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Beer Cooler Chili

My entry at 86'd Monday and the thematic beer cooler (smaller than the one I used for the cooking)

I like competitions. Hell, who doesn’t? I especially enjoy opportunities to be competitive while cooking instead of having to run or throw balls which is often (though not always) a losing proposition. So I was more than happy to say “yes” when Ivy Knight asked me to participate in the 86′d Monday Chili Cook Off at the Drake.

The chili pendulum swings between two extremes. The vast majority of cooks include beans, some other protein, and a reddish-brown sauce. But while some purists won’t allow any other vegetables into their recipe, others take chili as an opportunity to empty their fridges and freezers of such diverse ingredients as eggplant, ground turkey, and peanut butter. For my entry I wanted my creation to be solidly between these two extremes.

Out of curiosity and because I think it delivers better results I cooked the three elements–beans, beef, and sauce–separately. By preparing the sauce first it’s already reduced and concentrated so the meat can be cooked in it in a closed container. (That last point and the post’s title should make for some pretty obvious foreshadowing.) The beans benefit most from the separate cooking because tomatoes and molasses contain acid that would slow their cooking.

I used a variety of chilies for different flavour and levels of heat

I used a variety of chilies for different flavour and levels of heat

For the sauce–yes, I recognise that this isn’t really the best word but it is better than the “non-distinct liquid-ish phase”–I followed the lead of the recipe in the January / February 2011 issue of Cook’s Illustrated and struck a balance between the ridiculous strictures of West Texas Competition Chili (no tomatoes or onions), using strange “secret” ingredients like peanut butter, and the impulse to throw whatever is at hand (zuchinni, eggplant, or tofu) into the pot. I kept pretty close to Andrea Geary’s recipe from CI so I won’t reproduce it here. Pick up a copy or, even better, subscribe to their excellent web site.

I understand the impulse to dump a can of mixed beans into the chili pot. It seems like a tiresome amount of planning to remember to soak your beans overnight and then not worth the trouble to cook them for hours. First, it is worth the trouble–the taste and texture of cooked, formerly-dried beans is far superior to canned–and secondly, I’m here to tell you that dried beans can go from pantry to mouth in about three hours.

My method that can be used for all sorts of bean recipes and was adapted from Cook’s Illustrate and other sources is: place beans (1/2 a pound of picked-over pintos for this chili) in a pressure cooker with about four times as much water, and two tablespoons of kosher salt per liter of water. Turn heat to high and bring water to a boil. You’ll save a couple minutes on this step by engaging the cooker’s locking lid but it’s not strictly necessary. Once a boil is reached, turn heat off and let the pot stand for one hour. The hot water will hydrate the beans more quickly than cold water and the salt will season them and help them to keep their shape during the second cooking stage. Drain the water and add fresh water that covers the beans by an inch or so. Chicken stock can stand in for some or all of the water and I also add half a coarsely-chopped onion, a few lightly-crushed cloves of garlic, a couple bay leaves, and maybe a sprig of thyme or sage. This time it’s important to properly engage your pressure cooker’s lid, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cooking at the higher pressure. Larger beans like these pintos will take about two hours.

Top-notch beef shoulder from Sanagan's

Top-notch beef shoulder from Sanagan's

Now that we have those silly vegetables out of the way the main event: The meat. Peter from Sanagan’s Meat Locker supplied the excellent beef shoulder I used for my chili. I did some minimal trimming to remove the largest chunks of solid fat and divided the beef into four steaks.

In the well-regarded new book Ideas in Food there is a recipe for root beer braised short ribs (obviously the sauce portion of my chili stood in for the root beer) that I thought would work perfectly for the beef shoulder. After the good results I had with steak cooked in a beer cooler I set out to adapt the same sous-vide hack to this recipe. From the Ideas in Food recipe I knew the beef would need about eighteen hours at 149°F. Because hot tap water is in the low 120′s F I used an electric kettle to help fill the beer cooler to about the two-thirds mark.

The large beer cooler I filled with 149F water to cook my chili's beef

The large beer cooler I filled with 149F water to cook my chili's beef

The larger spread between the water temperature (149°F instead of 123°F for steak) and the room temperature (70°F to begin with but the steam from the kettle and heat lost from the cooler pushed the temperature closer to 80°F) meant that I had add more boiling water throughout the day. I probably dumped five full kettle-loads (eight cups) into the cooler at evenly-spaced intervals throughout the day. If your cooler has a draining spout use it to reduce the water by roughly eight cups before making addition so that the boiling water has less cooler volume to heat back to 149°F. I also took greater efforts to insulate the cooler with towels and winter coats.

Andrea, Ben, and Joel's most-delicious entries

Andrea, Ben, and Joel's most-delicious entries

After it came out of the cooler I chilled the meat, quickly seared it in a very hot pan, cut into 3/4-inch cubes, and mixed it with the sauce and cooked beans. The results were excellent–the beer cooler is slightly more effective and convenient for steak this beef was delicious–and I was guardedly optimistic about my chances against Ben Ratcliffe, Joel Solish, and Andrea Toole. Apparently voters were not willing to accept a future of meat cooked in coolers and Ben’s traditional short rib chili and Joel’s that featured Buster Rhino’s smoked brisket tied for first.

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One Comment

  1. [...] has cooked steak in a beer cooler. It’s a really useful technique–I repeated it for a chilli competition I entered–that I’m going to be trying to work other parts of the cow into. If you have [...]

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