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Things can get heated when you're debating pizza styles or barbecue cities, but the ultimate chili? That's walking into a war zone.
For the sake of my safety, I'm not going to claim to have perfected the traditional dish. After all, there are almost as many recipes out there as there are people who love to eat them. Instead, I'm going to talk about a version of chili that doesn't normally get the fiery endorsement it deserves: pulled-pork chili. All of the fuss and fighting is usually focused on crocks full of beef, but there's something to be said for tender shredded pork shoulder slow-cooked in a well-spiced red sauce.
That something, by the way, is give me some now.
One of my favorite things about this particular chili is that you don't have to babysit it. The pulled pork and the sauce cook together in the slow cooker while you do whatever it is you feel like doing, other than endlessly sweating over a hot stovetop. The meat takes six hours to cook, and after that, all you have to do is shred it, whip up some browned-butter cornbread batter, spoon it on top, and let the magic happen over the next hour. The batter cooks into moist, dense dumplings, right on top of the pulled-pork chili.
It winds up just as tasty as any beefy bowl of chili I've ever eaten. Better than most, even. It's like the old adage goes: Once you go swine, you never rewind. Or something like that.
If you want to get the most bang for your buck, there's no better choice than a pork shoulder. It's one of the most forgiving and affordable cuts of meat, and its mildness makes it the perfect foundation for building up sweet, smoky, and spicy flavors. That's not to say that the pork itself is bland, though. Pork shoulder typically contains plenty of marbling, and when it's slow-cooked, that fat liquefies and keeps the meat moist and tasty. This is why pork shoulder is such a popular cut in the barbecue scene, and also why it makes such a great addition to chili.
The key to getting the most flavorful pork shoulder, whether in a slow cooker or otherwise, is to brown the exterior, building up flavor through the Maillard reaction, while very slowly cooking the interior. That allows enough time for not only those streaks of fat but also connective tissues to break down and tenderize the meat. In this case, I cut my pork into large chunks, dab them to remove liquid from the surface, and then sear them to get the outsides nice and brown.
Then I add them to the slow cooker with the remaining chili ingredients and let them simmer away, while the complex browned flavors meld and the meat gradually acquiesces to the heat.
We could talk about meat choices until the cows come home (or the pigs, in this case), but it's not chili without the sauce—the seasonings, the texture, the thickness, all of the details that make chili the renowned and beloved comfort food that it is. However, the sauce is also the part that varies the most in every aspect, from the amount of spices to the types of peppers to the secret ingredients that chili champions swear by.
To start making my sauce, I pick up my chili powder—then I place it right back in the spice cabinet where it belongs. When you're using a slow cooker, you need consistency (you can't taste as you go, since that will allow the steam to escape) and strong, fresh flavors, which you can't get with chili powder. Instead, I reconstitute dried chilies in chicken stock, blend them to a paste along with some of the other chili ingredients, and use that as the base of my chili. This yields a more even distribution of the chilies and prevents any variability that you might get from using the powdered alternative.
Most people assume that chilies are used to add heat to a recipe, but several types of peppers can add way more flavor than fire to a dish. In fact, I've found that fresh jalapeños are my preference for providing the initial hint of heat, while dried chilies are best for fruity, woodsy, earthy, and bittersweet flavors. By keeping the heat to a minimum and playing up the other chilies, I'm able to get a more complex final product without a sadistic level of spiciness. If it needs some extra punch, a little hot sauce stirred in toward the end will do the trick.
Since the goal is a complex, layered sauce, it's necessary to add more than just chilies to the pot. I reach for ingredients commonly used in barbecue sauces and Mexican moles to balance things out:
- Cumin, which gives a pleasantly funky, earthy flavor.
- Light brown sugar, which lends sweetness and helps to cut the acidity of the tomatoes.
- Tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce, which add depth and umami flavor.
- Unsweetened cocoa powder, which adds richness and balances the strong taste of the tomatoes.
I add crushed tomatoes and beer to the paste to dilute those more concentrated ingredients. I also whisk in a bit of cornstarch to help thicken the sauce as it cooks—this is especially important given that the always-covered slow cooker doesn't allow for reduction through evaporation.
Finally, I mix in some dark kidney beans, which cook to a creamy, buttery consistency. They're optional, but they add great texture and heartiness. It's up to you whether to use them, but I'm firmly planted in the yes-to-beans camp.
The Cornbread and Dumplings
The sauce, pork, and beans make for great chili on their own, but to really turn this into a full meal, I add moist cornbread dumplings on top, which cook in the slow cooker on top of the shredded pork. Brown butter and cheddar cheese in the cornbread batter both lend rich, hazelnut-like undertones, which boost the flavors of the meat when everything is served together.
Because the cornbread steams above the sauce within a closed slow cooker, it's important not to make the batter too wet. A more traditional batter will remain too loose in such a moist environment, and never really set into a proper bread-like topping. A drier batter might seem strange at first to cornbread aficionados, but under slow-cooker conditions, it creates a dense, dumpling-like topping that won't just bleed into the stew.
The bickering over the best chili will never end, but if you're more interested in trying out different, delicious recipes than scowling at your plate, this pulled-pork chili should be on your list of must-makes. And you never know—you just might find that you've got a new favorite to stand by after all.
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