Here is the thing…. you can’t fuck up chili. By you I mean the universal you, not the specific you who in fact could do something stupid or by accident and fuck it up bad. It doesn’t really require a lot of cooking skills, just the ability to open cans and stir. It can be as simple or as complicated as you like. Chili can be a can of beans, some chili powder, and ground beef. Or it can be 30 ingredients, each with their own cooking needs. But in general, chili is some simple stuff. I like it because it is forgiving. If you forget an ingredient in your cookies, you might end up with inedible garbage. Forget something in chili, it is just a new taste direction. Not spicy enough – add some hot sauce, too spicy – cheese or sour cream. Don’t like onions, don’t add any. Love beans – add as many as you want. A vegetarian – add tofu. Prefer chicken or port to beef, no problem – substitute away. Shot a deer, have some extra meat – looks like chili time. Vegetable garden over produce on tomatoes or squash – yep, it is time for chili.
Ingredients for chili
I love the idea of chili as free-form cooking. Go the store with an idea, buy some ingredients, raid the pantry, raid the spice rack, check out what’s in the freezer. Once you’ve assembled what you think should be in it you make a plan and go for it. Sometimes, you change plans right in the middle (chili forgives). Sometimes you run out of a certain spice (it’s cool, we’ll just have slightly different taste profile). Sometimes you are drinking and think it would be good to add beer or wine, no problem. I don’t follow a recipe, I just do. I’ve never looked in a book to see how to make chili, I just started adding shit until…. BOOM CHILI. Now after about 20 years of doing it I do have some preferences, some baseline ingredients that I always start with. But that can vary from batch to batch, mood to mood, or the degree of adventure I’m seeking in the creation. Today’s chili is kind of the basic model, what I like to eat. In the past I’ve done some different things. I’ve added apples and carrots for a bit of sweetness. I’ve added jicama just to see what would happen (small pieces added a nice crunch and good texture and soaked up a lot of flavor). I’ve added potatoes (which end up breaking down during the long cook but helped create a rib-sticking thickness that was pretty good. I’ve added every pepper I could find, from bell to Anaheim to habanero to jalapeno to more exotic peppers that you can only find at places like Jungle Jim’s or that weird booth at the farmers’ market. I’ve made it white (tomato free – although I did add tomatillos). I’ve used every type of meat and cut I could find. My favorite was a barnyard chili where I used chicken (ground and breast meat), beef (ground and chopped roast), pork (ground and shredded loin) and lamb (ground). It turned out pretty good, just like most of the other chilies I have made. I mostly stick with adding things I would eat on its own. If I don’t like the taste or texture I’m pretty sure that adding it into my chili isn’t going to make it better. Luckily I’m not that picky. Mostly things I won’t add include leafy greens and anything pickled. I find the act of making chili fun and rewarding. Cleaning up less so, but I try to keep the pots and pans to minimum now to reduce the dish load. I also love to eat chili, it is among my favorite foods, something you will know if you see me after eating chili as I will inevitably be wearing some. So without further ado here is how I make chili.
Start with the fresh ingredients.
2 green pepper
4 serrano peppers
1 yellow onion
1 red onion
4 cloves of garlic (or it could be a shallot – it was just sitting on the counter)
Handful of orange cherry tomatoes
Prep the veggies first. I am currently on a chunky chili kick so I like to have my veggies in a rough chop. I cut them into strips to feed them into the food processer with the slicer set for pretty thick chunks. I could have gotten more consistently sized piece by hand chopping, but it takes a bit longer in the prep. The all the peppers, half the onions, 1 clove of garlic, and a handful of the tomatoes went through the food processor. The jalapenos and bells were chopped in fourths and the seeds removed. Serranoes were chopped into small pieces. The onions were chopped into rough quarter (just small enough to fit into the mouth of the processor). The remaining onions were given a rough chop and the three cloves of garlic chopped fine.
Start cooking. Put the food processor veggies a big stock pot (this is what ever vessel is going to be your chili pot). Turn heat to medium low. I added a splash of olive oil (to prevent sticking) and let them sweat with the lid on for a 20 minutes. Then I added a beer and some red wine (because I had them). It is now time for the canned stuff and spices. I added.
1 can of crushed tomatoes
2 cans of diced tomatoes
1 can of diced tomatoes with olive oil and garlic
1 can of whole tomatoes
1 can each of black beans, dark red kidney beans, and great northern (white) beans
1 jar of roasted red peppers that I found in the pantry
Slap-Ya-Mama Cajun seasoning (also has salt)
Hungarian paprika (but really the ethnicity of the paprika is up to you)
I don’t measure any of the spices. I just add them and taste. If I like it good, but if not I can always add more. Think of this as the starting set. Added to the veggies it gets the spices melding in to the mix. Really at the end it is going to be more chili powder and potentially more cumin that get added.
The beans and the roasted peppers were drained and rinsed. The cans of tomatoes go in the pot juices and all. I stir it all up and add the spices. I also add any remaining cherry tomatoes whole (they add bit of pop later if any remain whole through cooking).
In a large skillet I melted some butter at medium heat and added the remaining onions. These are cooked till they are just about totally brown (mmm delicious Maillard reactions). At that point I added the remaining garlic (with a little more butter). The garlic is sautéed until it is just turning golden. This pan of golden brown deliciousness is added to proto-chili mix in the stock pot.
In the same skillet (since it is already hot and dirty) I add 1 pound of 90/10 ground beef along with some additional cumin and chili powder. I mostly get the beef browned (but it is ok if there is some pink still – it will be a long cook so it will be done by the end). Once the ground beef is browning I prepped the bottom round roast (it was less expensive per pound than ground beef). I get a whole meat chunk (AKA a roast) rather than stew beef so that I control where it came from and how it is chopped up. I trimmed a good bit of fat of the back side of the roast. I chop it into what will eventually be bit size pieces (1 inch cubes or smaller – they shrink during cooking). By this time the ground beef is done and I transfer it to the chili pot and mix it in. I leave the remaining fat and spices in the skillet and turn the heat to high medium. Once the skillet sizzles I add the roast beast chunks. The purpose here is not to cook them fully, but rather to brown them, inducing a Maillard reaction. Once they are browned on one side (4-5 minutes) I flip them to the other side. Once they are brown on both sides, into the chili pot they go. I then used about ½ a beer and some red wine to scrape up the brown bits from the skillet and add that all to the chili pot.
The famed Amazonian Chili spoon of lore.
I give it some vigorous stirring with my chili spoon. Yes, I have a special wooden spoon I use for chili – it was hand crafted of Amazonian hard wood (where I bought it). As a side note and also an homage to why I use a spoon from the Amazon for cooking chili, it was on a trip to the Amazon where I had the hottest thing I’ve ever eaten (outside of the Mammer Jammer in college but that is another story). It was this weird small purple chili. It was just growing in someone’s garden in a little village. To the gardener’s delight I tried one. At first it was sweet, but then heat built and built and built. And twenty-year-old Jason was not going to be defeated by the chili. I acknowledged its heat and tastiness (it really did have a great flavor underneath the heat), but I did demure from eating any more. Anyway back to making chili.
I let everything cook for about 4 hours on low. It is just at a simmering boil for most of this time. It will bubble up, and needs to be stirred on occasion to prevent any hotspots from burning. Each time I stir I taste a bit (after the first hour so I know the meat is cooked). At this point I added about 2 cups of water and about half a palm-full of kosher salt (maybe a palm full for you as I have large paws). Error on the side of less salt always. I added more spice to taste. For me this was adding more cumin and chili powder.
After about 4 hours you can eat as everything should be melded together into a chunky red chili. Eat how you like; I prefer a bowl with a dollop of sour cream or shredded cheddar cheese. This will make a shit load of chili, so be prepared with some storage containers and/or a lot of folks to share it with.
Chili is almost done.
This is my favored degree of chunkiness.
Here are some notes I can give you.
Don’t be afraid, chili is very forgiving. Add spices liberally, there are lots of ingredients to absorb those big flavors, and if it gets too spicy add some more water or just make sure you have some sour cream for the bowls.
About the only thing that is irreversible is salt. Too much salt can mess it up, so just salt to taste. It is easiest to start with none and just add later to taste. Salt integrates very quickly into a mixture. Salt also comes from the packaged and can foods. Use low sodium canned products – it is way better to add your own salt later than have it creep up on you from the canned goods.
There is no shame in prepackaged chili spice mixes. For a long time, this is how I would start my spice mixture. Carrol Shelby is a good one and most grocery stores will have a variety. They can save some time and reduce the guess work in forming the chili base. They might also have directions on the package (this excludes something called Cincinnati Chili which is whole other animal and I’m sure someday another blog post). Feel free to ignore them and do what you want how you want. If you go this route, keep some additional chili powder on hand in case the mix isn’t enough.
This is a preference step, prepare the peppers and onions however you like. Just know that the finer the chop the more they will disappear/be integrated in the chili.
If the chili is too watery you can do things like adding a bit of corn starch or masa flour or roux. These things take some time to bloom, but do a good job of thickening the chili. Beans also thicken chili as they break down over the long cooking time. The other option is to let the chili cook longer and the water boil off.
Tomato can juice is good for chili, bean can juice is not – rinse the beans.
Chili can be a 30-minute thing or a 10-hour thing. Just remember that it takes a while to build a depth of flavor in the chili, especially with fresh peppers and onions.
Lastly let it cool pretty well before you start to put it away or put it in the freezer. This is really just safe cooking practice but it makes for a better product coming out of the freezer.
Bowl of chili with a dollop of sour cream
Lastly have a good time. Get a spoon with a back story. Enjoy chili.