Becoming an expert in the art of cooking requires learning specific techniques and also acquiring as much knowledge as possible about ingredients, dishes, and cooking styles. In our recent post, we presented a simple technique for beginners. For those who are advanced and are interested in the special tips and tricks that make a difference, we are now discussing chili.
Just like all famous dishes that are beloved all over the world, chili con carne, or simply chili, is as controversial as it is delicious. With a long and somewhat mysterious history, chili is one of the dishes that have a lot of variations that can be quite different from another.
Let us dive deeper into what chili is made of, how it came to be and how it evolved over the decades. We will also shape the most important tricks you need to know about how to thicken chili without losing flavor.
What are the main ingredients of chili?
Unlike some of those dishes with unusual names that make it impossible to guess what they might contain, chili con carne is pretty self-explanatory, especially for Spanish speaking people. ‘Chiles’ are chili peppers and ‘carne’ means meat. However, one of the most important ingredients of this dish, namely the beans, is not mentioned in the name.
The short and best-known name of this kind of food, chili, also indicates the fact that it is basically a spicy dish. Another key aspect to keep in mind is that this is a cooked type of food, that is usually served warm. It is not an appetizer or a side dish, but a hearty, main dish, that provides our bodies with plenty of heat, both in terms of temperature and spiciness.
Chili is a stew that is based on chili peppers and meat, with added beans and tomatoes. These are the most basic ingredients, although there are plenty who argue that neither tomatoes or beans should be added, as this would change the simple nature of original chili. All of these main ingredients are slowly cooked together, preferably for a longer period of time.
Of course, this popular stew would not be the delicious food we know today, without spices. Simply mixing the main ingredients is not enough, as the result would be a rather plain soup. Spices and thickening agents add a touch of magic and transform what one might consider basic ingredients into a culinary work of art. Onions, garlic and cumin are must-haves.
Chili peppers are the ingredient that gives this dish its specific taste and spiciness. Different varieties of hot peppers can be used and in different forms. They can be sauteed, grilled, dried, before being cooked with the rest of the ingredients. The traditional meat that is used for chili is beef, although there are variations with mutton, venison or chicken.
Beans were probably not a part of the original recipe, according to culinary historians, but became one of the main ingredients over the years. The simple combination of beans, chili peppers and tomatoes is a classic one in the Tex-Mex cuisine. Mexican red beans, as well as regular cannellini beans, are typically used, but other varieties of beans can also be used.
Tomatoes can be used fresh, but it’s more common to add tomato paste to chili because it also acts as a thickening agent and it deepens the flavor. Besides salt and pepper, cumin is the number one spice for chili, that gives it its unforgettable flavor and taste. Dried herbs balance the final result and complete the flavor. Oregano is preferred, but marjoram has also been used in the past.
Finally, chili doesn’t like to be alone and it is typically served accompanied by tortillas or tortilla chips and toppings, such as purple onions, sour cream, different types of grated cheese and even more chili peppers. This is the result of the Tex-Mex influence over the years, but it’s been around long enough to be considered classic.
The beginnings of chili con carne
There are several populations all over the world who have developed some type of dish that’s based on peppers, meat, and tomatoes, with or without beans. These ingredients were easily available, affordable and filling, so it makes sense that different dishes were created based on them. However, the notorious chili con carne as we know it today is linked to San Antonio, Texas.
There are different theories as to how chili came to be and some of them revolve around legends that can’t be confirmed. What is certain is that, similarly to pizza, this dish was created as a humble, cheap food and that it has a long and rich history that seems to go back as far as the 17th century.
Despite popular belief, chili is not a traditional Mexican dish and it can’t be found among the oldest Mexican recipes. The confusion was created by the fact that it has been influenced by Tex-Mex cuisine over the years and that it has, in fact, Spanish origins.
One of the earliest legends speaks about a Spanish nun, known by the local Native Americans as ‘La Dama de Azul’. At the beginning of the 17th century, this mysterious ‘lady in blue’, whose actual existence has not been confirmed, apparently shared with the locals the first written recipe of chili, which included chili peppers, onions, tomatoes, and venison meat.
Another theory links the creation of chili to Spanish settlers from the Canary Islands. In the 18th century, a small group of families from the Canary Islands settled into the small village of San Fernando de Bar, which would later become San Antonio. This small population of Spanish origins greatly influenced the local customs, as well as the local cuisine.
The arrival of the settlers from the Canary Islands is a historically proven fact, as well as the fact that there is a Spanish spicy stew that could have been traditional back then. This theory is also backed up by the use of cumin, a spice that was known to the local Native Americans but widely used in the Arabic cuisine that influenced the Spanish one.
A century later, during the time of cowboys and adventurers, chili seems to have been born as a dish that could be quickly prepared while being on the road, out of dried beef, dried chilies, and beef fat. It is believed that the wandering cowboys carried the dry ingredients with them and simply rehydrated them, by cooking them in warm water.
Chili con carne became widely recognized after the Civil War. The famous ‘Chili Queens’ were women who prepared and sold this dish in the Market Square of San Antonio, each with her own special recipe. From this moment on, chili joints spread across the region and different styles of chili, with secret ingredients, were developed.
How to thicken chili with flour
As with most stews, chili runs the risk of becoming too watery, if too much liquid is added. On the other hand, adding a thickening agent that takes too long to dissolve leads to overcooking and diluting the flavor. Regular flour and cornmeal are traditional thickening agents that are generally used to thicken a dish without compromising the flavor.
Cornmeal also has the benefit of adding the specific corn flavor that is well suited for chili. Flour can be mixed directly in the pot, with constant stirring, in order to prevent clumps. You can also mix flour and liquid from the chili, separately, and then add them to the pot. In a maximum of half an hour, your chili should have the right consistency.
How to thicken chili with vegetables
If you find that adding flour makes chili lose its flavor, you can try using vegetables as thickening agents. Although this method is unconventional, vegetables have the extra benefit of adding vitamins to the dish and also enriching, instead of diminishing, the flavor. Chopped or diced vegetables absorb some of the extra liquid and also break up into little pieces that thicken the dish.
You might be surprised to learn that broccoli, mushrooms or bell peppers are excellent for thickening chili and preserving the flavor. The secret is to chop them up in small pieces. This way, they will absorb the liquid and the flavors, so that the final result won’t taste like vegetables. In fact, the flavor will be richer and will be enhanced by these delicious vegetables.