Chili is a controversial topic. Living in Chicago, we hear non-stop about pizza and hot dogs, the variations are great and regional – New York vs. Chicago vs. New Haven pizza. Dirty water Hot Dogs vs. Chicago Style vs. Detroit Coney Dog, so I am no stranger to controversial foods.  For chili, some people include beans, others do not; some include tomato, others do not. Some people (and I am talking to you, Cincinnati) combine spaghetti, cinnamon, chili, shredded cheese, diced onions, and beans. With full disclosure, I grew up on, what my mother called, “chili soup” which I still believe to be a combination of ground beef, kidney beans, spaghetti, tomato sauce and a light sprinkling of McCormick chili powder from the same can that is still in the lazy Susan. While I prefer some versions over others, I don’t judge (OK, I judge a little, but only in private) which are valid. If you like it, good for you and for the chili.

My adventures in chili-making started long before I started taking cooking remotely seriously. I had an idea of what I liked and what I didn’t at that time. What I liked, at that time, was beating the eaters over the head with heat and including booze and chunks of beef. What I didn’t like, at the time, was including beans, pasta, and ground beef. There were no tricks or techniques. Dump and stir.

In my neighborhood at the time, which is now overrun with strollers and condo conversions, there was a market where you were seriously advantaged if you spoke Spanish and their fresh chili section included a dozen varieties that I had never seen. I experimented with varieties and more often chose by color and size, but remained steadfastly intent on making the eater sweat.

My methods have evolved over the years. Some things stay the same. I still do not like ground beef, I still eschew beans, and I still like a little beer in the chili (although I have stopped dumping bourbon and tequilla in it). I have moved away from the intense heat of fresh chilis and towards subtle heat and depth of flavor provided by dried chilis. I still use chunks of beef, but prefer to have much of it be smoked. This happened by happenstance. I had smoked a 16 lb. brisket and had tons of leftovers. Instead of sandwiches, I chose to cut it up and add it to the chili. It really worked well, so I kept it.

In this version, I have gone a step in the draconian direction. For the first time in my chili-making, there is no tomato. There is no oil, only rendered beef bacon fat to help get the beef bacon and sirloin started. The restrictions made it fun and the chili was delicious, but to me, as a Midwesterner, it was odd keeping any trace of tomato out of it.

There was beauty in its simplicity though with only beef, onions/garlic, spices, chilis, and liquid producing a distinctly beefy chili with a subtle heat that you didn’t miss, but didn’t get clubbed with either. Admittedly, I was nervous that instead of serving a bowl of red, I would be serving a bowl of brown. Not exactly appetizing, but the deep brick-red color came out after the fourth hour of cooking.

In place of the typical chuck, I started with think cross-cut Dietzler bone-in shanks. I, then, removed the marrow bones, tied the shanks to ensure even cooking, and then hot smoked the shanks until they reached 140 degrees (which took about 5 hours). Next, I cooled them overnight and cut them into 1/2″ cubes.

As mentioned above, I started the cooking with rendered beef bacon fat and beef bacon. The smokey and salty qualities in the bacon, I thought, would add to the smokiness in the shanks and some of the smoked chilis and it did. The chili had a nice smokiness without tasting like a charcoal briquette. Additionally the bacon from the navel, the fresh sirloin, and the smoked shank would provide some textural contrast in the chili since the only other bitable ingredients were minced onion and garlic.

This is where we get into my dried chili obsession. Like baseball cards in my youth and barrel aged beers now, if I see one that I haven’t seen before, I will buy it.With what I have found, I present my chili powder. Like everything about this chili project, I will not give proportions publicly (if you really want to know, email me, but chili is personal and who am I to tell you how to make it — EDIT: I’ll put the recipe for the chili in, but take it as suggestion), but there are seven chilis – some common like the ancho and arbol and a few not like the mulato and morita. The mulato is sweet and almost chocolate like. The morita is like a spicier chipotle. It is smoky and really spicy. It makes a really fiery salsa.

Once the chilis are seeded and toasted, I ground them in a spice grinder and poured the mix through a sieve. Grinding enough chilis to make a pint of powder must have put considerable strain on the grinder as it conked out a few tablespoons short. I echo my recommendation to buy the cheapest coffee grinder and just bank on replacing it every few years. I have burned out more than my fair share and the price generally does not make a difference.

Next, after melting the rendered beef fat, I crisped the bacon, then browned the sirloin, and finally cooked the onion and garlic in the dutch oven with the meat. I added half of the chili powder and all of the cumin, marjoram, and oregano and cooked the mixture until the onions were translucent. I then added the Smoked Rye Ale from the Unplugged series by New Glarus. Once only a little of the liquid remained, I added beef stock, the smoked shanks, and the remaining chili powder.

Finally I covered the dutch oven, turned the heat to low and simmered the chili for four hours, stirring every hour of so. Since I had used some really gelatinous beef stock, I did not need to thicken the chili much, but I used a few tablespoons of masa harina mixed with some chili then added back to the dutch oven to cook for another 3o minutes. I was left with some seriously thick chili that I rested overnight before serving.

This chili was different from chilis that I have made in the past, there was no tomato-based sweetness and the beefiness of the chili was strong. The dried chilis provided a nice, strong heat, but not one that required  sour cream, yogurt, or cheese. The flavor really developed nicely overnight and was complex. The textures were interesting – crispy cubes of beef bacon, sirloin that had a little chew, but stayed cubic, and the smoked shank which with a low and slow smoke followed by essentially a braise were tender and nearly fell apart. I am not sure if, when I make chili next, I will add tomato, but I would not change much from this formula.


  • 4 lb. Beef Shank, deboned, smoked, and cubed
  • 1 lb. Beef sirloin, cubed
  • 1 lb. Beef Bacon, cubed
  • 1 1/2 Red Onions
  • 6 cloves Garlic, minced
  • 6 tablespoons Homemade chili powder (see below)
  • 1 tablespoon Cumin
  • 1 teaspoon Dried marjoram
  • 2 teaspoons Dried oregano
  • 1 Bottle Beer
  • 1 quart Beef stock
  • 3 tablespoons Masa harina

My Chili Powder includes:

  • ancho
  • guajillo
  • pasilla
  • chipotle
  • mulato
  • arbol
  • morita

Step one: Crisp the bacon. Remove. Brown the sirloin. Remove. Cook onions and garlic with half of the chili powder and dried herbs until translucent. Add bacon and sirloin back in along with beer. Cook on high.

Step two: Once beer is nearly entirely cooked off, add stock, remaining chili powder, and smoked beef and simmer covered for 4 hours.

Step three: Add a few tablespoons of masa harina to a bowl with a ladle or two of chili. Stir until combined and then add back to dutch oven. Mixing thoroughly. Cook for an additional 30 minutes.

Step four: Chill chili overnight and serve on its own.