The Food Lab: The Pressure Cooker Makes Short Work of This Authentic Texas Chile con Carne

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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The pressure cooker turns Texas chile con carne into a short affair. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Listen: Real chili is made with beef, tomatoes, beans, and chili powder.

Alright, alright. Settle down and breathe slowly. How many of you out there felt your blood pressure rise and your vision start to tint red while reading that sentence?

Okay, now how many of you are Texans?

I'd be willing to bet that the Venn diagram representing those two parties looks like a near perfect circle, because in Texas, a real bowl of chile con carne means beef, chilies, and not much else.

Now don't get me wrong: I'm no chili snob. I'd happily dig into a bowl of chili made with beans and tomatoes or pork or even chili with no meat whatsoever. But sometimes, nothing will do other than a bowl of the Texas red. Rich, deep, and meaty with tender chunks of beef slow-simmered in a broth rich with the smoldering heat of dried whole chilies.

In the past, I've always relied on some old-fashioned stovetop simmering to make my Texas Chile con Carne, and the method works incredibly well if you're willing to put in the time. But I wondered what would happen if I tried to make the same recipe using my pressure cooker.

Hint: It all works out well in the end and with only a few minor adaptations.

The Keys to Good Chili: Whole Chilies and Beef

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The best way to improve your chili right off the bat is to ditch the pre-made chili powder and start with honest to goodness whole dried chilies. I also like to start with a whole beef chuck roast, which is inexpensive, packs tons of beefy flavor, and gives you a bowl that's a lot more interesting than you'll ever get out of store-bought ground beef.

Whole chilies do take a little time and effort to prepare for cooking—you've got to clean them, toast them (the microwave is your friend for this), rehydrate them in hot water or stock, and purée them—but man, is it worth the effort. Check out our guide on how to prepare whole dried chilies for some more detailed photos of the process. It's really easy.

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When it comes to the beef, one important question is how to brown it. I knew from past testing that trying to brown individual small cubes of beef is not the most efficient way to go about the process. More exposed surface area means more moisture loss from the meat, which in turn means that instead of searing and adding flavor, you end up steaming the meat. This in turn means it takes far longer to get good browning on the meat, and isn't the whole point of a pressure cooker to speed the process up?

In my previous chile con carne recipe, I addressed this issue by only bothering to deeply brown half of the meat, adding the rest into the stew completely raw. Thing is, those browned flavors come from soluble compounds that end up making their way around the entire pot as the meat stews. You end up with excellent flavor and better texture in a fraction of the time.

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This time around, I took it even one step further. Rather than browning cubes of beef, I decided to cut my chuck roast into large slabs, browning them in my pressure cooker as I would entire steaks. I mean, just look at the color on that cut there! That translates into better flavor down the line and cuts your total browning time to about a third.

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I cut the meat into large chunks only after browning it.

Meanwhile, the browned beef left plenty of tasty looking fond on the bottom of the pot, which I deglazed by sautéing onions, garlic, and a blend of spices directly in the pressure cooker and adding the soaked chilies and stock to the pot. As a pressure cooker doesn't allow for reduction in the same way that a stovetop simmer does, I also cut back on the amount of stock I used from two quarts to 1 1/2 quarts total (I use chicken stock because it has much better flavor than beef stock when you're buying it from the store).

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I transferred the entire contents of the pressure cooker to my blender to blend into a purée, adding a few canned chipotle chilies to the mix for the smoky-hot flavor.

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Finally, I put everything back into the pressure cooker, including the cubed beef, and cooked it on high pressure (about 15 psi) for just 30 minutes. As the meat and chilies cook, the beef tenderizes while the chili broth browns, taking on a richer, deeper color and transforming from a dark red to a ruddy, intense brown.

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In the stovetop version, the beef takes at least a couple hours to reach the fall-apart-tender phase. With the pressure cooker, you're there in a fraction of the time.

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Finally, I added a few more ingredients just to brighten up and balance the flavors. Fish sauce added its umami punch, making the whole thing taste beefier (yeah, I add that s*&t to everything), a dash of apple cider vinegar brightened and balanced the rich flavors, some masa harina thickened up the broth to a stew-like consistency, and a dash of hot sauce added its fresh, vinegary heat.

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You wind up with a bowl of chili that tastes like it's been simmering over a live fire all day, but in reality took just about an hour start to finish. If you want to really help with that illusion, do what I did: transfer the chili to a nice cast iron pot before you bring it to the table to serve it. Your guests will be none the wiser.

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If I told you that this is the kind of chili that wins awards, I'd be lying. Not because it's not the best damned chili around (it is), but because the recipe is free and available for every contestant to use any time they'd like.

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Cooks, start your pressure cookers. No wimps allowed.