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My Quest to Duplicate Canned Chili in my Kitchen

I developed a love for canned chili in my college days. It was cheap and convenient — necessary attributes for student food — but, unlike the tuna casserole I ate for the same reasons in those heady days, I never lost my taste for chili from a can. I went to college in the Great Northwest where Nalley’s chili reigns supreme. I still live there. Over the last forty years I have tried Hormel, Stagg, Campbells and many other brands of canned chili but always returned to Nalley’s.

By canned chili, I mean the original Nalley’s chili con carne with beans. Nalley’s, like other brands, offers a product without beans, with cheddar cheese, with jalapeno and turkey chili, but the rock on which the brand is built is Nalley’s original chili con carne with beans. Deeply satisfying, whether on burgers, on hot dogs, or just in a bowl, my pantry is never without it.

The Mystery of Canned Chili

I am a home-cooking geek. I have two sous vide devices, carbon steel pans, a chinois for broth-making, and a ton of other pretentious cooking implements. I sharpen my kitchen knives on a Japanese water stone. In my pantry, I have duck fat, Chinese black vinegar, a pound of dried porcini mushrooms and Red Boat fish sauce. I follow cooking gurus on the web at America’s Test Kitchen, Chef Steps, Serious Eats, and Amazing Ribs. I spend way too much time thinking about and fussing around with food.

One day, for no reason, I began to ponder the mystery of Nalley’s chili. It struck me that what is in those cans doesn’t seem to be chili at all. When I eat it, whether on something meaty or straight from a bowl, I don’t taste the flavors that are traditionally associated with southwestern chili. No chunks of beef, no cumin, or chili powder and certainly no chilies. (Here I distinguish between ‘chili,’ the southwestern American meat dish, and ‘chili,’ the spicy fruit of the genus, Capsicum.) The beans are prominent and the ground meat, if that’s what it is, adds a pleasing texture to the rich brown sauce in which it is submerged. Nalley’s chile consists of beans submerged in a salty, beefy sludge. Whatever it may be, I love that sludge.

Out of this pondering came the challenge. Could I, with all my fancy cooking apparatus and a well-stocked pantry, create in my kitchen the same satisfying flavors that Nalley’s had sealed in a can?

I started with the ingredient list on the label, but as with most manufactured food, it was of little help. All I learned from the can was that the contents had been declared fit for human consumption by some government agency and that the contents will make you fat if you eat too much of it. Commercial food manufacturers have access to ingredients that I can’t get or even pronounce, and they guard their recipes carefully. The label was not going to help me.

So Is it Chili?

Like many chili eaters and Americans in general, I am intimidated by Texas. Texans claim chili as their own and are opinionated about what it should be: no beans, no tomato, just beef and chilies. It is chunks of meat and dried and fresh chiles. I’ve made Texas chili, and, like most things Texan, it never fails to disappoint. Chili is better with beans and tomato. The folks at Nalley’s agree. Their canned chili has beans, a dab of tomato, and, as far as I can taste, no chilies whatsoever.

My first attempts at duplicating canned chili were disasters. The chili wasn’t bad. I ate it. My family ate it. Everybody thought it was good southwestern chili. One of my cousins commented that it was a lot better than the “canned stuff.” Better than the canned stuff was not what I was looking for.

Back to the drawing board, I tasted, pondered, and tasted again. I had the beans down pat. I am a bean guy. I make them all the time, and I know that no matter what type of bean I use, they all taste pretty much the same. Black beans are black, white beans are white, but that is all appearance. Blindfolded, nobody can tell the difference. Any bean is good as long as it is cooked tender. I soak my beans overnight in salt water so they turn tender without splitting. I can match Nalley’s bean for bean.

The meat in Nalley’s chili is ground beef, the standard for the kind of chili one would put on a chili dog, but there wasn’t very much of it. The ground beef gave the sauce tiny lumps, but the flavor was coming from that brown goop. The meat was there for texture.

I threw out my previous conceptions about chili. What was in that can, I surmised was not chili, it was a dish that could be more accurately called “beefy beans.” I liked it. “Beefy beans” sounded like something a bean guy like me would enjoy eating.

Beefy Beans

Beans are little protein nuggets, quite satisfying, but beans need an umami-rich medium in which to bathe. I turned my attention to beefy beans — beans in a beefy sauce — a concerto in which the beef was not the soloist but rather the orchestra.

I opened with a bacon base in the bottom of my high-end Breville pressure cooker to create a porcine base in which to saute my onions, celery, green peppers, and garlic. On top of the aromatics, I bloomed some freshly ground cumin, sweet paprika and a pinch of Penzey’s best chili powder. Then a pound of freshly-ground 80/20 chuck for texture, a bit of beefy flavor and fat. When the hamburger lost its pink — but had not begun to brown — I added one can of diced fire-roasted chopped tomato, enough for umami but not enough to survive the cook in any assertive way. On top of that a pound of brined small red beans. I covered the bean/meat/tomato concoction with homemade beef broth. Yes, I keep homemade beef broth in my freezer for situations like this. Then, came the little additions that would turn the sauce into an umami bomb: a bay leaf, two tablespoons of brown sugar, one tablespoon of good cocoa, a teaspoon of finely ground coffee, a glug of soy sauce for salt, and several grinds of good pepper.

After hours of planning and preparation, and with my ingredient cost easily at twenty bucks, I set the pressure cooker to high, put the timer at ten minutes, and prayed. It took forty-five minutes for the pressure cooker to come to pressure, cook for ten minutes and cool. When I opened it up, the beans were cooked and smooth without being split. I added a half-teaspoon of fish sauce for the last umami hit and cooled a quarter cup of the chili enough to taste and adjust salinity. It needed a pinch or two more of Kosher salt. Two hours later the flavors had melded, and I tasted again. By God, I had done it. There in my pressure cooker was a half-gallon of homemade canned chili.

Testing

I submitted my beefy beans to two sets of testers. The first testers were my redneck relatives for whom Nalley was already the gold standard of what chili was supposed to taste like. To them, I said nothing other than “have some chili I made.” The response was uniformly positive, with one of them declaring that it was the best chili he had ever tasted.

The second set of testers were the foodies I work with. I have to live on 2000 calories a day to stave off fatness, so I eat a small sandwich and one cup of soup, stew or beans for my work-a-day lunches. I make the beans on Sundays, and my co-workers had always responded positively to gifts of a pint of my latest concoction. With these testers as well, I omitted the story about the canned chili and presented the dish as “beefy beans.” This group of testers was as impressed as my in-laws. Their comments centered on attributes like “impressive richness” and “depth of flavor.”

But Why?

Now I make beefy beans often. I have it down pat and can whip out a batch on Sunday afternoon that will keep me in lunches all week plus a little extra for an evening chiliburger when the wife is out of the house. I brag to my friends that with twenty bucks worth of ingredients and five hundred dollars worth of cooking equipment, I can produce a product that one can buy at Groceries-For-Less for eighty-nine cents a can. I suppose I could just buy Nalley’s and eat it when I wanted, but that is not my way. I know what is in my beefy beans, and it is the highest quality ingredients. When I give it to others, I fantasize that it tastes better because it was made with love.

I knew when I took up the challenge to recreate Nalley’s canned chili in my kitchen that it was a silly thing to do. I continue to believe that, and my colleagues mock me for my efforts when I tell them the story. But I had fun along the way. The current cans of Nalley’s chili announce that the company has been at it for a hundred years. To last that long it must be doing something right, and for me that something was worth trying to figure out.


BEEFY BEANS

4 strips bacon

1 Onion

1 stalk celery

1 green pepper

3 cloves garlic, chopped

2 t freshly ground cumin

1t sweet paprika

1t chili powder

1 lb 80/20 ground beef

1 lb small red beans brined overnight

1 can fire roasted chopped tomatoes

3 cups homemade beef or chicken broth (or if you have to use store bought use the best chicken broth you can get)

2 T brown sugar

1 T cocoa

1 t ground coffee

1 t soy sauce

1 bay leaf

½ t fish sauce

1 Soak beans overnight in salted water. Rinse and drain.

2 Cook bacon until fat has rendered. Add chopped onion, celery, green pepper, cumin, paprika and chili powder and saute until vegetables are soft. Add garlic and cook until you can smell it.

3. Add ground beef, break up and cook until it loses its pink. Do not try to brown it.

4. Add brined beans, tomato, and broth. Liquid should be about ½ inch above the solids. Add brown sugar, cocoa, coffee, soy sauce and bay leaf. Pressure cook on high for ten minutes. If not reduced enough at the end of the cook, reduce to desired consistency.

5. Add fish sauce, wait until fish sauce has added its salinity then test for levels of salt and adjust.