Help me make my life a little more chili
November 16, 2009 3:49 PM   Subscribe

I've decided that it is time for me to learn how to make chili and I'm looking for some pointers and resources on advanced chili theory. More composition and less paint-by-numbers, please.

It is my firm belief that, as a red-blooded American man, one of my unspoken duties is to be able to make a mean pot of chili. And, further, because I do not have a family recipe to adopt, I believe that it is also my duty to develop one to pass on to any eventual TooMuchChildrens. *

It goes without saying that this process will likely not be quick, and will involve lots and lots of trial (and maybe even some error), but that's half of the fun. Trying 100 different recipes from other people and trying to pick the one I like best seems . . . boring (but probably just as tasty).

So I'm looking for resources that help me understand what really makes chili chili. Recipes are okay, I suppose, but I'm looking for more in the way of "theory". Less 1 lb of this, 1 Tbsp of that, more about balancing flavors, interesting ideas to try, and so on. Tips, hints, dire warnings.

I'm also open to general cooking resources in this same vein that could be applied.

I am not afraid of anything in my kitchen (except, maybe, the tupperware container in the back of the fridge) and I'm generally pretty experimental there, so this sort of thing is not entirely foreign to me, but I'd like a little direction and inspiration before I start throwing things in a pot.

So, hope me hive-mind: I'm looking for anything. Books. Websites. One-off tips. TV shows. Documentaries. 1-900 chili tip lines. Whatever.

And I suppose if you really, really must, your favoritest chili recipe or recipe book.

* - I am not interested in suggestions that this is not the case.
posted by toomuchpete to Food & Drink (47 answers total) 102 users marked this as a favorite
In the dire warning category: Chili does not contain beans. There is no such beast as "vegetarian chili."
posted by sanko at 3:55 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Alton Brown's chili episode ended up with a weird recipe, IMO, but you can't knock Alton for theory.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:00 PM on November 16, 2009

No beans. Very little or no tomato. Lots of beef. A mix of ground beef, finally cubed steak, and a bit of sausage is good. Lots of chile powder, of course, I like a mild red New Mexico chile that I can use a whole lot of without burning people's mouths off. And a bit of unsweetened chocolate is great for depth of flavour.
posted by Nelson at 4:00 PM on November 16, 2009

IMO, the secret to a great Chili is a great roux.

and yes, vegetarian chili is totally delicious. chili can have beans in it if you want to make your chili that way.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:00 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Grind your own cumin. Toast it first.
posted by gyusan at 4:03 PM on November 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

Chili is trail food. As in Chisholm trail. Think dusty, weary, hungry Cowboys using the available ingredients to fashion a hearty, unpretentious meal.

So what are the most basic ingredients for chile con carne? Chiles and meat. Those are the things you have to do right, if nothing else. Balance those flavors, and get them to the right consistency and ratio, and then you can layer in some complementary flavors. But the chiles and the meat are the stars, in that order.

Me, I like a combination of Anaheims, pasillas and chipotles. And meat-wise, I've lately come to eschew ground beef in favor of cubed chuck (roast or steak, whichever is cheap and available).

Bear in mind also that chili is technically a stew, which means that it should ideally be cooked over low-ish heat for a long time, and in some sort of liquid. Water will do nicely, but I usually use beer (a complement to meat and chiles if ever I've seen one). Stews are generally thickened with a starch of some sort- masa flour is traditional from what I've heard, though I've never used it. I have been known to use crumbled tortilla chips a la Alton Brown, though.

You'll probably get a lot of advice, and some strident opinions about what should or shouldn't be in chili. That's part of the magic, in my opinion. You know, sometimes I make it with beans, sometimes I don't. You've got to decide for yourself what you like. For me, though, it's about the chiles and the carne.
posted by Shohn at 4:05 PM on November 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Chili with beans is only slightly newer than chili con carne and is integral to many "family" recipes. I suggest pinto beans, being the standard for many poorer areas of Texas.

Also, sometimes, no matter how hard you try, a meat-only chili may come out a little runny. Many-a-time I have saved a poor chili with the late addition of some pinto beans. That's probably why they're banned in chili cook-offs - they're the perfect tool to take a mediocre chili and make it pretty decent.
posted by muddgirl at 4:06 PM on November 16, 2009

posted by rikschell at 4:06 PM on November 16, 2009

What intrinsically makes chili different from italian meat sauce (aside from some technique) is spices. Both have tomatoes as a base, both contain protein (usually beef) both often start with some sort of vegetables. And when you watch chili masters on tv what's the one thing they never share? Their spice combo. That's where the finesse comes in.

Chili powder is a must. And usually large quantities of it. You can go to a spice shop and get different kinds--and I recommend it as that's where you can really make your mark. Also note that chili powder is a spice that does best when it's bloomed in oil, so you usually want to put at least some of it in the oil at the beginning of cooking to realize its full flavor.

Cumin is also fairly ubiquitous. For an extra punch, buy cumin seeds and toast them in a dry pan and then grind them in a spice grinder.

Then there's the staple onion powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper.

Some people use citrusey coriander seeds, some people use cinnamon, I've even had some chili that had a hint of cocoa or curry.

For veggies you can use a variety of chili peppers ranging from bell peppers to habaneros. I recommend discovering what kind of flavors they have aside from their heat and experiment with that. I also can't imagine chili without fresh onions and garlic. There are fresh herbs you can experiment with as well--cilantro or culantro being the most common.

As for the base, you can use tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, stewed tomatoes etc. But you definitely need a tomato component. Then you can decide if you want to add chicken stock, beef stock, beer, whiskey, etc.

For meat, I always use a combination of browned and floured stew meat and browned ground beef, but again you can play with this. Lamb chili is good, chicken chili is delicious etc.

Finally, the bean question. I like my chili with or without beans, although I tend to use white navy or cannalini beans instead of the tougher more present kidney beans, but again this is your playground.

Good luck and have fun! I have to go make dinner now because all this chili talk is making me hungry.
posted by Kimberly at 4:07 PM on November 16, 2009

Yeah, Cumin is a must, IMO. I tried a couple recipes without it, and it just wasn't right.
Also, Cinnamon is a nice 'special' ingredient.

Chili for me is Onions + Tomatoes + Meat + Stock + Chilis and/or Chilli Powder + Cumin. I don't think you can really go wrong.

Lutoslawski: Any references or tips for using Roux for chili? Should it be darker roux? Just dump it in there?
posted by blenderfish at 4:07 PM on November 16, 2009

IMO, the secret to a great Chili is a great roux.

This is exactly the kind of stuff I'm looking for. Especially if it also comes with "...and this is what makes a great roux".

In the imaginary book I'm hoping someone points out, this might be a chapter, and that chapter might discuss the various pros and cons of using clarified butter versus vegetable oil versus whatever else. What seasonings are best put in the roux and which are best left for the meat?


Thanks for the good stuff so far, everyone.
posted by toomuchpete at 4:08 PM on November 16, 2009

Stews are generally thickened with a starch of some sort- masa flour is traditional from what I've heard, though I've never used it. I have been known to use crumbled tortilla chips a la Alton Brown, though.

Indeed - and I think a roux works best (IMO the texture of a stew is so very, very key). Cornstarch is ok, but you don't get that delicious underlying fatty taste.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:09 PM on November 16, 2009

In the brilliant (if non-purist) tips category: if your perfectly slow-cooked chunks of sirloin (or cheap stuff, if you must) turn to string, rescue everything by chucking in a couple of packets of supermarket tacos-kit seasoning & reheat while stirring for 20 minutes. (The stuff that's a horrible orange color; you mix it with some water). It will turn the meat as soft as a baby's bum. I think it's because of some pineapple extract in the seasoning that magically breaks down meat fibers. I can't swear to that, but this works amazingly.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 4:09 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Piggybacking on sanko's warning: in all the chili cook-offs I've been acquainted with there is a rule that nothing except meat can be visible to the naked eye, meaning that all vegetables must be minced and pureed down so small you can't notice them. When I make chili, I use a food processor for the vegetable matter, or else a grater. (Onions are no fun on a grater.)

It depends on how much of a purist you want to be, though. As much as it pains me to say it, if you like beans in chili then put beans in chili, just be prepared for teasing or good natured punches in the face if you call it chili. Same goes for vegetables that cannot pass through cell walls.

As for chili theory:
- I always brown the meat with two tablespoons of canola oil to every pound of meat, then drain that off before adding the other ingredients.

- Unsweetened baker's chocolate is a "surprise" kind of ingredient you can play around with.

- Beer is another. Try different kinds and different brands.

- There are tons of different chili peppers. The heat intensity is just ONE of the differences among these peppers -- they have very different flavors. This should be a key place to start your experimentation because the pepper can really set the main flavor. Here's a link to some of the chili peppers Penzey's Spices carries (I recommended Penzey's for any spices you need, especially if you have a retail store nearby; it's HEAVEN when you're thinking of experimenting).

- There are several varieties of peppercorns, as well; don't feel like you have to use black pepper. One of my favorite meat rubs uses white pepper.

- In my mind, I tend to classify chili tastes broadly into two different categories "dark" tasting, and "not dark" tasting. It's hard to describe, but if you use chocolate you're going to end up with a dark-tasting chili; it's a very deep, not-quite-bitter taste.

- When in doubt, use fresh. Don't use garlic powder when you can use a garlic clove. Use fresh lemons/limes/oranges if you incorporate those flavors, not pre-juiced stuff. Don't use pre-ground pepper if you can help it; freshly ground pepper has more oils in it, which translates to better flavor.

- Remember you're not baking: estimating and eyeballing and just throwing in as much as you think you need without measuring carefully is a-okay. Remember enough that you can recreate it later and you're gold.
posted by Nattie at 4:18 PM on November 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Here are my axioms* of chili-makin':

1) Chili is all about mixing flavors to create the uber-flavor.

2) The more ingredients the better. E.g. don't just use ground beef; use ground beef, ground lamb, ground ostrich, ground turkey, ground bison, bacon, chunks of stew meat, chicken, pork sausage, etc. You can argue beans or no-beans, but if you use beans, use a bunch of different kinds of beans.

3) Chili should have meat and beans. I like beans. Use dried beans that you've soaked instead of canned beans if you have the time. You can get really awesome beans from these guys.

4) All fat from meats should be included in the chili. Makes it tasty.

5) The Joy of Cooking knows how much chili powder you should use as a starting base. Actually their recipe is a simple meat-and-peppers base that is a good theoretical foundation upon which to build.

6) You should heat-up your chili powder in a dry pan before adding it.

7) Chili should be spicy. Use many different types of peppers, don't just use one (see #1, #2). I personally always include at least one habenaro; I don't like the flavor of jalapeno so I skip those and use anchos, serranos, anahiem, green bell, red bell, whatever the grocery store has that looks tasty at the time. But know your limits in the habenaro department, and always make some with slightly less for guests who may not be into the burn.

8) Chili should not have chocolate in it, nor should it have cinnamon. However, it should have all kinds of spices. Empty your spice rack and use a little bit of everything. Garlic powder, paprika, cilantro, onion powder, shallot salt, salt, pepper, white pepper, cumin, turmeric, celery salt, curry... okay maybe not curry.

9) Chili should sit overnight in the fridge before you eat it to let the flavors meld appropriately.

10) Use the freshest meats you can find. Butcher shops, or direct from the farmer is better than grocery stores. Ditto for vegetables.

11) Please have oyster crackers, shredded cheese and sour creme available for your guests to add as they see fit.

*Yeah, I know, not really axioms.
posted by jeffamaphone at 4:20 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

various pros and cons of using clarified butter versus vegetable oil versus whatever else. What seasonings are best put in the roux and which are best left for the meat?

A roux is best made with butter, not vegetable oil. I'm assuming you know how to make a roux (equal parts flour & butter by weight (by volume works just fine if you don't want to be anal), cook until it forms a paste and the raw flour taste is gone), so a couple of pointers:

- the lighter a roux is, the more thickening power it has, but
- the darker it is, the more flavour it provides, so
- I use a dark roux for chili, because
- chili goddamn well can have beans in it.

Dark unsweetened chocolate is spectacular, as noted above, for depth of flavour. Same goes for coffee--a shot or two of espresso in a pot of chili doesn't add a coffee flavour, exactly, but it adds depth.

Nutmeg, oh nutmeg--nobody can identify it in such things, but it works.

If you're using chunks of beef instead of ground, use shoulder and slow braise it--like making pulled pork. Brine it for 24 hours in water/salt/sugar/whatever spices you will use in the chili. Drain, roast covered for 12 hours at 220, with a few cups of the same liquid you used for brining (but fresh, and minus the salt). Shred with a pair of forks or by hand, and use the remaining liquid in the pan as the base for your chili.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 4:21 PM on November 16, 2009 [7 favorites]

Also, feel free to experiment with "secret ingredients" and preparing ingredients before adding them to the mix. E.g. I've found that cooking the chunks of stew meat in Guinness and Molasses for about an hour gives them a really nice flavor that offsets the spicy parts.
posted by jeffamaphone at 4:22 PM on November 16, 2009

Also, I've never made chili with any sort of flour or starch thickener. I've never needed any, but I guess it depends on the recipe. I tend to make mine with ground beef, but I could see how you'd want a thickener for cubed stuff. I usually cook mine for an hour and check on it every fifteen minutes, and most excess water cooks off. I don't tend to like soupy chili, though.
posted by Nattie at 4:23 PM on November 16, 2009

Excellent thread. It occurs to me that if chili really is supposed to be some kind of trail stew, I really doubt that Cookie would be hauling around tomatoes. I would think that beans would indeed be authentic to the tradition. I'd expect that they would chuck some dried peppers, beans and other things into a pot, let it steep all day and then put it on the fire at sundown.

Tomatoes and chili powder seems like a modernization of the idea of chili.
posted by gjc at 4:26 PM on November 16, 2009

I believe in vegetarian chili, but you don't have to. My experience there has been than a few teaspoons of marmite will really up the umami flavor, and (though I can't speak from experience) it might also be good in a traditional meaty chili.

The longer you let it simmer, the better it will be.

Also, cayenne pepper is your friend.
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:37 PM on November 16, 2009

Veggie chili is a beautiful world of possibility unto itself. Scorn not the veggie chili. Think of it as a thick spicy bean soup if you prefer, but it's still a great satisfying winter meal - and it's easy to make it as an emergency vegan/gluten-free dish (if your life is one where vegan guests/potlucks etc arise unexpectedly). You can also throw it together with whatever beans you have on hand, black, pink, pinto, kidney, white, etc.

Simplest method:
-chili powder or its constituent spices;
-olive oil/butter;
-beans (try various kinds, I usually like a mix of types);
-whole peeled canned tomatoes (brand does matter -some brands have really off-tasting too-acidic canning liquid; offhand I think I've had success with Nature's Gate band)
optional to have other spices, fresh cilantro or parsley; cheese or sour cream; staches to accompany (rice or cornbread)

Heat oil or butter in a pot, saute onions and garlic until onions are translucent, add spices (not herbs), add beans, stir and cook for a few minutes, add tomatoes (I usually drain the canning liquid and don't use it, but you can use it). Stir to mash the tomatoes, leave simmering on the stove for 30 min or so, garnish with herbs and serve.

This isn't the artistic signature chili you'll become known for, but it's a serviceable staple that's easy to make on a mindless Tuesday, and people with mixed dietary restrictions can eat.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:41 PM on November 16, 2009

Purists will insist that real chili does not contain ground beef, beans or tomatoes. So I guess one thing for you to figure out is whether that kind of purity is important to you.

For me chili with ground beef is a different dish from chili with stew meat (and by stew meat, I usually mean some sort of roast that I've cut up. I put tomato in when I make chili with ground beef, I either put less, or leave it out entirely when I'm using stew meat.

The core seasonings for me are sauteed onion, garlic, cumin and, oregano, and of course, ground dried red chilies and I think beer helps the flavor. Sometimes I add coriander seeds. If you want to mess around with other stuff, go for it, just understand that while chili is a stew, not all stew is chili, when you start getting into things like turmeric, etc, you are getting into curry territory.

I don't really see the point of using roux as a thickener. Ground dried chilies can do a lot of thickening on their own. If they aren't up to the job, then either you put in too much liquid in the first place, or you haven't been patient enough to cook it down properly.

I try to develop good deep flavors by browning the onions and the meat with seasonings. If I'm using tomatoes I'll add them towards the end and cook them until they've thickened and browned too. Only then do I add beer and other liquid for simmering.

And yes, chili is always better after sitting in the fridge for a day or two.
posted by Good Brain at 4:45 PM on November 16, 2009

It occurs to me that if chili really is supposed to be some kind of trail stew, I really doubt that Cookie would be hauling around tomatoes.

Canned tomatoes are the food that won the west. Seriously.

Chili powder, though? Fuck that. If you want to make great (as opposed to simply very good) chili con carne, you must must must toast and grind your own chiles and spices. It's not hard.

Take your dried chiles (what ever kind you want-- I personally favor a mixture of anchos, mulatos and mild New Mexico chiles, but individual tastes vary), put them on a baking sheet in a 350 degree oven until they puff up. When they've cooled,remove the stems and seeds, tear them into pieces roughly an inch on a side, and grind them in a spice grinder. I use a cheapo electic coffee grinder for this.

Toast whole cumin seeds in a cast iron skillet over medium low heat, tossing or stirring frequently, until they're fragrant, dump them out of the skillet before they scorch, then grind in the same grinder you ground the chiles in.

Oregano doesn't need to be toasted, but use Mexican oregano if you can.

Add a little salt, and you've just made your own chili powder that's a million times better than anything you can get in the store.
posted by dersins at 4:49 PM on November 16, 2009 [5 favorites]

I've never used a thickener either, but you want to be careful seasoning a roux because a lot of spices will burn fairly easily. In fact, I have no idea how you use butter in a roux because its smoking point is too low, and roux gets hot. Anyway, I just cook off the water that comes out of the tomatoes.

I have been told that tomato flavors are alcohol soluble, so I brown my meat, put the tomatoes into the hot pan and get them up to temperature, and then experiment with the alcohol I use to deglaze the meat fat and make the tomatoes more potent. Vodka, wine, and beer are easy starter-boozes. Port or whiskey might be interesting experiments.

Play with your meat. I like a little pork in my chili meat; some people swear by venison (but I think it's just because they have venison and don't know what to do with it), lamb, or bison mixed in with beef. My dad says he's had good rabbit chili, and I'll just have to take his word on that.

I put beans in my chili because I mean it to feed multitudes. I suspect real cowboy chili would have done the same - in fact, I suspect it would have had very little meat because it doesn't travel well unless dried. We use a mix of dark and light kidney beans, because pintos fall to mush so fast.

When I play with seasonings, I've had interesting results. I've also fallen back on a really good spice mix now and then. My husband is the official chili-maker in the house, and he's not an extemporaneous cook, but when it's chili time he'll just start grabbing stuff out of my spice cabinet. I did intervene once when he reached for dill, but other than that he's never really gone wrong. I myself like a few fennel seeds, a tiny bit of rosemary, some sumac/tsumac.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:49 PM on November 16, 2009

I suspect real cowboy chili would have done the same - in fact, I suspect it would have had very little meat because it doesn't travel well unless dried.

Uh, it travels pretty well on the hoof, which is what cattle drives were all about.
posted by dersins at 4:51 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

From Wikipedia:

The Americanized recipe used for expeditions consisted of dried beef, suet, dried chili peppers (usually chilepiquenes), and salt, which were pounded together and left to dry into bricks, which could then be boiled in pots on the trail.
posted by blenderfish at 4:58 PM on November 16, 2009

At the risk of breaking the guidelines, here's a rant about chili I wrote a couple years ago. Recipe included.
posted by dw at 5:02 PM on November 16, 2009

Purists are why we don't have flying cars that run on garbage. Load that sucker with beans, and consider that a good spice mix ought to taste like its own flavor, as if it had undergone some kind of tasty fusion. To that end, consider the addition of trace amounts of spices like cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg. In small amounts, they give chili a fuzzy warmth and they bring out the tastes of the other spices that you've got in there.
posted by invitapriore at 5:04 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Truly, I am a fallen Texan. My signature chili is served over rice, and features a fair amount of reconstituted TVP and corn, in addition to tomato, beans, onions, peppers, and garlic. Oh, and shredded carrot. Seriously, if you don't feel it imperative that "your" chili be meat-based, I recommend it.
posted by mumkin at 5:05 PM on November 16, 2009

get a book or booklet, or get stuff online : lots of recipes. Try one each time you want chili. Then fasten on the one that is your favorite. Clearly from the answers thus far posted here, different folks zero in on specialized ingredients: a certain type bean, meat, will eventually select one you like.

One rule of thumb: most recipes I have seen over the years, if they include meant (often mix of beef and pork) call for rough cut rather than finely ground.

I make chili using Pierre Franey recipe. He is a world famous cook, and his recipe appears in a number of places. The reason is simple: after ingredients prepared, total cooking time is but 20 minutes! and that saves lots of sitting about. And I have yet to serve it without people asking how it is made.
But part of the fun and joy of cooking is playfulness and experimenting, adding more of something called for, adding something not called for, leaving out something etc.
Not all people like real hot (spicy) chili. Others love it as hot as can be made. But you are the cook so you call the tune.
posted by Postroad at 5:10 PM on November 16, 2009

Beans are the devil's plaything, plus they suck. Don't use them. Never use ground beef. You want chili to have a bite to it, rather than being a vaguely gritty soup.

Basic idea: cut the meat yourself into maybe half or quarter inch chunks. (I use a mix of two parts beef chuck to one part pork shoulder, but sausage could be good, just not smoked sausage)

Dredge meat in flour, with base coating of whatever seasoning you'll use. The flour will end up thickening your chili, so you don't need the roux. Just don't scorch the flour. (you've got to get dirty here. I put in a base coating of cumin, oregano, garlic, and a bit of chili here, and swirl the meat around until it's changed colors, then start sprinkling flour over it, and rubbing it in).

Brown the meat in batches, so it gets a bit of a crust going. Remove meat to a strainer, brown more meat. (This can take a while, but you don't want the meat to be crowded, or it doesn't brown, it just gets gooey)

Add chopped onions. If you flour the onions (put chopped onions in a bowl. Put flour on bowl, put plate on top of bowl, shake vigorously) they will also help thicken the chili

Deglaze the pot with booze (I use stout. Delicious, dark creamy stout. 1 part for the chili, 1 part for the cook. I use about a pint of stout to get the delicious floury bits off the pan and into the chili)

Add the meat, plus spices, chilis, obscure ingredients passed down on deathbeds, etc. (I use cumin, oregano, one can of whole tomatoes, in which a swish a knife around for a minute to give me diced tomatoes, pepper, salt, and chipotles. You will probably need more salt than you think, since the salt really releases the flavors)

Let it cook for a long, long time. Serve with cornbread, sour cream, and corn chips. Refrigerate, reheat, and eat for the rest of the week. If you haven't made enough to last for the rest of the week (even after a party), adjust your portions and start again.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:21 PM on November 16, 2009 [5 favorites]

stew beef, slow cooker. No hamburger. Stew beef gets tender when cooked long and slow, and is very tasty. If you put tomatoes in cooking beans, the beans tighten up and become tough.

I like the addition of corn, black beans, and sausage, but I am not a purist.
posted by theora55 at 5:28 PM on November 16, 2009

I usually do it thusly. In a cast iron dutch oven:

1. Heat bacon over low heat, let it render the fat, remove.
2. Brown cubed chuck roast in bacon fat. Let it get plenty of color.
3. Brown onions and peppers, add some oil if you're running out of bacon fat. Add garlic at the end so it doesn't get bitter.
4. Deglaze with beer.
5. Add tomatoes, toasted cumin and ground chiles, grated bakers chocolate.
6. Simmer for 3 hours, or overnight in a crockpot.
7. Cook the beans separately, add them about 15 minutes before your chili is done. Salt to taste. Proper color should be somewhere between rust and chocolate.

I can't even begin to comprehend chili without beans. I know, I know, Texas, blah blah blah. But what has Texas ever gotten right?
posted by electroboy at 5:42 PM on November 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Things to watch out for:

- Be careful not to burn things on the bottom of the pot.
- Don't cook it so long the meat starts to break down.
posted by jeffamaphone at 6:09 PM on November 16, 2009

Some "Secret" Ingredients I've Put In My Award Winning (but non-purist) Chili:

coffee grounds
dark chocolate
brown sugar
chorizo sausage
dijon mustard
red wine

In terms of meat, I always use three kinds/cuts (cubes of stew beef, ground beef and ground pork) - I like the texture of meat in the finished product, so while I put all the stew beef and most of the ground meat in at the start to cook down for many hours, I save some (about 2 cups) of the browned ground meat to throw in near the end.

I love beans - also three kinds, usually black, pinto and red.

Otherwise I: Cook for a loooong time on low heat; try and cook the day before; wear gloves (and try to remember not to touch my face) when dicing hot peppers; add a beer (usually a porter) and experiment with tossing in anything I have laying around the kitchen that might remotely add to the flavor.
posted by jalexei at 6:31 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Beans? No. If this was some girly chili soup, you could put beans in it. A good manly chili does not have beans. I'm also not a fan of ground meat in chili; this isn't a pot of sloppy joes. You want to cube the meat a bit larger than you're probably thinking. If you chop the meat too fine, it won't stand up to a long simmer.

I usually add a few tablespoons of masa de harina (not cornstarch). It's the stuff you use to make corn tortillas. It's super cheap. Depending where you live it'll be in the ethnic section of the grocery or by the flour/baking items. The masa adds some thickness, but also some richness to the flavor.

I've had good chili that has cocoa in it. The cocoa gives the chili a subtle flavor of mole poblano. I don't use it in my chili, but when it's used correctly it's a tasty addition.
posted by 26.2 at 6:39 PM on November 16, 2009

If you want your chili to be enjoyed by yourself and your guests, when you are adjusting the "heat" bear in mind that PAIN is not a FLAVOR.
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:43 PM on November 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

All you people hating on beans. I don't get the anger. My chili usually has four or five kinds of beans in it, minimum. If I wanted meat soup I'd eat meat soup, but my chili is made with beans (and no one who has tried it has been upset with the results). I also make it thick - the spoon can stand on it's own upright in the pot when I let go of it, THAT kind of thick. Definitely don't worry about measuring things. Just add in your spices and taste it as you go. My staples are chili powder (and dried chiles if I have them), oregano, cumin, fresh garlic and ginger (freshly grated). When using fresh peppers, I cook them
in oil with the onion and garlic before cooking the meat; it mellows out the heat of the peppers (even habaneros) but do remember to wear gloves while dicing and seeding the peppers! I simmer it for several hours at least, and serve it with shredded cheese, sour cream and Fritos. Oh. One more thing: corn. I have always added corn, it was something my dad's family did, and in my mind corn-less chili is just missing something. Many people have been incredulous or downright nasty about the corn. Don't know a single person who felt the same after actually tasting my chili though.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:15 PM on November 16, 2009

caution live frogs, that sounds delicious. What it doesn't sound, however, is like chili.
posted by dersins at 7:17 PM on November 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

I've rejected my father's chili recipe--if you're reading this, sorry Papa. His was a bean stew with ground beef, lacking all peppers completely.

My preferred chili now is a chili colarado. I buy whatever fresh peppers are available at the store, preferring red ones (for color). I always use several pasilla peppers to make up the bulk, as they're quite flavorful but not spicy. I roast all the peppers over a flame (or with a torch). I seed the peppers.

Then I throw all the peppers into the food processor. I add an onion, many cloves of garlic, a reconstituted chipotle or two, some salt, paprika, chile powder, cayenne, some black pepper, cumin, and a little water. I sometimes throw it other random spices. Then I puree that all down to a paste.

Brown the chunks of beef. Then pour the sauce over the beef and let it barely simmer for several hours. It's done when the sauce has done two things: a) homogenized into a beautiful, consistent reddish brown; b) reduced down to a thick, sticky consistency.

There's no recipe for this, or science. You blend spicy, "Southwestern" ingredients into a slurry, and then pour that over browned beef.
posted by Netzapper at 7:20 PM on November 16, 2009

Don't use regular chili powder. That stuff is junk. Often it's mostly salt. If you're in a hurry, you can find pure ancho chile powder. If you want to do it right, buy some whole dried ancho chiles and do the job yourself. Rick Bayless explains it all.
posted by chrchr at 7:40 PM on November 16, 2009

I choose to use ground pork rather than hamburger, cannellini beans in addition to some kidney beans, and a bit of corn as well. I have usually used cumin and chili powder, but I also add chipotle in adobo sauce because so many recommended it in this previous thread. I also tried roasted hot peppers, again because it was a recurring theme. I've always been a big fan of the trinity (onion, green pepper, celery) for thickening and crunchiness. Finished off with tomato paste, stewed tomatoes, and just a splash of water and I had a full to the brim crock.
posted by netbros at 8:57 PM on November 16, 2009

Sweet potatoes, peeled and and cut into 3/4" cubes, add color and interest to vegetarian chili.
posted by Iridic at 9:12 PM on November 16, 2009

Not a chef, not a competitor, not a food snob, just a die-hard chili maker.

Shohn and Good Brain have it. Chili is a chile-pepper stew. Stew meat, chile peppers, cumin and salt and pepper are pretty much your basic chili ingredients. Brown some stew meat, maybe saute some onion and garlic, add your pre-soaked and de-seeded chiles and spices, and water to cover and let simmer a good long time. Thicken with a roux if you want. You can do the simmer in a crock pot or on the stove.

There's a pretty good tutorial on rehydrating chiles here. The roasting step is completely optional and depends on what you're going for. Their tip about saving the soak water to use is a good one, but pre-taste it to make sure it didn't pick up any off flavors. Also, you can puree or not, again depending on what you're going for in the final product.

What you end up with is, as others suggest, a sort of trail stew. The idea is to infuse the meat and other ingredients with the heat and flavor of the peppers. Obviously this leaves lots of room for improvisation -- switch out pork for beef, green peppers for red, try other proteins, even vegetable ones, add spices (a pinch of oregano? coriander seeds? cilantro? a bay leaf or two?), add tomatoes, add beans -- but start with this basic recipe to get an idea of where your base should be. Experiment with different kinds of chiles to see which flavors you like.

Yeah, if you add tomatoes and beans your stew won't be eligible for some competitions, but are you entering a competition or making something to please yourself? If you want beans, put 'em in. Ditto tomatoes, peanut butter, tortilla chips, whatever. Play around. Is the final product "real" chili? It is if you say it is.

To me, the only non-negotiable for "real" chili is the chili peppers as the foundation of the stew. Most importantly, working with chiles means you can forget about the abomination that is chili powder.

And oh yeah, take it easy on the salt, as the flavor will get saltier as the stew simmers and the taste develops. You can always add more later if you want. Taking too much salt out? Can't help you there.

Don't be afraid to experiment and good luck!
posted by Opposite George at 9:52 PM on November 16, 2009 [4 favorites]

Eat the chili of other people, home cooks and chefs. See what works and what does not. Learn from their efforts. Try a wide variety of chili. Do not go "Pork and black bean chili? Ick!" No. Wrong way. Eat it. See what you can learn from it. Maybe what you will learn is "Ick!" but you do not know that before you taste it.

Take notes. Think about chili when you've got some daydreaming time. Experiment. Again, take notes on what you did. Evaluate what worked and what didn't. Think of ways to improve your efforts.

As far as I'm concerned, you can have beans or not beans, tomato or not tomato, corn or not corn. You are building a chili to please yourself -- what do you like? If you do beans, please try a couple different kinds and Think Outside The Can -- dried beans generally have a better texture and flavor than canned ones.

Chili is frequently (but not always) beef. Some people do pork. I've seen ground turkey, which I personally don't get, but it's a free country. Pick a meat or meats that you like. Explore some options, there. Venison has a nice, meaty flavor that holds up well to spices and needs long, moist cooking. Elk would also go well, if you can get it. (Elk is very tasty. Very.) Buffalo? Couldn't hurt. If you pick beef, try cubes of chuck *and* ground beef *and* other cuts of beef and so forth. Make sure you're getting the right animal meat (or meats) and the right CUTS of that animal for your application. Are you an hours-of-stewing kind of person or are you a "brown ground meat in a skillet, have chili in half an hour" kind of person?

How much heat do you like, really? Some? Hardly any? Enough that your eyes water and your lips burn but you can't stop eating? What KIND of heat do you like? Do you like the gentle insistent flame of ground cayenne, the bitter heat of japones chilis, the smoky burn of chipotle peppers, the firey hot little birds eye chilis, the exceedingly floral insanity of habaneros, the gentle chili flavor of anchos? How about fresh chilis -- do you want the grassy heat of fresh jalapenos? Get to know peppers, what they taste like, how they work, which ones you like. Try combining them, see which ones work together well. Try roasting them, oven-blackening them, frying them in oil until they blacken (this method is used a lot in curries and I'm a fan), grinding them, reconstituting them and *then* pureeing them, etc.

Aromatics have lots to do with flavor. I nth the "toast your own cumin seeds and grind 'em" -- same goes for black pepper. Coriander (mentioned above) sounds like an awesome addition -- I'll have to try that at my house. Use fresh spices and real onions, real garlic, real stuff. If you have the choice between "ground" and "whole" always go for whole and grind 'em yourself. They really do taste better. It might be interesting to caramelize your onions first -- they'll be sweet and bring a depth of flavor to the thing that might be right nice. You can also try pureeing the raw onion in a food processor and then cooking that paste until it browns. Don't include the garlic with the onions -- it burns way easier. Do the garlic by itself for better control of what you're doing.

You're going to have to eat a lot of chili with this exploratory method of finding a recipe. I hope that's not a down side. Be aware that your mental conception of "the perfect chili" may change over time as you get a broad base of experience with chili. That's why the notes are important. A notebook of your chili journey will also be a neat thing to share with your young acolytes of chili as you teach them The Merits Of Your Way.

Finally, keep at it. Make chili at least once a month (twice would be better) so that you stay sharp on what you want and what you can do and what you know about your ingredients. It'll help keep you focused. Good luck!
posted by which_chick at 7:03 AM on November 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

Excellent material in this thread.

Ideas about chili derived from early mistakes:

* I find all-meat chili to be not as delicious as chili with beans-- beans give chewiness, nutrition, and a lot of flavor.

* This is an excellent list of flavours. (But be very careful with chorizo-- when the fat melts into your dish, you will find that a tiny bit goes a really long way.)

* Dried beans make better chili than canned because they are firmer. You have to boil them outside the chili though because they'll take forever to cook in the chili.

* I would definitely let the beans stew with the spices so that the beans can absorb the flavours. At the start of the stewing process, your sauce is spicier than it should be and the beans are bland-- at the end, it's uniform. If the chili tastes how you want it to taste at the start of the stewing process, it will be too bland by the end.

* If your chili ens up too spicy, you can serve it with sour cream or yogurt. If it's still too spicy, you might have to make a small batch of chili without spices and stew the two batches together.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 3:34 PM on November 18, 2009

If you're using ground beef, it's important to know how to really brown the meat. If you simply put it in a pan and stir it around over heat until it's brown, you've not really browned it, you've steam-cooked it.

To brown you take chunks of ground beef and place them separately in the pan over high heat. Make sure there is enough space between the chunks so that they don't heat each other up. Turn them over with tongs so that each side gets properly crusted. You'll probably have to work in batches to do it right.

What you end up with is far tastier meat, like little burgers with delicious brown crusty coatings. And they taste just like flame-cooked burgers. That's a great foundation for any food. Cooking it the the other way, you end up with a steamy pile of meat with little flavor.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 7:41 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

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