Flavor Bomb Your Chili Recipe
How do you like your chili? Thick or thin? Beans or no beans? Spicy or mild? The way Mom makes it? Or the way your mother-in-law makes it? Wait … that’s a trap … don’t answer that one. No matter the preferences, there are some pretty simple, but important, steps to getting the most flavor from your ingredients into your perfect bowl of chili.
FOND-NESS FOR FLAVOR
The first step for many chili recipes is browning the meat. What recipes may fail to tell you is HOW to do that to maximize flavor. If you use a nonstick pan, or if you do not preheat your pan before adding the meat, you will not develop “fond” … the caramelized bits of browned food that stick to the bottom of the pan while the meat cooks. These “bits” are flavor bomb numero uno! Later in the cooking process, when liquid is added to the pan, this fond will release wonderful flavors.
Hopefully your recipe will tell you to add the onion during this first step too. Not only does the onion flavor the meat, it pulls in some of the fat from the meat as it cooks.
This first step to creating a better chili gets an extra boost from proper seasoning. Salt and black pepper are great but let’s elevate that ground beef with steak seasoning! Along with the salt and pepper, most steak seasonings will add some garlic and/or onion, citrus, herbs, and a smoky flavor like cumin. Use your favorite steak seasoning and take a minute to enjoy the aroma when it hits the pan!
TIP 1: CARAMELIZE THE BEEF WITH ONION AND STEAK SEASONING
PLAY 20 QUESTIONS WITH YOUR CHILI POWDER
Not all chili powders are created equal … and they shouldn’t be. Personal preferences allow for a wide range of flavors … some sweet, some spicy, some smoky, and some are just mild and balanced. What’s important is knowing what YOU like and finding, or making, a blend that matches your expectations.
The base of chili powder is just that … dried chilies ground into powder. FYI: chile powder is the powder made from ground, dried chile peppers; chili powder is a blend of chile peppers and other spices, herbs, and seasonings. Frequently, the chilies found in chili powder include paprika, ancho (dried poblano), cayenne, and chipotle (smoked jalapeño). Paprika can be sweet, hot (Hungarian), or smoked (Spanish). Most common additions to chile powder are garlic, onion, cumin (more smokiness), and oregano. Occasionally, allspice and/or clove will be included for a warm undertone. If all this has you curious, here’s an article from Bon Appetit to read.
So what happens if you buy a chili powder but it doesn’t meet your expectations? Modify it. If you want more of a smoky flavor, add cumin, Spanish paprika, ancho chili powder, or a combination. If you are looking for more heat, add cayenne, crushed red pepper, or Hungarian paprika. If it’s too spicy add a little brown sugar and some sweet paprika. Always add a little at a time and remember, those flavors will develop in the cooking process.
Finally, make sure you look at the label to see what else has been added to your powder. Is there salt? Is there sugar? I was quite surprised to find one package blend listed wheat flour as the first ingredient. Most likely, this will help thicken the soup but, personally, that’s not why I’m buying chili powder.
TIP 2: FIND OR MAKE A CHILI POWDER THAT FITS YOUR TASTE
BROWN THAT RED TOMATO PASTE
Tomato paste is a great way to add bonus tomato flavor, and thickness, to a chili recipe. To get the best flavor it needs to be browned. Add a couple tablespoons (or a whole can if you want a thicker soup base) directly to the pan after cooking the meat and onions. Stir the paste occasionally to prevent burning. The paste should start turning a deep red/brown, releasing a more intense flavor.
TIP 3: CARAMELIZE THAT TOMATO PASTE
GET A SECRET INGREDIENT
As mentioned above, some brands will add allspice or clove to their chili powder blend. Personally I love this. They need to be added with great restraint as a little goes a long way. No one wants to take a bite of chili and say “Wow! Does this have clove in it?” It should be a reaction of “mmmmm … what is your secret?”
I know people who add chocolate or cocoa powder to their chili to achieve that same reaction.
In college, one of my buddies convinced me to add a can of beer to my chili. Pretty sure the cheap beer we drank in college didn’t HELP my chili … but I quickly learned it didn’t HURT it either! If I would start experimenting with beer in my chili, a lager or stout would probably be first in line.
My secret ingredient? Coffee. Instant coffee/espresso powder. Just a small amount (1/2 teaspoon or less) makes a big difference. But don’t tell anyone … it’ll be our little secret.
I’m just kidding … tell everyone. It’s a great conversation starter!
TIP 4: INGREDIENT SECRETS AREN’T MEANT TO BE KEPT … SHARE THEM!
DO YOUR SPICES BLOOM?
Many recipes will instruct you to just dump all the ingredients into your pot and simmer for a certain amount of time. So much flavor is lost by not adding and heating the ingredients in layers. Your pan is developing flavors with each step and releasing them later into the remaining ingredients. Just like creating fond from the meat and onions and browning the tomato paste, we want to pull the flavors out of the spices, herbs, and seasonings you add to your soup. This is called “blooming”.
Once the meat/onions have cooked and the tomato paste has caramelized, add your chili powder and other dry seasonings (e.g. cumin, coffee, garlic, oregano, etc.) to the pan. Give them a couple minutes in the tomato paste (or just the warm pan) to “wake up”.
Take a minute to smell this … it’s amazing!
TIP 5: WAKE UP YOUR DRY SPICES, HERBS, AND SEASONINGS
IN THE THICK … OR THIN … OF IT
Beans or no beans … that is the argument. It doesn’t have to be though. Let it be a preference. Chili beans do add flavor, protein, and fiber to a bowl of chili. That being said, some people (kids in particular) just do not like the texture of beans. If that’s the case, blend a can in a food processor and add it. This is a great way to thicken a batch of chili that turned out thinner than you hoped or for chili dogs.
Achieving the ideal chili thickness for your preference is also influenced by the types of tomatoes you add at this point. Whether you use pureed or diced tomatoes, tomato juice or sauce, or some combination, is up to you. When this liquid hits the pan, all those flavors you developed earlier (the fond from the meat and onions, the caramelized tomato paste, the bloomed spices) are released into the tomatoes.
Adding some water is fine AT THIS POINT. It has time to incorporate with the other ingredients. (If you add water just before serving, the chili will taste … well, watered down.) If you want to add liquid, this is a good time to try that beer we talked about earlier or maybe even a cup of coffee.
TIP 6: MAKE ADJUSTMENTS TO THE CONSISTENCY OF THE CHILI EARLY IN THE COOKING PROCESS
LET THE CHILI RELAX
Give that chili time to marinate. I’m sorry, but you just can’t rush chili! I see tons of recipes for 20-minute or 30-minute chili. Drives. Me. Crazy. You’ve made it this far …
Let it simmer for at least 30 minutes. If you added beer, the alcohol needs to cook out. This slow cooking time is what it takes for all the layers to come together.
Please understand that simmering is not boiling. You should see small, gentle bubbling during the simmering process but not big, rolling ones. Boiling changes the consistency of the soup base and can lead to burning.
NOTE: If you do burn your chili, DON’T STIR OR SCRAPE THE PAN! Transfer the unburnt contents to another pan, leaving the overcooked/burnt portion in the original pan to discard. Taste the salvaged soup to determine if you rescued it before it took on a charred flavor.
TIP 7: SIMMER, DON’T BOIL
LET THE CHILI CHILL
Now I’m really going to test your patience … wait one day. Wait for the chili to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight. Personally, I don’t think there’s a more important step to improving your chili (or almost any other soup) than making it a day in advance. Simmering develops the flavors with heat. Resting the chili for one day creates the perfect balance.
Besides, how great is it to be able to just pull that pan out of the refrigerator and know that dinner is almost ready??
TIP 8: GIVE IT A 24-HOUR NAP
ONE CHILI … ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES
It is impossible to make everyone happy with one batch of chili. You can make that one batch go a long way by offering a topping bar! Pickled jalapeños (and the brine) for those who like it spicier. Sour cream or Greek yogurt for those who want to cool it down. Saltines and corn chips for dipping … or, like my dad, for crushing up and stirring into his bowl until it becomes a chowder. Onions, shredded cheese, avocado chunks, Tabasco sauce, and … as was suggested by one of my Instagram friends … even peanut butter?
Haven’t tried that one … but you know I will!
I also have to recommend this easy Beer Bread recipe to go with your meal.
Every once in a while, we will have enough chili leftover that we need to give it new life. Chili dogs are a favorite but we also love serving it like my mother-in-law did: over spaghetti! Next time we are going to have some over baked potatoes or incorporated into an omelette.
TIP 9: OFFER A VARIETY OF TOPPINGS FOR PERSONALIZATION
A SWEET TRIP DOWN CINNAMON LANE
If you know, you know.
To some of you this is a no-brainer. To others, a lack of good judgement. Still others are scratching their heads wondering …
Growing up, many of us experienced the magic of a school lunch program run by women who cooked all of our meals from scratch. When the school calendar was sent home (yes, on paper), the most important piece of information was found on the back, the menu for the month: what day would we have chili and cinnamon rolls. The aroma in that cafeteria was amazing.
TIP 10: DON’T KNOCK IT TIL YOU TRY IT!
And if you’re not going to try it, I have one question or you … can I have your cinnamon roll?