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chili meats - ground vs cubed

post #1 of 5
Thread Starter 
I read something that led me to believe that in the Terlingua International Chili Cookoff, people are generally using ground meat. This is the case in local contest here in MI.

However, I found that cubed/diced meat are:
1) used frequently at the International Chili Society Championships
2) specified in the base chili recipe in the “Professional Chef" textbooks
3) specified in "Cook's Illustrated Best Recipes"
For this last one, the author’s tests showed that ground meat gets grainy after stewing.

Personally, I have had very good flavor results preparing from ground meat but not from diced or cubed meat. I thought this may have to do with the thickness of my cubed meat but I’ve varied from ¼” to 1” and have had the same results.

For the dice/cube, I've used chuck and I've tried various ways of cooking tri-tip (as found in recipes while researching #1 above). In both cases, it was very difficult to ensure the meat was not too tough, too chewy, or too gelatinous. Also, I felt that I didn’t get good flavor penetration in the meat from the other components: beer, lime, chili powder or tomatoes.

This being said, I’ve definitely found that near the tail-end of long cookoffs, ground meat breaks down to a grainy texture. Also, ground meat chili doesn’t seem as eye-appealing; nor does it seem to embody the tradition of the dish. It seems to command the need for tortilla chips and other accouterments to make up for the lack of body and texture.

One thing I'd like to try (though breaking tradition) is to make mini-meatballs. These might hold up better than ground meat while still providing the benefit of flavor penetration, fuller mouth-feel, and visual appeal. I think I'd like to try it with beef, sausage and a touch of lamb.

So chefs, cooks and enthusiasts, I am curious what your thoughts and experiences are regarding the use of one of these approaches over the other.

What do you think?
post #2 of 5
I prefer cubed myself, about 1/2 inch in size. That's a finished size so cut it larger to start. It fits on the spoon well and lets some of the rest of the chili be present too. Except for the Mexican chorizo which turns into a bright red puddle of goo when released from its casing. Excellently flavored goo though.

It sounds to me like you're not cooking the cubed meat long enough or low enough. Chili is more stew than soup.

Another good option is to use some meat from a ropa vieja (another stewed meat) which is a tender shred, neither ground nor cubed.

Because chili is best with a longish slow simmer, you need to add ingredients at the right time in the cooking so they all come to completion at the same time. If using the ropa vieja, then it's already cooked tender and flavorful so it should be added late so it doesn't overcook.

If you cook the beans the whole time, they'll turn to mush or break up. That's not all bad, but it should be applied properly. Cook the beans in a flavorful way so that the bean broth can be added to the chili. But also include some beans in the main pot early to break down and texturize the chili. Add the rest of the beans in the last third or so of cooking time so they are pleasantly firm and distinct.

While the beans are doing their thing, prep the vegie base (onions, garlic, chiles, tomatoes if using) with a nice saute and let that simmer along developing flavors.

Also sear off the meat and set aside to add at the right time. If it's a real tough cut of beef, add it early so it can simmer it's way to tenderness. I prefer a mix of meats, some beef, some pork and some chorizo. Each meat brings it's own flavor and texture to the chili.

Nor should every ingredient taste the same in the mouth. It's GOOD that the meat doesn't taste like lime. It should taste like what it is accented with the broth and whatever else is on the spoon. The lime flavor, for example, will cook out of the chili if added anywhere but at the end of cooking. So it's not surprising that the meat doesn't taste like lime.

As to the spicing, Paul Prudhomme likes to add his spices in layers. A spice mix will have a different flavor at different durations of cooking. By adding the mix a little at a time throughout the cooking time, you can bring each of these different flavors of the same spice to the finished dish yielding a more nuanced flavor than if you add it all at once. TASTE as you go so you can recognize these differences and learn what you like. You may end up using a different ratio of spices, some more,some less when cooked this way. So bloom some in the oil when you saute the vegies, and some in the beans as they cook, and as you simmer and combine the different ingredients.

post #3 of 5
I always use cubed. Sometimes chuck, but more often I use tri-tip because it's relatively lean but still has enough fat to get nice and tender.

You definitely need to cook cubed meat slowly, for a long time to get the right texture and to ensure all the chili flavors permeate the meat. Mine cooks at least half the day stovetop, and all day in a slow cooker.

Another critical step is to brown the cubes before adding all the other ingredients. Brown them very well, in olive oil (or some such) over high heat. Don't crowd the pan or it will boil instead of searing.

If you still feel like the meat isn't taking on enough of the chili flavors, try marinading it for several hours before browning. A simple mixture of beer, salt, pepper and minced garlic works fine. Strain the meat, and pat it dry well before putting into the hot pan. Save the marinade for the chili.
Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.
-M.F.K. Fisher
Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.
-M.F.K. Fisher
post #4 of 5
As a spectator at the 2001 Terlingua Chili cookoff, I seem to recall that most meats were cubed rather than ground. I myself prefer about 1/4" cubes. Gives a better texture than bigger ones, and still nicer than ground.

The discussion of beans is irrelevant to Terlingua and many other chili competitions, since they are completely banned as an ingredient in these venues.

Personally, I like 'em in chile, so I'll never make it to Terlingua as a contestant. :o


Be sure to try the Gebhardt's Chili Powder ;)
travelling gourmand
travelling gourmand
post #5 of 5
I like a nice compromise between the two. I take chuck and cube it to about 1/2 inch, then put it on a cutting board and rough chop it so that I have a mix of sizes. This way you can form your colloidal suspension with the small bits, but still have the body of the larger chunks. Low and slow until the meat is tender.

I also agree with the layering of spices. It really creates depth of flavor and complexity.

Knowing how you feel about chiles Merriman, you should pick up a book called On The Chile Trail by Coyote Joe. I bought it last year and absolutely love it. It covers the history and use of chiles from Louisiana to California. Great information and recipes. Very traditional.
It's Good To Be The King!
It's Good To Be The King!
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