Growing up, my mom cooked a lot of meals for my sister and me, but, bless her heart, she wasn’t the best cook. As a result, I ate a lot of overcooked pork chops and unseasoned chicken, but there was one meal that my mom could cook that I didn’t hate: her chili.
Since chili was the shining light in the dark sea of dinner, I loved it as a kid. My mom’s chili was fairly simplistic, utilizing ground beef, canned tomatoes, canned sauce, canned beans, and a basic chili seasoning packet. It wasn’t fancy at all, but the way she used the slow cooker to simmer everything turned the final product into hearty goodness.
And I still love chili to this day. When I moved away to college, it was only natural that one of the first things I developed my own recipe for was chili, and I was known among my friends to make giant test batches of chili in search of the perfect recipe. Now that it’s been a few years, I have some tricks up my sleeves, but I have never made chili completely from scratch. Although I used a semi-secret blend of meats and spices, I still utilized canned beans and tomatoes. Don’t get me wrong; my chili was delicious, but I wanted to see if I could make it even better. Does it really matter if I use canned ingredients, or is there an extra depth that can only be achieved with raw ingredients?
I never cook the exact same batch of chili twice. Even if it is just a subtle change to the spice blend or I switch up the meat proportions, I like to experiment when I make chili. Granted, I have friends who have favorite blends (and I am partial to certain flavor combinations), but I try to not stifle any creativity when I’m simmering and seasoning.
This doesn’t mean I don’t have a plan, though. In fact, I usually try to have an idea of the flavor profile I want to achieve when I’m buying my ingredients. And, even though the flavor may change from batch to batch, I typically make a thick and meaty chili because that’s what I like to eat.
If you’ve read my previous blog posts, you’ll know that I love spicy food, so I wanted at least a little heat in my chili. And when I pack something full of heat, I love to counteract it with some sweetness, so I knew I would need some sort of sweetening agent as well.
Beyond this, I was just going to play around with what I have in my spice cabinet, but there’s something else you should know: I rarely measure when adding spices to food. I’ve been known to add a single pinch of a spice to a huge amount of food just to add a subtle flavor change. For the sake of replication, I’ll try to list spices in the order of most to least added; if it’s just a pinch, I’ll make special note of that.
The first step in this chili adventure was cooking the beans, which is a lot easier than it sounds. If you’ve never cooked raw beans, you can’t understand the anxiety that comes with debating whether to soak the beans, calculating cook times, and worrying whether you put enough liquid in the pot. It’s stressful, ok?
Luckily, about 6 months ago, I found an amazing way to cook beans: 1lb. of unsoaked beans in the slow cooker on high for 6 hours. I know, I know, it’s almost blasphemy to not soak beans before cooking, but it worked for me.
For the base of my beer chili, I chose to use simply a 1/2 lb. of black beans (because I’m going for a meatier chili), and I wanted to create the chili’s base as I cook the beans. So, before I could turn on the slow cooker, I needed to make my own chili powder.
Disclaimer: I’ve never used dried chiles in chili before, so this was completely new to me. For this particular batch, I chose to use pasilla chiles and Japanese red chiles to create a spicy, earthy, somewhat chocolatey flavor at the center of my chili. I also like the idea of blending Asian and Mexican peppers for a unique flavor. After the timely process of removing the seeds and cutting the dried pods into smaller chunks, I toasted the chiles until they were barely smoking and fragrant. Then, I used my blender to create a fine powder.
If you want to skip this step, feel free. Seriously, skip it if you’re feeling lazy. It took me 30 minutes to remove the seeds from 4.5 ounces of dried chiles, and I’m not even using all the chili powder I made for this batch of chili. I think it’ll be worth it, though, because I get to completely customize the flavor of my chili at every level.
Now, back to the beans. After rinsing and sifting through them, I put 1/2 lb. of unsoaked black beans in the slow cooker. Then, I combined them with 4 cups of chicken broth, roughly 2 oz of the fresh chili powder, some bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup, salt, oregano, cocoa powder, cumin, and a touch of cinnamon. Stir everything together, and turn the slow cooker on high for a few hours.
With the beans in the slow cooker, it’s now time to make the tomato sauce.
This was also new to me. Yeah, I know, for someone who claims to cook decently well, I’ve never made my own tomato sauce before. Shame me all you want, but I’ve always just seasoned cans of plain tomato sauce up for whatever I needed.
After looking online for the best way to go about this, I found a website that put it simply, and I followed the instructions and made a sauce out of 7 medium-sized tomatoes. Boring, I know, but it’s just tomato sauce, so it was going to be boring anyways.
I did diverge at one point, though: instead of simmering the sauce on the stove top, I added it to beans in the slow cooker. This step happened once the beans themselves had lost all their crunch at the 3.5 hour mark; it was at this time that I switched the slow cooker to low.
With the spiced beans and the tomato sauce getting to know each other in the slow cooker, it was time to use the stove top to cook the meaty aspect of the chili.
One of my chili (not-so) secrets is to use more than one type of meat. I learned this trick when I worked the night shift at Waffle House (of all places). In the wee hours of the morning, the cook gets out a giant stockpot and makes the day’s batch of chili. One night, I was extremely bored, and I asked to cook on duty to show me how the Waffle House chili was made. Grabbing onions and tomatoes and burger patties was expected, but something I would have never even considered was also included: breakfast sausage.
Seeing this stuck with me through the years, and every successful batch of chili I’ve made has some sort of sausage in it. For the batch today, I used three types of meat: 1/4 lb. peppered bacon, 3/4 lb. chorizo, and 1 1/4 lbs. ground beef.
But there’s something else you should know about how I use these three types of meat in my chili. On the stove top, I cook the bacon first, but then (because I’m a fat kid from the country) I use the bacon grease to cook the sausage. Then, I take the meat-ception even further and use the bacon/sausage grease to cook the ground beef. And then, just in case you hadn’t already had a heart attack, I use that grease to cook the diced onions (1 large sweet onion), garlic (2 minced cloves), and fresh peppers (3 serranos, in this case).
I consistently use this method and combination of meat because I like the depth of flavor that can be achieved. When people first taste my chili, it’s hard for them to pinpoint that I’ve used sausage or to notice the bacon bits that I’ve snuck in there, and I like that. I love it when all the flavors combine to create a final product that’s cohesive instead of simply some ingredients thrown into a sauce.
When the onions and peppers are starting to soften up, it’s time to use the beer to deglaze the skillet with some beer. The beer I’m using today is Left Hand Smokejumper, which is a smoked imperial porter. Its aroma is a mixture of campfire and coffee, and the flavor is rich with notes of dark chocolate, nearly burnt toast, molasses, and smokiness. And it’s that last flavor that I’m hoping will translate into the chili, especially since I don’t really have any smokiness coming from anywhere but the bacon.
Once I got all the burnt bits on the bottom of the pan up and cooked the onions through thoroughly, I combined everything into the slow cooker, seasoned it with some extra cayenne powder, salt, black pepper, maple syrup, a splash of Irish whiskey, and a dash of cinnamon and ground cloves. Then, I kept the lid off the slow cooker for about an hour while it simmered to the desired thickness on low.
The result? It’s not as spicy as I would have liked, but some of my weaker-stomached friends found it to have a nice smooth heat that built throughout the bowl. What did work was the beer choice though. The smokiness rounded out some of the other bolder flavors, and it even complemented some of the chocolatey, earthy flavors of my chili powder. The beans were wonderfully soft, and the mixture of meat created a heartiness that made the chili irresistible. Seriously, one of my friends at his full bowl in 10 minutes flat.
All in all, I liked the chili, but it was an extremely labor intensive process. Although I wasn’t constantly working, it did take 13 hours to get from opening up the dried chiles to serving my friends bowls of food, and there were some corners that could be cut.
In the future, I think I’ll keep using raw beans for my chili because of how early I could start packing them full of flavor, but due to the long simmer times, I’ll keep using cans of tomato sauce.
As for using dried chiles to make my own chili powder, I think that depends on my mood, and if I want to get really fancy with my chili. It was labor intensive, so I’m going to remember to use larger chiles instead of lots of small ones.
Beer will always make its way into my chili though. Since there are countless beers out there, I’ll keep experimenting the complex flavor profiles of craft beer to add an extra element to my chili that can’t be achieved in any other way.