Chili is a wonderful dish to serve at the gaming table because it’s easy to cook, it’s a nice, hearty meal, it has a history of being eaten by those on an adventuring trail, and (best of all) it’s cheap. Now, apparently the flamewars resulting when someone asks whether or not to include beans in chili rival edition wars. So if you want to add beans, do it. If you don’t, don’t.
Here’s the thing with chili. I never make it from a recipe. I know what ingredients go into it at about what proportions, throw them in the slow cooker, let them simmer for an hour or so, then I taste and adjust. It comes down basically to three main categories, though. Meat, sauce, and spices.
The amount of meat (or “protein” if you want to get technical, since you can use beans as well) should be determined by how many servings you want and how you’re serving it. If you’re throwing it in a bowl with some shredded cheese on top and some crackers on the side, you’ll want about half a pound of meat per guest. If you’re using it with something else, like in a Frito Chili Pie (recipe: Put Fritos in a baking dish, cover with chili, cover that with cheese, bake until cheese is melty), on top of hot dogs, or some other use where you’ll be adding to it, you want a quarter pound per guest. This will give you enough that everyone can eat their fill without running out, but not having too many leftovers at the end of the night (though leftover chili keeps covered tightly in the fridge for at least three days).
What kind of meat should you use? When I go all-out, I use five. Ground beef chuck, beef chuck steaks cut into cubes like stew meat, ground pork, ground turkey, and ground lamb. The beef adds a lot of flavor, and I use a mix of ground and cubed beef because of texture. Pork adds a different type of flavor and a smoother texture. Turkey adds yet another texture to the party and pads out the meatiness without adding a more fat, while lamb adds a lot of flavor. This, again, is when I go all out. Beef and turkey are usually enough. Whatever meats you pick, make sure to sear them in a pan (I prefer cast iron) first before you start cooking them, and deglaze the pan to start making the sauce.
There’s a lot of ways to approach the sauce, but my personal method involves a can of tomato paste, chicken stock, and beer. If I’m going all-out, after I’ve browned the meat in the pan, I’ll throw in some diced onion and sweat it in the rendered fat from the beef and pork (this means cook over medium-low heat with a heavy pinch of salt until the onions soften, usually 3-5 minutes). If I’m lazy, I’ll just use onion powder. Chili cooks so long that it’s hard to tell the difference unless you bite into a chunk of onion. Same goes for garlic and garlic powder. Call me a philistine if you will, but if you get the good quality stuff, garlic powder and onion powder are far easier and almost as flavorful as the real thing.
Now, if you’re a complete masochist (and this is one of the few times I’m not, culinarily speaking), you can seed and dice whole tomatoes and use them as the base for your chili. The only reason I don’t bother is, again, this dish is cooking for a good six to eight hours. Any sort of fresh flavor the tomatoes will give is going to be crushed by the spices and the long cooking time, so why waste the effort when it won’t help?
One thing that is critical in chili, though, is some form of alcohol. I prefer a light lager (basically, I grab the can of Major Chain Beer a friend inevitably leaves in my fridge after a party and use that rather than wasting good beer), but something like a bock would be fine as well. I don’t add a lot, because cooked beer can sometimes make some off flavors. Besides, you’re wanting the alcohol mostly to unlock the alcohol-soluble flavors in the tomatoes (meaning the flavor compounds dissolve in alcohol but not in water). If you want, you can just substitute a shot of vodka or bourbon.
The other ingredient in the sauce – the chicken stock – isn’t really necessary. It’s mostly to thin out the sauce so the meat can properly braise (cook over low heat for a long time to break down connective tissue). I use the chicken stock to deglaze the pan I browned the meat in to get all those flavorful little stuck-on bits into the slow cooker. After an hour or two, I’ll add in some more chicken stock if it’s too thick, which usually only happens with the heat’s too high and the water in the sauce is evaporating.
Now we get to the seasonings. As I said before, I use onion powder and garlic powder unless I’m trying to impress someone in the kitchen with my knife skills (which are only really impressive to people who don’t cook a lot since I’m a bit sloppy). I also add a bit of cayenne pepper for heat, cumin and black pepper for flavor, and just a teeny tiny pinch of paprika. You don’t need a whole lot of seasonings for chili regardless of what those little packets in the grocery store say.
There is one seasoning that you cannot make chili without, and that’s chile powder. Now he’s where things can get confusing because there’s a difference between chili powder and chile powder. A chile is a spicy berry such as a bell pepper, jalepino, scotch bonnet, etc. Chili is the dish we’re discussing today. What’s the difference between chili-with-an-i powder and chile-with-an-e powder? Chili powder can have all sorts of stuff in it, but chile powder can only contain dried, ground chile peppers. Technically, the cayenne pepper I mentioned before is a chile powder since it’s made from ground red peppers, but I’m cajun so it’s considered as essential in cooking as salt and pepper.
Quick aside: I haven’t mentioned salt when talking about the spices because there should be plenty of salt in the chili already. Anytime you brown or sear meat, you should salt it first. Anytime you sweat a vegetable, you should salt it right after it hits the pan. This isn’t just for flavor, but because salt pulls moisture from foods. In the case of meat, it pulls protein-rich liquids to the surface which speeds up and increases browning. In the case of vegetables, it breaks down cell walls allowing the vegetables to soften faster. And if you’ve ever tasted a dish that didn’t have any salt in it, you’ll know that flavor is a big part of it as well.
Another confession. When I’m making chili, I’m cheap. I have no problems reaching for that jar of chili powder instead of going out and buying dried chiles and putting them in my spice grinder. If I am going through the effort, though, I’ll definitely buy the dried chiles and grind them myself rather than buy the pre-ground stuff in the store. With only a few exceptions of spices you just can’t grind at home, you should never buy pre-ground spices. They’re usually made from the whole spices that were rejected from being sold whole due to size, cracking, or other deformations and once a spice is ground, it starts losing its punch fast. You’ve got three months max on a ground spice before it might as well be sawdust, and I have no idea how long that jar’s been sitting on a shelf in the store or a warehouse before it got there. Do yourself a favor, buy whole, and grind yourself using a cheap blade coffee grinder you can get for around $10-15 at any store that sells kitchen appliances.
Either route you decide to go, though, you’re going to need a lot of chili/chile powder. Again, I eyeball things and go by taste, but you’re probably looking at about 1/4 cup per pound of meat. I actually recommend starting with 2 tbsp (or 1/8 cup), stirring it in, letting it sit for about 30 minutes, then tasting it. This goes with all the other spices as well, starting with about 1/2 tsp for the others. Add more or less as it suits your tastes.
Now here’s my secret to amazing chili. Because of all that chili or chile powder, it can pack a bit of a punch in the heat department. You can add an amazing flavor and cool things down by adding just the tiniest amount of a secret ingredient to the pot. The trick is to be sparing with it because a little goes a long way. I mean I use 1/2 tsp for a pot that has 4 pounds of meat. The secret? Vanilla extract. You can use the imitation stuff here so long as it’s at least decent quality, no need to waste the super-expensive pure vanilla extract on this. But it adds a very distinct flavor that plays very well with the chili powder and tomatoes and it cuts down on the heat just enough to keep your mouth from catching fire after the first bite.
So yeah, that’s a lot of theory, but I haven’t actually outlined how you cook it. So against my better judgement, I’m going to give you a recipe. Please note that this is not verboten. Change whatever you like. This is actually the chili I made a week ago and it turned out very well, but you may not like something in it and feel free to change it to your tastes.
- 1 1/2 lb Ground Chuck
- 1 1/2 lb Chuck Steak
- 1 can tomato paste
- 1/2 c chicken stock
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1/4 to 1/3 c chili powder
- Slightly less than 1/4 tsp imitation vanilla extract
- 1 oz vodka
- Salt the ground chuck and let sit as you place a cast iron skillet on high heat. Chop the chuck steak into 1/4″ cubes, trimming as much fat as you can. Salt liberally.
- Once the skillet’s hot, add the meat in batches and cook on high heat until brown on the outside (don’t worry if it doesn’t cook through). Add each batch to the slow cooker when it’s done.
- Once all the meat’s browned, add the chicken stock to the pan and sort of scrape around on the bottom to dissolve all those stuck-on brown bits.
- Add chicken stock to the slow cooker as well as all other ingredients except the vanilla extract, stirring to combine. Add about 1/4 c of chili powder. Place the slow cooker on High and cover.
- Let cook for one hour, then stir and taste. Adjust seasoning as necessary and add just a tiny splash of vanilla extract if it’s too spicy.
- Reduce slow cooker to Low, cover, and let cook for 6-8 hours or until the diced chuck steak are tender.
That’s all there is to it. Chili is a dish of self-expression. It’s meant to be played with and changed for your personal tastes, and it’s a great dish to experiment with because, again, it’s cheap. You’re getting some of the cheapest cuts of meat you can, adding a can of tomato paste, some chicken broth, and some cheap spices to it. An entire pot of chili probably won’t cost you more than $10-20 to make, so it’s a great way to play around because even if you screw up, you’re not out that much money. So stock up on crackers, corn chips, and shredded cheese and make yourself a nice pot of chili to keep you and your gaming group warm this winter.