Chili Secrets

Chili is the perfect make-ahead meal.  A batch simmering away in the crock pot is a favorite meal around our household, whether it’s a football Sunday in the fall, big family house party, or busy weeknight with little time to spare.  The savory aroma will get everyone’s mouths watering.  We’ve found lots of tips that make one pot of chili con carne stand out over another.  Also read our article, Great Bowls of Chili, for a guide to different styles of chill.


Our preferred method for making chili is to simmer it all day.  For this, a chunk of inside or outside round, cut into cubes, is the best meat choice.  You can brown it briefly to sear the outsides and then cook it low and slow in a pot all day until it becomes fork-tender and gives up all of it’s mouth-watering richness.  Ground meats are a better choice for quick-cooked chili. The texture can become mealy over long cooking periods and taste bland.  You can add  sausage, ham or bacon to boost ground meat flavour.


The International Chili Society forbids the addition of beans or pasta to their chili cookoff submissions.  However, many folks like to add beans to their homemade chili.  Black beans, pinto, and great white northern are good choices.  We often use canned beans for ease, making sure to drain and rinse them well.  If using dried beans, it is absolutely necessary to cook them separately before adding them to the chili.  Beans will not soften in the presence of acid or sugar, such as that found in tomatoes, vinegar, brown sugar, etc.


A slow cooker or crock pot is ideal for making chili.  If you’re going to tend your chili all day, a dutch oven or enamel cast-iron pot over a low burner works, too.  Browning cubed beef in a separate skillet with a scant bit of oil brings out natural juices and caramelization.  Sauté in small batches so that the build up of juices doesn’t threaten to boil the meat.  Thorough cooking will take place over long hours in the pot.  Toss onions and peppers into the skillet right after removing the browned meat.  They will soak up all those delicious juices and contribute rich sweetness.  Then deglaze the whole lot with a splash of liquid and toss into the pot.  These steps will make a world of difference.  Chili can be made a day or so ahead, cooled as quickly as possible in the most shallow dish possible (drop that core temp in under an hour) and then kept in the fridge or even frozen.  Thaw and/or reheat slowly on the stove or in a crock pot.  While it’s cooking, leave that lid on… Dave!  You want to retain the heat and let the chili self-baste until you near the end and need to start playing with the seasonings and consistency.


A few little tricks will make your chili rich and complex.  A splash of an acid like lemon juice or vinegar piques the rich flavour of slow cooked dishes.  Lightly season the vegetables and chili with salt & pepper early on but wait until the very end to really go after it with salt.  The slow cooking process changes the flavour balance tremendously over the cooking time and you don’t want to risk over salting.  Likewise, add the basic seasonings early so that they can cook into the meat and beans, but be prepared to adjust them a lot at the end.  Don’t panic if you taste it at some point and it seems flat.  Think of it as chili base.  It will all come together in the end.  Also keep in mind that you can always add spice and heat, but you can’t take it away.  Season a little milder to start with and add heat in dashes and pinches along the way.  Secret seasonings and ingredients are as varied, and sometimes bizarre, as your next-door neighbour’s Hawaiian shirt collection so don’t be afraid to play with your food.


We prefer our chili thick and rich enough to darned near hold up a spoon.  It takes hours and hours to reach that consistency.  Quick cooked ground meat chili is more fickle in that regard.  Most chili starts out looking too chunky so resist the urge to add liquid.  The meat and vegetables will give up a amazing amount of juice.  Midway through cooking, the chili might look too thin.  No worries.  The meat and beans will continue to soften and break apart, thickening the chili.  We like to mush some of the meat against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon at the end to help thicken it.  Pureed beans or cornmeal stirred into a thin chili will thicken it up easily (add salt).  Many traditional chili recipes call for those additions.  You can always add a scoop of salsa in the bowls if it’s just too darn thick. 


Must-have accompaniments in our house are salsa, shredded cheese, hot sauce, cornbread, and of course, beer.  Sour cream, crisped tortilla strips, rice & beans or refried beans, chopped onions or peppers, oyster crackers, and Fritos are also traditional sides.


 © FireHouse Gourmet 2017.  All rights reserved.  Site Map