If you live in Texas, you have a definite idea of what is and is not chili. The classic version calls for beef and chile peppers, and almost everything after that gets controversial in a hurry. At the opposite end of the scale, some cooks are just happy to throw in a handful of commercial chili powder and call almost anything chili.
Between those extremes, there's a lot of room to improvise and experiment. If you're planning a big pot of chili on Feb. 28 to celebrate National Chili Day, these nine inexpensive chili ingredients can give you a big payoff in flavor without straying too far from the classic taste.
If you're lucky, you'll have some leftover chili to make some epic nachos.
Individual Dried Chile Peppers
Cost: $2.49 per 4 oz.
Classic chili doesn't start with packaged chili powder, but with individual dried chiles of various kinds. Even if you prefer to use a brand of chili powder you already know and love, adding a dried chile or two can elevate the flavors in your dish, according to Food Network Star Bobby Flay, whose famous chili is loaded with peppers.
Just toast the leathery peppers briefly in a skillet until they're aromatic, then soak them in hot water until they're soft. Remove the seeds and stems, then puree them in a blender with a little bit of water so they form a paste. Add the paste to your chili right at the beginning, when it's just starting to cook. New Mexico, cascabel and ancho chiles are all good choices, providing lots of flavor without overwhelming heat.
Freshly Ground Cumin
Cost: $2.98 per 0.95 oz.
Generally, you should buy generic brand spices. But not when it comes to taking your chili to the next level.
Cumin is one of the fundamental flavors in commercial chili powder, but adding more — especially if it's freshly ground — makes it even better. You'll find whole seeds at almost any grocer, though they're cheaper at Latin or Asian markets.
For maximum flavor, toast the cumin for a few minutes in a dry, heavy skillet. This gets a bit smoky, so open a window or do it outdoors on your grill's side burner. Once the cumin cools, grind it in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle and add it to the chili. In a pinch, you can even grind the seeds with a rolling pin or the back of a spoon.
The toasted and fresh-ground spice has a bright, earthy, faintly citrusy flavor that's largely missing when it comes pre-mixed in your chili powder.
Cost: $2.99 per 1.41 oz.
Paprika is another ingredient that adds a bold, fresh flavor to your pot of chili. If you think of paprika only as that rusty-looking stuff sprinkled over deviled eggs as a garnish, cooking with the good stuff will come as something of a shock to you. It's made by drying red peppers and then grinding them to a powder, so it adds a clean, fresh pepper flavor to your chili without the work of soaking and pureeing your own.
The best paprika comes from Hungary and Spain, two countries that embrace it enthusiastically in their cuisine. Buy it fresh in bulk if you can, or in vacuum-sealed cans or jars. You'll see it labeled as hot, smoked or "sweet," which just means it's the not-hot variety. Add sweet paprika to your chili with a generous hand, but use a little more caution with hot or smoked. A little bit of smoky flavor is good, but it's easy to add too much.
Roasted Red Pepper Purée
Cost: $2.76 for a 16 oz. jar
If good paprika proves hard to find in your area, roasted sweet peppers provide another way to round out the flavor of your chili. You can make your own by roasting the peppers in a hot oven until they collapse, then peeling and seeding them. Alternatively, just pick up a can of roasted red peppers from your local supermarket. The end result will be pretty similar.
Once the peppers are ready, purée them in your blender or food processor and add them to the pot. They bring moisture, body and a fruity flavor to your chili, just as tomatoes do, but they're less likely to provoke a reaction from any "chili snobs" who happen to be present.
Cost: $3.29 per lb.
Ordinary ground beef isn't the most exciting stuff to make your chili from. It works, but it doesn't pack a lot of beefy flavor. Basing your chili on larger pieces of meat means each bite will taste beefier, and do better at holding its own against the other flavors in your bowl. It's an easy upgrade, and might not even cost any more.
There are two straightforward ways to do this. One is to start with a piece of chuck, rather than ground beef, and cut it into bite-sized pieces to start your chili. The other is to use a special, coarser version of ground beef. In some parts of the country it's readily available in the meat case, packaged as "chili-grind" beef. Otherwise you'll have to ask the butcher to grind it for you specially, using the coarsest die on his grinder. The price should be about the same as your regular ground beef.
Oxtail or Short Ribs
Cost: $4.49 per lb.
A second way to "beef up" chili, even if the main ingredient is regular ground beef, is by adding oxtail or short ribs to the pot. They're both tough cuts filled with connective tissue, which means they're chewy, but if you slow cook them they become buttery soft and add lots of body and rich, beefy flavor.
Because they need to cook slowly, it's best to start them ahead of time. Simmer them gently in a slow cooker or low oven heat for three to five hours in a splash of water or beef broth and the same flavorings you'll use in the chili. Once they're done, strain and refrigerate the cooking juices and then set the meat aside. Once it has cooled enough to handle, remove any bones and large pieces of fat and shred the rest. When your chili is nearly done, lift the hardened fat from the cooking juices and then add them, and the shredded beef, to your pot.
Coffee or Instant Espresso
Cost: $3.99 per 2 oz. jar
You'll see lots of recipes that call for adding liquids to your chili, from V8 juice to beer or wine to whiskey and tequila. Some of them work better than others, though your personal taste is the ultimate test. One less-common option that works surprisingly well is coffee. It brings a dark earthiness and a hint of acidity to the chili, and plays very nicely with all the usual spices.
You can use a cup of leftover regular coffee, but espresso is even better. That's easy to arrange if you have a home machine or live near a coffee shop, otherwise you can use the instant variety. You'll usually only need a teaspoon or two of the powder, depending on the size of your batch of chili. You shouldn't taste coffee in the finished chili, so be cautious. You'll know you got it right if your chili has an unidentifiable dark, rich flavor underlying the heat of the peppers.
Best of all, you can recycle or reuse your coffee grounds.
Cost: $2.98 per 12 oz.
Making a pot of exceptional chili means pulling together a large number of bold flavors, and persuading them all to play nicely together. Sometimes all those spices and dried chiles leave your finished product with flavors that don't quite come together the way they should. Many recipes call for adding a small amount of sugar at the end, to help smooth away those rough edges.
Replacing the sugar with molasses isn't as common, but it's an even better alternative if you happen to have some in your cupboard. It's still sweet enough to mellow the flavor of your chili, but also has a hint of acidity to balance the sweetness. Even better, it adds a dark and subtle flavor of its own that will mystify your chili-loving friends. The only downside is that molasses and coffee combined can bring a noticeable bitterness to the chili, so it's best to use only one or the other.
Fresh Lime Juice
Cost: $0.40 each
Densely flavored dishes such as chili are rich and satisfying, but their overall impact can sometimes be a bit heavy on the palate. Some like to tone down the chili with toppings such as cheese or sour cream, but those mute the dish's natural flavors and add lots of calories and fat. Brightening the chili with fresh flavors is often the better alternative.
Some opt for chopped green onions, chives or cilantro on top, and those are all perfectly good alternatives. Even better, consider stirring in a small amount of lime juice immediately before serving the chili. The bright, fresh taste of the lime lightens the chili's flavors but — unlike dairy products — it heightens them instead of muting them. That little hint of acidity helps your palate appreciate each of the flavors in the bowl, rather than experiencing them as a uniform mixture. Fresh is best, so give each guest a small wedge of lime to squeeze over their own bowl.