How to Make Your Best Pot of Chili

(The Washington Post) -

A pot of chili may be one of winter’s ultimate comforts. Hearty, filling, hot and well-suited for a long cook time on your stovetop, filling your kitchen with warmth and enticing aromas. It’s also the kind of meal that lends itself to improvisation, at least for the home cook.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Think about the chili peppers and the chili powder. The chili powder “is the backbone” of chili, so that’s the first thing to figure out, says food writer and restaurateur Robb Walsh, who wrote a whole book dedicated to the topic. You can certainly buy chili powders, but what’s in the blends is often not disclosed. If you prefer more control, start with your choice of ground chilis, or grind them yourself, and combine them with other typical spices, such as cumin, oregano and garlic or onion powder.
  • Consider other additional flavors and ingredients. Dan Farber, chef de cuisine at a Washington restaurant, suggests coriander as a complementary spice, as well as smoked paprika (itself a ground pepper). He also likes to incorporate tomato paste, which briefly cooks in the pot after any aromatics have been sautéed in the fat left over from searing the meat. He deglazes (gets up those tasty brown bits) with beer, too. Other possible liquid additions include a little coffee, beef broth and dry red wine. Even chocolate can provide a savory depth that tasters won’t necessarily be able to identify. Tomatoes can work, too, though Walsh points out that some purists say that’s just making spaghetti sauce. “I tend to err on the light side, on not too much tomato, because you don’t want the tomato to take over,” he advises.
  • Pick your meat — or don’t. Traditional Texas chili, a “bowl of red,” is made with beef. End of story. But for the rest of us, ordinary ground beef is fine, too. It just depends on the texture you’re going for. Walsh does, however, recommend against more tender — and expensive — cuts of beef, which will get too mushy after a long cook time. Lamb, ground turkey and chicken are other options.

Most of the time you’re going to want to brown your meat in the pot first for better flavor and texture. Do it in batches so as not to overcrowd the pot. If a lot of fat is rendered, you don’t have to use all of it, but some makes for an ideal base for sautéing your aromatics.

As to meatless chilies, Walsh developed recipes with seitan, tempeh and tofu that serve as meat substitutes, but you can also skip those and just go heavy on the beans. Vegetables such as zucchini and sweet potatoes work well in vegetarian versions.

  • Add beans — or don’t. Yes, people have strong feelings about beans, but if you want beans, add them and don’t apologize. For cooked or canned beans especially, it’s best to add them in the last 20 to 30 minutes of cooking so they don’t disintegrate, Walsh says.
  • Cook it low and slow. “It’s a long, slow cook,” Walsh says. “Within reason, the longer, the better.” That type of cooking tenderizes meat, melds flavors and ideally creates a luxurious texture.

Because of the low and slow approach, Walsh is a big fan of slow-cooker chili. On the other hand, if you own an Instant Pot, you can go the other direction and pressure cook for a faster chili fix.

Knowing when chili is done can be a little tricky. “It’s not like a steak where you’ve got a thermometer in it,” Walsh says. So taste it and look at it. Is the meat tender? Are you happy in general with the flavor? How’s the consistency? “Is it coming together or does it look like ground beef soup?” Walsh says. If you’re happy with it otherwise, a slurry with flour or masa harina (dried corn dough ground to a flour) can help. Combine the thickener with a bit of the liquid from the chili and then add it back to the pot. You should start to get some thickening as it cooks more and then after the chili comes off the heat and cools.

The long cook time on chili makes it a prime candidate for make-ahead status, which is just as well anyway, because some chili cooks swear that a day in the refrigerator actually improves the flavor.

Garnish to your heart’s content. Farber thinks the garnishes are really where home cooks can go wild with chili. Of course, if you’d never cook chili with the beans in it, you can serve them as a topping or side. Put out tortilla chips or corn chips for crunch. Sliced or chopped serrano and jalapeño peppers can add heat, as can hot sauce. Lettuce, scallions and cilantro bring a fresh, green vibe. Or provide tortillas for filling.

In other words, follow your own heart and stomach.

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