In the world of spices and chili, there are very few combinations that you could make that wouldn’t taste amazing. However, there are some starting points you must consider. Are you making this chili for a competition or to be enjoyed at home? Is this the kind of chili that will be eaten without much attention or do you have a family of positively ravenous food critics waiting to be served chili of the deepest red over your antique tablecloth, passed down from generation after generation in your family? Are you making a tomato based chili or a cream based one? When you’ve settled on your answers, sure you’re cooking for the correct crowd, you can think about what spices belong in your chili.
There are so many ways to begin crafting a good bowl of chili, and usually those are a tomato base and a meat of some sort. Developing your own personal spice strategy is just as important a base for chili making as either of the two previously mentioned. Chili seasoning is a delicate art. The right spices can make a regular chili go from good to great. This can mean the difference between a perfect competition chili or a chili that could be served to a large crowd, simply to fill bellies.
Chile Powder vs. Chili Powder
The “e” and “I” are indicators for what exactly it is that you are about to drop into your chili. When the word ends with an “e,” that is alerting you to the fact that it is simple a ground chile pepper (i.e. ancho, cayenne, habanero, jalapeno, etc.). The “I” ending indicates a seasoning blend, usually with several various spices and multiple varieties of chile powder in it.
Using Dried Chiles
For the most adventurous chile makers out there, using dried chiles are certainly the way to go all in. Rehydrating the whole chiles will provide a gentle, almost fruity chile flavor. Their flavorful heat is the perfect choice for a special treat if you are daring enough. We like to use the whole chiles because, much like whole spices, they retain their flavor better and for longer than their ground counterparts.
While they are still dry, split the chiles open and remove the stems, seeds and the white veiny part. The white veiny part is where most of the heat in the chiles lives, so leave just a little to the side to be added to the chili later if you want some spice in your dish. The chile skin contains the flavor, and the white parts can get a little bitter, so keep that in mind as you decide how much of it you should leave behind. Heat the chiles in preheated cast iron skillet for 30 seconds to two minutes (depending on your stove), or until they have browned just a little and you can smell the roasted aroma. Be careful to avoid burning the chiles because if they are burnt their flesh will become bitter. You can either grind up your roasted chiles and use them as a powder or you can cover them completely in water while they are still in the skillet and let them soak for about thirty minutes. Drain the water and put it to the side. You will have rehydrated chiles perfect for creating a chile puree or paste.
To make a chile puree or paste, place your freshly rehydrated chiles in a blender with some of the water you put aside from the skillet. Blend them until they are smooth. A puree will be thinner and can be achieved by adding more water, a paste will have had less water added. You can always move forward from a paste to a puree, but you can’t make a puree a paste, so add only a little water at a time until you have reached the desired consistency. If you find there are still large, undesirable chunks, you may want to discard them, but you certainly don’t have to. You may also have the desire to add in other spices, or to make a batch of puree large enough that you can freeze some of it for later use. If you do decide to make a large batch, you will want to refrain from using the spices until you have separated from batch to batch. Different recipes call for different spices.
Ancho, de Arbol, Guajillo, New Mexico Hatch, Pasilla Negro and Puya chiles are great for use in chili. Smoked chiles make for better cookoff chiles, where judges are looking for depth of flavor. For reference, we typically do not include any smoked chiles in our homemade chili, but you are welcome to experiment with whatever you want.
What Are the Best Chili Spices?
For classic chili flavor, these spices are perfect to begin with.
- Ground Cumin is wonderful for adding a nutty, earthy flavor to your chili.
- Granulated Onion and Granulated Garlic give great flavor dimensions that are easily recognizable to any consumer, whether they are casual or a chili connoisseur.
- White Pepper can be used with or in place of black pepper. It has less of a bite than black pepper, making it optimal for people who enjoy a less zingy chili.
- Mexican Oregano is slightly citrusy, while it also offers up that earthy, grassy aroma which is common in many good chilis.
- Ground Bay Leaf tastes vaguely of nutmeg and pine, and it has a slightly camphor like fragrance. Ground bay leaves can also taste slightly lemony.
- Cinnamon is a sweeter spice, just like Ground Clove or Ground Allspice. These spices are great for a mellow chili with less heat and more robust, sweeter flavors.
- Ground Coriander has a lemony, citrusy flavor that is also vaguely reminiscent of oranges.
- Paprika of the domestic variety is slightly sweet, while Hungarian paprika is the choice of cooks who are eager for something a little spicier.
If you’re feeling adventurous and want to give your chili a more complex flavor profile, you could add these spices, though don’t overdo it and add all of them. These provide very unique, intense flavors so keep that in mind while you experiment.
- Achiote, or Ground Annato, will give a distinctly dark color to your chili, but it will also give a noticeably earthy flavor.
- Cacao Powder works because of the chocolatey flavor it lends to the chili. Chocolate and chiles are a tried and true combination, so including a cacao powder in your recipe wouldn’t be unheard of, though it would probably surprise the crowd in a good way.
- Ground Fenugreek is nutty and bittersweet.
- Sumac is tart, and some have described it as being akin to a vinegary flavor. This is an excellent compliment to tomato based chilis.
- Turmeric is woody with citrus, ginger, and floral undertones. It would be good with a red chili, though it could potentially taste great in a cream based chili if used sparingly.
Secrets for the Perfect Chili
Beef is usually the meat of choice for chili, though other things like chicken or turkey can be used as well. If you are using beef, let your meat get to room temperature before you brown it for the best results. You want it to get just a little bit of a crisp outside before you add it to the chili. Allowing it to reach room temperature will reduce the chance of water sloughing off the meat and ruining the browning process.
You can elect to season your meat before you cook it, and we have a wide variety of the best chili seasoning blends that would be excellent for the process such as Hill Country Chili Powder for those that want a lot of flavor with a little heat or our Mild Chili Powder, which is a staple in the classic Chili con Carne.
Beans are added to chilis all over the world, much to the misery of those who believe chili should be bean free. Beans are a wonderful source of protein and add a lot of texture to chili, so we think that it can be done either way and still taste amazing.
Double grinding your spices is a trick from competition chili cooks that home cooks can easily replicate in their own kitchens. When spices have been ground twice, they are able to break down into the smallest particles possible which allows for their flavor to be released more quickly and evenly throughout the chili. Some competition cooks also divide their spices into portions of 2-3 called “dumps” that get added at different times during the cooking process. They are added strategically because some spices lose their potency when cooked for too long and require addition to the dish nearer the end of the cook time. Spices like garlic, onion, Mexican oregano and ground bay leaves need to be added toward the end of cooking. Other spices need to be added earlier for the full effect of their flavor to take over. Spices like chiles should be added at the beginning of cooking to let their flavor disperse properly.
At many chili cook offs, you will find timers going off all around you to remind the cooks when they should add their next round of spices. The knowledge of when the spices should be added really comes down to experience, though many cooks do add a bulk of their spices in the middle and then do the last spice dump at the end. Some cooks swear by three spice dumps, which means that they add one at the very early stages of cooking and then follow it up with the other two. This gives the chili a nice, nuanced flavor. You can even incorporate your chile paste or puree into this spice dump method.
Another spicing strategy that you can steal from competition chili cooks is writing down everything you do. Deciding when and how much of a spice should be added to your chili to make it just right may take dozens of attempts, so continuous testing and documentation is the best tool for perfecting your bowl of championship chili. The best blend of spices is right there at your fingertips, you just have to find it.
The best tip we can give you for making out of this world chili is to take your time and taste as you go. No one wants rubbery meat or sort of cooked beans in their perfectly spiced chili “gravy.” Enjoy the cooking process, spice it up using whatever you think tastes best and treat yourself to some quality time with a finished bowl of the most perfect chili you have ever tasted. Revel in the fact that you made it yourself.
Why Does Reheated Chili Taste Better?
There is science behind why reheated food tastes even better than it did the day before, and yes, this applies to chili, too. Dr. Kantha Shelke, the Founder of Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago-based food science and research firm and a spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists recently spoke to Forbes magazine about why some leftovers, like chili, taste better the second day. Foods with properties that are distinctly aromatic taste better because their reactions and breakdown in food happens twice. When cooked, these aromatic herbs and spices react with the proteins and starches of the foods they are in. Once cooled and then reheated, some have a second reaction, which would contribute to the deeper flavor. Foods that include distinct aromatic properties include things like onion, garlic, chiles, oregano, etc. This means that using the perfect spices means even more on the second day than it does on the first.
When stewed meat is cooled, the collagen and tendons that melted during the cooking process become gelatinous. The spices become trapped in that gelatinous material, and this phenomenon is even more pronounced in ground meat which has more surface area of gel. When you reheat your chili, it becomes thicker and creamier, but you shouldn’t reheat it too many times or it’ll become increasingly stringy.
Armed with all this rich information, pardon the intentional pun, you can now experiment and find the best combination of herbs and spices for your chili and take it to the next level. Don’t worry, you don’t have to give up any of your new chili secrets unless you want to.