- Thick, memorably spicy chili
- Juicy, tender ground beef
- Richness without heaviness
I am not from Texas, so I’ve never had any trouble thinking that chili by definition could only mean a bowl made with hand-cut chunks of beef. If anything, I’m always more drawn to ground beef versions, since they skip the tedious step of breaking down a whole roast. That said, I’ve rarely encountered a ground beef chili that can hold its own against the chunky kind. It often suffers from dry, grainy, somewhat tough meat. I set myself the challenge of changing that.
As a first step toward improving dry meat, I opted to use 2 pounds of 85 percent lean (15 percent fat) ground beef. The fat in the mix would lubricate the meat fibers, creating a sense of moistness. As for how to cook it, most chili recipes—whether using ground beef or chunks—call for browning the meat in oil to build a flavor base. Since ground beef sheds a fair amount of liquid as it cooks, and liquid precludes browning, I cooked it in three batches so that any moisture could evaporate quickly.
The next big question was how long to simmer the meat in the liquid ingredients for the most tender results. Recipes vary widely: Some suggest an hour, others call for 2 hours, and more than a few say “the longer the better.” But would the fact that the meat was ground make its proteins and collagen break down more quickly than stew meat, which requires roughly 2 ½ hours of simmering? All this confusion could, I figured, be cleared up by one simple test.
But first I needed a basic chili recipe to work from. After setting the browned meat aside, I sautéed a few spoonfuls of store-bought chili powder (a stand-in for the homemade blend I planned to mix up later), diced onions, and minced garlic in the residual fat. Once the aromatics were softened, I returned the beef to the pot along with a can of pinto beans and a small can of whole tomatoes that I pureed in the food processor. (I used judicious amounts of each since I wanted the beef to be the star of the show.) Finally, I stirred in 2 cups of water. I brought the mixture to a boil, put the lid on the pot, and transferred it to a 275-degree oven where the ambient heat would cook it gently. After about an hour, the result was only mediocre: The flavors were no longer raw-tasting, but they were somewhat blah. Plus, the beef still had the dry, tough texture I was trying to avoid.
Sixty minutes of simmering clearly wasn’t long enough to tenderize the meat. I put the chili back into the oven, pulling it out and sampling it every 15 minutes or so. The Goldilocks moment, when the meat was fairly tender, came at the 90-minute mark.
This suggested that just because meat is ground doesn’t mean it doesn’t take time to tenderize: The pieces might be smaller than meat chunks, but the muscle fibers are made of the same proteins and collagen that require similar exposure to heat to break down. Heat penetrates the fibers more quickly when they are in small pieces, which is why chunks of chuck roast might take 2 to 2 ½ hours to tenderize, while ground beef requires only 90 minutes.
You might think that just because ground beef is made up of tiny pieces of meat, it doesn’t need much time to cook. But ground chuck is exactly that—cut-up pieces of chuck roast—and as such contains the same proteins and collagen that require adequate exposure to moist heat to properly break down. Many chili recipes cook the ground meat for 45 minutes or even less. For optimally tender results, we simmer ours for 1 ½ to 2 hours—almost as long as we do stew meat.
I had made progress, but the ground beef still wasn’t living up to its full potential: I wanted it to be even more tender, and it wasn’t perfectly moist like beef chunks are after proper browning and simmering. That’s because fine pieces of ground meat give off far more moisture during the browning step than larger meat chunks do. The muscle fibers tighten up when heated, squeezing out some of the liquid they contain. And the smaller the piece, the more liquid will be lost to the surrounding environment.
There are a few tricks to help keep ground beef tender and juicy. One of them I was already doing: using meat with a relatively high fat content. Another is to add salt and let the meat sit for about 20 minutes. In addition to seasoning the meat, salt alters the structure of the meat proteins to better allow it to retain moisture. Finally, you can raise the pH of the meat with a little baking soda to help the proteins attract more water and hold on to it.
Indeed, incorporating baking soda—¾ teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons of water to help it dissolve—not only kept the meat juicy and made it even more tender, but it also produced an unforeseen benefit: Since the beef now barely shed any moisture during cooking (not even the small amount of water that I added to dissolve the baking soda) and a higher pH significantly speeds up the Maillard reaction, the meat browned much more quickly. This meant that I could cook it in a single batch rather than in three—a major timesaver.
Browning ground beef is a challenge since it expels juices more rapidly than chunks of meat do, and most of that moisture needs to evaporate before browning can occur. To limit the amount of liquid, the usual solution is to brown in batches. We stick with one batch but toss the meat with baking soda before cooking, which helps lock in moisture.
With that, I shifted my focus to giving the chili memorably spicy flavor. Store-bought chili powder is convenient, but it’s not that much trouble to make a homemade blend that tastes significantly better. I started with six dried whole ancho chiles, toasted to bring out their raisin-like sweetness and fruity heat. But it was hard to grind the small quantity of chiles in a food processor, since the pieces just bounced around the workbowl. One trick we’ve used in the past is to add cornmeal to the mix to bulk it up. The cornmeal also serves to slightly thicken and add corn flavor to the chili. I used the same approach, but substituted a few tortilla chips for the cornmeal, since I always have them on hand to serve with chili.
For another layer of heat and smokiness, I stirred in minced chipotles in adobo. And to boost the chile notes without adding more heat, I threw in some sweet paprika. Of course, chili powder isn’t made from just chiles. I also added a generous amount of ground cumin, plus garlic powder, ground coriander, dried oregano, black pepper, and dried thyme.
Finally, about that fat. After the chili came out of the oven, it was covered in a layer of bright orange grease. When I reflexively skimmed it off, my tasters complained that the chili tasted a little flat and lean. The Day-Glo color should have been a giveaway that the fat was loaded with oil-soluble compounds from my spice blend. Discarding it robbed the chili of flavor. So for my next batch, instead of removing the fat, I just stirred it back in. Now the chili boasted deeply spiced complexity.
Because the main flavor compounds in most spices are fat soluble, skimming the bright orange fat from the finished chili will rob it of flavor. For deep, richly spiced complexity, don’t remove the fat—stir it back in.
To cut some of its richness, I added 2 teaspoons of sugar and a couple of tablespoons of cider vinegar. I served the chili with lime wedges, fresh cilantro, chopped onion, and plenty of tortilla chips and/or steamed white rice. This chili was full-flavored and rich but certainly not so rich that my guests didn’t come back for seconds.
Thick, memorably spicy chili
Cutting a potently flavorful homemade chili powder mix with 1 ounce tortilla chips bulks up the grind and helps thickens the chili.
Juicy, tender ground beef
Letting 85/15 ground beef sit in a mixture of salt and baking soda for 20 minutes before cooking keeps the meat juicy and tender.
Richness without heaviness
Stirring the flavorful fat that rises to the top back into the pot gives the chili depth, and fresh additions like vinegar, lime wedges, and cilantro cut the richness.