Texas Chili

I promise this isn’t turning into a food blog (I don’t think?) but after an office potluck on Friday that included my beef chili, the recipe requests came flooding in again, so I thought as long as I was cleaning the recipe up and updating it, I might as well share it here, too.

Some opening remarks…. As with a lot of things, I’m both a traditionalist and an iconoclast at the same time. My chili follows some Texas traditions pretty closely where I feel like it needs to: meat, no beans, minimal tomatoes, use of multiple chiles for a complex taste, masa/corn flour and not wheat flour for thickening. But then, for culinary greatness, there are other places where I buck the traditions, most notably in my use of a roux with the masa flour — it may be weird, but the cajuns are onto something with this, and it really takes the thickness and richness of the chili up a notch. I’m also a little weird in pureeing the onion almost like an Indian curry, but likewise, it thickens the chili and gives it even more richness. Similarly, I like including trace amounts of some “dark curry” spices (cloves, fenugreek, allspice, cinnamon, coriander) along with some extra ingredients for tannic bite (tea, etc), not enough to dominate, but enough to add a lot of complexity.

What seems to make a perfect chili is to create a perfect, rich chord out of the following tastes:

  1. 40% Meatiness – beef, broth, other umami ingredients
  2. 30% Chile Pepper Taste – chiles, chile powder
  3. 20% Earthiness – cumin, coriander, masa flour, cinnamon
  4. Heat – multiple kinds of chile peppers, black pepper
  5. Saltiness
  6. Vegetable Sweetness – tomatoes, red bell pepper, balsamic
  7. Tannins – the chiles themselves have some, but fenugreek, balsamic, tea, red wine, etc, really bring the taste out
  8. Surprise Aromatic Elements – cloves, cinnamon, whiskey, aromatic bitters, along with smokiness from the chipotles, charred vegetables, and/or liquid smoke.

Any ingredients you buy at the store are going to vary in strength (especially the chiles, which are notorious for their variable heat and bite), so ultimately that balance is what you want to achieve, regardless of whether you followed the measurements exactly.

Staunch traditionalists may balk at my ingredients list, but I make an effort to stick with fresh ingredients rather than processed. Also, I’ve won several small scale contests with the basic formula, so I think that speaks for itself.

Ingredients

  • Onion Paste
    • 1 large yellow or sweet onion
    • 1 T cumin seeds
    • 1 tsp coriander seeds
    • fresh ground black pepper (about 1-2 tsp, as you prefer)
  • Chili Paste
    • 2-4 dried chipotle peppers or 1 can chipotles in sauce (or if you can’t find either, see fresh red jalapeños under Vegetables) — Warning: chipotles, especially the canned ones, can turn out much hotter than you expect in the final product. When in doubt, start safe, and be a hero the second time.
    • 1 or 2 whole dried guajillo pepper (de-seeded), or a few dried ancho peppers, or similar, depending on the heat level you want. Chiles de Arbol provide a really nice bitter note, but they’re pretty hot for some people. Feel free to mix and match.
    • 6 cloves garlic (or more, if you’re into garlic)
    • Following ingredients are optional if you’re feeling adventurous:
    • 1/2 tsp cloves
    • small piece cinnamon bark (or 1/2 tsp powdered cinnamon)
    • 1/4 tsp fenugreek
    • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • Vegetables for Broiling
    • If you couldn’t find dried chipotles: 4 red jalapeños
    • 1 large red bell pepper
    • 5 medium tomatoes
  • Roux
    • 1/2 – 3/4 cup (possibly more) corn oil or other vegetable oil
    • 3/4 cup masa flour (often sold as “Maseca” at Latin or African markets)
  • Meat
    • 4 lbs ground red meat (e.g. one of those family size hamburger meat packages, but it’s also fun to experiment with whatever game meats are available. Don’t bother with the lean ones — lean meat gets gristly in chili, and you don’t make chili when you’re working on your beach body anyway)
  • Soup Base
    • Plenty of beef broth (you’ll probably need about 5 cups)
    • 1/2 cup New Mexico chile powder (the higher quality, the better — if you can get your hands on some Hatch chile powder, you’re in business)
    • 2 tsp whole Mexican oregano (regular oregano will work, but you might want to reduce the amount so your chili doesn’t suddenly taste like marinara sauce, as Italian oregano is apt to do)
  • Final seasoning
    • Salt to taste
    • Ground cumin to taste
    • 2-3 T balsamic vinegar and/or 1/2 cup of a bold tannic red wine
    • 1/2 cup really over-steeped black tea (for tannins), or a splash of Angostura or Peychaud’s Bitters also works
    • Around 1 tsp baking soda (to balance acidity of the tomatoes and vinegar, more if you included wine — you want the final chili almost pH neutral)
    • Splash of liquid smoke (especially if you were unable to use real smoked chipotles) – Some people seem to have an aversion to this for some reason, perhaps because it’s the only real “processed” ingredient in the list, so feel free to leave it out if the idea bothers you.

Directions

  1. Broil vegetables: De-seed the fresh peppers (if you’re using them), and cut them, the tomatoes, and the bell pepper into quarters. Place them on a baking tray and broil on high temperature in a toaster oven, oven, or even flame grill them, until starting to blacken. You want them to taste smoky. Don’t worry too much about burning them. Also feel free to pull out some vegetables as they get done, especially if some (e.g. tomatoes) are taking longer.
  2. Onion Paste: Meanwhile, lightly toast the cumin and coriander seeds in a pan until aromatic.
  3. Cut the onion into quarters or eighths, and puree the onion with the toasted seeds and ground black pepper into a coarse paste. Add some oil if needed to aid blending. Set aside.
  4. Chili Paste: Put the chiles and garlic into the blender (including the broiled jalapeños when they’re ready), and puree into a coarse paste. Add some oil if needed to aid blending. Set aside. (If you’re in a hurry you can blend all this together with the onions, but be forewarned there’s a nasty scorched taste chiles can get if they’re overheated, so it’s safer to make this paste separately and add it later under lower heat.)
  5. Roux: Fill the bottom of a large stew pot with vegetable oil until it’s about “one finger” deep. Bring to high heat. Add in the masa flour; it should sizzle in the oil. Stir briskly until it makes a smooth paste, almost like peanut butter, being careful not to let it burn. If it gets too thick, you can add more oil a little at a time. When the masa roux starts to smell rich and corny, quickly scoop in the onion paste and stir aggressively. Again, add a bit more oil if it’s too thick to stir. Get the onion as cooked as you can without burning the roux. As soon as you think the roux is about to burn, pour in about 1 cup of the beef broth to lower the temperature, and stir thoroughly. Lower heat to medium. Trickiest part is done. NOTE: If you DO burn the roux, do not use it or it will ruin your chili. Throw it out and start with a fresh roux (and onion paste if necessary); better to waste those cheap ingredients than the whole thing.
  6. Meat: Add in your ground meat and continue to stir frequently. Heat should be high enough that you’re still sautéing, even with that bit of broth in there. Feel free to add more oil if needed. Continue over medium heat until the meat is starting to brown.
  7. Add in the chili paste and stir for a minute or two.
  8. Add in enough of the remainder of the beef broth to get a soupy texture. Stir in the chili powder and oregano. At this point the chili should have a reddish hue. If not, you can add more chili powder. It seems like a lot, but it really is the foundation of the dish along with the meat and broth.
  9. Reduce heat to Medium-Low, and simmer for a half hour or so, stirring occasionally to scrape the bottom and keep it from scorching. Once the whole pot is nearly at boiling temperature, reduce heat to Low and continue to simmer for a couple of hours, still stirring from time to time to scrape the bottom. Alternatively, you can put the whole pot, dutch oven style, into the oven at around 220°F and then you can leave it more unattended; just make sure it’s an oven-friendly pot with no meltable handles. The longer it simmers this way, the better it will taste.
  10. Finally, once the chili is fully cooked and has been simmering for a while, it’s time to season it. Start with a couple of tablespoons of salt, and stir and salt until it tastes right to you; the amount of additional salt will vary greatly depending on the saltiness of the broth you used, but it’s almost always more than you expect; often I’ll salt the top, spoon up a bit plus salt before stirring it all together, and that way if it’s too much, I can still scoop the excess back off. If you can’t taste the cumin seeds as a prominent note in the chili, generously supplement with ground cumin. Then add the tea and balsamic vinegar. At this point the chili will probably taste a little sour, so sprinkle in the baking soda to return it to its desired savouriness; the baking soda may make it froth up, so add gradually and stir until the bubbles go down each time. Now is when you can also add some liquid smoke for extra smokiness, and additional oregano if desired. Taste and adjust until you’re happy with it.
  11. Additional non-traditional culinary fine-tunings I’ve used to good effect:  soy sauce, vegemite/marmite, fish sauce, or anchovy paste for umami (if you’re desperate you can use browning sauce or bouillon powder, but run the risk of your chili tasting store-bought or too much like gravy). Brown sugar or a touch of molasses for a tiny bit of sweetness, but the key here is earthy sweetness, not saccharine sweetness, and don’t overdo it. Lime juice for a bit of citrus bite (you may need extra baking soda to cut the acidity). A splash of some nice dry tannic red wine or peaty whiskey or an aromatic bitters you like. Have fun with it, but none of these should be in so large amounts as to be individually detectable, just to fill in the missing complexity notes. Do note: If you’re making the chili to share (because that’s what chili is often for) be mindful of allergies or dietary restrictions amongst your friends, especially with any of these fine-tuning ingredients which might otherwise be unexpected in a beef dish.
  12. Simmer for another 15-30 minutes to let everything cook together.