8 Mistakes to Avoid When Making Chili

Take your favorite chili recipe from average to amazing by avoiding these common cooking mistakes.

Photo: Hector Sanchez

1. Using stale spices

Aromatic, toasty spices are the foundation of a great chili recipe. Whole spices pack the biggest flavor punch. Toast whole spices in a dry pan until aromatic, then grind them in a spice grinder. If you're using ground spices, give them a sniff before using them—especially if you can't remember when you bought them. Ground spices lose their potency after about six months to a year.

2. Using garlic and onion powder

Many chili recipes call for ground chili powder, which is a mix of dried ground chiles and other spices like garlic and onion powder. But that doesn't mean you should skip using fresh garlic and onions in your chili. They add a depth of flavor the dried stuff can't match.

3. Skipping the chile powder

Chile powder is the same stuff as chili powder, right? Wrong. Chile powder is not a spice blend—it is a single type of dried ground chile peppers. Although they might look alike in those little glass jars, the flavor and heat level of chile powders varies greatly from pepper to pepper. Cayenne powder is very spicy and pungent, chipotle is smoky and earthy, and ancho is slightly fruity and not as spicy.

4. Not browning the vegetables and meat

Browning = flavor. Before you add any liquid to your chili, make sure your vegetables (onions, bell peppers, garlic, etc.) are softened and the meat (ground beef, turkey, short ribs, etc.) is well seasoned and browned on the outside. The meat and vegetables will continue cooking once you add the liquid and let the chili simmer.

5. Choosing the wrong beans

We know Texans will skip this step. For the rest of you bean lovers out there, choose wisely. Kidney beans are a popular choice because they are large enough to stand up to the other ingredients. Black beans and pinto beans are also good options. Avoid small white beans, which can break down and get lost in the mix.

6. Using water instead of stock

Chili cooks low and slow, so you need enough liquid to tenderize the meat and keep everything from drying out. That liquid should also add flavor to the chili, so use chicken, beef, or vegetable stock, or beer.

7. Not cooking it long enough

A low and slow cook time—at least an hour total—is key for drawing out the most flavor in a pot of chili. A slow cooker works wonders, but if you're short on time, try a pressure cooker.

8. Making a small batch

Chili tastes even better the next day, after the flavors have had some time to meld together. So be sure to make a big batch that will leave you with plenty of leftovers. (It freezes well too!)

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