Perfect Chili con Carne

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Photograph by Aaron Graubart

The distinctly American dish, chili con carne, is currently having a bit of an identity crisis. Thanks to endless celebrity-chef game-day chili recipes and some 500 annual cook-offs on the international competitive chili circuit, many bowls of meat, peppers, and spices have taken on strange new ingredients. Lemongrass, pineapple, chocolate: Chef and butcher Tom Mylan of Brooklyn's Meat Hook has seen what he calls "the worst kind of fusion," along with dubious commercial chili powders and low-grade meats, while judging chili competitions. "It has a multiple personality disorder," says Mylan. "That's the sad state of chili in the United States."

To correct this historical undoing, we interrogated three chili-minded chefs about their ideal version of the dish: Mylan; August Schuchman, of San Francisco's new temple of American Southwestern cuisine, West of Pecos; and Katie Hagan-Whelchel, of the Napa Valley's Ad Hoc, a Thomas Keller–owned restaurant famous for resurrecting classic old-school dishes.

We also consulted the International Chili Society. According to the society, chili includes only meat, peppers, and spices, with no starchy additions like beans (to a purist, beans are just filler) or pasta. "It's quite a simple dish, when you think about it," says Rick Bayless, the Tex-Mex master and Top Chef regular, "a dish that reaches memories and fills you up. Everyone has some version they love."

Using these guidelines, we combined the best advice from all the chefs on everything from meat selection to technical refinements borrowed from French boeuf bourguignon and Italian Bolognese. The result is the only chili recipe you'll ever need — hearty enough for your next family reunion and sophisticated enough to impress at any dinner party.

Chili con Carne Recipe (serves 8)

Ingredients

• 4 whole dried ancho chilies, cut open, seeds and stems removed

• 6 whole dried New Mexico chilies, cut open, seeds and stems removed

• 1 tbsp whole cumin seed

• 1 tbsp whole coriander seed

• 6 cloves

• 2 28-oz cans whole tomatoes

• 2 lb beef tri-tip, cut into ½-inch cubes, excess fat removed

• 2 lb boneless whole chuck or brisket, cut into 1½-inch cubes, excess fat removed

• Canola oil

• 4 oz smoked bacon

• 2 onions, chopped

• 2 carrots, chopped

• 2 leeks, chopped

• 1 head garlic, chopped

• 1 bunch parsley

• 1 bunch thyme

• 1 bay leaf

• 2 quarts beef stock, ideally homemade

• 1 lb lean ground beef

• 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

• 2 tbsp brown sugar

• 1 tbsp smoked paprika

Garnish

• crème fraîche (or sour cream)

• zest of one orange, grated

• 6 radishes, cut in half and sliced into thin half-circles

• 1 bunch chives, cut into 1-inch lengths

Directions 

  1. Heat a skillet over medium-high flame. Add the dried ancho and New Mexico chilies and press with a spatula until you hear a slight crackling, about five seconds. Turn the chilies over, press, and set aside. Add the whole cumin and coriander seeds to the dry skillet and toast until lightly browned and just smoking, about three minutes. Add cloves and one can of tomatoes, broken up with a fork. Simmer until darkened in color and noticeably thickened, 20 to 30 minutes.
  2. While the tomatoes are simmering, season the cubed tri-tip and whole chuck (or brisket) with salt on all sides. Heat a large heavy skillet over a medium-high flame. Pour in just enough canola oil to create a thin film. Sear the beef in batches: just enough to fill the pan in a single layer without crowding. (If it gets too crowded, the meat will steam instead of brown.) Rotate each piece using tongs until all pieces are well browned on all sides. Set the meat aside.
  3. Even small amounts of bacon, says Schuchman, add savory smokiness to just about any dish. Dice it first, while raw, then place into the skillet used for cooking the meat, over medium heat. Cook for five minutes, until browned. Add the chopped vegetables and sauté with the bacon bits until they're soft.
  4. Preheat the oven to 300°. Place the browned vegetables, bacon, tomato-spice mixture, garlic, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, and the chilies you set aside earlier in a large pot or Dutch oven. Place a large piece of cheesecloth over the vegetables and set the seared meat on top; this lets you remove the meat easily before straining. Pour in the beef stock. Commercially available beef stock will do in a pinch, but Schuchman strongly recommends homemade (see recipe below): "I've never seen any stock on store shelves that doesn't have a ton of sodium or that's actually clear," he says. Pour in enough stock to cover the meat. Bring to a simmer on the stovetop and then, for the steadiest and most even cooking, transfer to the oven. After one hour, check to be sure the pot is at a low simmer, adjusting the temperature as needed. (Do not let the liquid boil.) Cook for three to five hours, or until a piece of the meat can be pulled apart easily with forks.
  5. While the chili is simmering in the oven, cook the ground beef on medium-high until nicely browned. Pour off any rendered fat, add the second can of tomatoes, breaking them up into big, rough chunks, and simmer until they're noticeably darkened and thickened.
  6. Remove the chili from the oven. Lift the meat out of the pot, set it aside, and then strain the broth to get rid of the vegetable mush. Reserve the liquid and discard the vegetables.
  7. Pour the strained broth back into the large pot, then add the tomato-beef mixture, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, and smoked paprika. "This creates a balance between acid and fat, with sweetness from the brown sugar," says Whelchel. Bring to a simmer, and taste, adding salt if needed. After seasoning the broth, put the cubed meat back in and heat to a bare simmer.
  8. Ladle the chili into warmed bowls and top with a dollop of crème fraîche. Place a pinch of orange zest onto the crème fraîche and then top it with chopped radish and chive.

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