How to Make a Great Bowl of Chili
Like a lot of our favorite meals, a steaming bowl of hot chili is not only delicious but also a terrific opportunity to load up on healthy ingredients like vegetables and beans. While serious aficionados have strong opinions about what makes a great chili (and how searingly spicy it needs to be), the rest of us can happily enjoy the great diversity of options for this thoroughly American dish.
1. Pick Your Peppers
The "chili" the dish is named for can really be any kind of pepper: big sweet bells, fiery little habaneros, and just about everything else in between. In other words, if you've only used store-bought chili powder in the past, you're in for a treat.
Fresh chili peppers give a dish bright heat; dried ones add a more earthy taste. They can be used together or singly. When working with fresh hot peppers, be sure to wear thin kitchen gloves (or cover your hands with plastic bags) to protect your skin, and wash your cutting board and knives carefully.
If you're using dried chilies, you have a few options. You can toast them, stemmed and seeded, in a dry skillet, about 30 seconds per side. At that point, you can either grind them to make your own chili powder, or soak and then chop or puree them. You can also skip the toasting and go right to the soaking.
But don't fret: Packaged chili powder (as in the White Bean Chicken Chili recipe) is still legit. Just be sure that it hasn't been sitting around in your cupboard for too long; after a year, its flavor will be gone.
At a Glance: Chilies for Chili
There's a rainbow of pepper possibilities, including: fresh habanero, poblano, serrano, and yellow wax peppers (1, 2, 3, 4); dried guajillo and pasilla chilies (5,6); and store-bought (7,8) and homemade (9) chili powders.
2. Prep the Protein
If you're making a beef chili, the healthiest choice is lean meat; ground lean beef or lean chuck roast both work well. For a chicken chili, remove the skin and extraneous fat before cooking. White and dark chicken meat are both good in chili, as is a combination of both. Excellent meatless chilies can be made with bulgur wheat, lentils, and textured vegetable protein, which can mimic the look and texture of meat.
Canned whole or fresh tomatoes usually form a chili's liquid base. You can crush the tomatoes with your hands for a nice coarse texture. The soaking liquid for dried chili peppers can also be added to a chili, as can low-fat, low-sodium chicken and vegetable broths. Some cooks even add beer, using dark beers like stout to lend a toasty, malty dimension to beef chili.
At a Glance: Flavor Makers
Great chili results from the commingling of several different flavors. One classic combo is cumin (1), coriander (2), and oregano (3). You can use these in powdered form, but a little extra work with the whole seeds and fresh leaves maxes out their flavor. Toast whole cumin and coriander seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat for a few minutes, then grind to a powder. Toast fresh oregano leaves for a few minutes until they curl, then crumble them before combining. Two other great additions for chili are beer (4) and chocolate (5), both of which add a deeper dimension to the dish.
3. Break Out the Beans
For most chili, pinto, black, and red kidney beans are the usual suspects. It's traditional to use dried beans, soaked and cooked, but canned beans are perfectly acceptable and vastly more convenient. (Rinse them well to reduce the sodium content.) If using canned beans, it's best to add them later in the cooking process than you would dry beans, since the canned kind can split and become mushy if heated for a long time. And, of course, not every chili has beans in it; some very tasty chilies are made with only meat and vegetables.
Whichever of the many options you choose, it's worth getting a head start: If you can make your chili in advance, it will take on a better, deeper flavor after a day in the refrigerator.
At a Glance: Finishing Touches
The right topping is more than an afterthought; it's a chance to bring yet more flavor and texture into this complex dish. For crunch, you can add a few baked tortilla chips (1) or a pile of shredded cabbage and red onion slices (as seen on the Lentil Chili, opposite). For freshness, try cutting a tomato (2) into chunks, tearing up a handful of cilantro leaves (3), or squeezing a splash of lime (4). For spice, there's nothing like hot sauce (5). You can sample from an enormous array of bottled sauces to see what best suits your palate.