The “authentic” chili debate includes such spicy topics as: whether or not beans deserve a home in the stew; what type of beef you should include (ground or diced?); and exactly how guilty you should feel for using store-bought spices and paste (who wants to invest the time and elbow grease grinding a fresh paste from dried chilies?).
Rarely, if at all, does alcohol enter the conversation, and when it does, most recipes usually point to using dark beers or, occasionally, red wine in the mix. Yes, chili can absolutely be improved with alcohol, but as a former chef and forever chili enthusiast, my advice is to forget beer and wine and pick up a bottle of bourbon.
Having cooked virtually every booze-spiked stew you can probably imagine, from beef bourguignon to coq au vin to beef carbonnade, I know my way around a dutch oven. And while I don’t hail from the American South (nor even America — gasp!), I’ve found that the problem with beer and wine in chili is that they add far too much richness to a dish that’s already loaded with spice, chopped tomatoes, and beef juices. Top that with the fact it’s usually accompanied by a carb- or starch-rich side, and you’ve got yourself a one-way ticket to a food coma.
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Bourbon is by no means a popular option — search any number of variations of the term “cooking chili with bourbon” on Google, and you’ll return a handful of dated blog entries at best — but the logic is sound and experts agree the spirit does a better job.
“The reason I like to add bourbon is that it adds a lot of very complementary spice notes to chili,” says Ouita Michel, a James Beard Award-nominated chef who owns eight restaurants across Kentucky. “It has cloves, peppercorn, cinnamon, aspects of vanilla, cocoa, coffee, and dry sweet spices … and they help with the sweetness of the dish.”
For the past 11 years, Michel has also worked as the chef in residence at Kentucky distillery Woodford Reserve. During that time, she helped develop a bourbon-spiked chili recipe that became so popular, she’s introduced it in her own restaurants.
“We easily sell a hundred gallons of chili in a week. Maybe it’s sometimes even a little bit more,” Michel says.
There are two conventional methods for cooking with any spirit in the kitchen. The first is to use it to “deglaze” a pan after the base ingredients for a stew or sauce have caramelized (when they gain color and start to stick to the base). By releasing the sugars from the pan, the bourbon ensures the soon-to-simmer mix doesn’t take on burnt flavors during cooking. But there’s just one downside: The character of the alcohol slowly dilutes while the sauce stews.
The second method introduces the spirit shortly before the dish is ready. In the case of adding bourbon to chili, this provides a “spark and a lift,” Michel says, and helps maintain the character of the whiskey through to the end.
“I think of it like the different grades of olive oil: Some of them you can shallow fry with, and some of them you drizzle at the end without any heat ever touching it,” she explains. “I think about bourbon as a finishing flavor.”
Of course, you can also opt to do both — but make sure it’s a bottom-shelf bourbon you’re deglazing with, and save the good stuff for the end.
“It’s not authentic — you might call it a Kentucky American version — but that’s the way we like it in this area of the country,” Michel says.
Chef Ouita Michel’s “Bourbon Trail Chili”
- 1 ½ pound ground beef
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 ½ teaspoons garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried ground sage
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2 green bell peppers, seeded and diced
- ½ cup orange juice
- 3 tablespoons chili powder
- 2 teaspoons bourbon smoked paprika (standard smoked paprika is also fine)
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons minced chipotle pepper in adobo
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 3 cups water or beef broth
- 15 ½-ounce can black beans, well drained
- 15 ½-ounce can Great Northern (large white) beans, well-drained
- ½ cup bourbon, such as Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select
- To garnish: sour cream, shredded cheddar, thinly sliced green onions
- Brown ground beef in a four-quart Dutch oven and season lightly with salt and pepper. Drain off excess fat, remove meat, and set aside.
- Add olive oil to the pan over medium heat. Once the oil is warm (roughly one minute), add minced garlic, oregano, dried sage, onion, and bell peppers. Sauté until the vegetables begin to soften (around five minutes), stirring occasionally so they don’t burn.
- Deglaze pan with orange juice (or cheap bourbon), then add chili powder, smoked paprika, cumin, chipotles, salt, and crushed tomatoes.
- Bring to a simmer. Stir in water or broth, and add beans and browned meat. Simmer for 15 minutes, add bourbon, and simmer for a further 15 to 20 minutes until the stew reaches a thick, hearty consistency.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with sour cream, shredded cheddar, and green onions.