Favorite (Hardcore) Chili
Behold the absolute, without question, best bowl of chili I have ever had. I’ve had this recipe bookmarked since the January issue of Cook’s Illustrated showed up in my mailbox. It was their “favorite” chili, and included a few “secret” ingredients – things like cocoa powder, molasses and beer. It uses dried chiles ground down to make a chili powder and paste instead of the typical chili powder. And it used chunks of beef instead of ground meat. This was all very unfamiliar ground to my chili palate, but it all sounded so irresistible. It also sounded like some hardcore chili, which I loved the idea of! Through the end of last winter, this spring and summer, the chili never got made. I vowed to myself that October would be THE month for this chili, and I finally made time for it. I am in total love. The best chili, ever. Hands-down. No wonder Cook’s Illustrated declared it their favorite. It’s bursting with flavor, and the meat becomes so tender that it melts in your mouth. I’m fairly certain I will never try another chili recipe again. This is it for me. This is my chili soul mate.
This was my first time ever working with dried chiles, and I wasn’t sure if I would even be able to find them outside out somewhere like Penzeys, but was pleasantly surprised when I found them at my regular supermarket. They were located in the international aisle, under the Hispanic foods.
Using the dried chiles to make a homemade chili powder and paste is one of the things that really sets this recipe apart from many of the other chili recipes I have ever tried. After toasting the ancho chiles, you toss them into a food processor with the arbol chiles, salt, cornmeal, oregano, cocoa powder, and cumin… voila! Chili powder! Then you slowly drizzle in a little chicken broth, and… voila! Chili paste!
This isn’t a fast, whip it up when I get home from work, type of chili. This is a hunker down on a rainy or snowy Saturday and make this for a cozy night in. It’s time-consuming, but if you can make the time for it, it’s absolutely worth every minute. Plus, you could make a big pot on a weekend day and then freeze it in portions for another time and it will be all ready for you!
A quick note on the heat in this chili – I enjoy spicy foods, but not nose running, eyes tearing spicy. The recipe calls for 2 to 4 arbol chiles, and I went with two. For me, it was the perfect level of spiciness – it left me reaching for a glass of water, but not blowing my nose. So with that in mind, adjust the amount of arbol chiles you use accordingly.
One year ago: Homemade Cracker Jack
½ pound dried pinto beans (about 1 cup), rinsed and picked over
6 dried ancho chiles (about 1¾ ounces), stems and seeds removed, and flesh torn into 1-inch pieces
2-4 dried árbol chiles, stems removed, pods split, seeds removed
3 tablespoons cornmeal
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons cocoa powder
2½ cups chicken broth, divided
2 medium onions, cut into ¾-inch pieces (about 2 cups)
3 jalapeño peppers, stems and seeds removed, cut into ½-inch pieces
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons light molasses
3½ pounds blade steak, trimmed of gristle and cut into ½-inch pieces
1 (12-ounce) bottle mild lager, such as Budweiser
1. Combine 3 tablespoons salt, 4 quarts (16 cups) water, and beans in a large Dutch oven and bring to a boil over high heat. Remove the pot from heat, cover, and let stand 1 hour. Drain and rinse beans well. Rinse out Dutch oven.
2. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Place ancho chiles in a 12-inch skillet set over medium-high heat; toast, stirring frequently, until flesh is fragrant, 4 to 6 minutes, reducing heat if chiles begin to smoke. Transfer to bowl of a food processor and cool. Do not wash out skillet.
3. Add árbol chiles, cornmeal, oregano, cumin, cocoa, and ½ teaspoon salt to food processor with toasted ancho chiles; process until finely ground, about 2 minutes. With the processor running, very slowly add ½ cup broth until a smooth paste forms, about 45 seconds, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Transfer the paste to a small bowl. Place the onions in the now-empty processor bowl and pulse until roughly chopped, about four 1-second pulses. Add the jalapeños and pulse until the consistency of chunky salsa, about four 1-second pulses, scraping down the bowl as necessary.
4. Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in the large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion mixture and cook, stirring occasionally, until the moisture has evaporated and the vegetables are softened, 7 to 9 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the chili paste, tomatoes, and molasses; stir until chili paste is thoroughly combined. Add the remaining 2 cups chicken broth and the drained beans; bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer.
5. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil in the 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Pat the beef dry with paper towels and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt. Add half of the beef to the skillet and cook until browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meat to the Dutch oven. Pour off any liquid in the skillet into the sink and return to the heat. Add ½ of the bottle of lager to the skillet, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bits, and bring to a simmer. Transfer the lager to the Dutch oven. Repeat with the remaining tablespoon of oil, steak, and lager. Once the last addition of lager has been added to the Dutch oven, stir to combine and return the mixture to a simmer.
6. Cover the pot and transfer to the oven. Cook until the meat and beans are fully tender, 1½ to 2 hours. Let the chili stand, uncovered, 10 minutes. Stir well and season to taste with salt.
Note #1: You can substitute a 4-pound chuck-eye roast, well trimmed of fat, for the steak.
Note #2: Wear gloves when working with the dried chiles.
Note #3: If you don't want to use dried chiles, the anchos and árbols can be replaced with ½ cup chili powder and ¼ to ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper, although the texture of the chili will be slightly compromised.
Note #4: Condiment ideas - diced avocado, chopped red onion, chopped cilantro, lime wedges, sour cream, and shredded cheese.
Note #5: You can make this up to 3 days in advance.