Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Chili Basics

Beef Chili with Beans

How To Make the Chili We All Know & Love

The nights are turning cooler, and we’re beginning to hanker after heartier food.  Few dishes are heartier — or deliver a bigger flavor punch — than homemade chili.  And if you haven’t already begun thinking about making a batch, maybe you should.

Although Texas chili (which contains meat, chiles, and little else) is perhaps the most iconic version of the dish in the United States, it’s not the chili that most of us crave.  For the majority of us, chili means ground beef, tomato, onion, and beans.  (Beans are heresy in Texas chili.)  Spice levels can vary from mild to incendiary, though most of us prefer a moderate level of heat.

Chili is an easy dish to make.  Learn the basics of this recipe, and you can make any chili — even that no-bean Texas stuff.

Beef Chili with Beans

Chili Essentials

The “homestyle” chili that most of us remember from childhood is usually made of browned beef (typically ground) mixed with sautéed aromatics (onion and garlic), stewed in lots of liquid (usually including plenty of tomato), flavored with chile peppers and other spices, and with beans added for additional flavor.

But you can make chili out of almost any meat, or omit meat altogether and do a vegetarian version. In fact, some of my favorite chili recipes are meatless: Vegetarian Chili and Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans. The flavor of chilies seems to become particularly prominent in vegetable chili.

Since the flavor of the chile plant is the whole point of the dish, that’s what we’ll be using. This means we’ll use dried powdered chilies, not “chili powder”. Using powdered chilies is no more trouble than using chili powder, but it does require a bit of shopping.

Of course, you can still make this recipe even if you prefer to use chili powder (and if you make chili only once or twice a year, it may not be worth it to you to shop for powdered chilies). I’ll include instructions in the notes for substituting chili powder. If you’re going that route, you might want to skip the next few sections and scroll down to the recipe.

For everyone else, before we get to the recipe, we need to be clear on exactly what chile is.

The Difference Between Chile and Chili

We covered some of this back in our Vegetarian Chili recipe, but I’m including it here in reworked form so you don’t have to jump to a different post.

In New Mexico, where many of our chile peppers are grown, the words chile and chili have different meanings.

Chili is a dish (as in the recipe we’re about to discuss). Chile refers to the pepper plant; the plural is chilies. Chilies can be either fresh or dried. When you dry the plant and grind it up, you produce chile powder. Chile powder contains nothing but chilies. By contrast, chili powder is a mixture of herbs and spices that includes ground up dried chilies - chile powder - and is used for flavoring the dish called chili. Got that?

In much of the United States, the word “chili” is used for both the dish and the plant. But not on this blog. I go into so much detail because my recipe calls for chile powder, not chili powder, and we all need to be on the same page here. (But I’ll include instructions for substituting chili powder if you don’t want to use powdered chilies.)

Chile Powder

About Chile Powder

Dried chilies are available either whole or ground into powder. Many aficionados prefer to use whole chilies. But cooking with them requires a bit more time and knowledge than the powdered version, so I find it easier to use chile powder. (To use whole chilies, you roast them in the oven, soak them in liquid for 20 or 30 minutes, then whirl them in the blender. At some future point on this blog, I’ll post a recipe for making chili using whole chilies.)

Many different varieties of chile plants can be dried and ground into powder. Two of the most popular and widely available are ancho and chipotle chilies. Anchos are only mildly spicy, with a full chile flavor. Chipotles are the smoked, dried versions of fully ripe (red) jalapeño peppers. Their heat quotient ranges from medium to medium-hot and they have a great smoky flavor.

You may be able to find these ground chilies in your supermarket. Spice Islands (a widely available brand) sells both ancho and chipotle powder. Otherwise, there are many mail order sources (Penzeys Spices is a great source).

Other common chile peppers include the Guajillo, pasilla, cascabel, habanero, Scotch bonnet, Colorado, Anaheim, and Serrano — some of which are extremely hot. Unless you live in the Southwest, however, you’re less likely to see these in your supermarket and will need to rely on mail order.

Sometimes chilies are distinguished by the location where they are grown, rather than by botanical variety. For example, the town of Hatch, New Mexico bills itself as the “Chile Capital of the World” (and they have a famous Chile Festival every year). Frequently, their dried chilies are marketed by heat level (such as “Hatch Mild” and “Hatch Medium Hot”). These are my favorite dried chilies and are the ones I generally use. You can buy Hatch chilies from The Chile Shop There are other online sources available not only for Hatch chilies, but for almost any chile that is grown and sold.

Substitutions for Chile Powder

My basic chili recipe calls for two varieties of dried chile powders:  (1) any chile powder with a medium level of heat, and (2) chipotle powder (which adds great smoky-flavored heat).  For the first, I specify Hatch Mild and/or Medium.  But if this is unavailable, you can easily substitute something else (ancho chile is probably your best bet because it’s readily available, although it is milder than Hatch Medium).  If you want more heat, you can add some cayenne pepper or more chipotle powder.  Although you can make chili with just one variety of chile pepper, I find that a combination adds an interesting complexity to the dish that really boosts its flavor.

If you can’t find chipotle powder, you may be able to buy canned chipotles in adobo sauce.  These often are available in the Mexican food section of supermarkets.  Use one or two chilies from the can (roughly diced), along with some of the adobo sauce.  Unless you really like spicy food, you’ll find that using the entire can is too much.  You can store the remainder of the can in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a few weeks.

If you can’t find chile powder, you can substitute chili powder.  But be aware that most commercial chili powders have a less vibrant and distinctive taste than chile powder.  In part, this is because a large percentage of what’s in chili powder isn’t chilies, but other spices (such as cumin, oregano, and coriander).  In addition, the quality of chilies used may not be particularly good.  (See the recipe notes below for specifics about substituting chili powder.)

Beef Chili with Beans

Recipe:  Basic Chili

For each pound of meat, you will need about one 28-ounce can of tomato (diced or pureed), two 15-ounce cans of beans, 1 to 2 cups of minced onion, and 1½ to 2 tablespoons of chile powder.  But this isn’t a hard and fast formula — I frequently change proportions depending on my mood.

Because chili freezes well, and it is about as easy to prepare a large batch as a small one, I typically use 2 or 3 pounds of meat when I make chili.  The recipe as presented here calls for 2 pounds of meat, which will yield about 4 to 5 quarts of chili — enough for many leftovers.

  • 2 pounds ground beef (I prefer chuck)
  • 2 - 3 large onions, diced (or to taste)
  • 2 - 3 large jalapeño peppers, diced fine (optional)
  • 3 - 5 garlic cloves, diced fine
  • 2 - 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 2 - 3 tablespoons mild or medium chile powder, or a mix of the two (or to taste; see notes)
  • 2 teaspoons chipotle powder (or to taste; may omit if too spicy)
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 - 2 tablespoons oregano
  • ~2 tablespoons beef stock base (optional; see notes; can also substitute 2 cans beef stock)
  • 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • water 
  • 3 - 4 15-ounce cans beans (kidney or pinto are best; see notes)
  1. Put ground beef into skillet (preferably one that has a plain surface, not nonstick), season with salt to taste, turn stove to medium heat, and brown.  Make sure the skillet is big enough not to crowd the meat — you want it to brown, not steam.  (See notes.)  Stir occasionally.
  2. Meanwhile, peel and dice onions.
  3. Warm large Dutch oven (5 quart or larger) over medium heat.
  4. When warm, add oil and let heat (it'll shimmer when hot). Then add diced onion; season with salt and pepper, and cook until slightly brown (5 minutes).
  5. Meanwhile, prepare jalapeños and garlic.
  6. When onion is slightly brown, add garlic and jalapeño and cook for a minute or two.
  7. When beef is browned, remove it with a slotted spoon and add to onion mixture.  (If browned bits have stuck to the bottom of the pan, drain the grease, put a bit of water in the pan, bring to simmer and scrape until dissolved.  Pour contents of skillet into the onion mixture.)
  8. Add all spices (chilies, cumin, coriander, oregano) and beef base if using (if using beef stock, add in next step).  Stir to combine, and cook for a minute.
  9. Add tomato, plus a can of water to bring mixture to a nicely soupy consistency.
  10. Bring mixture to a simmer, and cook for an hour (or longer; timing is not critical).
  11. Meanwhile, put canned beans in a strainer and rinse well.
  12. Add beans at the hour point, taste for flavor, and add more chile powder if necessary.  Add more water if too much has evaporated or if you prefer your chili to have a thinner consistency.  Cook for an additional half hour.
  13. Chili is ready to serve now, but you can cook for longer than an hour and a half if you wish.  It holds well on the stove until you are ready to serve.
Oyster cracker are a tasty garnish for chili

  • Chile Powders.  You don’t need to use a specific chile powder for this recipe.  I use both mild and medium Hatch chile powders, as well as chipotle powder.   (No need to mix the Hatch peppers; you can use one or the other if you don’t want to buy both.)   Ancho chile powder (which is sold in many supermarkets) has great taste and is fairly mild.  If you can’t find chipotle powder, substitute cayenne (use only half as much), or just leave it out.  Chipotle powder has a nice smoky flavor that adds an interesting dimension to this dish, but it’s not essential.
  • The amount/strength of chile powder in this recipe produces a batch of chili that I regard as mild in flavor, with just a slight ping of heat to it.  But that’s my palate; your taste will differ.  You may know from experience that the quantities of chilies I call for are too much or too little.  If you are concerned about the heat level, use half the amount specified, and then taste after the chili has been simmering for about 10 minutes.  This is a good point to adjust the chile level.  Don’t wait until the end to adjust, because chilies need time to simmer in order to develop the full depth of their flavor.
  • You can substitute chili powder for the chile powder(s) in this recipe.  In that case, use 3 to 5 tablespoons of chili powder.  Reduce the amounts of cumin, coriander, and oregano by about half, or eliminate them altogether.  The flavor of the finished dish won’t be as crisp if you use chili powder, but you’ll still be pleased with it.
  • Browning meat caramelizes the surface, which concentrates and improves the flavor.  If your skillet is too crowded, the meat will steam, and you’ll miss most of the point of browning.  Ideally, bits of the meat will adhere to the pan, forming a brown crust that is extraordinarily tasty.  After you remove the meat, add liquid (water in this case; for some recipes, wine), bring it to a simmer, and scrape with a spoon to help dissolve the crust.  That flavor is precious, so you don’t want to lose it!
  • Beef stock base is concentrated beef stock that has been reduced to a paste. It’s more flavorful and much better quality than bouillon cubes. For more detail, see the post, Stock Excuses. My favorite brand is “Better than Bouillon,” which many supermarkets carry (you can also order it from Amazon). I’ve heard great things about Minor’s Brand, which I haven’t used. They sell primarily to restaurants and other commercial entities, but individuals can order through their website.
  • Canned beans are easy to use in this recipe and have acceptable flavor, but make sure you wash off the gunk they’re packed in.  Dark red kidney beans work best in chili, but I usually combine them with light red kidney beans and pintos just to have a nice mix of flavors and colors.  If you prefer to substitute dried beans for canned (I often do), prepare a pound of dried beans.  
  • If you like thick chili, cook the chili a bit longer to evaporate more of the liquid.  If you prefer a thinner, soupier mix, you can add some water at the end to achieve the consistency you prefer.
  • There are many garnishes for chili that not only look great but add a flavor boost.  Oysters crackers, grated cheddar cheese, diced raw onion or pepper, or a dollop of sour cream all work well.
Beef Chili with Beans

Fall Means Chili Weather

Fall brings us apples and pumpkins, and the promise of the autumn/early winter holiday and entertaining seasons.

It also heralds meals that feature hearty cuts of meat or savory soups and stews.   Chili is one of the best fall and winter dishes.

At least that’s what the Kitchen Riffs household thinks.  We’re mad about chili.  Earlier this year we discussed Vegetarian Chili and Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans (that last one in particular is a winner).  And of course today’s post details basic meat chili.  But we’ve got tons more recipes, most of which will eventually appear on the blog.  Depending on how much you like chili, you can take that as either a promise or a threat!

In the Kitchen Riffs household, when the weather turns chilly, we turn to chili.

You may also be interested in reading about:
Vegetarian Chili
Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans
Lentil Soup with Bacon
Split Pea Soup with Bacon 


Katherine Martinelli said...

Amazing, informative post! I LOVE chili and yes, I am all about the beans! I can't wait to try this recipe.

Kitchen Riffs said...

Katherine, thanks so much for your comment. This is a great dish - we had leftover for dinner tonight and were smiling ;-) I think you'll enjoy it - let me know how it turns out. Thanks again.

RChristopher said...

I love chili. And I love the photos. Your dish looks so hearty and so savory my mouth is watering just thinking about when I'm going to make this. Enjoyed the notes as well. Excellent post.

Kitchen Riffs said...

RChristopher, thanks for the comment! Sorry it's taking me so long to respond - I thought I had, but obviously didn't. Anyway, it's a great dish. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Made this for a chili cook-off at work. Used 2lb of ground venison from this year's bounty in place of the beef. 1st place!!!
Used a lot more cayenne, and chile powder to get the right heat.
Also made slits in a habanero pepper and left it in while I was cooking it.
Great Chili!!!! Thank you!!!!

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi Anonymous, the ground venison sounds spectacular! Congrats on the first place! And I usually use more heat when I make this too. ;-) Love the idea of the habanero pepper - definitely something I'll have to try. Thanks for your comment.

Unknown said...

Hi, KR! I love making chili, and your recipe looks similar to mine. I was just curious as to why you wait an hour before adding the beans...?

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi Krista, I wait to add the beans because they're already cooked, and if I add them at the beginning of the recipe, they tend to get kinda mushy at the end. By adding them when I do, they have enough time to mingle with all of the other flavors, yet don't break down very much. Glad you like the chili, and thanks for the question!

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi some goof, bacon fat is good in anything! Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...


Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi Unknown, chili powder (with one L) in the US is a mixture of ground chile plus seasonings like oregano, cumin, coriander, and salt. Chilli powder (2 Ls) in much of the world is ground chilies (no other seasonings). Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

What’s exactly a bit of water used

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi Anonymous, see Step 9 -- I typically add a can (28 ounces) of water when I cook this quantity of chili. Then add the end, if I want a more liquid chili, I'll add more to taste. Enjoy! :-)