Common Mistakes When Cooking Chili. Who doesn’t love chili? It’s a food that seemingly pleases everyone, from cowboys to kids. I count myself as both a fan and a connoisseur of chili. I love the rich, full, hearty flavor, and the way that no two batches are ever quite the same.
When chili is made well, it’s a food that is comforting, restorative, and filling. The rich, slow cooked flavor is perfect with a handful of tortilla chips or homemade cornbread, and it has a way of making you feel warm from the inside out.
When chili is poorly made, though, it’s a different story. Lackluster, bland, watery chili doesn’t fill or satisfy: it just makes you run, not walk, to a different main dish. Luckily, it’s easy to avoid this fate with a little know-how as to the ways of making perfect chili.
What is chili? Chili is a hearty, slow-cooked dish. While at its heart, chili is a slow cooked stew of meat and beans, it is food that can be made with a variety of different ingredients and boasts innumerable regional variations.
Regardless of the style or region, there are certain aspects of chili that remain constant: tender meat or beans (or both), and a rich, flavorful base. That being said, dishes called chili can range widely in terms of look and ingredients: chili could contain white beans and chicken, or even black beans and pork.
For purposes of this article, we’re referring to the most classic version of chili, which has a tomato based red sauce, and features beef, beans, and flavorings. That being said, many of the tips are relevant even if you want to make a creative chili variation.
Famous regional versions of chili. One of my favorite aspects about chili is its regional variations: in different parts of the USA, chili means different things. For instance:
In Cincinnati, it’s not chili if it’s not served “five way”. The “five” refers to the amount of accompaniments served with the dish. How does it work? Like so: served alone, it’s “one way”; with spaghetti, it’s “two ways”; it’s upgraded to three, four, or five ways when you add beans, onions, and shredded cheese.
In Texas, a bowl of chili (or “red” as locals might call it) is distinctly devoid of an ingredient which is key in the stew in other parts of the nation: beans. The dish instead relies on tender, slow cooked beef, cooked in a spicy tomato mixture with chiles, preferably hand-ground.
In New Mexico, you’ll encounter confusion if you try to order a bowl of chili. See, it’s pronounced the same as “chile”, and in New Mexico, this refers to a sauce made from chiles rather than the beef and bean stew. You might receive a bowl of a chile sauce resembling a smooth salsa unless you are more specific with your request.
Common mistakes when cooking chili. When chili misses the mark, it’s usually due to one of these common errors. These are some of the most frequent chili misdemeanors and how to remedy them.
You don’t brown your meat first. If your chili contains meat, always start with a nice sear. Why, if you’re slow cooking the chili anyway? Well, for a few reasons. First, searing the meat will bring out a rich flavor in the meat, which it will impart on your chili.
Second, the searing almost provides a “crust” for the meat, allowing it to maintain an appetizing color and texture when cooked. We eat with our eyes first, and unidentified clumps and lumps of greyish meat are not an appetizing addition to chili.
You add uncooked veggies. Don’t just toss raw onion or garlic in your chili. Like meat, vegetables and aromatics should be sauteed before being added to the chili mixture. This brings out the flavor, making for a more balanced finished dish. Onions should be sauteed until translucent; garlic should be sauteed until lightly browned and toasty-looking. Vegetables such as mushrooms should be sauteed until they have light browning.
You wait til the end of your cooking time to add spices. You’ve already added garlic, onions, and tomatoes to your chili–isn’t that enough to make it flavorful? No. Chili is famous for its spicy flavor. This is thanks to a spice mix which typically includes chile, cumin, and garlic powder.
Adding the mix at the beginning of the cooking process will ensure that it infuses every bite with flavor. You can continue to add additional seasoning later on in the cooking process if you feel it is needed.
You use a commercial “chili spice” mix. Avoid the temptation to buy a commercial pre-made chili spice mix. Assembling your own spice mix takes mere minutes if using dried spices, and you can be better assured of the quality of your ingredients.
Or, take it a step further by purchasing whole spices or dried chiles and grinding and toasting them yourself, as well as dicing and sauteing your garlic and onions by hand. Yes, you’ll need a spice grinder and a little extra time for toasting the spices, but it’s worth it. You’ll taste the difference in the finished chili.
You try to make your chili in 30 minutes or less. Slow cooking is the key to chili’s deep, rich flavor. If you try to make it quickly, you might end up with a pleasant soup, but you won’t have the full, hearty flavor that makes chili so crave-able.
If you don’t give the chili enough time for all of the flavors to come together, it could be unbalanced, watery, and flavorless. Slow cooking chili for several hours (a slow cooker can help in this regard) will ensure that your chili has a hearty, rich, beefy flavor. You can even make chili today that you intend to eat tomorrow, as the flavors will only become better with time. Just be sure to store the chili safely, and then re-heat before enjoying.
Chili is a cozy and hearty stew that should be part of every cook’s recipe repertoire. By learning how to avoid some of the common pitfalls that make chili lackluster, you can guarantee delicious and flavorful results. Mastering the art of making chili will help you reap many delicious meal rewards.
What is your favorite type of chili?