(above: chili about 90 minutes in)
Devotees of the Matablog will remember our previous discussions of chili. Here at the ‘dor we prefer real texas red – no beans, not much tomato, and the beef in big meaty chunks rather than ground. We also make our own chili powder using an assortment of different whole dried chiles. All this contributes to what John Thorne calls real chili’s distinctive rasp. But it also makes for a certain austerity. I’m reminded of Thorne’s description of artisanal grits: “Their taste may hold a narrow place on the flavor spectrum, but that doesn’t mean it’s limited.” What if you have a craving for a real chili with a more sumptuous flavor?
It was while I was having these midwinter musings that I ran across this post from Serious Eats food science writer J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, “How To Make The Best Chili Ever.” Kenji’s recipe contained some real insights and I decided to give it a try – with a couple of alterations, of course.
(above, from left to right, mildest to hottest: anaheim, pasilla, ancho, guajillo, cascabel, pequin)
The main thing that interested me was his treatment of the whole chiles: toast them, cook them down in stock, puree them, and then fry the puree. This rids the chili of the grittiness that powder can sometimes provide. It smooths Thorne’s rasp, perhaps a bit too much, but the aim here is a more luscious, comfortable chili. This method certainly achieves it.
Another idea that really rang true for me was his treatment of the beef. I had been finding it very difficult to get a true browned flavor from my chuck, even cut into 1/8″ or 1/4″ cubes (by hand) – the amount of water released from the small pieces of meat during the long browninng necessary to cover that surface area necessarily interferes with developing a caramelized crust. Kenji’s solution: brown the whole pieces of meat, let them cool, and then cut them up. He also borrows an idea from Heston Blumenthal and adds a small amount of toasted star anise, which adds no perceptible liquorice notes but does mysteriously bring out the browned meat flavor.
Most of the rest of his ideas also meet no opposition from me: umami bombs (soy sauce, anchovies and Marmite, all added to the puree of chiles), unsweetened chocolate (we’re already a long way from Thorne’s purism), a slug of hard liquor at the end to release all the complex aromas.
(mmm… now that’s a beautiful piece of chuck)
My main changes: I browned my meat in rendered suet, which is not only more true to chili’s past but also tastier. Instead of just shortribs, I used a combination of shortribs and chuck, all from the great Florence Meat Market in the Village. I abstained from adding coffee, since one eater has a reaction to it. I put in about half the tomatoes that Kenji recommends (you don’t want to go too far), and of course I omitted the beans. I didn’t put in 1/4 cup of Frank’s Red Hot Sauce – I’ve always found this to be a hot sauce of limited depth or interest – and ultimately this chili was not spicy enough. Next time I would add back some of Thorne’s recipe by crumbling in pequins as the chili cooks to adjust the spice balance. That said, I did actually use more chilis that Kenji calls for – I believe that chili should taste primarily of chile and beef, and his formulation would only pair a tablespoon or two of chili powder equivalent with 4-5 pounds of meat – definitely not sufficient. Finally, I used sherry vinegar instead of the cider vinegar he calls for, just because that’s what I had around.
All this said, this chili was astounding, bursting with intense, deep, rich soulful flavor. It was a bit sweeter and more accommodating than I would like – as I wrote above, it needs more kick, but that will be easy to achieve next time with careful administration of pequins or chiles de arbol during the simmering process. Other than that, this chili was just about perfect – and all the eaters concurred.
If you’d like to try this, here is the link to Kenji’s recipe (be sure to read the preparation notes here as well). Below are my changes.
- omit beans
- dried chiles used: 2 anaheim, 2 ancho, 2 pasilla, 1 guajillo, 1 cascabel, 3 pequin (and I wish I’d used more of the hot ones)
- meat used: 2 whole bone-in shortribs (see picture for size), 3 lbs well marbled chuck
- fat used: 2″ X 2″ X 2″ piece of suet, cut into small pieces and fully rendered (olive oil added when necessary to get the correct amounts)
- omit coffee beans
- fresh chiles used: 1 jalapeno PLUS 1 Thai bird chile (and I wish I’d used more)
- half the amount of tomatoes (i.e. about 14 ounces)
- sherry vinegar substituted for cider vinegar
- Frank’s Red Hot Sauce – omitted
- garnish – omitted in its entirety except the Saltines
This chili is truly stunning. I urge you try it.