Every American cook’s recipe for chili is definitive and the best. A classic chili, the Texas bowl of red, is simply beef and hot peppers, simmered to perfection. But there’s no one recipe for the dish and no incorrect one — at least if we’re being honest with ourselves. You can make chili with beans; lamb or bison; venison, turkey or pork; with tomatoes or beer; with fresh chilies or dried; with chili powder or without. You should make chili as you like: delicious. We’ll help.
Choose Your Protein
A great chili rests on two foundations: its protein, and the peppers that flavor it. It is, essentially, a stew. We’ll get to the chilies later, but we’ll start with the protein.
If you’re cooking with meat of any kind, look for a cut high in fat and flavor, and consider a quarter to a third of a pound per person. Chuck beef, from the steer’s shoulder, is excellent. But you can also do very well with brisket and short ribs, and there are fantastic chilies made of lamb and pork. You’ll want to cut the meat into two-inch cubes, or, if you’d like to work faster or simply prefer the texture, use ground meat. In much of Texas and at the butcher shop anywhere, you can get your meat coarsely ground, which just about splits the difference between cubes and ground. But you can also use a combination: Some cooks even like to use a number of different cuts, pairing stew meat with ground. It should yield enough fat to flavor your chili well.
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Now, there are those who swear by ground turkey chili, or make the dish with ground chicken instead. If you count yourself among those cooks, proceed with care, as the meat can dry out. You might want to supplement it with a few strips of bacon to help keep everything juicy. Or use chunks of dark meat from the richer, fattier thighs, or even duck.
A third option, farm-raised or wild-shot game — like venison, buffalo, moose, marsh duck or goose — often bridges the distance between red meat and poultry: It delivers powerful flavor whether it comes from the field or the sky. If you settle on a particularly lean cut for your chili, however, you’ll want to substitute some ground beef or lamb, and, as with turkey and other lean cuts, you’ll want to add some fat to the proceedings, for flavor and lusciousness.
Whatever you choose, whether beef, lamb or pork, whether poultry or game, you may want to fry some bacon in the pot before you get started, and then set it aside to crumble into the chili later on.
There is no easier way to get in a fight about chili than to declare that it needs beans in addition to meat to succeed. Some, including most Texans, consider beans in chili to be an apostasy. But beans in a chili can be satisfying and, indeed, they are an easy way to “stretch” a chili from a dish that serves six to one that serves 10 or even 12. (Figure something in the neighborhood of a cup of cooked beans per person.) Pinto beans make a wonderful addition to a beef chili, and white ones are beautiful with poultry and lamb.
Still others may cook only with beans, using chilies and spices to deliver big flavor into each legume. It is a good idea, in this case, to think about increasing the variety of chilies used, and to consider increasing the level of spice. A base of sautéed onions and garlic, heated through with oregano before adding chilies and beans, is a fine way to start a vegetarian chili. All will defend their decisions as the only permissible ones. And do you need to cook the beans from scratch? You do not, unless you want to. Chili should never feel like a project.
Consider Your Heat
The world of chilies is broad. Some varieties are hot, some sweet and some smoky. Some are dried and toasted and ground together; others are toasted, then simmered in water or stock before being blitzed in a blender or food processor or fished from the pot and discarded; still others are used fresh. Some varieties, like those listed here, work especially well in chili. There was a time when some of them were hard to find, even in large urban supermarkets. That is no longer true, save perhaps in the case of the Chimayo. In which case, as ever, the internet can provide.
Poblano: A big green pepper that is not too punchy in its heat. As poblanos ripen, the fruit reddens.
Ancho: A dried, ripe poblano pepper becomes an ancho chili, sweet and smoky, mild to medium hot.
Pasilla: This is a dark chocolate-brown dried pepper of moderate pungency. It brings great deepness of flavor to a chili.
Jalapeño: Arguably America’s pepper, this fiery little fruit can provide real zip and freshness when added to chili. When it has been smoked and dried, a jalapeño is called a chipotle.
Chimayo: A New Mexican pepper of extraordinary richness, which when dried and ground brings a deep redness to all that it touches. If you can’t find any Chimayos, note that any pepper from the state of New Mexico, usually labeled a “New Mexican” chili, is a worthy substitute, fresh or dried.
As a general rule, you’ll want to add any chili powder early in the process, preferably after you’ve seared the meat and as you’re cooking down any aromatics. But whole chilies can be added along with the cooking juices, and pulled out before serving.
Know Your Chili (or Chile) Powder
Confusingly, chile powder and chili powder are two different things. (More confusingly, The New York Times has conflated them for years.) Chile powder is just dried, pulverized chilies. Chili powder, on the other hand, is a mixture of dried, ground chilies with other spices, and it helps bring a distinctive flavor to the dish that bears its name.
Homemade Chili Powder: Come up with a good recipe for chili powder, and it will give you some of the confidence to call your chili the best you’ve ever made. To follow Texas restaurateur Robb Walsh’s recipe, toast three medium ancho chilies in a pan, then remove them and allow to cool. Do the same with a half-teaspoon of cumin seeds. Seed the anchos and cut them into strips and then pulverize them in a spice grinder with the cumin seeds, a big pinch of Mexican oregano and, if you like, a shake of garlic powder. Use that in your chili, and then store what’s left over in a sealed jar. Use it quickly, though. It grows stale fast.
Store-Bought Chili Powder: Chili powder is, like the dish it serves, a Texas tradition, probably dating to the arrival in the state of German immigrants who thought to treat the local chilies as their forebears did the hot peppers in Europe, drying and grinding them into a kind of New World paprika. Eventually other spices were added – cumin and oregano and garlic powder, for instance – and now each chili powder you see in a store is slightly different from the last. For some, using chili powder in chili is anathema. They don’t like the uncertainty. They don’t trust that the powder is fresh. They believe the resulting chili won’t have layers of flavors. For many others, though, store-bought chili powder is a delicious timesaver, particularly if they’ve found a chili powder they like. If you do find one, use it a lot. The critics aren’t wrong about the freshness.
Cook Your Chili
Making a good chili calls for layering flavors into the stew, deepening each as you go. Start by browning the meat in batches, then removing it to rest while you sweat onions, garlic and the peppers, in whatever form you’re using them, in the remaining fat. If you’re making a vegetarian chili, start with the sweat.
Then comes liquid, which will deglaze the pot and add flavor, while providing a flavorful medium in which to simmer your meats or beans. In her Texas-style chili, Julia Moskin at The Times taught us to use dark beer along with water and some canned tomatoes, but you can use plain stock instead, or a lighter beer, or more tomatoes in their juices, or a combination, according to your taste. We’ve taken her recipe as our standard, but we encourage you to use the information you’ve gleaned here to make chili your own. The dish is very simple: browned meat and chilies, or chili powder, or both, simmered until tender. Everything else is up to you.
Some like to add body to their chili by adding masa harina to the stewing liquid, or a sliced-up fresh corn tortilla that will dissolve in the heat. Julia allows for both in her recipe.
Add a few dried peppers to simmer alongside the protein, and if you’re cooking with beef or game, consider adding a tab of dark chocolate to help deepen the flavor of the sauce. Then bring the heat to the lowest possible temperature until the protein is, as the saying goes, fork-tender. That could take 30 minutes if you’re working off coarsely ground beef. It could take four hours if you’re working with venison or a big clod of beef. If your stovetop can’t go lower than a fast simmer, cook the chili in the oven instead, partly covered, at 325 degrees. Or use a slow cooker set to low, and keep a good eye on it after four hours or so. Fish out the dried peppers, and you’re ready to eat.
Once you’ve aced Julia’s master recipe for Texas-style chili, you can — and should — explore other chili styles. All reflect and celebrate America’s ever-changing relationship with the dish.
Texas Style Chili
Yield: 12 servings
Time: 2 hours
1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
4 pounds beef chuck roast or steak
1 teaspoon salt, more to taste
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more as needed
1 large yellow or white onion, chopped, plus extra chopped onion for serving
6 large garlic cloves, minced
4 to 7 large fresh green jalapeños (depending on how much heat you like), stemmed, seeded and chopped
3 tablespoons masa harina or 1 corn tortilla, torn into pieces (optional)
2 tablespoons ground pure chili powder, such as pasilla, Chimayo or ancho
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 (12-ounce) bottle Negra Modelo beer
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, or 3 (10-ounce) cans Ro-Tel canned tomatoes with green chilies
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
3 whole dried large red chilies, such as New Mexico or guajillo
Chopped fresh cilantro, for serving
Fritos or warmed flour tortillas, for serving
In a small heavy skillet, toast cumin and coriander seeds until fragrant. In a mortar and pestle, or in a coffee grinder, grind to a powder and set aside.
Meanwhile, roughly cut beef into 2-inch cubes, or slice it against the grain into pieces about 1/4-inch thick by 1 1/2 inches square. Sprinkle with salt.
In a large, heavy pot over high heat, heat oil until shimmering. Working in batches to avoid crowding the pan, brown the meat, turning occasionally until crusty. Adjust heat to prevent scorching. As it is cooked, remove the meat to drain on paper towels. Add more oil as needed for browning, but do not clean out the pot.
To the empty but crusty pot, add onion, garlic, jalapeños, masa harina or tortilla (if using), chili powder, cumin-coriander powder and oregano. Cook, stirring, until onion has softened, 5 to 10 minutes. Add meat, beer, tomatoes, chocolate, whole dried chilies and 1 quart water. Bring to a gentle simmer and simmer about 1 1/2 hours, or until meat is fork-tender. Remove the dried chilies. Taste and add salt if necessary.
Serve immediately or let cool and refrigerate. The chili tastes best one or two days after it is made.
Reheat over low heat if necessary and serve in bowls, sprinkled with chopped onion and cilantro. Add Fritos for crunch, or dip tortillas into the spicy gravy.