What I’d bring to a desert island if I had to choose one burger: Create a 1/4-ounce patty out of ground beef (sirloin, brisket, and oxtail). Grill in beef fat till crisp and brown, then season to taste. A thick layer of melted cheese is applied. Pile onto a toasted potato bun with some burger sauce, onions, and pickles. It would help if you used napkins when you ate.
It would be a sad state of affairs if it were the last burger I ever ate, as wonderful as the thought seems. Even if Rubber Soul is superior to Revolver, I still find myself staring longingly at the album’s pencil-drawn cover art and thinking, “I simply have to get you into my life.”
Just like Sgt. Pepper, chilli burgers are a touch more complicated and messier than they need to be and have a few more concepts going on at once than they should, but they’re still tasty. Moreover, as AHT user cedar glen so eloquently put it, we haven’t paid chilli burgers their due respect here at the Burger Lab.
“the difficulty is that outstanding chili is a meal in itself, not a condiment.”
You’d think that all it takes to make a fantastic chilli burger is a fantastic burger and some fantastic chilli. To be sure, it’s not quite that easy. The issue is that excellent chilli is best served as a main course, not as a side dish. Tender braised beef should be combined with bigger pieces of meat to create some bite, and the sauce should be rich and dense. That much on top of a burger would not be too much; it would rip the burger to bits and trample on the crumbs.
I wasn’t just looking for the best chilli; I wanted the best chilli-based sauce. To go with the crispness of the burger and not overpower the bread, the chilli on burgers, fries, or hot dogs should be less spicy than traditional chilli and have the consistency of a fine sauce.
Through my prior research, I was already familiar with some factors contributing to a delicious chilli. Let me give you a quick rundown:
- Substitute dried chillies for the powdered kind. It’s the best method to make your chilli better. For three valid reasons: First, whole chiles will have considerably more taste than ground chiles because volatile flavour molecules start to evaporate as soon as chillies are ground. Second, if you crush your chillies, you may adjust the heat and spice to your liking. Third, chilli powder might retain some graininess even after being heated. Fresh chiles allow you to purée and soak them for a silkier texture in the end product.
- Incorporate a variety of dried chillies. I prefer to combine the mild New Mexico or Costeos with the fiery Cascabel or Arbol and the rich, fruity Ancho or Pasillas. Using a blend ensures that every possible flavour profile is met, heightening the depth and richness of the final product.
- Spices should be toasted before being ground and added to the chilli. Spices benefit from being toasted since it brings forth their full potential in taste. Once the grinding process is complete, any more toasting will have little effect other than to kill off any remaining tastes. Traditional chilli ingredients include cumin and coriander. Star anise and clove can be left entirely if desired, although they give a subtle but noticeable layer of richness.
- Some “umami bombs” like anchovies, soy sauce, and Marmite would be great to include. Again, this isn’t required but adds a lot of flavour to the chilli if you decide to do it.
- Add something effervescent, such as alcohol or vinegar, to the chilli right before serving. Fragrant molecules are more likely to rise to the surface of a liquid and meet your nose there if the liquid is very volatile.
Those who have read the original chilli narrative may have noticed that I have left off key ingredients like chocolate, entire short ribs, coffee, fresh chillies, etc. As I’ve mentioned, the taste of this chilli is less complex so that it doesn’t overpower the burger, and skipping a lot of the more time-consuming processes makes for better burger chilli overall. The chilli produced using chilli powder held its own against the chilli made with dried chiles when used as a topping for burgers. The situation is less than ideal but workable.
Fried in Butter
To begin making chilli, you must first reduce the rawness of the onions and garlic and bloom the ground spices to extract their flavour and spread it throughout the fat that will serve as the stew’s flavour basis.
The best chilli takes at least three hours to simmer to a deep, nuanced flavor, but my burgers were getting cold, so I needed something quick. I utilized a technique I learned from Marcella Hazan’s incomparably easy and excellent recipe for tomato sauce to quickly amp up the flavor of the onion, garlic, and spice basis of my chilli: You may substitute butter for the olive oil.
Even though it’s just a small change, it has a major impact. Her recipe calls for throwing everything into a pot and simmering it all at once, but I found that soaking my onions and garlic in butter made a world of difference. The butter’s sugars and fats accentuate the onions’ natural sweetness. In contrast to olive oil, which can leave a sauce looking like an “oil slick,” vegetable oil is better at forming an emulsion. The contrast in texture and flavor was glaring when compared side by side.
My meat was browned after I cooked down onions and garlic. I added toasted ground cumin, coriander, star anise, and clove and let the spices blossom (I figured real ground beef would form a smoother, saucier chili than the beef chunks I generally prefer). Then, I topped everything up with chicken stock, simmered it for about an hour, and added some chopped anchovies, a can of tomato paste, and my rehydrated, puréed peppers. I finished it with whisky and a tablespoon of Frank’s Red Hot, which has a vinegary kick.**
The end outcome wasn’t all that horrible. It’s excellent. In terms of taste, it was perfect. exquisitely nuanced and subtly spicy. But it was a total disaster in terms of texture. The sauce was very watery, which made the burger a soggy mess, and the meat was still in pretty big pieces.
Even in the name of wonderful cuisine, the idea of blending it into a beef milkshake quickly dissipated from my mind. There has to be a more efficient approach to achieving the desired texture.
Given that some cuts of beef tend to toughen during the browning process and then refuse to break down while simmering, I decided to make the dish without browning the meat beforehand. I flipped the traditional order of things by putting the meat into the chilli liquid while it simmered rather than the other way around. This method has precedent; in Cincinnati Chili, a regional variety of chilli, ground beef is simmered in chilli sauce before being served onto the spaghetti.
Ed Levine often uses the term “cosmic oneness” to describe the unity of the crust and the chicken in a perfect fried chicken.
Despite my best efforts, I had even less success with this second batch. Ed Levine frequently uses the term “cosmic oneness” to describe the point at which a truly superb fried chicken entrée’s crust and chicken become one. The same concept applies to chilli: the best versions have a symbiotic interaction between the meat and the sauce that brings out the best in both.
However, this batch was the complete antithesis: it consisted of tiny pieces of wormy-looking cooked beef surrounded by a gloppy sauce. However, I was not ready to give up on the no-brown approach.
Using a Set of Whisks
Scrambled eggs can go one of two ways. Fluffy eggs with big, soft curds may be achieved by rapid cooking with constant swirling and folding with a spatula. However, if you cook the eggs low and slow while whisking constantly, you’ll get eggs with a texture similar to custard. The consequences of using the same substances in a slightly different method vary greatly.
What if the same thing occurred with my beef? There isn’t much distinction between a pan of eggs and a pot of liquidy ground beef. They’re both largely water with some unprocessed protein floating around in there. What determines the final quality is how these proteins are set. Proteins can form huge clumps if they can solidify and link together quickly with minimum disruption. Ideally, you would slow-cook them while stirring so that they shrank in size.
It was a risk worth taking.
Like last time, I began this batch of chilli by sautéing onions and garlic before adding the rest of the seasonings, such as spices, tomato paste, and chillies. On the other hand, I cooled the pot’s contents much more quickly by adding half of the chicken stock before adding the meat. After taking it off the heat, I added the meat and whisked it into the liquid until it formed a smooth slurry. This was not a pleasant sight, but I hoped my gamble would pay off in the end.
After adding the remaining chicken stock (it was too challenging to get the beef to break down smoothly when adding all of it while mixing the beef), I placed the pot on the heat and brought it to a boil while whisking continually. The meat had been reduced to fine crumbs, and the chilli had an unheard-of degree of consistency.
The flavours came into focus after boiling for 75 minutes, but the texture wasn’t quite there. Even though the meat was tender and easy to chew, the sauce was watery.
For help, I reached for my go-to chili thickener:
Maseca is a lime-processed dehydrated maize meal used to produce tortillas, tamales, and other similar foods. Excellent thickener. It adds depth and body, as well as a nutty flavour. Compared to a flour roux, this one doesn’t require any reduction time before being mixed with liquid. You may mix equal quantities of cold water to make a slurry and add it to your stew.
After another minute or so, my chilli had reached the perfect consistency for topping a burger or hot dog without running all over the place when you take a mouthful.
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