The Secret to Perfect Chili: The Right Spices

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Americans love to argue about chili. Beef or pork? Green or red? I've seen people slam doors over whether or not beans have a place in a bowl, and we even have a state for which it's the official dish. But chili is one of those great, forgiving dishes. It's stew, made to be made from leftovers, scraps, and whatever else its maker enjoys. Because of that, there are probably as many recipes for chili as there are people who make it. 

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Over the next few weeks we’re going to delve into how to make chili every which way, but first, we start with the seasoning. "Creating a personal spice blend allows you to make your chili unique," says Chef Andrew Curren, Executive Chef and Partner at 24 Diner in Austin, Texas, which is why he advises against going for whatever bottle of chili seasoning has been sitting on the grocery shelf for who knows how long.

Pick your flavors
Creating a spice blend can be intimidating because it's difficult to know just what will make it good. Curren has some basics: "Cayenne and red chili flakes give it an extra kick; smoked paprika or chipotle add a dimension of smokiness without cranking up the campfire; brown sugar adds sweetness." From there, the sky is the limit. You can add more dried chili from specific peppers like ancho or Anaheim, mustard, herbs, or garlic. Also, flavors like cinnamon, ground coffee, and cocoa powder can take a basic chili to the next level. Just don’t forget salt and sugar. "Salt helps the spices pop, and the sugar helps balance the heat."

Timing is everything
Spices release different flavor notes at different stages of the cooking process, so to get the most out of your seasoning, add bits at different intervals. "After the initial sear on your protein, go ahead and add some of your seasoning," says Curren. Then you can add more once you add your vegetables, and even more when you add any liquid component. "This layering technique helps the seasoning truly be the backbone of your chili!"

Make it last
Dry spices can last up to three years if stored properly, so make sure to do that. "I like to store my rubs and chili seasoning in Mason jars. The rubber-rimmed cap and threaded lid allow for a tight seal that will keep your spice blend fresh and dry." Make sure to keep the mixture in a cool, dry, and dark place too. If you're unsure if it’s still fresh, rub a little between your fingers to see if it still releases any aroma. But with any luck, you’ll have run through your prize-winning chili mix long before three years is up.