Alton Brown’s Smart Hack for Thickening Chili

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: The Kitchn)

If you’re making a list of things that are LITERALLY THE WORST, the top three have to be some combination of accidentally getting your sleeve wet when you wash your hands, being forced to leave a voicemail for someone (or the horror of realizing that someone has left a voicemail for you), and sad, thin chili.

If your chili is thinner than the plot of Fifty Shades Freed, there’s an easy way to make it a little more flavorful and a lot more appealing. In a delightfully weird episode of Alton Brown’s Good Eats show, Brown’s ol’ cowboy alter-ego Grumpy Gus confesses that making chili doesn’t have to be complicated. “Chili is a very basic kind of food made out of some very basic kind of parts,” he says. “We’ve got meat, chile, chili powder. We need a liquid and some kind of thickener of some type, and I reckon we could use some vegetation, like maybe some onions.”

After a stop at Whole Foods, Grumpy Gus and his sidekick, Rusty, decide that their thickener-of-choice will be tortilla chips, which remains one of the most glorious ideas ever, for a number of reasons.

First, as Alt — er, Grumpy — explains, chili is often thickened with masa harina, a kind of flour traditionally used in Mexican cooking. Tortilla chips are a better-than-average substitute, and you can also find them at pretty much every grocery store (if they’re not already in one of your kitchen cabinets). The tortilla chips do provide some extra salt, so keep that in mind while you’re crumbling them into your chili.

Brown says that you can make this recipe in a pressure cooker (he does call it “Pressure Cooker Chili“) or in a Dutch oven.

At the time this episode aired, people were shook. In a long-since deleted post on his website, Brown said that he “received a few nasty emails” about his choice of thickener. “It seems that some of you have decided that chili must follow a specific course of construction and that it must also contain, and not contain, certain ingredients,” he wrote. “Some of you seem very heated on this subject. I can offer no real defense for my actions, other than to quote Theodore Roosevelt: ‘Do what you can, where you are, with what you have’ […] And if ya don’t like it, ye can git yer own dang cookin’ show.”

This isn’t a brand-new hack, but it does work — and it is delicious. Brown’s recipe has been rated with five presumably enthusiastic stars, and one Redditor said that he came in second place in a chili cook-off, with his very first batch of tortilla-thickened chili.

Whew, one problem solved. Now if our sleeves would dry, the rest of this day would be alright.