The Burger Lab

Burger recipes and cooking tips from J. Kenji López-Alt.

The Burger Lab: How to Make The Best Chili For a Burger (or Hot Dog!)

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

My desert island burger: Grind beef (sirloin, brisket, and oxtail) and form into loose 1/4 pound patty. Season well and griddle in beef fat until crisp and deep brown. Apply cheese and melt until gooey. Place on toasted potato roll with onions, pickles, burger sauce. Eat with napkins.

As glorious as that may sound to me, it'd be a sad state of affairs if that's the only burger I ever ate in my life. I mean, Rubber Soul may be better than Revolver, but that doesn't mean that I don't occasionally look at that pencil-drawn album cover and think to myself: I've just got to get you into my life.

So it is with chili burgers, the Sgt. Pepper of the burger world: a tad overwrought, a little bit messy, just a few too many ideas going on at once, a little more popular than it should be, but really, really delicious nonetheless. And as AHT'r cedarglen has rightfully pointed out, we've not given chili burgers their due here at the Burger Lab.

You'd think that making a really great chili burger is as simple as making really great chili and a really great burger and sticking them together. But it ain't that simple. The problem is that a great chili is a meal in itself, not a condiment. It should have a wide variance of texture: rich, thick sauce, small bits of beef that act as flavoring, and larger chunks of tender braised beef to offer some bite. Throw all that on top of a burger, and it doesn't just overwhelm the burger—it tears it to shreds and stomps on the remains.

What I was after is not just the perfect chili, but the perfect chili-as-condiment. For topping burgers, fries, or hot dogs, chili should have slightly less kick than a full-fledged, punch-you-in-the-mouth-with-flavor chili, with a much finer, sauce-like texture that doesn't distract from the crispness of the burger or overwhelm the bun.

Building Flavor

In my previous studies in chili, I'd already figured out a few of the keys to great chili flavor. Here's a brief summary:

  • Use dried chiles instead of powder. This is the number one way to improve your chili! Three reasons: First, because volatile flavor molecules begin to dissipate as soon as chiles are ground, whole chiles will have much more flavor. Second, grinding your own chiles gives you more control over flavor. Third, chili powder can come out gritty even after cooking. By using fresh chiles, you can soak and puree them, which gives you a smoother finished texture.

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  • Use a mix of dried chiles. I like to use a three way mix of sweet and fresh New Mexico or Costeños, hot Cascabel or Arbol, and rich and fruity Ancho or Pasillas. Using a mix will cover the entire flavor spectrum, adding complexity and fullness.
  • Toast whole spices before grinding and adding them to the chili. Toasting helps develop new, more complex flavors in the spices. Toasting post-grinding simply causes the flavors to dissipate. Cumin and coriander are classic chili spices. Star anise and clove are not necessary, but add an underlying complexity without making their presence too known.

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  • Add some "umami bombs" like anchovies, soy sauce, and Marmite. Again, this is optional, but it really improves the savoriness of the chili.
  • Finish off the chili with a splash of something volatile, like booze or vinegar. The more volatile the liquid, the more easily aromatic compounds will jump off the surface and into your nose.

Those of you who've read the original chili story may note that I haven't mentioned the chocolate, the use of whole short ribs, the coffee, the fresh chiles, etc. For the sake of burger chili, I've found that it's not only easier to skip a lot of the more difficult steps, but it's actually better: as I've said, the flavor of this chili is a little less complex so that it doesn't overwhelm the burger. In fact, after testing both chili made with dried chiles and chili powder, even the version made with chili powder fared just fine on top of a burger. It's not ideal, but it'd do in a pinch.

Buttered Up

The first step of chili is to cook down onions and garlic in order to get rid of some of their raw edge, and to bloom the ground spices to pull out their flavor and distribute it through the fat which will form the flavor base of the stew.

While a really great chili can take upwards of three hours to simmer to rich, complex perfection, I was after something a little faster here—my burgers just can't wait that long. In order to give the onion, garlic, and spice base of my chili a quick flavor boost, I used a trick that I first learned from Marcella Hazan, in her incomparably simple and tasty recipe for tomato sauce: Use butter instead of olive oil.

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It seems a simple substitution, but it makes a world of difference. While in her recipe she simply throws everything into the pot to simmer together, I found that sautéeing my chopped onions and garlic in the butter until soft was the way to go. The sweetness and richness of butter brings out the sweetness of the onions. It more easily forms an emulsion in the sauce so that you don't end up with the "oil slick" that olive oil can sometimes give. When tasted side by side, the difference in texture and flavor was undeniable.*

After cooking down my onions and garlic, I added my toasted ground cumin, coriander, star anise, and clove and allowed them to bloom before tossing in my ground beef to brown (I figured true ground beef would form a smoother, saucier chili than the beef chunks I generally prefer). I then added some chopped anchovies, can of tomato paste followed by my rehydrated, puréed peppers before topping the whole thin up with chicken stock and simmering it for a little over an hour until the flavor had developed. To finish it, I spiked it with bourbon and a tablespoon of vinegary Frank's Red Hot.**

The results were not bad. Really good, even. Flavor-wise, it was spot on. Complex and spicy without being overwhelming. Texture-wise, however, it was a bomb. The beef still stayed in fairly large chunks, while the sauce was thin enough that it turned the whole burger into an inedibly messy affair.

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After ever so briefly contemplating throwing the whole thing in the blender to smooth it out, I realized that "beef milkshake" is a place that I wasn't willing to go, even in the name of good food. There had to be a better way to get the texture right.

I knew that the browning phase can cause meat to seize up into chunks that don't break down as they simmer, so I decided to try skipping that step all together. Rather than adding the beef before the liquid, I reversed the order, adding the beef to the pot of simmering chili-liquid. It may sound gross, but there's actually precedence for this technique in Cincinnati Chili, a regional chili variant in which the ground beef is boiled in chili sauce and served atop spaghetti.

Despite my optimism, this attempt came out even worse than the first batch. Ed Levine likes to refer to "cosmic oneness"—the state that great fried chicken achieves when the crust and chicken meld together into a whole. I think the term is equally applicable to a good chili: The meat and the sauce should be inseparable from each other, forming a symbiotic relationship that elevates both elements to new heights.

This batch was the opposite: discrete bits of boiled beef with an almost wormy appearance surrounded by a wet sauce. But I wasn't prepared to abandon the no-brown method quite yet.

Taking Whisks

Here's a thought: When cooking scrambled eggs, two very different outcomes are possible. If you cook the eggs fast, stirring and folding with a spatula, you end up with fluffy eggs with large, tender curds. If, on the other hand, you cook the eggs slowly, stirring them with a whisk, you end up with super creamy eggs with a smooth, almost custard-like texture. Same ingredients, slightly different process, vastly different end results.

Would the same thing happen with my beef? I mean, when you get down to it, a pot full of liquidy ground beef is not all that difference from a pan full of eggs. Both are mostly water with a smattering of raw proteins mixed into it. It's the way that these proteins set that makes the difference in the finished product. Let the proteins coagulate and link up very fast with minimal disturbance, and you end up with large chunks. Cook them slowly while agitating, and you should end up with smaller pieces.

It was worth a shot.

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This time, I started my chili the same way by sautéeing the onions and garlic, then adding the spices, tomato paste, chiles, and other flavorings. But instead of adding the beef directly, I first added half of the chicken stock, which rapidly cooled the contents of the pot. Off heat, I added the beef and used a whisk to mix it into the liquid until it was completely homogeneous slurry. It sure wasn't pretty, but I hoped my risk would pan out.

After adding the remainder of the chicken stock (adding all of it while mixing the beef proved too difficult to get the beef to break down smoothly), I set the pot on the heat and slowly brought it to a simmer while whisking it constantly. Things were looking good: The beef was broken down into tiny particles and the chili showed an unprecedented level of homogeneity.

75 minutes of slow simmering brought the flavors into sharp focus, but the texture was still not quite there. Despite the beef being nice and smooth, the sauce itself was still a little too thin.

I turned to my favorite chili thickener for some support:

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Maseca is dehydrated corn meal treated with lime and is intended for making tortillas, tamales, and other corn meal-based products. As a thickener, it's outstanding. It provides richness and texture while adding a subtle nutty flavor of its own. Unlike a flour roux, it need not be cooked down before adding it to liquid. All you've got to do is form a slurry with equal parts cold water, then stir it directly into your stew.

A minute or two later, and my chili was literally thick enough to stand a spoon in: the ideal texture for topping a burger or hot dog without overly squishing out when you bite into it or soaking into the bun.

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The real-deal-meal-in-a-bowl stuff may be the pope of chili town, but we've just elected it's official constable.

So there you go, AHT readers: No more complaints that we're not an equal-opportunity burger-topping website!

Next up: melty, gooey cheese sauce, because if I don't tackle this soon, my wife*** will kill me.

And if you'll excuse me, I've now got some chili to attend to.

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Continue here for Condiment Chili for Chili Dogs, Chili Burgers, or Chili Fries

*Don't get me wrong —there are many sauces for which the flavor of great olive oil is essential—just not for chili.
**Surely this should take ketchup's place as America's greatest condiment!
***who spent the happiest birthday of her life eating cheese sauce at a Fuddruckers,

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