Over the years I've come to learn that chili recipes are a very personal thing. Most people have some pretty strong opinions about how they make their chili — what exactly gets added, and what does not. I can't think of many other dishes that make people that passionate.
There are, however, a few basic universal chili-making dos and don'ts. And since we still have a while before spring rolls around, there's no better time to check your chili-making IQ than right now.
1. Not browning the meat first.
Raw meat and pot of chili are two things that just don't belong together. If the recipe includes any type of ground meat, bacon, chorizo, or cubes of beef, it should always be browned first.
Try this: The first order of business before adding anything else to the pot is to brown any meat in your recipe. This important step adds an extra savory flavor that simply cannot be replicated by simmering on the stovetop or in a slow cooker. Plus, the texture is vastly improved when the meat is seared.
The exception to the rule is chicken chili, which typically calls for the meat to be poached alongside all the other ingredients.
Get a quick refresher: How To Cook & Brown Ground Beef
2. Not making your own chili seasoning.
Skip the store-bought stuff — the most flavorful chili starts with a really good spice mix. Not to be confused with ground chilies, often labeled as chili powder, this is a blend of ground chilies and other seasonings like cumin, garlic powder, and oregano.
Try this: Instead of the list of spices that always tends to vary between recipes, start here. Making your own chili seasoning is the single best thing you can do for better chili. Use as little or as much as you like to flavor the chili to your taste. And best of all, once you have a jar mixture together, it will carry you through several batches of chili.
Try it: How To Make Chili Spice Mix
3. Seasoning at the end of cooking.
Herbs and spices are key to flavoring chili, but if you wait until the end of cooking to add them, you're missing out on a ton of flavor.
Try this: Season early and season often! Take this as your motto, and you will be rewarded with a full-flavored, balanced, and delicious bowl of chili. When you add seasoning early on, the flavors mingle and develop an even richer taste while the chili simmers. That means you'll need to do some tasting along the way as well.
4. Not adding some acidity at the end.
Your chili has been simmering all day long, so it should be ready to ladle into bowls the second you pull it off the burner, right? Not so fast. While all that time on the stovetop or in the slow cooker has made for a deep, spiced aroma, the long cook time often results in a flat flavor that benefits from some acidity to perk it up.
Try this: Adding just a teaspoon of vinegar — either apple cider or sherry vinegar — or even a squeeze of lemon or lime juice brings a bright tang to each bite.
5. Skipping the toppings.
Just as important as what's inside the bowl is what's on top of it. No matter what kind of chili you're cooking up, toppings are a must to make the meal complete.
Try this: The way I see it, toppings aren't just delicious — they're also meant to complement, contrast, and highlight different components of the chili. Greek yogurt and sour cream, avocado, and even shredded cheese are a great balance for spicy chilies, adding a layer of cool creaminess. Scallions and cilantro add a pop of freshness, while sliced jalapeño gives more mild chili a punch of heat.
Cozy Up with Our Favorite Chili Recipes
Your turn! What are your best tips for making chili?