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How to Make the Best Chili con Carne

Vespa's recipes have appeared in "Midwest Living" and "Taste of Home." She belongs to Cook's Recipe Testers for "Cook's Illustrated."

Chili con Carne

Chili con Carne

How to Make Chili Like a Pro: The Secret's in the Chili Powder

Chili is serious business, and chili lovers are as fanatical about their concoctions as New Yorkers are about the Yankees. They hold chili cook-offs and competitions for the best chili powder, and they even write poems and odes to chili. Most chefs create a signature chili recipe, and there’s even a chili organization, the International Chili Society (ICS), which has been in existence since 1967.

The origin of chili is widely debated by culinary historians, although the modern dish, chili con carne, probably originated in Texas sometime after the Civil War. That being said, the amalgam of spicy peppers, meats and herbs is not the monopoly of Texans. The potage dates back to the Incas, Mayas and Aztecs.

Since each chili lover has his or her own unique palate, the array of recipes is dizzying. But just like the top chefs, you can develop your own signature recipe. How? First, we'll discuss the two most important chili ingredients: fresh and dried chile peppers. Fresh hot peppers adjust the heat/spice level, while the chili powder or dried chiles you choose contribute toward both flavor and heat.

For the sake of clarity, in this article we use the spelling "chile" for hot peppers and "chili" for the dish and the powder blend.

In this article, I'll cover the following topics:

  • Choose Chile Peppers to Control Heat
  • Chart: The Scovile Scale
  • The Best Commercial Blends and How to Make Your Own Chili Powder
  • Chili Powder Recipe
  • Chili Tips
  • Recipe: Vespa's Favorite Chili Recipe
  • Fire-Roasted Chiles and Oven-Roasted Tomatoes
  • Optional Ingredients and Variations
  • Chili Poll: How Do You Like Your Chili?
Peruvian Aji Chiles

Peruvian Aji Chiles

Choose Chile Peppers to Control Heat

After researching for this section, visions of chile peppers were dancing in my head! So what's the skinny? Hot pepper adds to chili what Angelina Jolie adds to Hollywood: heat and flavor. The Scoville scale was developed to measure chile heat levels.

Refer to the chart below, which includes both dried (used in chili powder) and fresh peppers, to make a selection based on your heat preference. Be very careful when handling chiles: Use gloves or plastic bags on your hands and don’t touch your nose or eyes. Remove seeds and veins to decrease heat.

Of course, this is just a starting point. Heat levels of individual peppers vary a lot due to seed stock, climate and soil quality. And each chile also has its own unique properties. For example, dried guajillos are rich, smoky and complex but add little heat. Fresh jalapeños can pack a punch but don't have staying power. Habaneros produce a tonsil-scorching pot of chili. Cayenne adds immediate but not lasting heat.

We like Ancho in our chili powder blend, as it adds a lot of flavor without much heat. Sample fresh peppers before adding them to the pot and experiment with dried peppers for your own unique chili powder blend.

Peppers have more than just culinary value. A fun fact: The prize for the hottest naturally grown pepper goes to the Bhut Jolokia or ghost pepper, which has been used successfully in eastern India to repel obnoxious elephants!

Update 2/20/2012: The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper was recently named by the New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute as the world's hottest pepper, with a heat on the Scoville Scale topping 1.2 million units!

The Scoville Scale

Scoville ScoreChile Pepper Variety

900,000 +

Naga Viper, Bhut Jolokia (ghost), Trinidad Moruga Scorpion

300,000–600,000

Red Savina habanero, Indian Tezpur

100,000–350,000

Scotch bonnet, Habanero, Datil, Madame Jeanette, Peruvian White Habanero, Jamaican

50,000–100,000

Byadgi chile, Bird's eye chile, Malagueta, Chiltepin, Piri piri (African bird's eye), Thai Pepper Pequin, Chile de Árbol, Rocoto (Peruvian)

30,000–50,000

Guntur Sannam, Cayenne, Ají (or Peruvian Ají), Tabasco, Cumari, Ají Limo (Peruvian), Ají Amarillo

10,000–23,000

Serrano, Peter, Aleppo

3,500–8,000

Espelette, Jalapeño, Chipotle, Guajillo, New Mexican varieties of Anaheim, Hungarian wax, Tabasco sauce, Ají Marisol (Peruvian), Chipotle, Fresno

1,000–3,500

Poblano, Rocotillo, Anaheim, Peppadew, Pasilla, Ancho, Cascabel

100–900

Pimento, Peperoncini, Banana

0-500

Bell, Cubanelle, Aji dulce, Aji panca

Homemade chili powder

Homemade chili powder

The Best Commercial Blends and How to Make Your Own Chili Powder

The single most important ingredient of winning chili is chili powder, which is about 80% chile pepper blended with other spices like coriander, oregano, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, allspice, etc. A cheap blend will make boring, flat chili so splurge on high-quality seasoning or make your own chili powder.

In a pinch, we use Penzey's chili con carne blend. Many Californians vouch for Gebhardt's (the original chili seasoning), while others swear by Adams, Mexene or Spice Hunter chili powder blend.

There is nothing like the complex flavor of homemade chili powder. Dare to make your own! It's quick, easy and raises chili to new heights. This chili seasoning recipe creates a mildly spicy, flavorful blend with a touch of smokiness.

Chili Powder Recipe

Ingredients

  • 6 ancho peppers
  • 3 guajillo peppers
  • 1 chipotle pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 1 Tablespoon dried oregano

Instructions

  1. Stem whole dried chiles, removing most of the seeds.
  2. Toast chiles and cumin seeds in a cast iron or other heavy skillet over medium heat, moving constantly so the spices don't burn, for 5 or 6 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
  3. When cool, place chiles in a spice grinder or blender with garlic powder and oregano. After grinding into a fine powder, allow dust to settle before opening the lid.
  4. Store in an airtight container.
  5. You can experiment with other peppers such as New Mexico for sweetness, cascabel for nut or tobacco nuances or chile de arbol for heat.*

*See "Dried Chiles" chart in my recipe article "Sweet and Smoky Mexican Mole" for tips on choosing dried chiles by flavor.

Chili Tips

  • It's best to start with a couple of hot peppers and gradually add more until you reach the desired level of heat.
  • Cocoa and coriander add both depth and dimension to chili.
  • Dark beer makes this dish extra special. Guests will beg for your recipe!
  • Add beans the last 20 minutes of cooking to avoid overcooked, mushy beans.
  • You can substitute canned tomatoes for fresh ones.
  • Simmer the chili for at least one hour. This is a good make-ahead dish because flavor only improves overnight.
  • Aji marisol and rocoto chiles are readily available in Peru, so I use a few of each in my chili. if you have any questions concerned chiles available in your area, feel free to ask.
  • Now that you understand the workings of chili, be creative! Approach a pot of chili the way Michelangelo approached a blank canvas: as a future work of art.
  • If you have a delicate palate, start with only 2 tablespoons of chili powder for your custom recipe. Choose chile peppers with a low Scoville score. I recommend poblano peppers, which tend to be milder, and red, yellow or orange bell peppers. Fire roast for more flavor or simply dice and sauté with onions and garlic.
  • If you enjoy stronger flavor and hotter spice, you can up the ante by using the full amount of chili powder recommended below. Choose hot peppers that rate higher on the Scoville scale.
  • If your family doesn't agree on heat level, make a batch of mild chili and spice up individual portions with diced hot chiles or cayenne.
  • My recipe makes a medium spicy, slightly smoky chili. Adjust the heat up or down according to your preference.

Vespa's Favorite Chili Recipe

Prep timeCook timeReady inYields

30 min

1 hour 30 min

2 hours

Serves 8

Ingredients

  • 2 small red bell peppers
  • 6-8 chiles (jalapeno, Anaheim, poblano, serrano, etc.)
  • 2 pounds fresh tomatoes, blanched, skinned and chopped (or two 28-ounce cans Muir Glen roasted tomatoes and green chilies)
  • 1/2 cup roasted red peppers, diced
  • 2 large onions, diced
  • 10 garlic cloves, crushed, pressed or minced
  • 4 pounds ground beef (or pork and beef combo)
  • 1/4 cup chili powder, or to taste (see recipe above)
  • 1 Tablespoon cumin, ground
  • 1 Tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 1 Tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 Tablespoon oregano, dried
  • 2 Tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon cocoa powder
  • 1 Tablespoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon seasoned salt, or more to taste
  • 1/2 cup tomato paste
  • 2 cups beef stock, or use broth cubes + 2 cups water
  • 2 (14.5-ounce) cans black and pinto beans
  • 1/2 cup smoked pork loin or bacon, chopped
  • 12 ounces beer, preferably dark such as Guinness
  • Garnishes (see below)

Ingredients (Metric Conversions)

  • 2 red bell peppers
  • 6-8 chiles
  • 1 Kilo fresh tomatoes
  • 75 grams roasted red peppers, chopped
  • 2 large onions, diced
  • 10 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 Kilos ground beef, pork or turkey
  • 40 grams chili powder, or to taste
  • 15 mL cumin, ground
  • 15 mL smoked paprika
  • 15 mL ground coriander
  • 15 mL oregano, dried
  • 30 mL Worchestershire sauce
  • 15 mL cocoa powder
  • 15 mL freshly ground pepper
  • 15 mL seasoned salt
  • 140 grams tomato paste
  • 475 mL beef stock
  • 820 grams black or pinto beans
  • 140 gram smoked pork loin
  • 355 mL dark beer (such as Guinness)

Instructions

  1. Pour 3 tablespoons of olive oil into a heavy-bottomed pot on medium heat.
  2. Add onions and garlic (and diced peppers, if not roasting). Cook until soft, about 8 minutes, stirring frequently. Push vegetables to the side and quickly saute the bacon or pork loin.
  3. Add chili powder, cumin, paprika, coriander, oregano and ground meat. Break up meat with a wooden spoon or spatula and cook about 10 minutes, or until no longer pink.
  4. Stir in Worcestershire, cocoa powder, salt and pepper, tomatoes, tomato paste and liquid.
  5. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally to ensure the chili doesn't scorch.
  6. Add beans during the last 30 minutes of cooking. Taste and adjust salt.
  7. Serve in bowls with optional garnishes (see list below).

Garnishes and Serving Suggestions

There are many possible garnishes and sides that you can serve with your chili.

Garnishes

  • Chopped green or red onion
  • Cilantro
  • Shredded cheese
  • Corn chips
  • Sour cream
  • Greek yogurt

Serving Suggestions

  • Biscuits
  • Cornbread
  • French bread
  • Cinnamon rolls (Yes, I know . . . chili and cinnamon rolls is a Midwestern thing that my hubby remembers from elementary school.)

As we say in Peru, ¡Provecho!

Roasting chiles on a gas burner

Roasting chiles on a gas burner

Fire-Roasted Chiles and Oven-Roasted Tomatoes

If you enjoy complex chili, try coaxing more flavor from tomatoes and peppers by roasting. Roma or other meaty tomatoes work best for this method. Roasting tomatoes in a 400-degree Fahrenheit oven will sweeten and concentrate their flavor. First, seed the peppers and remove their tops. Slice tomatoes in half lengthwise, place on a baking sheet, skin side up, and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in a 400-degree oven for about 30 minutes, or until tomatoes shrivel. Let cool. Peel, chop coarsely and add tomatoes and juices to chili.

If you like smoky chili, try fire-roasting peppers and tomatoes. Prep as above and broil under the broiler for 15-20 minutes, watching carefully, until the tomato and peppers are charred and blistered. Peel, coarsely chop and add to chili.

Since I own a gas stove, I oven-roast tomatoes while fire-roasting peppers on the gas burner, as seen in the photo. Alternatively, you can purchase fire-roasted tomatoes and chiles.

Optional Ingredients and Variations

I enjoy the warmth and depth cocoa powder and dark beer adds to my recipe. I also choose coarsely ground beef, although some cooks prefer cubed beef chuck for firmer texture. Ground pork or bulk Italian sausage can be added to the beef blend for a unique flavor. Ground turkey would be a healthier alternative to beef.

I always add beans to my chili. Since canned beans are expensive and not readily available, I soak one bag each of black and canary beans (available in Peru) overnight. Then I pressure-cook the beans before adding them to the chili. For U.S. cooks, I recommend either pinto, black or red beans. If you enjoy thicker-skinned, firmer beans, try kidneys.

You'll need about two cups of liquid for thick chili. Try red wine, beer, beef broth or just plain water.

Other possible chili additions include: liquid smoke, wasabi for a touch of the exotic, sugar, orange juice, soy sauce, vinegar, mustard, mushrooms, celery, zucchini, bacon, chicken or textured vegetable protein as a substitute for meat. Use your imagination and add your favorite ingredients.

Questions & Answers

Question: What does cocoa powder do to chili?

Answer: Cocoa powder adds another layer of flavor to chili, as does the dark beer. Mexican mole uses a similar method. Cocoa or chocolate also contributes to the depth of flavor in this traditional sauce.