How To: Make a (Basic) Ground Beef Chili

An Opening Salvo
If you don’t already have your own chili recipe, you are a fascist.

To The Glory Of Chili
The autumn is approaching, and although I generally approach it in the same way that somebody approaches an upcoming root canal that will be performed sans anesthetic, there is at least one reason to be excited: chili. I associate the consumption of chili with the brisk fall air. I take this enthusiasm seriously; I have hosted a chili cookoff at my house for five years running, and will be hosting again in October (you’re all invited). I make probably ten batches of chili a season. I have a notebook full of recipes which I am forever tinkering with. I own multiple chili cookbooks.

But before we go further, I want to make this important point. I am neither a purist nor a dictator about chili. I simply want a warm meal, covered in cheese, and served with a good piece of bread. I do not balk at beans. I do not cower from tomatoes. I do not insist upon finely diced stew beef. Those that do tend to be overbearing and will only be briefly mentioned again here.


Preparation
A key observation: a chili recipe ought to be specific to the individual. Thus, I don’t often track how much of what I’m throwing in; I just try to make sure it’s there, so if I can’t taste it, I add more. I also tend to add whatever I’ve got in the house. Although there are some basics I insist upon including (ground up meat of some kind, chili powder, onions), those are specific to me and my needs. The joy of cooking is figuring out the recipes that work for you, not copying the ones that work for me.

Still, I made the following recipe earlier today, and I’d describe tonight’s batch as perfectly serviceable.

1. Back when I wrote this, somebody recommended keeping bacon grease in a coffee can in the refrigerator for later use. Done.

How To: Make a (Basic) Ground Beef Chili

Depending upon the ground meat you use (if you do), you’re going to need fat in the pan. I was using a particular skinny ground sirloin, so I could see no moral objection to adding a reasonable amount of congealed bacon fat to the pan and then, after adding it, adding just a bit more. Y’know, just in case.

How To: Make a (Basic) Ground Beef Chili

The bacon fat melted in the giant cast iron pot I was using. I then added onion. I know what you’re thinking. “Are those heirloom onions, picked by local fingers and rushed to the local farmers market to be sold to home chefs throughout your community?” The answer is yes. I chopped up two onions of precisely that description. Then I added another two onions from Aldi, no doubt picked eight weeks ago and treated with all sorts of poisons to keep them viable. I also added a handful of crushed garlic cloves.

How To: Make a (Basic) Ground Beef Chili

I cooked the onions and the garlic in the fat until translucent. That’s ten minutes, maybe, depending upon how hot the pan is.

2. I then added the aforementioned ground beef. I browned it slowly. (If you are a vegetation, simply skip this step.) As I was waiting for it, I made myself coffee, which I drank out of a vintage mug.

How To: Make a (Basic) Ground Beef Chili

I don’t think the mug matters. Or the coffee. But both are delightful.

3. When everything was browned, I added my spices, which I carefully measured out to the following: a bunch of chili powder (5 tbsp-ish), some paprika (1 tbsp-ish), some garlic powder (1 tbsp), some ground red pepper (1 tbsp-ish), some crushed red pepper (it’s slightly different than the last ingredient), and some ground cumin powder (1 tbsp-ish).

How To: Make a (Basic) Ground Beef Chili

I didn’t add salt. The world kept turning, probably because of the saltiness of the bacon fat. When everything was added, it looked like this:

How To: Make a (Basic) Ground Beef Chili

4. While I was drinking my black coffee (be a man!) and letting the spices meld with the onions and the meat, I went hunting in my pantry and found three cans of kidney beans, a can of tomato sauce, and a can of something called Fire Roasted Tomatoes, the last of which was labeled “Best Served by November 2011,” a suggestion that I ignored. The reality of chili is that I cook it for awhile, and because I’m not paralytically afraid of germs, I figured that between the three hoursish of cooking time and the fact that the can and its contents looked safe (THAT’S SCIENCE!), what bad could happen? I opened each, drained off the beans, and added everything to the pan.

How To: Make a (Basic) Ground Beef Chili

There are some chili chefs who’d treat several of the ingredients I included as a sin, to which I can only observe that I grew up with chilis made along the lines that I’m describing, that I don’t care, and that oh my god, get over yourself.

What I was left with was this:

How To: Make a (Basic) Ground Beef Chili

I turned the heat down to low, covered, and went to read a book. (Because this takes awhile, this entire concoction can be poured into a crockpot with the heat on low. Put it on warm and chili can cook all day and over night without damaging it.) In my case, I left it on the oven, returning every half hour to give the thing a vigorous stir, if only to make sure nothing was sticking to the bottom. The last thing I want is to take all of my excitement about the season’s first chili and flush it down the tubes by burning the damn thing.

5. After three hours, a few chapters, a brief nap, and some additional chili powder (let’s say 2 tbsp-ish more), I had reduced the chili down to this:

How To: Make a (Basic) Ground Beef Chili

At this point, I just wanted to eat, so I smothered things with cheese, took a slice of sourdough bread that my wife wisely insisted upon, and got down to business. My apologies for the blurriness of this photograph. I only started taking pictures forever ago, so getting things focused really isn’t yet my forte:

How To: Make a (Basic) Ground Beef Chili

What I had for dinner then was a relatively mild chili that made for the perfect start to chili season. It tasted good enough to keep me coming back for more. It tasted basic enough to make me think that I could improve upon it with ease. It was, essentially, a starting point on the road to something better.

The Important Takeaways
I had a professor who insisted on finishing every class with a very brief recap of what he called the day’s Important Takeaways. It’s now a phrase I use, annoying myself. Still, here is what I want to emphasize when it comes to making chili:

-Make chili often, if only because it is delicious.

-This is a foundational chili recipe. There’s nothing fancy here. There’s nothing unattainable. This can be made using commonly available ingredients from any grocery store.

-Something that’s cooking on the oven for a few hours can’t really be screwed up, especially if caution is involved. For those more than a bit cautious, half the amount of spice used and then experiment from there.

For The Sake of Argument
At the outset, I suggested that those without their own chili recipes were fascists. I don’t really believe that. But I do believe it something that people ought to be able to cook. It tastes good the first night and often better the second. A good batch can last for a few days, providing at least one meal and possibly a second, with the potential for lunches too. Finally, there aren’t many people who dislike chili, although those that do ironically are all fascists.

And, as the season is almost upon us, have at it in the comments with your own recipes.

Photo by Tim Patterson How To: Make a (Basic) Ground Beef Chili

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66 thoughts on “How To: Make a (Basic) Ground Beef Chili

  1. Just to react before even reading your recipe: what does it make me if my chili recipe doesn’t involve meat? And, worse, if it involves soy-based ground-beef-replacement-product?

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  2. A Texan would say that since your chili has beans it’s not chili… (I do not subscribe to this particular theory). I would add though regarding ingredients…. Beer.

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  3. I’m bewildered by chili without beans, so I’m with you, Sam.
    Also, the handfuls of whatever is super advice.

    For me, chili has always been about leftovers, kind of like fried rice is supposed to be.
    I try to keep my meat intake low via small portions so there’s usually some steak, roast or tenderloin left after we have one for dinner.
    In the Fall, I always try to set those aside in ziplocs in the fridge and use them for chili during the next weekend. Usually I find some smoked sausage as well to go in there, so I’ll have chili with 4-ish meats in it (ground beef, sausage and 2 leftovers). They get added to the cooked ground beef and before all the tomatoes.

    The one thing that caught my eye is the chili powder – some of the things they use lose potency fast.
    I prefer to make my own out of what I keep in the spice cabinet – black pepper, cumin, coriander, oregano, thyme, garlic, aleppo pepper and salt usually. I like mine spicy so I either use a good bit of cayenne and serrano peppers (the serranos early).

    This is usually served over a bowl of fritos with some cheese and sour cream.

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  4. Never heard of, or thought of, using bacon fat. That is surely an excellent idea! The only thing missing is celery, and a dollop of sour cream at the end, to temper the chili powder. And for kids,
    I put out cooked macaroni they can add to their bowl. I do think you are pushing the autumn thing, summer is not quite 2 months old…

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    • “I do think you are pushing the autumn thing, summer is not quite 2 months old…”

      Lows have dipped into the high 40s the last couple of nights here (suburbs west of Denver), so I’m willing to cut him some slack on starting to practice. Being able to burrow in under the covers to sleep on the occasional August night is one of the small guilty pleasures that comes with living in a high semi-arid climate :^)

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  5. My recipe calls for unsweetened baker’s chocolate, fresh peppers, fresh romanita tomatoes when I can get them.

    Usually recipes I’ve seen call for an un-drained can of tomatoes or tomato sauce. I like to use drained or fresh tomatoes and either spicy V-8 or El Pato sauce (or both, if I’m making a big enough batch).

    For peppers, I ususally use anaheim chilies. I used jalapeños once — I loved the taste, but I do not know how to handle jalapeños properly: my hands stung for three days after making that batch.

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  6. Would it offend anyone if I said Sam’s post make me hate everyone else here, that I want to be his best friend, and that I’d rather make the rest of you into chili than read another post that doesn’t involve bacon fat? No? Good!

    Sam, want to come over to play tomorrow?

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  7. Speaking as an award winning chili cook (ok so it was 3rd place… in Mon Co… and I’m pretty sure it was a sympathy vote), I have to say Sam’s spot on. Also, people who don’t like beans in chili are the same sort of people who think it’s ok to buy an orange sports car. Or that Frank Sinatra was a better singer than Dean Martin. Or who honestly believe there is no difference in the taste between soda with high fructose corn syrup and soda with sugar. Just fundamentally and empirically wrong wrong wrong.

    My meager additions to Sam’s recipe – when you grab the cup o’ joe, dump in half a cup or so into the chili. Espresso is better, but harder to get. Grab some chocolate and toss it in. Not much, but some. The better the chocolate, the better the taste (obviously). I’d put in some peppers – green bell, red bell, yellow if I got’em, along with whatever hot peppers I wanted (serrano, jalapeno, habanero, whatever strikes your fancy). If you wanna get fancy with color, toss in some corn (preferably fresh, but frozen works good too). It’s a little unconventional for a lot of people, but it does add something to the mix. Plus it’s a starch so it adds some body. Finally, MORE COWEBELL!! No… wait… that’s not right. stupid typos. MORE CUMIN!!! Everybody needs more cumin in their life.

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    • For my chili recipe, I use chipotle obtained from the Mexican tienda down the way. Ditto adobo.

      I’d use cocoa powder instead of “chocolate”. If you must use chocolate, use the darkest baker’s chocolate you can obtain.

      The Mayans and Aztecs have been drinking xocolatl time out of mind.

      Xocolatl Recipe:

      1 1/2 cups water
      A generous dollop of chopped green chilli, at least a tablespoon. Old El Paso’s can will do just fine.
      4 cups water
      2 teaspoons vanilla extract
      1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

      Directions

      Bring 1 1/2 cup water to a boil in a pot; add the chilli pepper, seeds included, to the boiling water and cook at a boil for 5 to 10 minutes. Strain the chilli pepper and seeds from the water and return the water to the pot.

      Add 4 cups water to the chili pepper-infused water, reduce heat to medium-low, and bring to a slow boil. Stir the cocoa powder and vanilla extract into the boiling water; cook and stir until the powder dissolves completely, 5 to 10 minutes.

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  8. My chili recipe in progress has 22 ingredients, which I came up with by Googling prize winning chili recipes and then entering the data into a spreadsheet so I could normalize the ingredient amounts. There were a half-dozen ingredients that were common to almost all prize-winners (beef, tomatoes, tomato paste, light red kidney beans, Bloemer’s Chili Powder, cumin, onions, salt) and then outliers like a touch of Coleman’s English mustard, vinegar, garlic, green peppers, sugar, chocolate, lime juice, paprika, thyme, sage, fennel, etc, used in small amounts in one recipe or another.

    One trick I use is to boil about a third of the meat instead of browning it normally, which produces a non-chunky meat like a Cincinnati style chili or a thin chili-dog sauce. Then add regular browned ground beef so the chili has both hunks of meat and a substantial meat component in the liquid/tomato sauce component.

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  9. Beans go in my Chili. I use ground turkey rather than ground beef because I like the coarser texture that results. I brown the meat in an onion and garlic reduction much as described in the OP. A Dutch oven is my preferred vessel since I make it a gallon at a time. I find canned tomato paste adds richness and adobo sauce adds smoke and heat. Lastly, celery is a critical ingredient.

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  10. thanks to sam i grabbed a bottle of young’s double chocolate stout from the grocery store today for some chili tonight. i can’t use garlic (wife is allergic to the oils) but i do throw in black beans and some masa.

    i’d prefer to load up on garlic and habaneros but we can’t have everything we want all the time.

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      • i get my shot now and then when she and the wee bairn are out of town or whatever. i can still use garlic powder, sad though it may be. i’ve had to learn how to cook nearly everything sans garlic. it sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. i generally overdo it when i cook alone anyway, the last daddy only batch was a whole bulb of garlic and eight habaneros for a not very large batch. it was good but a little too hot.

        two really big thumbs up on the chocolate stout, btw. i’ll know more in an hour but it looks like this is the business. i usually use sam smith imperial stout but the local supermarket decided they should charge 6 bucks a bottle (?!?!) from the usual 3.50 so i saw the young and decided to go for the eye of the tiger.

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  11. I add Warning Brand Fire Roasted Salsa into the chili towards the end. It gives it a nice smoky tangy flavor. I guess if I really loved my family, I would take the time to personally roast the Hatch chills, but alas…

    Wal-Mart also sells Chili Ready Tomatoes, which are diced tomatoes with chili powder. A nice little extra kick (very little).

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  12. Chili Advice:
    1) Penseys has wonderful chili powder.
    2) Powdered anchos make the best base for chili
    3) Add powdered chipotles (smoked jalapenos) to taste.
    4) More Cumin! (also coriander)

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  13. I’ve used ground turkey, beef, or bison. I vastly prefer the last two.

    I prefer black beans in my chili.
    I use a shed load–a shed load–of cumin in my chilli.

    Generally, it’s ground meat, onions, tomotoes, garlic, cumin (see above), black beans, salt, pepper, chicken stock, and time. Yes time. This stuff gets better 24-48 hrs after making.

    I’ve also been known to add some fresh spinach for a more heathly dish. :)

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  14. When I was considering turning my anthropology BA into an MA I half-jokingly told a friend that my thesis was going to be an ethnographic study of American culture using barbecue and chili preferences by region. IMO they are the two most definitive types of food to come out of the United States.

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