I learned to cook by watching my mother, who learned to cook by watching her mother. Both women were in charge of big families — which means I come from a cooking tradition that’s built around the singular goal of getting dinner on the table using whatever you have in the house.
Flash and style need not apply.
By the time I was old enough to be conscious of what she was doing, my mother was done using recipes. She started every meal by opening the pantry and the fridge, seeing what she had on hand, and then figuring out what could be done with whatever she’d found. I became a similar kind of cook, and when I come across friends who aren’t very good in the kitchen and would like to get better, I always advise that recipes aren’t the answer. Sure, you can follow a recipe and make something tasty, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of cooking, the stuff that really makes you good at it, it’s more about technique.
You want to be good? Learn how different ingredients respond to different cooking methods, and you’ll go from someone who never lets go of their measuring spoons to someone who can season a steak perfectly.
And where to start? That’s easy: Chili.
Chili was the first dish I learned to cook, because my mom would fire up a pot any time a serious cold front blew through our neck of the woods. Sure, she could have just gone and grabbed a can of the stuff, but letting that pot of dark red goodness simmer in our kitchen made the house smell heavenly, and by the time it was done it was spicy and warming and soothing. Like an edible hug.
Here’s another reason to start your cooking career with chili: it’s one of the most blissfully inexact dishes in the world. You’re basically just dumping some stuff into a pot and letting it bubble for a while. But you’re also learning some valuable cooking skills (flavor profiles, balance, seasoning). Plus, even if you completely screw it up, it’ll probably still taste pretty good.
Before I share my own recipe, please note: this is not a recipe. It’s a template. This is, roughly, how I make my chili — so start from here and then mess with it until it’s your chili.
YOU WILL NEED:
- 1 pound or so of the ground beef of your choice (I also sometimes use turkey just to cut down on the calories)
- 1 medium onion, chopped (don’t worry about being too exact; this is rustic food)
- 1 bell pepper, chopped (I use green because I like the color, but you can go with whatever you want)
- 2 14-ounce cans or one 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes (I like the texture of crushed, but use tomato sauce or even diced tomatoes if you like)
- 1 3.5-ounce can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (some supermarkets only sell the 7-ounce size; if that’s all you have, grab it and freeze what you don’t use)
- Approximately two cloves of garlic, chopped
- Approximately 3.5 teaspoons of chili powder
- Approximately 2 teaspoons of ground cumin
- Approximately 1.5 teaspoons of smoked paprika (just use regular paprika if you can’t find smoked)
- Approximately 1.5 teaspoons of dried oregano
- Approximately 1 teaspoon of dried thyme
- Kosher salt
- Ground cayenne pepper to taste (optional)
- Fresh cilantro (optional)
Now, let’s cook:
- Grab a big pot. I use a 7-quart enameled Dutch oven because it’s what I like, but you can get away with anything 4 quarts or so or bigger (also make sure the pot doesn’t have a bad reaction to acid, like cast iron, as we’re using a lot of tomatoes here). Get it warmed up over medium heat. If it’s the kind of pot that meat doesn’t usually stick to, fine. If you think the meat might stick, throw a little bit of vegetable oil in the bottom. Just a touch.
- Toss your meat into the pan, toss a pinch of salt in there, and start to break it into pieces with a big spoon. Keep an eye on the fat level leeching out. Depending on what you bought, it’s either going to be a nice little coating on the bottom of the pan or a big greasy soup. If it’s the latter, drain some of the fat before you add anything else, unless you like the inside of your mouth to feel like an oil slick.
- When the meat is browned (by which I mean you can’t see anything pink left in the pot), toss your onion, bell pepper, and garlic in, and drop another pinch of salt along with them. Stir everything around. As this point, it looks a bit like a grey lump with flecks of green mixed in. Don’t worry. We’re about to make it better, but on the bright side: You’ve now browned and seasoned meat and chopped and seasoned some veggies. You’re cooking!
- When the onions just start to look like they’re going a bit soft, turn the heat down to low and dump your tomatoes in. Give it all a stir, check simmering a sauce off your new list of cooking skills. Now, on to seasoning.
- I used the word “approximately” quite a bit above, because as I said before, this is not an exact recipe. This is just roughly what I like, and even then it’s only a starting point. Dump all of those spices in, stir it all up, marvel as your tomato sauce gets darker and richer thanks to the chili powder. Now, pull two chipotle peppers out of that can and just run your knife through them, over and over, until you’ve basically got a dark red paste with some seeds in it (it won’t take long). Scrape those into the pot, and maybe throw in a teaspoon or so of the adobo sauce. Taste the adobo first to see if it’s too hot for you or your dinner guests. It can be vicious stuff. Stir your chili again. Congratulations, you’re a seasoning pro now.
- Now comes the best part of the process: Walk away. Let your chili bubble gently on low heat. Open a beer. Turn the game on. Come back every 10 minutes or so and give the chili a stir. We’re going to let our beautiful pot of love slow cook for at least an hour. In that time, some of the water’s going to cook out of all the ingredients. The tomatoes will get sweeter, the sauce will thicken, the spices will flavor the sauce, and everything will generally marry together as one big spicy family.
- About 30 minutes into cooking, give your chili a taste (careful, it’ll be hot) to see how you like the seasoning. Do you want more spice? Do you want more smoky goodness from the paprika and the chipotles? Do you want more salt, or more earthy mellowness from the cumin? If you do, go for it, but remember: You can’t subtract spice once you add it, and you definitely don’t want to make your picky eater nephew cry because his tongue won’t stop burning.
- Now, an hour’s gone by. Taste the chili again (get a clean spoon, you animal). How’s the seasoning? How’s the texture? If you like it, great. We’re ready to eat. If you don’t, adjust your seasoning or just let things bubble away for a bit longer, say 30 minutes. Come back and taste it again. Keep going if you want. I’ve simmered chili for as many as four hours and as little as one. It’s up to you. Once you’ve decided it’s done, tear some cilantro leaves up, sprinkle them in, and let them get to know the rest of the pot for about 10 minutes. Then, ladle that goodness into bowls by itself, or do what we do in Texas and make yourself a Frito pie.
Hey, look at that, you made chili, and it’s probably just as good by itself as it would be on top of a hot dog. Now what? Well, let’s recap what you just did: You browned and seasoned some meat. You made and seasoned a sauce. You chopped veggies. You simmered low and slow like a proper comfort food wizard. So, how does that translate to the rest of your cooking life? Well, use your new seasoning skills to make a rub for some fajitas and hit the grill. Trade out Mexican seasonings for Italian ones and make a lovely Sunday gravy, Carmela Soprano-style. Spoon that Sunday gravy over some pasta, grate some Parmesan cheese over it, and make a baked ziti. When you really stop and think about all the things you just did to make one relatively simple dish, you’ll find they’re good for all sorts of things.
Plus, this chili is endlessly adaptable. Don’t like the peppers and onions? Leave ’em out! Throw a couple of good glugs of nice brown ale in there if you want. Throw in pickled jalapenos or raw ones. Be a godless heathen if you want and add beans. I’m not your judgmental dad; go nuts, kiddo. I’ve tried to teach several culinary lessons today, and I hope they all got through, but the biggest takeaway from my chili method should be this: This is comfort food. This is about relaxing.
If you spend an afternoon with a pot of chili the right way, it shouldn’t feel like work at all. It should be your gateway to having fun in the kitchen, and that alone will make you a better cook.