Making Smokehouse Chili

Smokehouse Chili

By Mark Hinds | Updated May 20, 2021

It’s hard for me to think of anything better than a warm bowl of chili on a cold winter day.  In our house I make a batch every few weeks during the winter, sometimes it’s for lunches, sometimes for friends, and sometimes to freeze for those really busy weeks during broomball, when it’s all about quick, hearty meals.

My favorite chilies are ones with deep smoky flavors, interesting textures, and just a little bit of heat.  The challenge is how to get that deep smoky flavor into a dish that is traditionally cooked on a stove.

I’m a big believer that good chili is built from the ground up by making sure you’re picking ingredients that will add depth of flavor and texture to the dish at each step.  This means thinking about what you’re going to put in the pot and not just throwing in a can or two of whatever you had saved up in the back of the cupboard for the apocalypse.

A good smokehouse chili, should somewhat obviously, have a smoky flavor to it.  What separates smokehouse chili from other chilies is how the smoke adds an additional layer of flavor that brings out the natural flavors in the beef, beans, and chilies.  Think about it this way, we’ve all had ok ribs cooked in the oven, they can have great texture, a nice appearance, even good flavor, but now think about how they compare to ribs cooked in a smoker for ten hours and about what the smoke brings out in the ribs.

How to Add Smoke to Your Chili

There are a couple of ways to add a smoky flavor to your chili.  The simplest is to add liquid smoke, which will start building a smoky flavor, and is a nice addition to most chili, but doesn’t bring the same thing to the party as real smoke does.  Another way you can add a smoky flavor to your chili is to add a BBQ or hot sauce to your mixture that already has a smoky flavor to it.

Our Smokehouse Chili recipe uses both of these methods as complementary pieces to the addition of real smoke to make sure every bite hits the mark.  Over the years I’ve tried a number of different ways to add smoke to chili.  This includes using my backyard smoker to smoke the meat before grinding, to smoking the meat after it’s been cut up to be ground, sometimes I’ll even include the vegetables in the smoking process.

As I’m writing this, I’m thinking about what I haven’t tried (yet) like sticking the whole mixture to simmer in the smoker, getting a giant Co2 system to blow smoke bubbles into the depths of the pot, or cooking it over an open fire.  I’m also thinking about making a chili out of pulled beef pot roast and short ribs that have been smoked all day.  All of which may seem like overkill during a cold Minnesota winter, but do sound like things I would may do.

The method that works and is the easiest to do is to lightly smoke the beef after it’s been ground.  This lets you grind the meat when it’s really cold, which gives you a better grind and doesn’t add too many steps or mess to the smoking process.

This smoking process will of course work with any ground beef.  The reason I like to grind my meat when putting together a really good chili or taking the time to make really good hamburgers is taste and freshness. It helps to be to able to choose the cuts of beef going into the mixture to balance out the amount of fat and flavor in the final mix.  There is also something about the texture and taste of fresh ground beef that makes it stand out compared to frozen or grocery store ground beef.

For this type of chili, I like using sirloin and chuck roast.  The sirloin brings a hearty beef flavor, while the chuck roast brings in more fat and adds a smooth texture to the mix.  If you don’t want to grind your own meat, ask your butcher or buy some from the grocery store at around the 85 percent level, don’t use the super lean by itself.

Before you grind the meat, throw it in the freezer for 15 to 20 minutes while you get your grinder ready.  The closer you can get the meat to freezing, without it being frozen, the better it will grind.  Think about it like a good fall frost, where you walk outside, and the grass crunches softly under your feet.

Once you have the meat ground, lay it out on a piece of foil with the edges crimped on the side to prevent any falling off and put it in a stove-top smoker on low for 30 minutes or so, using hickory or oak to produce the smoke.  After 30 minutes in the smoker, you’ll be ready to brown the meat and get going on making a great chili for a cold winter day.


Smokehouse Chili


Kitchen Aid Grinding Attachment – A simple way to grind meat at home

Stove Top Smoker – a simple and surprisingly effective way to smoke things on your stove

Mark is an experienced food writer, recipe developer, and photographer who is also Umami’s publisher and CEO. A passionate cook who loves to cook for friends, he can often be found in the kitchen or by the grill testing new recipes.

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