Genius Recipes

A Genius Chili Secret From a Cook-Off Queen

With a little help from James Beard's favorite hamburger.

January 29, 2020

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.


The conundrum of any comforting, stewy, ground meaty recipe—whether it’s chili or bolognese or the heroic bobs of sausage in an Italian wedding soup—is that the very move that makes the meat most delicious (getting it toasty-brown) also squeezes out its moisture, making it dry and tough and questionably worth the simmer time.

There are a couple common solutions: either gogogo fast! hot! then get outta there! (as in a smash burger), or go loooong. and looow. please do not brown. please find your flavor elsewhere (as in Marcella Hazan’s classic slow-simmered bolognese).

Not questionably, worth the simmer time. Photo by ROCKY LUTEN. PROP STYLIST: BROOKE DEONARINE. FOOD STYLIST: SAMANTHA SENEVIRATNE.

But caterer, food stylist, and cook-off queen Jenn de La Vega has a genius trick that creates that mythical best of both worlds: ground meaty mixes that are both flavorful and tender. The meat falls to small, silky bits rather than dry clumps, mimicking the effect of long, low cooking in moments. Even with ample browning, there’s no harm done—and the meat stays that way after hours of simmering.

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“Amazing how it softens the ground meat and makes meatballs, which usually are quite heavy to eat, into a very light texture. Wonderful!”
— Cindy R.
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The trick, which I first spotted in Jenn’s cookbook Showdown Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ, was inspired by James Beard’s favorite hamburger recipe, in which he folds a bit of heavy cream into the burger mix before cooking. But Jenn did him one better, and really soaked her ground beef in a tiny amount of cream (only two tablespoons per pound), along with some reconstituted ancho chiles, for four hours or overnight.

You will not think there's enough cream to soak the beef. (There is.) Photo by ROCKY LUTEN. PROP STYLIST: BROOKE DEONARINE. FOOD STYLIST: SAMANTHA SENEVIRATNE.

Here’s how I know the cream soak made all the difference: To be completely sure it wasn’t one of the other thrilling ingredients or steps in this recipe (cocoa powder! spice dump!), I did a classic A/B/C/D test on four portions of the same ground beef, as follows:

A: marinated with heavy cream for 4 hours
B: marinated with yogurt for 4 hours
C: mixed with heavy cream right at the end
D: no special treatment (the control, for all my fellow scientists)

None were salted or otherwise seasoned. All were cooked in a rainbow of cute matching Dansk pots over the most even heat I could muster on a home-grade halogen stove with burners of varying sizes (I calibrated by flicking a bit of water in and comparing the sizzle—not my most science-y moment).

But after tasting, and then going ahead and eating a surprising amount of unseasoned ground beef, the differences were striking. The cream- and yogurt-soaked versions were virtually indistinguishable—both of the meats had visibly broken down and were much softer going into the pan, and more evenly nubbled and luscious in the end. Both of the unsoaked versions seized up, squeezed out their fat, and browned in large clumps. The mouthfeel was dry and spongy; the flavor exactly like every overcooked hamburger you’ve ever had.

There are lots of examples of this phenomenon of lactic acid helping tenderize meat, especially when it comes to yogurt or buttermilk, which bring with them their own extra fermented acid and microbes—from Samin Nosrat’s famed buttermilk roast chicken to yogurty marinades for tikka and kebabs across South Asia.

But until now, little attention has been paid to the fact that cream has the same benefits for meat, though in an even gentler way, with its lower pH.

Super soaker.

For the food science at work here, I won’t be able to do a better job than this interview with Ted Russin, the dean of the Culinary Institute of America’s food science program, in Popular Science:

A chemist by training, Russin says he thinks of meat as a gel, “a wad of water held in a protein matrix.” Yogurt and buttermilk both contain acids that break down that protein wall. As the meat becomes more acidic, it can absorb more moisture. Think of it like a dry sponge that gets soft and squishy once you add water. At the same time, the acidity of dairy speeds up chemical reactions. This makes it easier for enzymes already present in the meat to break down proteins from the inside out. It also leads to the breakdown of collagen, which is what gives meat—and living skin tissue—its rigid structure, Russin says. An acidic marinade thus softens meat by increasing its water content and breaking down its structure.

Best of all, though Russin notes that lactic acid won’t travel very deep into big cuts of meat without more aggressive moves like injecting or “vacuum-tumbling,” it has no problem working its magic on the finer pieces of ground beef. (See: irrefutable A/B/C/D results above.)

So anywhere you use ground meat, think about giving it a little heavy cream (or, sure, yogurt or buttermilk) bath first—Jenn uses the same technique in other mixes, like burgers and meatloaves and meatballs, too.

But our cook-off queen chili is a very good place to start.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps something perfect for beginners? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

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I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."

29 Comments

Bob February 10, 2020
How to do it for a dairy-free household...
 
yyw February 3, 2020
would non-dairy yogurt or non-diary milk+vinegar give the same or similar effect? it is the difference between lactic acid and microbo effect. Anyone knows?
 
Garfield W. February 2, 2020
I really love this video and both ppl featured. If anyone knows the brand of the mortar & pestle that's used at approx 10 minutes, I would appreciate it if you'd share a link to where it can be purchased. Thx much.
 
illberich February 3, 2020
Milton Brook mortar and pestle. I posted earlier, listing a place I visit often to purchase good quality items, but it disappeared. I'm assuming it was removed.
 
Kate February 2, 2020
Oh my gosh. I always used dairy in meat loaf but never in sautéed ground meat. At the last minute today, I decided to offer sausage on the Super Bowl pizza. I defrosted a pound in the microwave, then mixed it with some sour cream (that was all I had!!). 2 hours later, sautéed gently in the Instant Pot as usual, but this time the meat came out tender and juicy. What a difference. I will never brown ground meat again without using this trick. Thanks!
 
Rebecca K. February 2, 2020
My mother taught me years ago to add a splash of milk to meatloaf, it keeps it moist and improves the texture.
 
Cindy F. January 31, 2020
Do you think this concept would work with steak? Just to tenderize it for a few hours?
 
nancyg January 29, 2020
I use ground turkey. Would this principal work as well as it does with beef? Nancy
 
MB January 29, 2020
Can't wait to try this too. It makes sense to me.
My mother's chili always had cumin SEEDS rather than ground cumin. They give little bursts of cumin flavor. Chili without cumin seeds now just tastes bland to me. To me it's that extra something like fresh ground nutmeg rather than ground stuff from a jar or fresh shredded Parm instead of stuff from a can. Once you've done it a few times you can't go back. Try it.
 
Cindy R. January 29, 2020
I have a Greek keftedes (meatballs) recipe that calls for soaking one pita bread in milk until saturated (so 15-20 minutes), squeeze out excess milk and mix the pita mush into the ground beef. Amazing how it softens the ground meat and makes meatballs, which usually are quite heavy to eat, into a very light texture. Wonderful!
 
Bella95 January 30, 2020
I do exactly the same with the meatball recipe l was taught in ltaly. Do the same thing with my meatloaf version too. Would never go back to binding with an egg. I just use ordinary bread though.
 
MaryAnn B. January 29, 2020
Well, I have heard about adding small torn up pieces of bread soaked in milk into hamburgers/meatloaf to keep them moist for years.
Actually soaking the hamburger in cream or yogurt is new to me.
I make killer chili (per all my friends) and am willing to give this a try next batch
and see how much moister the hamburger ends up.
 
illberich February 3, 2020
A 94 year old gramma from Italy told the secret to tender meatballs and meatloaf; bread soaked in cream/milk and pieces pinched off and added to meat balls and meatloaf, Also do use a mixture of ground beef 80/20, NEVER over 85/15, and pork and veal.
 
Donna C. January 29, 2020
1 chili but 4 tomatoes? It's called chili. Seems more like tomato sauce.
 
Bella95 January 30, 2020
3 chillies in total, 2 of which are scotch bonnet which l believe are hot also, 4 tomatoes (not cans of...) doesn't seem excessive, there's 2lbs of dried beans and ground meat alone plus a heap of other ingredients.
 
mary January 29, 2020
Can’t wait to try this. I have always used wine but it makes the meat breakdown too much.
 
Marie M. January 29, 2020
So I’m left wondering why heavy cream and not buttermilk?
 
mudd January 29, 2020
Just my thought, Could be that buttermilk, even the natural kind, has very little fat.
 
Sandy January 29, 2020
It doesn't have to be either, you can use milk, can milk or even 2%. You do want to use some kind of cream. From my life experience, heavy cream is used for special desserts and sauces. I have always used milk or canned milk.
 
Sandy January 29, 2020
Back in early days, before President Kennedy, my Grandmother taught me to always add a little milk and sugar when cooking ground beef.
 
Ginger B. January 29, 2020
I'd love to try this idea, however, my daughter has a dairy allergy. Is there a non-dairy substitute you could recommend?
 
Barcham January 29, 2020
Mix in a quarter teaspoon of baking soda in a tablespoon of water or so per pound of ground beef and let it 'marinate' for 15 to 20 minutes and your ground beef will retain most of its moisture and be nice and plump and tender in whatever you use it in, your favourite pasta sauce, chili or anything else. No need at all for creme or buttermilk or any other dairy product.
 
mary January 29, 2020
Wine or even water both work.
 
illberich February 3, 2020
Is that like using baking soda in Asian preparation of chicken to create a velvety texture?
 
Barcham February 3, 2020
No, not at all. True velveting chicken requires cornstarch, about 1 TBSP per pound of chicken, as well as egg white, vegetable oil and rice wine or rice vinegar. LEt it marinate for 30 minutes and then drop in a pot of boiling water for around a minute, enough for it to turn white but not cook all the way through. Then remove from the water and place in a container and refrigerate until you are ready to finish cooking it in your favourite dish.

While you can do it quickly using baking soda, it will not give the same result. You can also do the same with sliced beef for stir-fry. With either, they should be allowed to marinate for about 30 minutes and then rinsed well and dried with paper towels before stir frying. No precooking in boiling water required.
 
Louriebass January 29, 2020
I’ve done this for years for my meatballs people always comment on how soft and juicy they are
 
wallacegal January 29, 2020
I always add a splash of cream to my meatloaf mixture, but I drain my beef before it browns all the way, while it's still a tad pink and that way, I don't have that drying out that often happens.
 
Joemccaffrey January 29, 2020
What a great experiment! Thank you for sharing this recipe tweak that makes such a big difference.
 
JCShehan January 29, 2020
Have you tried this yet with ground Pork and/or ground Turkey? We like to put small diced sirloin in our chili too. Do you think it would improve the texture of that as well?