Chili Con Carne: The Anti-Recipe
Part 1 of the blueprint for chili mastery (updated)
Chili con carne is perhaps the simplest single pot stew, the quintessential campfire cuisine and the original tailgate meal. Before the days of brats and beer koozies, 19th century Chili Queens of San Antonio stewed it in open air wagons while mariachi minstrels entertained stockmen, soldiers, rounders and prowlers. The rich history of chili bubbles with Americana. Yet the jury is still out on proper chili cookery. No chef, cowboy, historian or state legislature is going to mint the decisive recipe, try as they might. Worse, no matter how you cook chili there are plenty of pernicious pepper partisans who will tell you “it ain’t right.” Don’t let them stop you.
Behold, Chili Con Carne: The Anti-Recipe:
Slowly, Step Away From the Cookbook
Chili con carne is a frontier food: it’s made by shooting from the hip. Some cuisines call for rigid recipes, specific ingredients, exact measurements and expert timing. Chili is not one of those foods. Step away from the cookbook.
Just three ingredients are necessary and sufficient: a ragu of meat, hot chile peppers and cumin. That’s it. In practice, however, we build layers of flavor by introducing various elements to the dish. The following principles are a blueprint for chili con carne and a foundation for creating your own secret formula. Learn the blueprint and you can put another notch on your culinary musket.
Hardware: A big spoon and an even bigger pot.
Protein: Most meats make fine chili, so feel free to mix and match: beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, goat, jackrabbit, squirrel, opossum, rattlesnake, 'gator. Choose tougher cuts that are high in connective tissue, which breaks down during cooking to tenderize the meat and grease the palate with gelatin, creating the perfect mouthfeel. Ground meats and sausage are also great choices, as are trimmings and leftovers. You'll want your chili meat-centric, unless you're going veggie, so start with a pound and a half for a medium-sized pot and up it from there as you see fit.
Step 1: Sear the meat until brown and fragrant (in batches, never sear in a crowded pot).
Aromatic Vegetables: Aromatics build flavor through fragrance, and vegetables in the onion family are the classic choice for chili. The yellow onion is traditional, but also consider the subtle but sweeter leek. Add generous quantities of garlic for an authentic punch, or shallots for garlic undertones without the social consequences. For a vegetable-heavy chili try carrots and celery. Finally, make sure to add plenty of chile peppers. Use a variety to create well-rounded, full-bodied spice that evolves from the beginning to end of each bite. Remember, smaller chiles usually pack a heftier punch.
Step 2: Add the chopped vegetables into the same pot with the seared meat and sweat the vegetables in oil until soft (low heat). Just remember not to crowd the pot.
Spices & Seasonings: If you have a favorite chili powder, now is the time to use it. If not, consider pairing a base powder like ancho with a powerful partner such as cayenne. Cumin is a hallmark of traditional chili, adding a sharp, earthy and somewhat nutty flavor. Dried oregano is popular, but other dried herbs like parsley, cilantro and basil make nice additions as well. Brown sugar, molasses or honey will add a sweet character to the dish. Make sure to season to taste with salt as you cook.
Step 3: Stir in the spices to season everything up (you can always add more later).
Liquids: Stock, beer, cider, milk and water are all fine cooking liquids, but you can cook chili in just about anything you would drink alongside it. Consider adding a small amount of more potent choices like Worcestershire sauce, whiskey and wine. Use a few dashes of vinegar or lemon juice to add acidity. Of course, combing a few liquids together will help layer on flavor. Use enough of whatever liquid(s) you choose to keep the pot simmering throughout the cook, refresh as needed and reduce down at the end to achieve desired viscosity.
Step 4: Add the cooking liquids and scrape any tasty bits off the pot.
Tomatoes: While they are by no means necessary, tomatoes are a great way to add flavor, color and acidity. Combinations of chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste (just a few dollops, as this is concentrated) are the best bet. Then again, your favorite salsa offers an easy shortcut that covers all the bases.
Step 5: Pour in the tomatoes.
Other Additions: The possibilities for other ingredients are endless. Beans are perhaps the most common addendum, though hotly contested by Texas purists. Other ingredients like corn, mushrooms, potatoes and squash can all add character to a pot of chili.
Step 6: Cook until the meat literally falls apart, the flavors meld and desired viscosity is reached. Add any final ingredients and cook thoroughly. Adjust the salt and seasonings.
And now, The 3 Cardinal Laws of Chili:
- Buy Cheap: By design, chili con carne should be light on your wallet. Expensive ingredients with subtle flavors are overwhelmed by the spices. Any cut of meat that would make a great steak is too lean. When in doubt, err on the side of economy.
- Have Patience: Chili takes time, so start early and cook low and slow. Time breaks down meats, mingles spices and mellows sharp flavors. Cook for a couple hours, or up to a full day. Save some for later; it will taste even better tomorrow.
- Don’t Worry: It is almost impossible to wreck a pot of chili (spice and salt withstanding). There is absolutely no reason to over-prepare, over-stress or overreact. Taste your food – if something is off, either adjust the flavor or come back later.
Check out part 2 of the blueprint for chili mastery.