Like spaghetti Bolognese, chilli con carne has become a particularly popular dish in the UK, but the version we’re most used to is so often a bastardised, watered-down version of the original. Believed to have originated in either northern Mexico or Southern Texas, the dish has a rich history and the typical recipe has continued to evolve over hundreds of years. The exact components and techniques for the perfect chilli con carne recipe are also much disputed, commonly the feature of fierce cook-offs in the United States.
A brief history of chilli con carne
Legend has it that the earliest versions of chilli con carne were made by the poorest people, who would cook a kind of hash with almost as many peppers as pieces of meat. The first actual written chilli con carne recipe is believed to have been compiled by Sister Mary of Agreda of Spain, which called for venison or antelope meat, onions, tomatoes, and chilli peppers, yet no accounts of this recipe have been officially recorded. As it is known today, however, the dish is widely believed to have originated amongst Texan adventurers and cowboys as a staple food while travelling during the mid 1800s.
Since then, chilli con carne has become especially popular in Texas, elevated even further by a group of “Chili Queens” who ran a stand in San Antonio during the late 19th century until the 1930s. These “Chili Queens” would serve a dish of dried red chillies slow-cooked with beef, made at home and loaded into colourful chilli wagons to be transported to the Military Plaza Mercado.
Following the invention of chilli powder, chilli con carne was far easier to make and its popularity became far more widespread, regularly served in diners and Texan ‘chili joints’ which popped up all over the state during the depression years, said to have saved more people from starvation than the Red Cross, thanks to cheap chilli con carne and free crackers.
Beans and tomatoes?
Today, the standard, perfect chilli con carne recipe comprises a mixture of chillies, beef, and optional extras such as onions, garlic, and spices such as cumin. The popular inclusion of beans (a staple of Tex-Mex cuisine) and tomatoes are still often frowned upon by chilli enthusiasts, however.
This recipe does forgo beans, but they can be added towards the end of the cooking process, if desired. A small amount of tomato is also used alongside a simple homemade chilli paste, which comprises a selection of chillies with distinctive flavours. I’m particularly fond of using a blend of Ancho, Pasilla, Chipotle, and Arbol chillies, but you can use ready-made chilli paste, just one chilli variety, or even experiment with your own blend, tailoring the chilli paste to personal preferences.
Beef is also at the recipe’s core, with a 2:1 ratio of braising meat such as chuck or brisket cut into chunks, and minced beef, ultimately creating an interplay of texture. The beef is also cooked in lard, to ramp up the meaty flavours. Serve with rice, fries, jacket potatoes, or nachos, plus optional accompaniments such as cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and salsa.
Chilli con carne recipe
- Dutch oven or large, heavy-based saucepan with lid
For the chilli paste*
- 2 Ancho chillies dried
- 2 Pasilla chillies dried
- 1 Chipotle chilli dried
- 1 Arbol chilli dried
For the chilli con carne
- 1.2 kg beef such as chuck, brisket, or other slow-cooking cut, cut into ½-1 inch chunks
- 600 g beef mince
- 1 large onion diced
- 6 cloves garlic crushed
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tbsp smoked paprika
- 1 tbsp ground cumin
- 3 tbsp tomato puree
- 100 ml lager ideally something Mexican, such as Modelo or Corona
- 1 litre beef stock
- Sea salt
- Lard or neutral oil such as vegetable oil or rapeseed oil
- Fresh coriander (optional) to garnish
- Start by making the chilli paste. Remove the stems and seeds from the dried chillies and tear into small pieces. Add the chillies to a small pan and dry roast on the hob, over medium-low heat, for 3-5 minutes until fragrant but not smoking.
- Add just enough water to cover the chillies, bring to the boil, then cover the pan and turn off the heat. Steep for at least 10 minutes, then transfer the rehydrated chillies and water to a blender and pulse until smooth. This may yield more chilli paste than you’ll need for this recipe, but it can be reserved in a tightly sealed jar, the fridge, for a few weeks.
- While the chillies are steeping, add some lard or a splash of oil to a Dutch oven or large, heavy-based pan and heat until shimmering. Add the beef chunks in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan and brown all over. This should take around 3-5 minutes per batch.
- Once browned, remove the beef with a slotted spoon and set aside while you brown the next batch, followed by the minced beef, using a spoon or spatula to break it up as it cooks. Once browned, set aside.
- In the same pan, add the chopped onion and cook over a medium heat until soft and lightly coloured. Add the garlic, quickly followed by the cinnamon, ground coriander, dried oregano, smoked paprika, ground cumin, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook for one minute, stirring often, then add the tomato puree and continue to stir. Cook for another minute or two, but avoid burning the garlic.
- Add the lager to the pan to deglaze and stir occasionally. Increase the heat and cook until the beer has reduced by around two-thirds. Return the meat to the pan alongside 200-350ml of the chilli paste, dependent on taste, remembering you can add more at a later stage, if need be.
- Stir to combine, then add the beef stock to the pan and bring to the boil. Partially cover the pan, reduce the heat and simmer until the beef is tender and the liquid has thickened – between 2-3 hours. Stir occasionally, and taste for seasoning during the final hour. Add more salt or chilli powder if necessary.
- Once cooked, serve with either rice, fries, jacket potatoes or nachos and optionally garnish with chopped coriander and other accompaniments such as sour cream, cheese, salsa, and guacamole.
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