Best Ground Beef Chili

I make a great chili, if I must say so myself! And Russ says so too. So when we ran across this recipe in Cooks Illustrated Magazine, I felt a competitive urge to test it against my own. Plus, I was also intrigued about how they treated the ground meat with baking soda prior to cooking it. My curiosity got the best of me…


This chili recipe uses 85 percent lean ground beef for richness and flavor, and employs shockingly small amounts of pureed whole canned tomatoes and pinto beans to create a thick, rich dish. To keep the meat moist and tender, it is treated with salt and baking soda. Both ingredients help the meat hold on to moisture, so it doesn’t shed liquid during cooking. This means that 2 pounds of beef can be browned in just one batch. Finally, the homemade chili powder uses a combination of toasted dried ancho chiles, chipotle chiles in adobo, and paprika, along with a blend of herbs and spices to round it out.

And most importantly, the chili needs to simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours to fully tenderize it. Make sure to stir in any fat that collects on the top of the chili before serving since it contains much of the flavor from the fat-soluble spices in the chile powder. Therefore, skimming the bright orange fat from the finished chili will rob it of flavor. For deep, richly spiced complexity, don’t remove the fat—stir it back in.

This goes against my grain, but we decided to follow the recipe, and the results were a deeply fragrant and intensely flavored chili. Personally I like more beans and some veggies such as red, yellow and/or green bell peppers and sliced mushrooms. So perhaps next time’ I’ll add those ingredients to this basic recipe—or not, because this was indeed a very good chili! I’ll just get my veggie quota from a side salad…

NOTES: Because we did not have regular tortilla chips at home and I was too lazy to run out and buy them, I used Red Hot Blues Tortilla Chips in the processed spice mixture, which in the end I think was a better choice anyway. Next time we make this chili, Russ suggested buying a chuck roast and grinding it ourselves… I guess he thinks we have nothing else to do 😉


Best Ground Beef Chili

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: time intensive
  • Print


  • pounds 85 percent lean ground beef
  • plus 2 cups tablespoons water
  • Salt and pepper
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • dried ancho chile, stemmed, seeded, and torn into 1-inch pieces
  • ounce tortilla chip, crushed (¼ cup)
  • tablespoons ground cumin
  • tablespoon paprika
  • tablespoon garlic powder
  • tablespoon ground coriander
  • teaspoons dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • (14.5-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes
  • tablespoon vegetable oil
  • onion, chopped fine
  • garlic clove, minced
  • 1—2 teaspoons minced canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
  • (15-ounce) can pinto bean
  • teaspoons sugar
  • tablespoons cider vinegar
  • Lime wedges
  • Coarsely chopped cilantro
  • Chopped red onion


  1. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 275 degrees. Toss beef with 2 tablespoons water, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and baking soda in bowl until thoroughly combined. Set aside for 20 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, place anchos in Dutch oven set over medium-high heat; toast, stirring frequently, until fragrant, 4 to 6 minutes, reducing heat if anchos begin to smoke. Transfer to food processor and let cool.
  3. Add tortilla chips, cumin, paprika, garlic powder, coriander, oregano, thyme, and 2 teaspoons pepper to food processor with anchos and process until finely ground, about 2 minutes. Transfer mixture to bowl. Process tomatoes and their juice in now-empty workbowl until smooth, about 30 seconds.
  4. Heat oil in now-empty pot over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 4 to 6 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add beef and cook, stirring with wooden spoon to break meat up into 1/4-inch pieces, until beef is browned and fond begins to form on pot bottom, 12 to 14 minutes. Add ancho mixture and chipotle; cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes.
  5. Add remaining 2 cups water, beans and their liquid, sugar, and tomato puree. Bring to boil, scraping bottom of pot to loosen any browned bits. Cover, transfer to oven, and cook until meat is tender and chili is slightly thickened, 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
  6. Remove chili from oven and let stand, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Stir in any fat that has risen to top of chili, then add vinegar and season with salt to taste. Serve, passing lime wedges, cilantro, and chopped onion separately. (Chili can be made up to 3 days in advance.)

Toasting torn ancho chili pieces.

Cooking the chopped onion and garlic.

Browning the meat in the onion mixture.
Added the ancho chili and spice mixture to browned meat.

Just prior to cooking in oven for 2 more hours.

A small taste test before putting into oven.

The chili after cooking in oven for two hours on low heat.

We wanted to test the taste difference before, and then again after the chili cooked in the oven for a couple of hours. And not surprisingly, the fully cooked chili had a discernible depth of flavor intensity that the earlier chili did not possess.

Diced avocado, sour cream, and shredded Monterey Jack or cheddar cheese are also good options for garnishing. This chili is intensely flavored and can be served with tortilla chips and/or plenty of steamed white rice—although we enjoyed it with just a smattering of red onion and fresh cilantro.

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