Chili con carne is one of the most straightforward recipes out there. Its name literally means “chile peppers and meat.” While more traditional versions keep it simple with chiles, meat, and maybe a tomato or two, chili is a dish perfect for spice customization and ingredient adaptations. We reviewed all our favorite chili recipes and figured out which spices, ingredients, and techniques make them so delicious.
Spices Should be Cooked Too
Okay, spices don’t really need to be cooked, but blooming your spices releases more flavor than tossing them into the pot later. You can bloom ground spices by gently heating them in a bit of oil or fat. Don’t let the spices burn as they will taste bitter. You could also add them in with any onions or vegetables you may be sweating in the pot. The goal is to gently heat the spices to unleash their aromatics before adding liquid to the chili recipe.
Use the Correct Oregano
Chili recipes frequently call for “oregano,” but don’t always specify the variety to use. Mexican oregano is the herb you should be using for chili recipes. (Along with any other southwestern or Mexican recipe for that matter.) Mexican oregano is more robust and citrusy than Greek oregano, standing up to the bold, competing flavors in chili recipes like cumin and chile peppers.
Take Things Slow
Chili is not a 30-minute meal. The best recipes require at least an hour of simmering over a flickering flame, especially if you’re using dried beans. Some purists swear that chili should always be eaten the next day. Something about letting the fat solidify in the refrigerator allows all the flavors to infuse together.
Add a Little Chocolate
A couple tablespoons of cocoa powder or baker’s chocolate will add further depth and richness to your chile recipe. If you like Oaxacan-style mole, you will love the flavor cocoa adds to a pot of chili. Start with a tablespoon of cocoa powder for every gallon or so of chili.
Use Broth Instead of Water
If your recipe calls for four or five cups of water, substitute a good soup broth instead. This will significantly improve the flavor of your chili. Concentrated soup base dissolves faster than your average bouillon cube and tastes better, too. Use beef stock base for traditional beef and game chili, chicken stock base for everything poultry, and vegetable stock base for your vegetarian recipes. Note: Use a diluted broth if you intend for it to simmer and reduce so the end result is not too salty.
Thick Meat and High Heat
Ground beef is the most convenient meat to use, and still makes for a good pot of chili. The problem some cooks have is ground beef is hard to caramelize as it releases its juices and stews instead of sears. Some of the best chili recipes call for whole beef steaks, cut into ½ inch cubes. You don’t have to choose expensive cuts of steak, chuck roast, sirloin, and even brisket will make for delicious chili as those cuts need to stew slowly anyway. Sear your meat in batches so you don’t crowd the pan. You want the meat to caramelize, forming a fond on the bottom of the pot. This is the foundation of flavor, which can be deglazed with broth.
Try the Whole Chile Pepper
Chili powder (spelled with an "i") was invented for convenience, and conveniently it’s delicious too. If you have the time, however using whole chile peppers gives you greater control over the flavor and heat of your recipe. To use whole dried chiles; remove stem and seeds, rehydrate them in hot water for 15 minutes, puree them in a blender, and add them right to the pot. Whole chiles like ancho, guajillo, chipotle, and pasilla will make an amazing chili. If you prefer powder, you can always customize the heat and flavor with our ground dried chiles like ground guajillo, ground New Mexican, or ground habanero.
A Dash of Tomato Powder
Tomato powder is instant umami flavor. You can use just the right amount of tomato powder you need, instead of having to open a whole can of tomato paste for just a tablespoon. Tomato powder can even also be mixed into your cornbread recipe, making your chili fixings all the more savory.
Use Fresh, Roasted, and Black Garlic
Inspired by many salsa recipes, using both roasted and fresh garlic cloves gives you the best of both worlds. Sweet, mellow, caramelized garlic gives a nice body to a pot of chili. Adding fresh garlic to stew gives a fresh, zesty flavor. If you’d rather skip the peeling and mincing, use original garlic powder or roasted garlic powder. Black garlic takes roasted garlic’s savory elements and runs wild with it. A spoonful of black garlic puree will add deliciously deep flavors reminiscent of chocolate and molasses.
Break Open Your Baking Cabinet
Chile peppers, chili powder, cumin and coriander are the typical spices for a pot of chili. This secret might raise a Texan’s eyebrow, but common baking spices like cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and even a Mexican vanilla bean will add aromatic complexity to the overall flavor profile. This flavor profile is also influenced by many Mexican mole sauce recipes.
Take a Coffee Break
Coffee can add deep richness to chili just like cocoa powder and black garlic do. (This will come as no surprise if you’re already a fan of our Oaxacan Ancho Coffee Rub.) Some cooks swap a cup of beef broth for brewed coffee instead. You could also add a little bit of espresso powder or instant coffee, tasting as you go.
Get Your Smoke On
Add a fireside touch to your pot of chili with our smoky spices and ingredients. Reach for hickory smoke powder or mesquite smoke powder for pure smoky flavor. You can also lean on chipotle peppers for both smokiness and heat.
How Do Spice Experts Like Their Chili?
The Spice house’s staff is full of amazing cooks, many of whom have worked years in professional kitchens. We asked them for their chili-making secrets and favorite ingredients for cooking a good bowl of red.
Secret Ingredients & Technique: Canned chipotle in adobo sauce. It rounds out the acidity of the tomatoes and adds a hearty earthiness to compliment the assortment of veggies and beans.
Charlie, Chief Operating Officer
Spices: Freshly ground cumin is a must. If it's not fresh, then don't bother.
Secret Ingredients & Technique: I like extra hot chili, so I round up all spicy ingredients. I cool it down by piling on lots of fresh fixins' including scallions, cilantro, and sour cream.
Secret Ingredients & Technique: I like to use a mix of hot chorizo and hot Italian sausage for my meats.
Billy, Customer Support
Secret Ingredients & Technique: Fresh chile is key and any will do, I prefer Datil because of its unique flavor. Whole pork and steak cuts (not ground!). "If you know beans about chili, you know chili ain't got no beans."
Chasity, General Manager—Evanston
Secret Ingredients & Technique: Toss stew meat or short ribs in Quebec seasoning and flour, sear then remove, saute onions, add tomatoes, scrape the brown bits, add chili powder and smoked paprika. Add meat back, broth, three kinds of beans, and simmer till it falls apart.
Alex, Operations Manager
Secret Ingredients & Technique: Fire-roasted tomatoes and beef stock. Develop deeper flavor by browning your meat of choice and make sure to bloom your chili spices in the hot oil before adding your liquid.
Secret Ingredients & Technique: Instead of canned tomatoes, I like to oven roast, peel, and chop fresh tomatoes from my garden. I'll sometimes use tomatillos instead for a more tangy flavor.