As I was jotting down the ingredients I used in this chili, I almost felt that I should put an asterisk next to every spice ingredient. Taste is subjective, and it seems no culinary divide is greater than the one created by spicy heat. Some people love it (hear, hear), some can’t tolerate it at all and others want a little kick as long as they don’t feel too much burn.
If you make some version of this chili, use the level of heat that makes sense for you and whomever else you’re feeding. My husband and I are so much on the same page when it comes to heat, and we are quick to admit, we want a little burn. We might pay a price for it tomorrow, but that’s a consequence we will be willing to accept. Every. Single. Time. If you’re shaking your head “no,” you might find some of the spice notes helpful for adjusting the amounts to your personal taste, while still enjoying plenty of flavor.
Made of dried and smoked jalapeno chiles, this is a smoky-style, medium heat spice. I usually don’t even think of this spice as being “hot,” because I’m mainly captivated by the smoke. But it does bring some heat, so if you’re squeamish, skip this one and look at ancho or cumin instead.
This spice is made from seeds, not chile peppers, and it’s common to various Latin cuisines as well as some Indian and Northern African cooking. The flavor is warm and gently smoky. “Comforting” is a good word for this spice. I adore it in fried breakfast potatoes, and it finds its way into every kind of chili I make. Cumin doesn’t have heat, but it plays so nicely with hot spices, it’s never far off in recipes with chile spices.
No doubt, this is a speecy-spicy one! Cayenne is a long, skinny red pepper, the variety used widely in Cajun cuisine, and the main ingredient in popular bottled hot sauces, including Tabasco and Frank’s original “red hot” sauce, as well as Texas Pete, which doesn’t hail from Texas, but Winston-Salem, NC (go figure). It’s not as hot as habanero or ghost peppers (not even close on the Scoville heat scale), but it’s fair warning to say that if you can’t stand the heat, you should get the heck out of cayenne’s kitchen.
Made of dried and smoked poblano chiles, this one has a little heat, but is mainly smoky and fruity, especially if the seeds are removed before grinding it into powder. Ancho chiles are a favorite of celebrity chef Bobby Flay, who puts it in nearly everything. It’s a very balanced chile flavor, and though it isn’t listed as an ingredient in my chili for hot dogs, you might find it a good substitute for the chipotle if you like smokiness and peppers with a little less kick.
This is an overly general name for a spice that varies a great deal from bottle to bottle. Some paprika is smoked, some is sweet, some is hot—it’s just all over the place. If you do an online search for “what pepper is used for paprika,” you’ll find everything from red bell pepper to cayenne, so it’s clearly a bit of a gamble. The variety I used in this recipe is specifically labeled “sweet Spanish paprika,” and I appreciate that because it helps me know what to expect. It is light and kind of fruity, with the tiniest amount of smoke (probably on the red bell pepper end of the paprika spectrum), and it adds bright color and a pleasant sweet pepper flavor without bringing heat. A bottle labeled “hot Hungarian paprika” would turn this chili into something totally different, so take notice of the differences.
Wait, what about plain old “chili powder?”
Frankly, my dear, there is no such thing. “Chili powder” is a generic term used by every spice company out there, and what’s in it is anyone’s guess. Sure, you could look at the label ingredients, but they are usually suspiciously vague—a blend of “red chile powder” (okay, but which chile?), herbs and spices (again, which ones?), plus a whole lotta salt and usually some other unnecessary ingredients with long, unpronounceable names. Personally, I don’t touch the stuff because it presumes to know what my flavor and sodium levels should be. I’ll decide what goes into my chili, thank you very much, and hopefully this quick little chili tutorial will empower you to do the same.
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 lb. lean ground meat*
1/2 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar or red wine vinegar
1/4 cup water*
8 oz. can tomato sauce
Kosher or sea salt to taste
1/2 tsp. each ground black pepper, ground chipotle, cumin, sweet paprika, garlic powder, onion powder
1/4 tsp. ground cayenne pepper, if you’re living on the edge
For this batch of chili, I used 90% lean ground bison. Beef is an easy go-to, and it would also be just fine with ground turkey.
Feel free to substitute beer for the water, if you wish, as my husband does with his famous Super Bowl chili. (I hope that wasn’t a secret, Babe!)
Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Swirl in olive oil, then add ground meat, onions, vinegar and water all together. Cooking the meat in the water rather than browning it first will result in the fine texture that’s perfect for topping a hot dog. Stir the meat mixture frequently as it cooks, until the water has completely evaporated. Season with salt and pepper, then add tomato sauce and spices. Cook and stir several more minutes, until liquid reduces and chili thickens to your liking. I like this kind of chili to be on the thicker side, so it stays on the dog without making the bun soggy.