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Layering Flavors for the Best Chili

Toasting spices, steeping chiles, and searing meat gives you chili with a deep, resonant flavor

Fine Cooking Issue 29
Photos: Laurie Smith
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I’m a Texan, born and bred, which is why I would never presume to write the definitive recipe for Texas chili. People here have very strong opinions about the subject, and I’m the sort who would rather eat my chili than argue about it. To keep everybody happy, I offer three delicious versions. The first is a dark and spicy pork chili that was inspired by my Mexican friends; it’s very close to an authentic Texan bowl of red (meaning it’s all about the meat). I also love my mom’s Tex-Mex beef version, which includes all those delicious yet scandalous things—onions, chocolate, beer—that chili purists disdain. And a little farther off the path of authenticity is a pinto bean and chicken version that’s my wife’s favorite. (Cut her some slack: she’s from Atlanta.)

The thing that makes each of these chilis so good is that I use a variety of techniques—toasting, steeping, and searing—to coax the fullest flavor potential out of key ingredients before they’re even combined in the chili pot. The result is a chili in which you discover deeper, more complex flavors with every bite.

A bowl of chili starts with chiles

According to food historian John Thorne, chili more than likely evolved from a simple stew made by American Indians of the Southwest. In this ancient dish, fresh chiles were flavored with meat. Today that relationship has flip-flopped so that a bowl of chili more likely means meat that’s flavored with chiles. But chiles still play a major role in the taste of the dish.

For a deep, dark flavor, toast dried chiles; for a lighter taste and brighter color, don’t. I love trying out different chiles to see what dimension they’ll add to a dish. I also like to handle the same chiles in different ways to bring out different characteristics. For example, in my Mexican-Style Chili, I toast the dried chiles, which heightens the tangy, dark flavor of the pasilla and the sweetness of the ancho. In my Chicken & Pinto Bean Chili, however, I want to keep the brick-red color of the dried New Mexico chiles: I’m not looking for the intensity of flavor that toasting the chiles brings about; instead, I simply steep the chiles to rehydrate them. In the Tex-Mex Chili, I do a little of both: I toast pasilla powder in the chili pot and add a couple of dried chiles along with the liquid ingredients to steep as the chili cooks. I also like to use a mix of fresh and dried chiles. The grassy flavor of fresh chiles gives the dish a bright heat that’s different from the earthy heat of the dry chiles.

Experiment with different chiles. Sometimes you can’t easily find the chile you want when you need it, especially in regions outside the Southwest, so I suggest stocking up on dried chiles as you come upon them; they’ll last at least six months in a cool, dark cabinet, and they’ll then be on hand when a recipe calls for them. But I also feel strongly that you shouldn’t be afraid to substitute one chile for another; the outcome will be different, sure, but it will still be delicious.

When substituting, look for chiles that share similar flavors and heat. For example, in place of anchos, you might try mulatos. The mulato won’t be as sweet or as resonant as the ancho, and it’s a little more smoky, but it offers a similar feel overall. A little cascabel chile, with its woodsy, nutty flavor, could replace a dried chipotle. Though the chipotle has more hints of chocolate and tobacco, both are smoky and earthy with a medium heat.

Toast spices—and even fresh oregano

If you’ve ever toasted whole spices—or nuts, for that matter—you know it’s a great way to bring out the ingredient’s fullest flavor. My Mexican friends turned me on to the practice of toasting fresh oregano as well. The method makes sense for oregano, one of the few fresh herbs whose flavor actually improves when dried. Lightly toasting the herb (a sort of quick-drying) makes the pleasant flavors of the oregano more pronounced while lessening some of the astringency you can find in the fresh leaves. You could simply used dried oregano, of course, but this method guarantees that the oregano will still have a fresh flavor.

An electric grinder makes quick work of grinding toasted spices. If you have the time and a good mortar and pestle, grinding the spices by hand yields more of the flavorful oils.

Sear the meat for a tasty crust

When browning meat for chili, the pieces of meat need to touch the hot pan to color, and they need a little distance from each other or they’ll steam instead of sear. In the chicken chili, I cook the chicken right in the pot, which gives the chili more flavor than simply using chicken broth or adding already cooked chicken to the pot at the end.

Finally, as with all chilis, these will improve in flavor if you let them sit for a day or so before serving.


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