Chili – A Beginner’s Guide to Emptying the Pantry and Freezer
Chili was one of the earlier things on my bucket list when I was first learning how to cook. At first I wanted a Texas-style beanless chili recipe for the purpose of being more “authentic”, but then I realised I’m not a Southerner, and I’m not really passionate about keeping Southern recipes authentic. Also I like beans, so I decided “screw it” and just went for a nice beanie chili. So the first chili recipe I tried was Chef John’s beef, bean and beer chili recipe, which was amazing and I highly recommend it to everyone who loves beef, beans and beer, but since then I’ve made plenty of other chili pots without following any recipes in particular. I’ve done vegetarian chilis before too. Later I became friends with a fellow cook who says “Chili is something you make when you want to make room in your pantry and freezer.” and there is quite a bit of truth to that… So now every time I make chili, I use it as an opportunity to get rid non-perishables I don’t want to see anymore. Especially dry beans and spices, and oftentimes frozen vegetables.
What most chili recipes have in common is the spices; a large handful of them appear in many different recipes, and chili all comes down to tasting and adjusting the spices until it’s perfect to your taste. So for this post, I won’t be giving an exact recipe with precise ingredient amounts, but rather I want to teach you how to chili, essentially. I’ll be giving out a bunch of commonly used chili ingredients, all of which are optional, even the beans are optional if you want to go southern-style. However, you do need chili powder, whether it’s ancho, chipotle, or even kashmiri. Most people seem to prefer ancho though, especially for chili pots. You can also make your own chili powder blend. And once you know how to chili, you can go on to creating your own personal chili recipes and sharing them! Or keep it as your secret recipe if it really is that amazing. Whatever you prefer!
The technique for making chili is pretty consistent: if you have meat, cook it on high with your onions until all the meat juices evaporate. Then add your spices and vegetables, stock and/or water, then your beans (soaked overnight or canned, doesn’t matter as long as they’re not dry) and then just leave it on the stove to simmer for an extended period of time, adjusting water levels as needed. My aforementioned friend claims that the longer you simmer it, then more the flavours develop, but in my opinion there’s a cutoff time when the flavours stop developing over the heat and you’re better off just letting it cool down or keeping it warm on the stove if you’re serving it later in the day. I’d simmer my chili for 3 hours at maximum, but generally I take it off the heat after 2 hours because the beans start to get a little too mushy after that. You also want to be tasting and adjusting constantly during the simmering. Making an excellent chili is a true test of the palate, which is why chili contests are a thing. Now, onto the ingredients:
Ingredients (for ~4 servings)
1 tbsp lard, or any cooking fat that’s suitable for high temperatures*
500g ground meat**
3/4 cup (140g) dry beans***
1 brown onion
1/2 cup tomato purée or crushed tomatoes
water or stock as needed
1 green bell pepper
1 tbsp chili powder
1/2 tbsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tbsp paprika
1/2 tsp cocoa powder****
1/4 tsp oregano
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
3 garlic cloves
salt/pepper to taste
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar or lemon juice
Sour cream, crème fraîche or grated cheese to serve.
Some people also like to add bay leaves, but I personally don’t like the way they make a chili taste… Give it a try with and without, and you’ll see what I mean.
So that’s your basic chili recipe. You can substitute ground meat with leftover meat, and beans with other dry stuff in your pantry that you don’t want anymore. You could even serve a beanless chili over some pasta or noodles. Besides those things, you can choose to add in any vegetables or other things in your fridge, pantry or freezer that you want to get rid of. Frozen meat, frozen peas, green beans, okra, carrots, parsnips, corn, bell peppers, tomatoes, even potatoes.
0. Soak dry beans overnight. If you’re using canned beans, drain and rinse them thoroughly.
1. Heat up some lard or oil in a large saucepan and toss in your diced onion and ground beef when it’s hot enough.
2. Season onions and beef with a generous pinch of salt and cook on high heat, breaking up the ground beef with a wooden spoon until it’s as fine as you can make it.
3. Continue cooking on high heat until meat is thoroughly browned and leave it on high, mixing occasionally until all the meat juice has evaporated and the meat is relatively dry.
4. While the meat juice is evaporating, get your spices of choice and minced garlic together and ready to toss in. If you’re using cocoa powder too, add that later, since cocoa tends to burn.
5. Reduce heat to medium-high and toss in your spices and mix thoroughly with the beef for about 3 minutes, just enough to wake up the spices.
6. Dice and add in your vegetables, seeding the jalapeño if you don’t want your chili too spicy. Add cocoa powder, tomato purée, soaked beans, then fill the saucepan with water until it’s completely covered. If you’re using canned beans, simmer on low for 30 minutes before adding them.
7. Reduce heat to low and simmer stirring occasionally.
8. While it’s simmering come back every so often to give it a stir and a taste, and to adjust the water levels if they’re getting too low. Adding more water dilutes the flavour, so you may need to add more seasoning, salt especially. Most chilis are simply undersalted. If you want it hotter, add more chili powder. If you think it needs a little bit of acidity, add some lemon juice or balsamic vinegar. The one thing you probably shouldn’t add more of is cocoa powder; you don’t want your chili to taste chocolaty. At least I don’t think you do. So resist the urge and focus on the other seasonings. I have ruined a few chilis by adding too much cocoa before.
9. Remove from heat and let it cool for at least 10 minutes before serving.
10. Serve topped with some sour cream or crème fraîche. Grated cheese is also an excellent topping!
*It’s worth knowing that the leaner your ground meat the more fat you’d want to add if you want to retain a nice rich flavour. If you opted for leaner meat because you’re on a diet, add more fat anyway, and just eat from a smaller bowl.
**Any ground meat would do, but remember that beef is the best ground meat for anything, in general. There’s a reason beef burgers are more popular than chicken burgers.
***What kind of beans? Pinto, red kidney, and black beans are the chili classics. You can use just one, or a combination of all 3 just for visual appeal, they all taste pretty much the same. 140g of dry beans is about the same as a 540g can. For the states, a 15 oz can is about 105g dry beans. I generally prefer to use dry beans to avoid this confusion and also so I have more control over how many beans I put into my chili, since the canned ones need to be used up immediately after opening.
****This is considered, by some cooks, the “secret” ingredient to a perfect chili. It won’t make your chili taste like chocolate unless you go overboard with it like Paule Deen. But it will add a tiny hint of cocoa flavour that is just barely noticeable and adds to the whole experience.
(creme, fraiche, jalapeno, jalapenos)