December 6, 2018
There’s Only One Day to Eat Chili: The Next Day

And here’s how you can add a little extra spark on day two or three.

For as long as we’ve been cooking chili, we’ve been making it ahead of time. In the 18th century—in what is now San Antonio, Texas—women known as “chili queens” sold the spicy meat stew in public plazas to hungry Spanish soldiers. In the 1840s, traveling cowboys packed dried bricks made from beef pounded with chile peppers, spices, and fat for their long journeys. They could be easily rehydrated and reheated along the way.

But even for home cooks today who aren’t hungry soldiers or roving cowboys, day-old chili has a big advantage over a batch pulled directly from the stove: It just tastes better. As a contender and judge of a series of Brooklyn cooking competitions called the Takedowns over the last decade, I’ve seen dozens of chilis, soups, stews, and meaty pasta sauces mature and blossom into beautiful foods after a rest in the fridge overnight. The little bit of extra time allows flavor to soak into the meat, while the mixture develops a thicker, more sumptuous texture.

There’s some quick science going on here: Aromatics like onions, garlic, chiles, and spices release their volatile oils as they cook, and while they cool they continue to release. Meats release collagen as they cook, but when they cool down, they gelatinize and trap more of those aromatics. The two big caveats here are that over time, the chili tends to lose some of its moisture, and spices like cumin lose potency and become rounded and more mellow.

For a home cook, the way to be a good leftover great might be as simple as a dash of hot sauce. But in the chili cook-off universe, these hacks run the gamut, from “dumps” of spices at various stages of cooking to extra MSG with powdered bouillon to liquid floats of bourbon or punchy broth. I’ve found that folding in chopped cilantro stems during the reheating process adds freshness and a bit of crunch.

“When I was making chili in college, I wanted it to last a week. The last bowl was always better than the first,” remembers Matt Timms, the creator of the Takedowns cook-off. At the helm of the Takedowns, he’s heard of plenty of entrants starting their batches the night before the competition. He remembers seeing one revived the next day with a last-minute addition of habanero watermelon juice.

Another veteran of the Takedowns is Mike O’Neil. In the past, when he made chili for a lot of people, he made it ahead of time and chilled it. But when it was time to serve, he found the fat had often congealed. “It was kinda disgusting to scoop,” he says. His solution was to reheat it with a bottle of Ommegang Rare Vos. Adding beer loosened up the clumpy texture and, as it reduced, imparted a touch of malty acidity.

I’ve even heard of some chili fans leaving cauldrons of chili out overnight to “ferment” (a bit of a misnomer for the flavor-melding—not fermentation—that’s actually taking place). But to prevent an outbreak of clostridium perfringens (a nasty bout of food poisoning), you should make sure your chili mellows at a temperature either below 40°F degrees (that is, refrigerated) or above 140°F degrees. Tex-Mex-pert and author of The Chili Cookbook Robb Walsh points out one exception to leaving your chili out in the open. “It works great when camping in cold weather,” he says.

Tony Santoro, a former lighting director for Sesame Street and a longtime competitor in the Takedowns, says he keeps the chili at a safe temperature by using a 500-BTU burner on low heat, which simulates a slow cooker. At minimum, he does this for one night but will push it to two or three if he has the time. This allows the aromatics time to steep and the proteins time to break down, leaving meats ultra-tender.


  • 1 pound skirt steak
  • 1 14-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes
  • 1 quart beef broth
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, grated and divided
  • 1 can of cooked pinto beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon cornmeal
  • 1 jalapeño, seeded and diced
  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce from a can, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 lemon, juiced and zested
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • ¼ cup fresh cilantro
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

What was I doing entering a chili cook-off?  I’d never made a chili from scratch. Most had been glammed up from a can. I clucked around the kitchen looking for the lid to my two-gallon pot of mole-inspired chili. I was in a hurry and wrapped it up as best as I could and lugged it into a New York City taxicab. Waving my hands at the driver—“It’s fine, it’s fine”—we made it to the Takedown.

What would win? I had not been cooking long enough to know the right answers. At the time, steak was the answer. Who doesn’t love a steak? In chili situations, I learned the hard way that steak should be cooked quickly or forever. My first competition batch was chewy and too thin; it was one of the only entrants that had lots of leftovers. Matt Timms, the organizer, could see that I was upset and encouraged me to try again. Heck yeah, I did! This is an improved version of that first chili, incorporating everything I’ve learned over the last ten years of chili battle.

From my cookbook Showdown: Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ, published by Page Street Publishing


  1. Marinate the steak in the soy sauce, half the garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and zest for at least 4 hours or up to 24 in the refrigerator. Remove from the fridge 30 minutes before cooking.
  2. After washing the cilantro, cut off the dirty root ends and discard any discolored leaves. Chop the stems like they are chives and keep the leaves whole. Set aside.
  3. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry Dutch oven.
  4. Once they release their oils and toast, add the onion with the other tablespoon of olive oil, until browned.
  5. Add the tomato, the rest of the garlic, jalapeño, and chipotles. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer on medium-low for 30 minutes.
  6. Break the tomatoes up with a wooden spoon. Continue to simmer for another 30 minutes. Once the tomatoes have reached a dark red hue, stir in the beef broth.
  7. Add the cornmeal and cocoa powder.
  8. Fold the beans into the chili with a teaspoon of salt, place a cover on the pot and reduce the heat to low. If the mix is still bubbling, move the pot halfway off the heat. At this point, you can cool it down and chill it overnight.
  9. To cook the steak: Prepare a grill pan or cast-iron on high heat for 10 minutes.
  10. Grill or fry the skirt steak on each side for 4 minutes or until a thermometer reads 145°F for medium doneness.
  11. Once done, let the steak rest on a cool plate or pan with high sides—you don't want to lose all of that precious juice.
  12. Reheat the chili, taste it, and salt as desired.
  13. Stir in the cilantro stems before serving.
  14. Garnish each bowl with sliced steak, cilantro leaves, and a dollop of sour cream.

Jenn de la Vega

Jenn de la Vega is TASTE's Cook In Residence and the writer behind the blog Randwiches.

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