Chili, in all its beautiful variations, is a dish deeply connected to the Americas. First created in Mexico and refined in Texas by Mexican immigrants in the 1850s, this easy to cook and deeply flavorsome crowd-pleaser now has a host of regional varieties.
Whether you are cooking up a beefy pot of chili con carne or a spicy vegetable vegan version, the trick to a great chili is the quality of the ingredients.
So, if you are looking for a way to take your chili game to the next level, we’ve cooked up twelve easy ways to make chili so good that even your most spice-phobic friend will be coming back for seconds.
1. Make your own chili powder
Store-bought chili powder is convenient, but if you are looking to wow people with your chili’s depth of flavor, there is no replacement for a homemade mix.
Making your own chili powder gives you a richer, deep flavor than tubs of powder that could have been sitting on a shelf for months, or even years.
You can also tailor your chili powder by using a proprietary mix of chili peppers. You’ll get a better flavor if you use a blend than if you stick to one chili pepper.
The most common chile pepper choices are ancho chilies and guajillo chilies, but if you want a little more kick, you could throw in some cascabel chilies or even some arbols. Try not to get too high on the Scoville scale through, or you’ll knock the complexity out of your dish.
2. Swap chili powder for the real thing
If you want to avoid the grittiness of powdered chiles, you can instead create your own chili paste by toasting your chili pepper mix, cooking them in some homemade stock, and then puréeing them into a smooth paste.
The trick to creating a great chili paste is to bring together chili peppers that hit the four important flavor notes of a great chili, sweet, hot, smokey, and fruity.
For example, you might use choricero peppers for a touch of sweetness, arbols for heat, smoked jalapeños (chipotles) for a smokey depth, and pasillas or anchos to give the mix a fruity vibrancy.
3. Toast and grind your own spices
Once your chili powder or paste is done, we’re going to apply the same “homemade is best” ideal to all the rest of the dry ingredients, which means toasting and grinding your own spices.
Pretty much everyone has their own spice mix that goes into their chili, but cumin and coriander are common ingredients and are easy to grind yourself.
- Find the freshest cumin and coriander seeds you can and place them, separately, in a flat bottomed pan over medium heat.
- Stir them gently with a wooden spoon to stop any charring and take them off the heat when you can clearly smell their fragrance. You should also be able to hear them fairly popping and crackling.
- Place your toasted seeds in a mortar and pestle, fine coffee grinder or spice grinder and grind until fine.
- Store your newly ground spices in airtight containers and try to use them within 6 months.
You might not do this for a standard Thursday night chili, but if you are having guests over the extra vibrant taste of your own home-ground spices will make it worth the effort.
4. Try grinding your own chili beef
It’s pretty well known that standard ground beef isn’t the best quality meat you can buy. One easy way to fix that is to grind your own.
You will need a meat grinder for this, but they aren’t expensive, and many mixers have a meat grinder attachment. Make sure to get one that allows you to vary the fineness of the grind. We recommend the STX International STX-3000 Turboforce Speed Electric Meat Grinder if you think you’ll be doing a lot of grinding.
With your grinder in hand, you’ll need to choose your meat. Cheaper cuts of meat work well for home grinding, so don’t be throwing ribeye into your mincer. Flank or chuck works great as long as you stick to the magic 80/20 ratio of meat to fat.
To keep your meat from gumming up the grinder:
- Cut the meat into 1-to-2-inch slices and then lay it flat on a baking sheet and put it in the freezer for about 40 minutes. This will help to keep the meat moving through the grinder.
- After 40 or so minutes, take the meat from the freezer and feed it piece by piece into the grinder. Remember to use the pressing attachment to push the meat down and keep it moving through the blades.
Grinding your own meat gives you control over a host of factors, from the quality of the beef to the fat ratios, and even the texture of the finished product.
5. Alternatively, ditch ground and use cubed beef
If you like the idea of using better meat, but don’t want to go to all the trouble of grinding your own, you could always opt for a cubed beef chunky chili.
If you are going to use cubed beef, bear in mind that you will need to cook your chili for longer than if you were using ground beef.
Some cuts of beef you might want to consider using in your chili are:
Beef chuck comes from the shoulder of the cow and, while it is a relatively tough chunk of meat, you do get a lot for your money. Cut your chuck into 1-inch cubes and stew in with the rest of your chili for about 90 minutes until it is tender.
More commonly used for smoking or roasting, the brisket is taken from the hard-working muscles of the cow’s chest and can be very tough. To overcome that, you’ll need to stew it on low heat for at least two hours. Once it is cooked properly, however, it will pull apart into mouth-watering shreds.
Or use leftover smoked brisket as we do in our smoked brisket chili.
Short ribs are often served whole, but they don’t have to be. Get yourself a decent rack of chuck short ribs, cut the meat off the bones, dice it up and throw it into your chili. You can also grill or BBQ your rack of ribs first before adding it to your chili.
6. Cut your vegetables into even pieces
You want all the ingredients in your chili to cook at the same time, which is why it is important that you take a little extra time to cut them into consistently sized portions. The last thing you want is to come across a chunk of uncooked vegetables.
7. Always pre-brine dry beans
If you are using dried beans in your chili, you’ll get the best results from the if you brine them for about 8 to 24 hours beforehand.
It’s a simple technique:
- Dissolve 3 tablespoons of salt into 4 quarts of cold water per pound of dried beans.
- Let the beans sit in the brine for 8 to 24 hours.
If you want to speed the process up, you can add a pinch of baking soda. You want to go lightly with the baking soda, or your chili will have a soapy aftertaste.
8. Cook low and slow
Low and slow is an excellent cooking method to pull out the complexity of your spices and chili peppers and combine them with the rich flavor of the beef.
It’s also a convenient way to cook a mouthwatering chili, especially if you have a slow cooker or crockpot. Simply add all your ingredients, set the slow cooker to low, and come back in 8 or so hours for some spicy chili delight.
Chili cooked in the slow cooker can sometimes be a little watery. If that is the case, take some of the vegetables and beans out of the chili. Puree them and add them back in so their starch can thicken the mix. You can also do this with ground-up tortilla chips.
If you don’t have a slow cooker, you can cook low and slow on the hob, but it’s best to do that on a day when you can wander into the kitchen every now and then to make sure your chili isn’t catching on the bottom of the pan.
9. Swap water for beer
Adding beer to your chili instead of water can give it real depth and character. You’ll want to pick a beer that has the same bold flavors and richness as your chili, so Bud isn’t going to cut it. You’ll also want something with low carbonation, so opt for a malty ale or a chocolate stout.
10. Make your own stock
Nothing improves a dish faster than homemade stock. All you’ll need is beef bones saved from other meals or sourced from you butcher, vegetables like leeks carrots, and celery, and a large bouquet garni of parsley, sage, and thyme.
You can tailor your stock to your own tastes, but Diana over at The Spruce Eats has a pretty solid recipe to get you started.
11. Try adding coffee and chocolate
The primary flavors of chili are distinctly South and Central American, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they pair well with other flavors from those areas.
Adding in around a cup of strongly brewed Colombian coffee or a few teaspoons of very finely ground espresso adds an earthy note to your chili that you’ll wonder how you did without.
A few squares of 80-90% cocoa solids dark chocolate, or a few teaspoons of unsweetened cocoa powder does much the same, but with a hint of sweetness to it.
12. Don’t skimp on the toppings
Chili without toppings is like fries without ketchup. A combo of freshly made guacamole, Monterey or Pepper Jack cheese, sour cream, tortilla chips, and jalapenos can turn a great chili into something truly amazing.
Try not to think of the toppings as an afterthought. Instead, think of them as essential ingredients in the whole chili experience.
Topping it all off
Making a genuinely amazing chili doesn’t have to mean a lot of extra hard work, it just means refining the way to approach cooking it and the ingredients you use.
By implementing our tips above, you can raise your chili game to legendary, just be prepared to spend a lot of time cooking it for your family and friends.
Do you have the perfect chili paste recipe? Perhaps there’s a vital chili ingredient you think should be in every bowl? We’d love it if you’d let us know in the comments below.