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9 tips to make the perfect chili

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The craft of making chili is not rocket science, nor is it a mystery. In fact, it is solely the product of general good cooking practices — practices that can improve many favorite dishes, not just chili — and the right ingredients. That being said, there are a few special rules that apply just to chili. Here, we've simmered and reduced our accumulated knowledge down to a few easily digestible morsels.

To put all of this newfound knowledge to good use, we've also rounded up some of our best and most interesting chili recipes. These days, chili seems to be going the way of California Pizza Kitchen — exciting for some, worrisome for others. The parallels that can be drawn with pizza are rather intriguing, or disturbing, depending on your perspective. They're both dishes created by an immigrant population that have become Americanized and exceedingly popular. And in both cases, regional versions have come into being. And with both pizza and chili, we haven't stopped innovating. So we're not just talking about Cincinnati-Style Chili here. Take, for instance, the unlikely combination of pumpkin purée and dark chocolate in this chili recipe which we developed in-house for our recipe contest, Recipe SWAT Team. Or, is turkey not alternative enough? No problem, we've got bison. And how about butternut squash and avocado on your pizza — er, chili? It is an interesting (or dangerous) thing indeed when Americans get creative with classics.

All kidding aside, however, we think it's actually time to embrace this trend. Think of it as more akin to what happened to grilled cheese, whose transformation with gourmet cheeses, artisanal breads, and creative pairings with sweet and savory ingredients has benefited all. The trick is just not to overdo it. Open your minds and your palates and you might just be pleasantly surprised.

Tip: Types of Meat
While beef, pork, and suet (the fat that surrounds the kidneys in livestock) have been in the original formulation of chili con carne since the Chili Queens first started serving it in San Antonio, these days you're also likely to find bison, turkey, and perhaps even ostrich in chili. Whatever type of meat you use, make sure it's fresh and high-quality.

Tip: The Beef on Beef
Since beef is still the foundation of many modern chili recipes, we thought we'd give it some due consideration here. If using ground beef, health-conscious folks will want to lean (pun intended) toward a 90:10 meat-to-fat ratio, and chili aficionados who aren't terribly concerned about calories will want to lean more toward 80:20 for more flavor.

Ground beef is de facto in many chili recipes, but it's also worth considering whole cuts as well. That way, you can chop them up into small pieces that will break down and make the chili thick and rich, and also leave some larger pieces that will make for a satisfying bite. Some recipes will suggest using expensive cuts of steak like rib-eye, but we suggest you save your hard-earned money, or just grill the steak and eat it, and instead use an economical cut like chuck, shank, brisket, and rump roast or bottom round. Why? Because chili is all about slow cooking, and these cuts, which are good for braising, also work well for chili since they have a lot of connective tissue that breaks down and lends body and flavor.

Recipe: White Chicken Chili
This is an update on my old white chicken chili recipe. It was originally created for our neighbors’ annual chili and margarita cook-off every year…
--Heather Christo

Tip: Brown for Flavor
If you're using meat, whatever type of meat you use, make sure to let it sit out at room temperature to take off the chill from the refrigerator. Why? Meats that hit the pan right out of the refrigerator won't brown properly, taking the flavor with them. Instead, they'll steam in their own brownish juices before the exterior has a chance to crisp up. We've said it before many times, but we'll say it again.

1) Get the pot really hot over high heat.

2) Add cooking oil or fat with a high smoke point, such as canola or vegetable oil.

3) Let the oil heat up without smoking. If it smokes, take the pot off the heat and wait until it stops smoking.

4) Add the meat. Do not touch for at least five minutes.

5) Once the meat slides around easily, consider turning it; lift up a bit to check for proper browning and flip.

Tip: Chiles, Not Powder
If you've never made chili before, you probably have some idea that proper chili should be pretty darn spicy (sorry, spice-shy New Englanders), and you may be tempted to reach for store-bought chili powder. But, you'll get better results by finding some dried chiles like chipotles, guajillos, anchos, and pasillas, toasting them, and grinding them using a coffee grinder.

Tip: Beans, If Using
Canned beans are all right if you have nothing else on hand at home, but if you're out shopping for ingredients for chili, opt for dried beans instead. Canned beans often have a lot of sodium, and if you want to fine-tune the flavor of your chili, you'll want to start with unsalted beans, which means dried. Be sure to soak the beans overnight in cold water at least three times their volume.

If you're looking for a creamier texture, Barbara Ann Kipfer, author of The Culinarian: A Kitchen Desk Reference, advises cooking them with the lid on. Adding salt to the water for the overnight soak also helps soften them up. If you want to keep them separate and whole, cook them with the lid off.

Recipe: Bison and Black Bean Chili
Quite frankly, I've served this chili to many of folks who never knew the difference. Of course, a good bold chili is a great way to introduce new meats to those unfamiliar. Reminds me of the time I served up a heaping bowl of squirrel chili…

— Matt Moore

Tip: Spices
Many chili recipes will have at the very least cumin and coriander. Feel free to also experiment with cinnamon for a hint of sweetness; star anise, which enhances meaty flavors; and also clove, which will help balance out the heat of the chile peppers.

Whatever spices you decide to use, though, the flavor and aroma of your chili will be much improved if you start with whole spices, toast them in a pan, and then grind them yourself. Make sure to let them cool before grinding, or their volatile oils (which are the source of their flavor and aroma) will end up all over the sides of your grinder rather than in the pot itself.

Tip: Stock — It's What Makes a Better Chili
Water or store-bought broth or stock is fine in a pinch, but to really kick up the flavor factor, there's no substitute for homemade stock. Wait, beer is pretty good.

Tip: Take Your Time
There's nothing worse than rushed chili — dried beans that are halfway cooked, a thin consistency, and chewy or bland meat are not anyone's idea of good eats. Let it simmer until it's done; if the recipe says three hours, make time for it.

Tip: Garnishes
Whew, done at last. You're in the home stretch. After all that work, make sure you set out some great garnishes to really help your chili shine. Some great staples to keep on hand include sour cream, fresh cilantro, and scallions.

Recipe: Anytime Turkey Chili
Taste of Home's turkey chili is a lean alternative to beef- and pork-based chili.

Click here for the slideshow and recipes

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