Chili is a San Antonio staple. But what kind of chili? Is it made with beef or a mix of game, sausage or even a touch of bacon? Does it have beans? Does its redness come strictly from ground chiles or do you add tomatoes to the stock? Does vegetarian chili count? Can you use corn kernels, garbanzo beans or tofu and still call it chili? What about white chili with chicken meat and green chiles?
Chili is a personal dish, with no right or wrong answers. It’s all a matter of your tastes, including the tricky issue of beans. Yes, beans are not used in Texas chili, but we probably have as many bean-loving immigrants from the Midwest as we do from south of the border, and they’ve never heard of chili without beans, so that’s how they make it.
Even though there are countless ways of making chili, some rules do apply across the board. That’s what we heard from three local chili experts, who offered tips for making your chili even better, whether you’re making a large pot for a party or for dinner during the next cold snap. Here’s what they had to say:
Robert Riddle, the “Big Bob” of Big Bob’s Burgers, 447 W. Hildebrand, offers his own chili on the Big Filthy, a burger jacked up with refrieds, jalapeños and cheese. It’s also in his Frito pie as well as his chili cheese fries and tots.
The most important thing you can do to make a great chili is to cook the chili powder. We do this two different ways. First we add the chili powder to the meat that has been cooked with the garlic and onions. We continue cooking the chili powder into the meat until the color starts to darken. We then add roasted poblano chiles and tomatoes and cook everything down until it thickens. While it is cooking we usually have to add more chili powder, so we place it in a dry skillet and roast it until the color darkens. The last advice I can give you is to simmer the chili for a couple of hours until all of the flavors blend completely. Chili is difficult because it is such a simple dish. Practice, practice, practice.
Garrett Stephens, pitmaster at The County Line, 10101 I-10 W. and cooking instructor, knows his way around chili in the same way he knows his smokers.
For chili, I think that it is best to use fresh spices. Instead of chili powder, I use fresh ancho chiles and make a purée out of them. I grind my cumin from seeds, and use fresh garlic clove instead of granulated garlic. I use marrow bones with onions and cilantro to make a rich broth in lieu of using water in a recipe. I would also suggest using a round steak, cut in a 1/4-inch cube, instead of ground beef. The trick would be to stop the cooking process once the meat has tendered, so that it doesn’t break down and flake apart.
Geronimo Lopez, executive chef at NAO, the Culinary Institute of America’s restaurant in the Pearl Brewery, 312 Pearl Parkway, knows chili con carne from his home country of Venezuela. It’s different from chili in Texas, but he knows that some rules apply, no matter the recipe.
There are a lot of differences in recipes, and you can use a lot of different types of meat, whether it’s game or different cuts of beef. But one thing you have to do is that the way you cut the meat must be the same. The meat must be the same size, so you can get the same mount of tenderness and so it cooks all at the same time. People need to choose their chiles carefully, so you get the right amount of heat and not too much. Balance is important with all of your flavors. Once the heat is in there, it’s kinda hard to take it out. But you can try. The one thing I know is that you can take a toasted baguette and stand it up in your pot. That can take out some of the heat, but not all. If it’s still too much, you could try to divert some of the spiciness with some sweetness, if you want.
If you haven’t developed your own chili recipe, we offer the following suggestions: