also have used cloves and nutmeg in these situations. If you find yourself in the opposite situation & need to correct towards brightness, try lemon juice or other citrus as a first step, or lean towards herbs rather than spices.
posted by judith at 4:24 PM on October 13, 2008

Yes, shredded carrot, but also--get this--shredded BEET. Even sweeter than carrot and brings a rich red color. People will admire your chili, and you can have your little secret (because most people think they hate beets, so never tell them).
posted by rikschell at 5:38 PM on October 13, 2008

Add a little jelly/jam.

A locally revered chef once taught me this.
posted by bradly at 6:35 PM on October 13, 2008

okay, please don't cousin taught me to add peaches to home cooked chili and IT IS TO DIE FOR...
posted by Jenny is Crafty at 8:18 PM on October 13, 2008

drained canned peaches...sorry to not clarify.
posted by Jenny is Crafty at 8:20 PM on October 13, 2008

We always put a shot and a beer in.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:32 PM on October 13, 2008

Sautee your onions before throwing them in the pot.
posted by jrishel at 5:35 AM on October 14, 2008

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