Chili is personal, and you have your favorite recipe. I respect that. I'm not here to argue with your one true chili love.
But I would bet that there are some ways that you could make your tried-and-true recipe even better. I'm just talking about little things to add extra flavor here or give some richness there—small tweaks that, when tallied up, amount to a more fantastic chili.
Before we get into it, let's make sure we're all on the same page, generally speaking. The chili we're discussing today is a basic weeknight chili made with ground beef, canned tomatoes, and beans, though many of the tips can be applied to vegetarian chili and white chicken chili as well. I'm assuming a basic chili-making methodology of browning the beef and cooking the vegetables, then simmering everything with tomatoes and beans until it's ready to eat. If this sounds more or less like your recipe, then we're good to go. (And for all you Texans and any others who define chili in very different terms, feel free to avert your eyes for the time being.)
With this as our jumping off point, let's get right to it. Here are 10 easy ways to turn your next pot of chili into your best batch ever.
1) Start with a few strips of bacon.
In a pot of chili, just a few strips of bacon add a smoky, meaty depth. And it's not just the bacon itself that adds flavor, it's the bacon fat, too. Before you start your recipe, cook 3 to 4 strips of thick-cut bacon until they're as crispy as you like. Set the strips aside on a paper towel, and pour the bacon fat into a clean, heat-proof container. Now start your recipe, using the rendered bacon fat to cook all your chili ingredients. When you're ready to serve up some bowls, crumble the strips of cooked bacon over the chili and stir them in.
2) Cook the beef and the onions separately.
Many chili recipes call for cooking the beef and onion together to save time, but this crowds the pan; the ingredients steam instead of browning and you miss out on a flavor-building opportunity. If you have a few extra minutes, it's worth your while to cook them separately. Start with browning the beef (in a teaspoon or two of bacon fat!), then transfer the crumbles to a plate with a slotted spoon. Pour off any liquid in the pan, then cook the onions (in more bacon fat, naturally) until the onions are soft and starting to turn golden. Continue cooking your recipe as usual, adding the browned beef back into the pan along with the tomatoes.
3) Use real garlic.
Garlic powder has its time and place (hello, popcorn!), but it does not belong in chili. If your recipe calls for garlic powder, sub in 2 to 3 whole cloves garlic instead. Mince them finely (or grate them on a Microplane), then add the garlic to the pot when the onions are just shy of finished.
4) Give your dish some heat from an ingredient other than chili powder.
Think about cutting back on chile powder (start with just half the amount) and adding some other spicy ingredients to the pot instead. A few diced jalapeños will add a bright, fresh spiciness, while minced chipotles in adobo give chili more of a smoky, slow-burning character. You could also make a paste from dried chilis: Start by toasting a mix of dried ancho and pasilla chiles in a dry skillet, then soaking them in a bowl of warm water until soft. Drain the chiles, remove the stems and seeds, and purée them in a blender. Add this purée to the chili along with the rest of the spices.
5) Mix in a few tablespoons of tomato paste.
Tomato paste has an intense, concentrated flavor that makes tomato-based dishes like our taste even more tomato-y. This is especially handy when you don't have time to let a pot simmer for very long before serving: slow-cooked flavor without as much wait. Mix in 2 to 4 tablespoons of tomato paste along with the spices, and cook until you smell the aroma of warm tomatoes.
6) Add a secret ingredient.
Cinnamon, strong coffee, and dark chocolate all boost them meaty flavor in a good chili. Pick any of the following: 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon, 1 whole cinnamon stick, a shot of espresso, a small cup of strong coffee, 2 tablespoons cocoa powder, or a few squares of good-quality dark chocolate. Except for dark chocolate, add any of these along with the spices; add the chocolate along with the tomatoes and let it melt slowly into the chili.
7) Deglaze the pan with wine, beer, or cider.
If you've followed any of the steps above, you will likely end up with a dark, sticky layer on the bottom of your pan—this is tasty stuff. Once you've finished browning the meat, cooking the vegetables, and adding the spices, deglaze the hot pan by adding a cup or so of red wine, beer, or hard cider. Scrape up that sticky layer as the alcohol bubbles and let it dissolve into the liquid. The alcohol itself will add even more good flavor to the chili, so continue simmering until the alcohol has reduced by half, then continue with the recipe.
8) Simmer your chili at least an hour.
A long simmer of an hour or more is good for two reasons. First, it allows time for the beef to become completely tender. Second, it gives all the various ingredients you've thrown in your chili a chance to mingle. If your favorite recipe calls for just a quick simmer, try cooking it a little longer next time and see what you think.
9) Add a splash of something acidic at the end.
Sometimes, despite all the T.L.C. we've put into our chili the whole way through, it can still taste like it's missing something at the end. Chances are good that "something " is actually acid. A splash of wine, cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, or even lemon juice can help perk up the flavors.
10) Cook your chili the day before.
There's one piece of advice that so many chili recipes overlook: Chili is almost always better the next day. In the fridge overnight, harsh flavors mellow; brothy chilis become silky; and the disparate ingredients become one harmonious whole. If you're cooking your chili for a dinner party, think about cooking it the day before so you can take full advantage of this overnight upgrade.
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