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A Genius Chili Secret From a Cook-Off Queen

A bowl of chili topped with a dollop of cream.
Rocky Luten

The conundrum of any comforting, stewy, ground meaty recipe—whether it’s chili or bolognese or the heroic bobs of sausage in an Italian wedding soup—is that the very move that makes the meat most delicious (getting it toasty-brown) also squeezes out its moisture, making it dry and tough and questionably worth the simmer time.

There are a couple common solutions: either gogogo fast! hot! then get outta there!(as in a smash burger), or go loooong. and looow. please do not brown. please find your flavor elsewhere (as in Marcella Hazan’s classic slow-simmered bolognese).

But caterer, food stylist, and cook-off queen Jenn de La Vega has a genius trick that creates that mythical best of both worlds: ground meaty mixes that are both flavorful and tender. The meat falls to small, silky bits rather than dry clumps, mimicking the effect of long, low cooking in moments. Even with ample browning, there’s no harm done—and the meat stays that way after hours of simmering.

The trick, which I first spotted in Jenn’s cookbook Showdown Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ, was inspired by James Beard’s favorite hamburger recipe, in which he folds a bit of heavy cream into the burger mix before cooking. But Jenn did him one better, and really soaked her ground beef in a tiny amount of cream (only two tablespoons per pound), along with some reconstituted ancho chiles, for four hours or overnight.

A spoon full of cream poised over a bowl of raw ground beef and chopped peppers.
Rocky Luten

Here’s how I know the cream soak made all the difference: To be completely sure it wasn’t one of the other thrilling ingredients or steps in this recipe (cocoa powder! spice dump!), I did a classic A/B/C/D test on four portions of the same ground beef, as follows:

A: marinated with heavy cream for 4 hours
B: marinated with yogurt for 4 hours
C: mixed with heavy cream right at the end
D: no special treatment (the control, for all my fellow scientists)

None were salted or otherwise seasoned. All were cooked in a rainbow of cute matching Dansk pots over the most even heat I could muster on a home-grade halogen stove with burners of varying sizes (I calibrated by flicking a bit of water in and comparing the sizzle—not my most science-y moment).

But after tasting, and then going ahead and eating a surprising amount of unseasoned ground beef, the differences were striking. The cream- and yogurt-soaked versions were virtually indistinguishable—both of the meats had visibly broken down and were much softer going into the pan, and more evenly nubbled and luscious in the end. Both of the unsoaked versions seized up, squeezed out their fat, and browned in large clumps. The mouthfeel was dry and spongy; the flavor exactly like every overcooked hamburger you’ve ever had.

There are lots of examples of this phenomenon of lactic acid helping tenderize meat, especially when it comes to yogurt or buttermilk, which bring with them their own extra fermented acid and microbes—from Samin Nosrat’s famed buttermilk roast chicken to yogurty marinades for tikka and kebabs across South Asia.

But until now, little attention has been paid to the fact that cream has the same benefits for meat, though in an even gentler way, with its lower pH.

On and around a cutting board: ground beef, dried red beans, cocoa powder, an open can of crushed tomatoes, a dried pepper, garlic cloves, a chopped onion, and a knife.
Rocky Luten

For the food science at work here, I won’t be able to do a better job than this interview with Ted Russin, the dean of the Culinary Institute of America’s food science program, in Popular Science:

A chemist by training, Russin says he thinks of meat as a gel, “a wad of water held in a protein matrix.” Yogurt and buttermilk both contain acids that break down that protein wall. As the meat becomes more acidic, it can absorb more moisture. Think of it like a dry sponge that gets soft and squishy once you add water. At the same time, the acidity of dairy speeds up chemical reactions. This makes it easier for enzymes already present in the meat to break down proteins from the inside out. It also leads to the breakdown of collagen, which is what gives meat—and living skin tissue—its rigid structure, Russin says. An acidic marinade thus softens meat by increasing its water content and breaking down its structure.

Best of all, though Russin notes that lactic acid won’t travel very deep into big cuts of meat without more aggressive moves like injecting or “vacuum-tumbling,” it has no problem working its magic on the finer pieces of ground beef. (See: irrefutable A/B/C/D results above.)

So anywhere you use ground meat, think about giving it a little heavy cream (or, sure, yogurt or buttermilk) bath first—Jenn uses the same technique in other mixes, like burgers and meatloaves and meatballs, too.

But our cook-off queen chili is a very good place to start.

Cocoa Coriander Chili From Jenn de la Vega

Serves 6.

1 pound (450 g) dry red beans
1 dried ancho chile
1 pound (0.5 kg) ground beef
2 tablespoons (30 ml) heavy cream
Olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, grated
⅛ cup (15 g) cocoa powder
½ tablespoon (5 g) coriander seeds, toasted and crushed
1 tablespoon (10 g) masa harina (see Note)
Salt
1 bay leaf
1 smoked ham hock (see Note)
4 plum tomatoes, chopped (feel free to use canned whole peeled, chopped)
2 small Jamaica or Scotch Bonnet peppers, chopped (see Note)
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 quart (950 ml) beef broth
¼ cup (60 ml) plain yogurt
1 bar dark chocolate

See the full recipe on Food52.

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