I gotta admit up front: The title of this article is somewhat misleading. Yes, we will discuss chili, and yes, it's the best chili I personally have ever made.
But! To call something "the best chili ever" implies that the recipe is perfect, and perfection implies that there is no room for improvement. I can only hope that others will continue perfecting the chili work that began on the Tex-Mex border, and that I continue testing, well after the last rich and spicy remnant is licked clean off the bottom of the bowl. With that disclaimer out of the way, let's move on to the testing.
My first step was to set up some parameters that would define the ultimate chili. Certainly, there are disputes in the chili world as to what makes the best. Ground beef or chunks? Are tomatoes allowed? Should we even mention beans? But discounting a few people (who are most likely from strange places, like Cincinnati or Japan), I think we can all agree on a few things.
The ultimate chili should:
- Have a rich, complex chili flavor that combines sweet, bitter, hot, fresh, and fruity elements in balance.
- Have a robust, meaty, beefy flavor.
- Assuming that it contains beans, have beans that are tender, creamy, and intact.
- Be bound together by a thick, deep-red sauce.
To achieve these goals, I decided to break down the chili into its distinct elements—the chilies, the beef, the beans, and the flavorings—perfecting each one before putting them all together in one big happy pot.
I have bad memories of my chili-eating college days—when chili was made by adding a can of beans and a can of tomatoes to ground beef, then adding one of every spice on the rack (and two of cumin), then simmering. The finished product inevitably had a totally unbalanced flavor, with a powdery, gritty mouthfeel from the dried spices.
My first goal was to ditch the powdered spices and premixed chili powders (which are at worst inedible, and at best inconsistent) and go straight for the source: real dried chilies.
They come in a baffling array. To make my selection easier, I decided to taste every variety of whole chili I could find—both powdered in a spice grinder, and puréed in a blender with water—taking note of both their spice level and their flavor profile. I noticed that most of them fell into one of four distinct categories:
- Sweet and fresh: These peppers have distinct aromas reminiscent of red bell peppers and fresh tomatoes. They include costeño, New Mexico (a.k.a. dried Anaheim, California, or Colorado), and choricero.
- Hot: An overwhelming heat. The best, like cascabels, also have some complexity, while others like, the pequin or árbol, are all heat and not much else.
- Smoky: Some peppers, like chipotles (dried, smoked jalapeños), are smoky because of the way they are dried. Others, like ñoras or guajillos, have a natural musty, charred-wood smokiness.
- Rich and fruity: Distinct aromas of sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, chocolate, and coffee. Some of the best-known Mexican chilies, like ancho, mulato, and pasilla, are in this category.
Just as I occasionally like to mix up my Beatles Rock Band with a bit of Super Mario or old-school Street Fighter II, variety is what keeps you coming back to the chili pot.
The best spice strategy: Cover the low notes with a chili from the rich-and-fruity category, the high notes with a chili from the sweet-and-fresh category, and add a hit of heat with one from the hot, giving the smokier chilies a miss for reasons purely of personal taste. Unless you're camping or cooking it in a Dutch oven, there's no room in chili for smokiness.
Eliminating the gritty texture of powdered chilies: Ditch the powder, toast the chilies whole to enhance their aroma, cook them down in stock, and purée them until they're completely smooth, creating a rich, concentrated flavor base for my chili.
Beyond beans, the meat is the biggest source of contention amongst chili lovers. Some (like my lovely wife) insist on ground beef, while others (like myself) prefer larger, stew-like chunks. Regular Food Lab readers may have noticed that more often than not, I begrudgingly let my wife have her way.
This time, I was determined to fight for my own rights, or, at the very least, make her compromise her chili convictions.
After trying store-ground beef, home-ground beef, beef cut into one-inch chunks, and beef roughly chopped by hand into a textured mix of one-eighth-inch to half-inch pieces, the last method won out. It provided little bits of nearly ground beef that added body and helped keep the stew (and my marriage) well bound, while still providing enough large, chunkier pieces to provide textural interest and something for a real man (like myself) to bite on.
I decided to go with bone-in short ribs—my favorite cut of beef for braising—hoping that I'd be able to use the bones to add extra flavor and body to my chili later on.
As anyone who's ever made a Bolognese knows, it's nearly impossible to properly brown a pot of ground beef. It's a simple matter of the ratio of surface area to volume. Ground beef has tons of surface area for liquid and fat to escape.
As soon as you start cooking it, liquid starts pooling in the bottom of the pot, completely submerging the meat and leaving it to gurgle and stew in its own gray-brown juices. Only after these juices have evaporated can any browning take place. The sad truth? With ground (or, in our case, finely chopped) beef, you have to settle for either dry, gritty meat, or no browned flavor.
Then I had a thought: Why was I bothering trying to brown the beef after I'd chopped it? If browned flavor in the stew was what I was after, does it even matter when I brown the beef, as long as it ends up getting browned?
I grabbed another batch of short ribs, this time searing them in a hot pan before removing the meat from the bone and chopping it down to its final size.
The result? Chili with chopped-beef texture, but deeply browned flavor.
If you are from Texas, you may as well skip to the next section. But if you're like me and believe beans are as integral to a great bowl of chili as beef, if not more so, read on.
To be honest, there's nothing wrong with canned kidney beans in a chili. They are uniformly cooked and hold their shape well, and—at least in chili—the relative lack of flavor in canned versus dried beans is not an issue. There are enough other flavors going on to compensate.
But sometimes the urge to crack some culinary skulls and the desire for some food-science myth-busting are so strong that I can't resist. So we're going to have a quick diversion into the land of dried beans.
If you have a chef (as in "the boss," that is, not a personal one); a grandmother from Tuscany; or an aunt from Toulouse, you may have at one point been told never to add salt to your beans until they are completely cooked, lest you prevent their tough skins from softening fully. In fact, in some restaurants I worked in, it was thought that overcooked beans could actually be saved by salting the water. (I assure you, whatever firmness was reattained was purely psychosomatic in nature.)
But how often have you actually cooked two batches of beans side by side, one soaked and cooked in salted water, and the other soaked and cooked in plain water? Chances are, never. And now, you never will. I present to you the results of just such a test:
Both batches of beans were cooked just until they were fully softened, with none of the papery toughness of an undercooked skin (about two hours for both batches, after an overnight soak). As you can clearly see, the unsalted beans end up absorbing too much water and blowing out long before their skins properly soften, while the salted beans remain fully intact.
The problem? Magnesium and calcium, two ions found in bean skins that act kind of like buttresses, supporting the skins' cell structure and keeping them firm. When you soak beans in salted water overnight, some of the sodium ions end up playing musical chairs with the calcium and magnesium, leaving you with skins that soften at the same rate as the beans' interiors.
So where does the old myth come from? Probably the same place most culinary myths come from: grandmothers, aunts, and chefs. Never trusted 'em, never will.
The chili-standard duo of cumin and coriander were a given, as were a couple of cloves, their medicinal, mouth-numbing quality a perfect balance for the spicy heat of the chilies, much like numbing Sichuan peppers can play off chilies in the Chinese flavor combination known as ma-la (numb-hot).
I also decided to give star anise a try, in a nod to Heston Blumenthal and his treatment of Bolognese sauce. (He's found that, in moderation, it can boost the flavor of browned meats without making its anise-like presence known. He's right, as I quickly discovered.)
As for toasting, I made sure to toast the spices before grinding them. Why? Toasting heats the volatile flavor compounds in the spices' cells, causing them to change shape, recombine, and form new, more complex aromas.
If you toast post-grinding, these volatile aromas are too exposed to the air. They can easily leap right out of the spices and dissipate, leaving you with more aroma around your kitchen while you cook, but less aroma around your food when you serve it.
With the spices accounted for, the last thing was working on a cooking method. Aside from puréeing the chilies and browning the short ribs, I saw no reason to stray far from tradition.
I sautéed onions, garlic, and oregano in rendered beef fat (along with some fresh Thai chilies for added heat and freshness); cooked down the chili purée; deglazed with some chicken stock (I tried a bit of beer, but found the flavor too distracting); added the beef, its bones, and the soaked beans, along with some tomatoes; and simmered it all until it was done.
So how'd it taste? Great. But not that great.
So how could I add complexity? If my chilies already had distinct aromas of coffee and chocolate, could there be any harm in adding real coffee and chocolate to play up those flavors? After all, chocolate is a common ingredient in many true south-of-the-border chili blends (like mole negro), and coffee is commonly used as a bitter flavor enhancer in sweet and savory dishes alike.
I made a new batch incorporating one ounce of unsweetened chocolate and a tablespoon of finely ground dark-roast espresso beans into my chili purée, which instantly bumped up its complexity and bitterness. Although chocolate aromas were readily detectable during the first few minutes of cooking, the scent quickly dissipated, providing subtlety as the chili cooked.
Almost there. The only thing remaining was to address meatiness.
Rounding Up the Usual Suspects: Umami Bombs
In the last few months, ever since I started my experimentation with turkey burgers, the only things I've kept closer by my side than my meat grinder and my wife are my jars of Marmite, soy sauce, and anchovies—three umami bombs that can increase the meatiness of nearly any dish involving ground meat and/or stews.
Adding a dab of each to my chili purée boosted my already-beefy short ribs to the farthest reaches of meatiness, a realm where seared skinless cows traipse across hills of ground beef, darting in and out of fields of skirt steak, stopping only to take sips of rivers overflowing with thick glace de viande...
Convinced that I had finally reached the pinnacle of my chili-centric existence, I ladled up a bowl for myself, noting the perfectly intact, creamy beans; the good mix of finely chopped beef and robust beef chunks; and the deep-red sauce.
Inhaling deeply, I stopped and suddenly thought of penne alla vodka, the once-ubiquitous dish that enjoyed a brief moment of stardom in the 1980s—when all the red-sauce joints decided they wanted to be pink-sauce joints—before realizing that the 1990s don't like pink.
Why did this mysteriously enter my head at such a critical moment of introspection? It all has to do with something called an azeotrope.
It's a curious fact that although water boils at 100°C (212°F), and alcohol boils at 78.5°C (173°F), a mixture of alcohol and water will boil at a lower temperature than either pure alcohol or water on its own.
You see, alcohol and water are a bit moleculist (the molecular equivalent of a racist), but only a bit, meaning they stick with their own kind just a bit tighter than with each other. So, when the water and alcohol are mixed, an individual water molecule is further away from other water molecules, making it much easier for it to escape and vaporize. Likewise for the alcohol.
So what's this got to do with chili?
All of this aroma-building serves no purpose whatsoever unless those aromas reach your nose, right? So after cooking the chili, my goal should be to get as much of the aroma out of the bowl and into the air as possible.
I reasoned that by adding a couple shots of hard liquor—say, some vodka, bourbon, or tequila—I'd not only help the alcohol-soluble flavor compounds in the chili reach my nose and mouth more efficiently, but, because of the mixture's azeotropic nature, I'd actually help the water-soluble compounds vaporize more efficiently as well.
It worked like a charm, and, after a thorough tasting of vodka, Scotch, bourbon, and tequila, in the name of good science, I came to the conclusion that they're all good.
Long Island iced chili, anyone?
This may all seem long and tedious to do in one shot, and, I admit, even I sometimes prefer doing things the short, easy, and less flavorful way. But the beauty of multi-step recipes is that even if you change only one thing in your routine—adding chocolate and coffee to your mix, grinding spices after toasting instead of before—the results should be better, and isn't better food what it's all about?