Warm up with a meat-based classic
With autumnal equinox receding in the rear-view mirror here in the Northern Hemisphere, we’re entering a period of chilly (not to mention gloomy and rainy) weather. Which is good news, in a way. Because chilly season means chili season.
During the cooler months, we have chili frequently—at least once a week. And although we make chili using all sorts of ingredients (including a mean vegetarian Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans), there’s something special about a chili that’s heavy on the meat.
And when it comes to meatiness, nothing beats Texas chili. It typically contains loads of meat and chilies—and not much else. Just the thing to take the chill off.
Recipe: Texas-Style Chili con Carne
Chili con Carne means chile (peppers) with meat. So technically, we should call this dish Chile (with an e) con Carne. But because the dish itself is called “chili,” we’re going with that usage. (For more on terminology, see the first Note below.)
In a state as vast as Texas, no single chili recipe can be considered “the” authentic one. The varieties of chile peppers used in west Texas differ a bit from those used in east Texas, for example. But there is one constant: Traditionally, Texas-style chili contains no beans (though you’ll sometimes find Texas chili served over beans).
Some purists also say there should be no onion or tomato in Texas-style chili. Frank X. Tolbert has an excellent recipe for just such a spartan chili in his book, A Bowl of Red (a history of Texas chili).
But we’ve lived in Texas ourselves—and can report that we were served plenty of chili that contained onions and/or tomatoes. Even Lady Byrd Johnson’s recipe for Pedernales River Chili contains both these ingredients.
What really distinguishes Texas chili from most other kinds is the minimal liquid it contains. It’s not at all soupy, so the flavor of the meat dominates.
Our recipe contains onions (and some garlic), but no tomato. But feel free to substitute tomato for beef broth if you wish—that makes a really good variation.
Active prep time for this recipe is 45 minutes or so. Cooking time adds at least another 2 hours (most of it unattended).
This recipe yields 6 to 8 servings. It’s easy to double the amount if you’re feeding a huge crowd (this dish is excellent for a football tailgate, BTW). If the recipe makes more than you can use at one time, leftovers freeze well.
This is a great make-ahead dish. The chili gains flavor if it spends the night in the refrigerator, and is then reheated the next day.
- 6 to 9 whole dried red chile peppers (a mix of ancho, guajillo, and/or pasilla chilies is ideal; or you can substitute chile powder—see Notes)
- hot (boiling) water to cover the chile peppers
- 3 pounds chuck roast (or a similar cut of beef; see Notes)
- ~1 tablespoon Kosher salt for seasoning the meat (or to taste; if using regular table salt, use about half this amount—see Notes)
- ~1 tablespoon olive oil or lard for browning the meat (or you can substitute rendered bacon fat—see Notes)
- ~2 cups diced onion (about 3 medium ones; exact quantity not critical)
- additional ~1 tablespoon olive oil or lard for cooking the onions
- additional ~1 teaspoon Kosher salt for seasoning the onions (to taste)
- 6 cloves garlic
- 2 to 3 large jalapeño peppers, diced fine (optional—and not traditional—but very tasty)
- 2 tablespoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 2 to 3 cups beef broth (may need additional broth—see Step 9 of the Procedure)
- additional salt and/or dried chile powder to taste
- masa harina or cornmeal (optional)
- optional garnish of jalapeño pepper (slices or dice), chopped onions, grated cheddar cheese, and/or oyster crackers
- If you’re using dried red chile peppers, you should start by preparing them: Wipe the chilies with a damp paper towel to remove any dirt or dust. Then place the chilies in a skillet over lowish heat and toast them until fragrant (usually 2 minutes or so; don’t overtoast—they’ll become bitter). Remove the toasted chile peppers from the skillet and place them in a bowl. Cover the chilies with hot water (preferably boiling) and soak them for 30 minutes. While the chilies are soaking, you can move on to prepping the meat (Step 3 below). Or if you’d like to complete the chile preparation before you go further with the recipe, proceed to Step 2 once the chilies have finished soaking.
- For this step, you may want to wear kitchen gloves to protect your hands (or at a minimum wash your hands after this step), since you’ll be working directly with some very spicy chile peppers: Drain the soaked chilies and discard the soaking liquid (it’ll be bitter). Then remove the stems from the chilies and peel off as much of their outer skin as you can (you may not be able to remove much skin; don’t worry if you can’t). Split the chile peppers lengthwise and remove their seeds (you can scrape the seeds off with a spoon, or even rinse them off by briefly holding the peppers under running water—this is easy and effective). Then chop the chilies coarsely. Add the chilies to a blender jar along with about ½ cup water (enough to cover them). Whirl until you’ve minced the chilies finely. If you weren’t able to remove the chilies’ skins, force the contents of the blender through a fine sieve (which will catch the pieces of skin). Or if a few pieces of chile skin don't bother you, you can skip the sieve (we often do). Reserve the minced chile mixture until Step 8. (If you wish, you can prepare the chilies a day ahead and store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator.)
- Now prepare the meat (as noted above, you can start this process right after Step 1 if you prefer): Pat the meat dry with paper towels, then cut it into chunks of ¼ to ½ inch. Salt the meat to season it. Heat a frying pan (cast iron is ideal) and add enough oil or lard to just cover the bottom of the pan. Add the chunks of meat to the pan and brown them thoroughly on all sides (this will takes 5 minutes or a bit less—smaller pieces brown more quickly). Don’t overcrowd the pan, since the meat won’t brown well if you do. You will probably need to brown the meat in two or more batches, adding more fat to the pan between batches if necessary. When each batch of meat is fully browned, remove the chunks of meat to a plate covered with paper towels (so the grease can drain).
- While the meat is browning, peel and dice the onions. Warm a large cooking pot or Dutch oven—a 4-quart size is good—over medium heat (this is what you’ll be using to cook the chili). When the Dutch oven is warm, add a tablespoon of olive oil or lard and allow it to heat (it will shimmer when it’s hot). Then add the diced onions, season with salt, and cook until the onions are just on the verge of browning (5 to 8 minutes). While the onions are cooking, move on to Steps 5 and 6.
- Peel the garlic and mince it finely (or slice it thinly).
- Wash the jalapeño peppers (if using) and cut them lengthwise (you may want to wear rubber gloves while doing this step). Use a teaspoon to scoop out the ribs and seeds (be careful, the oil on these is hot; keep fingers away from your eyes). Chop the peppers into very small dice (or use a mini food processor). Place the peppers in a bowl until you’re ready to use them, then wash your hands with soap and water to remove the hot jalapeño oil from your skin (if you didn’t wear rubber gloves). You may want to reserve a slice or two of jalapeño for garnish.
- When the onions are on the verge of browning, add the chopped garlic and jalapeño and cook them for a minute or two.
- Add the browned meat to the Dutch oven or cooking pot, along with the chile mixture from Step 2. Add the cumin, coriander, and oregano, and stir the mixture. Allow to simmer for a few minutes.
- Next add the beef broth: Start with 2 cups or so, just enough to barely cover the meat (though you’ll probably need to add more as the chili cooks and the liquid evaporates; you don’t want to cook away all of the liquid). Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Partially cover the pot with a lid, leaving a crack.
- Set a kitchen timer for 30 minutes. Allow the chili mixture to simmer until the timer goes off, then taste the sauce. Add salt if necessary. If you want a spicier chili, you can add some dried chile powder (ancho would be good) or a bit of hot sauce.
- Cook the chili at a simmer for at least another hour and a half (it tastes good after 2 hours total cooking—but even better if you cook it for 3 or 4 hours). Add more beef broth (or water, if you run out of beef broth) during the cooking process if the liquid seems to be evaporating too quickly.
- When you’re ready to serve the chili: If the mixture is too soupy, you can add some masa harina (say ¼ cup) or cornmeal and let it cook for 10 or 15 minutes—that should tighten up the chili. Or just cook the chili a bit longer (what we usually do) to let more of the liquid evaporate. Or just serve a bit soupy—it's good that way, too.
- We like to serve this chili with a garnish of jalapeño pepper slices. Chopped onions or grated cheddar cheese work well too. Oyster crackers are a classic accompaniment.
- A refresher on terminology: A “chile” (with an e) is a pepper; the plural is chilies. Chilies can be either fresh or dried. When you dry chile peppers and grind them up, you produce chile powder. Chile powder contains nothing but chilies. By contrast, chili (with an i) powder is a mixture of herbs and spices that includes chile powder as one of its ingredients. Peppers and powders can both be used to flavor the dish called “chili.” Totally clear, eh?
- Ancho, guajillo, and pasilla chilies and are the most common varieties you’ll find wherever whole chilies are sold. Many supermarkets will carry at least one of these. Ancho is the mildest, and also the variety most often found in Texas chili.
- Worried about the heat level of the chilies? Then use no more than 6 whole chilies the first time you make this dish. If the resulting chili is too wimpy for your taste, it’s easy enough to add dried chile powder as the dish cooks.
- Don’t want to mess with whole chilies? Just substitute 2 to 4 tablespoons of chile powder instead. Definitely use ancho (it’s traditional in Texas chili). These days you can find ancho chile powder in almost any supermarket. It has great taste, and is fairly mild. We also like to add some medium Hatch chile powder. And if you want to kick things up a bit, add some chipotle chile powder too.
- When we don’t use whole chilies, we find that two tablespoons of chile powder yields a fairly mild chili (so we generally increase the amount to four tablespoons). You may prefer less spice than we do (or more). That’s why in Step 10 we have you taste the chili—so you can adjust the seasoning.
- You can also substitute chili powder for chile powder(s) in this recipe. As noted above, however, chili powder contains seasonings in addition to dried powdered chilies. If you go this route, use 3 to 5 tablespoons of chili powder. Reduce the cumin, coriander, and oregano by about half, or eliminate them altogether (since these flavors generally are incorporated into chili powder). The taste of the finished dish won’t be as crisp if you use chili powder, but you’ll still be pleased with it.
- For this recipe, you should use a cut of meat that will hold its texture during the long cooking process. We like to use chuck roast, which is flavorful and relatively inexpensive (and when you cut up chuck roast, it’s easy to follow the natural muscle separations, which makes things go faster). But any stewing cut of beef will work. Top or bottom round also works well. If in doubt, tell your butcher what you want to make—he’ll have some suggestions. And if you don't want to cut up your own chuck roast, the butcher can do that for you, too.
- Instead of oil or lard, you may want to substitute rendered bacon fat in this recipe—it adds excellent flavor. (You can even use the bacon from which you rendered the fat; just chop it up and toss it into the cooking pot).
- Instead of beef broth, we often use beef base (we add water to the base to make “stock”). Beef base is stock that’s been cooked down until it becomes a paste—and we think it’s better than most canned broths. You can usually find beef base in the soup aisle of your supermarket. We like the brand called Better Than Bouillon, but there are other good ones out there. (BTW, we receive no compensation for recommending this brand; we’re just enthusiastic users of their products.) You can also substitute plain water for beef broth or base—though of course this will have less flavor.
- Kosher salt is more coarse than regular table salt, so it’s less salty by volume. If you’re substituting table salt for Kosher, always use less—about half as much. If the dish isn’t salty enough for your taste, you can always add more later.
- Cooks have developed many variations on Texas chili. Some include beer or strong coffee as part of the liquid. Some add chocolate and/or cinnamon (or allspice) to the mix. Some cooks like to cut the beef into chunks of 1 or 2 inches (too big in our opinion—how do you fit that on a spoon?). Others prefer to grind the beef coarsely (a ¼- or ½-inch grind would be about right). The bottom line? There are lots of ways to make “authentic” Texas chili.
“What intense flavor!” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs, spooning her Texas-Style Chili con Carne.
“It’s a perfect dish for watching football,” I said.
“Too bad your favorite teams are the St. Louis Rams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers,” said Mrs K R.
“Yes,” I sighed with resignation. “They’re both in a race to the bottom.”
“Well, a hearty bowl of this chili would definitely make their games more palatable,” said Mrs K R.
“Especially with a brewski or two,” I said.
“Or maybe a slug of whiskey,” said Mrs K R. “Judging from what I saw of the most recent Rams game.”
“Don’t remind me,” I winced.
“Now, now, don’t be dejected,” said Mrs K R. “Maybe you’ll get lucky next time and the Rams’ defense will decide to show up for the game.”
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