Heston’s Perfect Chilli Con Carne recipe from In Search of Perfection is one of his most seductive dishes. It’s also one of the most ridiculously expensive and time-consuming.
We’ve often told you how this blog was started as a way of continuing the joy and wonder of our first trip to the Fat Duck.
Well, the exact moment this foolish six-year-long Perfection Project was conceived was when I was stood outside the restaurant’s single gent’s toilet, looking up at a shelf displaying the Further Adventures in Search of Perfection book, open to the page of Heston’s Perfect Chilli Con Carne recipe.
After overhearing the Maitre’D proclaim “this is the restaurant of unlimited possibilities” I even naively suggested we should go back and see if they’d make us the chilli. But, of course, that’s not what the Fat Duck does. If you want taste Heston’s Perfection Chili Con Carne recipe you have to make it for yourself.
I really fancied that chilli. Heaps of slow-cooked red meat, firey spices and obscure techniques – you can’t get a more blokey dish than chilli con carne. If Heston’s Perfect Fish Pie recipe was the scariest-looking In Search of Perfection recipe, then this was the most enticing one.
After years of training to bring our kitchen skills up to standard, let’s see if we managed to do it justice…
Recipes: Heston’s Perfect Chilli Con Carne recipe with Cornbread Muffins
Special Equipment: Pressure cooker
Time: 2- 3 days
Here’s the finished dish as shown in Heston’s book, Further Adventures in Search of Perfection:
And here’s Heston making his Perfect Chilli Con Carne recipe on the TV show:
Ingredients and Sourcing
The biggest problem with making Heston’s Perfect Chili Carne recipe is the chilli powder blend. The subtle but significant differences in varieties of chilli have a big impact on the final dish. Heston’s Perfection Chilli Con Carne recipe uses a blend of TEN different chilli powders, and only one from that list is likely to be available at your local supermarket.
The rest, from what we’ve found, can only be sourced from just two places on the entire internet. First up, www.penderys.com (a dedicated supplier of rare chillies based in Texas) will provide most of the osbscure Mexican chilli powder varieties. The others can be obtained from www.thespiceshop.co.uk, along with the recipe’s required long peppercorns.
Bottom line, if you want to make the chilli properly this is going to be an expensive business. The Penderys chilli powders are going to set you back over £20, with another £25 on top for postage to the UK. Add to that another £25 for chillies and postage from The Spice Shop and you’re looking at a cost of close on seventy quid, before you even begin to think about meat and kidney beans.
Factor in the need for two full bottles of red wine, a full litre of Jack Daniels and over two-kilos of beef mince and this is one of the most expensive Heston Blumenthal In Search of Perfection recipes you’ll ever tackle.
The recipe makes eight portions. We didn’t have much change left from £140.
Step 1: Chilli Powder Blend
With the chilli powder blend being so essential to Heston’s Perfection Chili Con Carne recipe it’s best to start it first (it’s not just used to make the finished dish, but the beef stock and “Bloody Mary” finishing butter, too).
First, the whole the Birdseye and Devil’s Penis chillies, need grinding to a powder. Take your penises and split them in half with a knife, then scrape out the penis innards. Grind each of your penises to a fine powder (titter ye not). Do the same with the Birdseye chillies.
Then just weigh out the required amounts of each chilli powder into a bowl. We guess you could mix them in a food processor, but once you took the lid of you’d fill the kitchen with a weapons-grade chilli vapour. Thoroughly combining with a spoon works well enough.
If you have gone and spent £70 on obtaining all the ingredients required to make this blend you’ll be very pleased to hear that you really can smell the difference between these various types of chilli. There’s a rich and varied scent to Heston’s Perfect Chilli Powder Blend. The depth and complexity is a promising sign for the rest of Heston’s Perfect Chilli Con Carne recipe. And it helps me feel a bit better about the painful cost of importing the required elements.
Reserve the finished chilli powder in a sealed container. It’s probably the most expensive ingredient in your entire kitchen right now.
Step 2: Bloody Mary Finishing Butter
This butter isn’t required until the very end of the recipe, but for organisation’s sake we’re doing it now.
Fry the chilli powder and cumin in a little oil to bring out the flavour…
…then add to a bowl with softened butter, grated parmesan, lime zest, juice, Worcestershire sauce, and so on. Basically stuff that’s livid with umami.
Whisk all this thoroughly until well combined.
Roll into a log and reserve in the fridge. Or a rough log with a flat bottom if your skill levels are the same as mine.
Step 3: Kidney Bean Brine
Full stop every single time we’ve made a chilli we’ve always used tinned kidney beans. I know, I know, using dried beans will give a better result. But, come on, life’s too short! (Says the guy spending 3 solid days and £140 making what is essentially a spicy beef stew).
Actually, Heston has a scientific reason for using dried beans, and is aiming for a very specific better result. The kidney beans will eventually be pressure cooked in a tomato sauce, where the acid will strengthen the skins while the centres become meltingly tender. Soaking in brine instead of plain water beforehand will help this process along.
Since Heston is trying to avoid split and broken beans in his finished Perfect Chili Con Carne recipe it’s a good idea to remove any broken bits and pieces you may find in the pack.
Step 4: Short Rib Brine
We’ve often said when making Heston Blumenthal recipes, especially Heston In Search of Perfection recipes, that they can seem quite wasteful at times.
Just in case you don’t believe us, we’d like you to watch as we use half a bottle of Jack Daniels to make a brine for the short ribs for Heston’s Perfect Chilli Con Carne recipe.
Before you can start all the alcohol needs to be flamed off. Since Jack Daniels is about 45% proof that means nearly half of its volume needs to be burned away.
You’re going to see very hot and very high flames that will bun for quite a long time. Be very, very careful handling the pan afterwards. I speak from bitter experience. You guys would not believe how long it takes for all the alcohol to burn away, or how long it took me to scrub the scorch-marks off our pan
We’re making a brine, so the expensive liquor is going to be mixed with salt and raw meat. It’ll obviously be unusable afterwards, so once this bit is finished you’ll be tipping the better part of half a litre of pricey Jack Daniels down the sink.
Pour this all over the short rib meat in a container, seal and keep in the fridge. This is best done overnight.
Step 5: De-brining the ribs
Heston recipes always include the briefest mention of rinsing the brine from meats, like it’s no big deal. It actually is a big deal, as we’ve discovered over the course of making his many perfection recipes.
Removing excess brine, and stopping the meat from being overly salty, is one of the main reasons we don’t like this technique. It’s not just the problem with finding a tub big enough to hold whatever you’re brining plus the brine itself – the removal process is a messy chore.
First, the fresh water needs changing every 15 minutes, so it’s not like the total 2 hour soaking time can be classed as “unattended” (no sneaking off to the gym).
Second, as you’re dealing with meat each 15 minute interval is better off taking place in the fridge. The result is walking backwards and forwards from fridge to sink with heavy containers full of sloshing water. Spill even a drop and you’ll have to mop it up and whip out the disinfectant spray (at least you will if you take your level 3 food hygiene certificate seriously).
You’ll need to do all of this at least 8 times over the course of 2 hours.
Step 6: Chilli Beef Stock
Heston Blumenthal pressure cooker stock recipes are monumental things. They are as expensive and time consuming as most full recipes, but the results will always be streets ahead of anything you’ll have tasted before.
Heston’s beef stock is the most frightening of the lot. It requires a kilo-and-a-half of beef mince, a kilo of split beef bones, over half a kilo of oxtail and an entire bottle of red wine. Oh, and loads of veg, an assortment of fresh herbs and some rare peppercorns you have to buy specially off the internet.
Start the process by roasting the beef bones (to create Maillard flavours). We’re using scooped out marrow bones (we saved the actual marrow to mix into burger patties) and adding the oxtail at the same time for convenience.
Meanwhile fry the beef mince in batches. Lots of batches, while you’re working through such a vast quantity. Remember to let the pan come back up to searing-hot temperature between each round of cooking.
If the bones are still roasting you can get on with the business of processing the veg: onion carrot and a couple of leeks.
By now the bones should be cooked and looking moderately tempting to snack on. Place in the pressure cooker with the cooked mince.
Before the lid can go on the pressure cooker you need to sweat down the veg, adding the chilli powder and cooking until it’s coated.
Next flame off the vast amunt of wine the stock requires.
Finally add the veg to the pressure cooker along with some raw mince (seems weird but in the finished stock you really can taste both the raw and roasted meat flavours) and fill with enough water to cover.
You’re supposed to never fill a pressure cooker more than 2/3 full. Whoops.
Once cooked, infused and cooled the stock needs to go into the fridge overnight. During this time the chilli-beef fat will settle on the top, and it’s this chilli beef fat we’ll be using in place of oil to cook the finished dish.
At the end you throw away well over 2 kilos of ingredients. We tasted some of the “waste” and it was absolutely fine! Maybe Heston’s next project should be a book of recipes for leftovers?
Step 7: Soured Cream Sorbet
This is basically just a garnish, but it’s worth preparing ahead of time before the kitchen and countertops start to get busy. Also, it needs a few hours in the freezer to firm up.
You’re meant to make this using dry ice to give you an amazingly smooth mouthfeel. That’s a lovely idea, but dry ice is expensive so we’re just churning this in our drum-style ice cream machine.
When it’s ready put it in a tub, press clingfilm onto the surface and leave it in the freezer until about 20 minutes before serving time.
Step 8: Separating Chilli Fat and Beef Stock
The chilli beef stock needs to spend a full night in the fridge to set. In the morning you’ll be rewarded with a sight like this. Carefully scrape away that soft layer of flavour-packed, orange-coloured fat.
Our stock had jellified in the fridge due to all the bones we used, but this jelly was still quite fragile. Be careful as you scrap your fat layer away.
You’ll end up with a bowl full of the fat and a tub of stock ready to use for cooking the brined short ribs. However, there’s a few hoops to jump through before you get to that step. Like the caramelised vegetables…
Step 9: Caramelised Vegetables
It was really hard for us to get our heads round the full process of making Heston’s Perfect Chilli Con Carne recipe. Even after reading the entire set of instructions and two play-throughs of the show this bit puzzled us. The recipe is presented in such a disjointed way that this stage didn’t make any sense at all until we finally came to make the dish.
What we’ve realised is that the veg we are about to cook doesn’t form part of the finished dish, or even a part of one of the components. No, what we’re doing is slowly and richly caramelising loads of carrots and onions (over the course of about half an hour) so that we can infuse their flavour into the beef stock and beef ribs during a later cooking stage.
The veg we are lovingly cooking in this stage gets bagged up in muslin (or one of our ever-reliable and cost-effective hair nets), added to the rib-and-stock stew and then just thrown away once the ribs are cooked. Did we ever tell you how Heston Blumenthal recipes can be a bit wasteful?
Step 10: Frying the Short Ribs
Before cooking the short ribs need to be dusted with flour then seared on each side to provide a dark brown crust of even more Maillard-y flavour.
This is meant to only take a couple of minutes, but with an electric stove and several pieces to work through it ended up taking us nearer to forty minuts to finish the lot.
You fry them in the chilli fat to add flavour. Don’t use too much though, as you’ll want the bulk of that fat for the final cooking stages.
Deglaze the pan before going on to the next step.
Step 11: Short Rib Stew
You need absolutely the largest pot or pan in your house for this.
Combine the caramelised vegetables and brined and rinsed short ribs with the deglazed pan juices. Cover everything with that jellified stock (it should –hopefully- break up quite easily).
Cover the entire plan with clingfilm to ensure an airtight seal.
Then cover the clingfilm with tinfoil. We’ve used a double layer of both so we can guarantee zero gaps and painfully burnt fingers when we attempt to remove them later on.
This phenomenally heavy affair needs to go into a 150°C oven for the next 5 hours.
Step 12: Tomatoes
Passata? PAH-ssata, more like! Heston never uses tinned tomatoes in his In Search of Perfection recipes, always preferring fresh tomatoes instead (note: though we think that when cooking out-of-season using tinned would always be a safer bet than fresh).
Both Heston’s Perfect Pizza recipe and Heston’s Perfect Chicken Tikka recipe use pressure cooked tomatoes. And, for whatever reason, the method is slightly different each time.
With the pizza you need to skin the tomatoes then salt them before cooking the flesh and salty juices. The Tikka just has you core the tomatoes then cook them whole before sieving to remove the skins. Heston’s Perfect Chilli Con Carne recipe is sort of a cross between the two. Quarter the tomatoes and salt them.
Put the salted quarters into a sieve above a bowl to collect the tomato juice that comes out.
Once you’ve got about 100ml add the tomatoes and their juice to a pressure cooker. Cook for an hour.
Step 13: Beans
Say, do you guys remember those kidney beans we brined way back at the start of this recipe? I hope you didn’t lose yours because we finally need them.
Once your beans are rinsed add them to the cooked tomatoes and pop the lid back on. Bring the cooker back up to full pressure or another 20 minutes.
At the end of this you’ll be rewarded with very tender beans, the skins barely holding them together, sitting in a rich tomato sauce. Carefully set them aside and, if you have it, infuse the tomato stalk in the sauce for some bonus fresh tomato flavours.
Step 14: Red Peppers
We once suggested blackening the skins on peppers in a toaster, but with four on the go at once the grill is your best option.
Cover with clingfilm for five minutes after they’re thoroughly blackened, then go about the fiddly and icky business of peeling the skins away.
Some tedious amount of work later you’ll have neatly skinned pepper halves.
Slice these up and reserve for finishing the chilli (you’ll be going through every tub, bowl and bit of Tupperware you’ve got during the course of this recipe).
Step 15: Confit Onions
These are just a garnish, but best doing ahead of time.
Come his second In Search of Perfection series Heston really went nuts for confit onions, using them in this dish and his Perfect Fish Pie recipe.
They’re simple enough to make. Just cover the halved onions in olive oil and cook on a very low heat.
Set aside when finished. You won’t need them until the very end of the recipe. They can stay covered in their oil to help preserve them.
Step 16: Cornbread Muffin Batter
Start by melting butter and using it to fry a couple of huge cans of sweetcorn.
Now, I made a mistake here, blitzing the fried corn to a rough paste and then trying to force it laboriously through a sieve, before adding milk and cream.
What you’re actually meant to do is add the cream to the corn before you puree it, making the sieving process much easier. Oh well, if we wanted easy recipes we wouldn’t have started this daft project in the first place.
Sift the dry ingredients together…
… then measure out the required amount of creamed corn.
Combine these in a bowl, and then add Heston’s forever-favourite Perfection ingredient, beurre noisette.
This should give you the muffin batter you’ll be working with later on. A word of warning, if you keep it in the fridge the butter will begin to solidify, making it harder to pour. If you are reserving the batter in the fridge be sure to take it out in plenty of time.
Step 17: Shred the Rib Meat
After 5 hours of cooking the ribs should be fall-apart tender.
Remove them from the oven and – very important – allow them to cool. You’ll need to be able to handle them for the next step: pulling apart the rib meat with your bare hands.
You’ll want to remove every last thread and sheet of tough connective tissue, leaving you with lots of strings of tender and flavoursome rib meat. It is very nice to snack on, so try not to eat too much. Discard the muslin bag, but be sure to keep the precious and flavour-packed liquid.
Step 18: Prep
I despise recipes that don’t include preparing the ingredients as a step, it’s a sneaky trick that deceives you into thinking you don’t have as much time or work ahead of you.
Carrots don’t magically come out of our veg draw already in fine dice, and butter doesn’t cut and weigh itself. Getting all this stuff together takes time, attention and organisation.
We’ve found you can lose anything up to 30 minutes checking through lists and assembling each item, especially when Heston’s requirements are so exact. That’s a precious amount of time when you’re on a recipe like this, which is already ridiculously long in the first place.
So, chop your onions, dice your carrots, measure out all the spices and sauces into every last ramekin you can lay your hands on and assemble all your Tupperware containers full of ingredients.
Step 19: Cooking the Chilli
After so many complicated steps cooking Heston’s actual Perfection Chilli Con Carne recipe itself is so straightforward that it feels like a bit of an anti-climax.
Start by using the chilli-beef fat to fry some of the Heston Chilli Powder blend.
Then start browning mince in batches. You want it deeply dark with crispy bits. Tip each batch into that big-ass pot you used earlier.
Next use more of the chilli-beef fat to fry some onions. Yes, yes, with Heston’s usual star anise (here wrapped in muslin).
To that add your finely diced carrots and chopped green chilli.
Once the chillies and carrots are cooked transfer these to the mega-pot with the browned mince, and pour in that gigantic Tupperware tub you have full of beef stock and all shredded rib meat.
Then add the tomatoes and kidney beans. Be very careful stirring the kidney beans through as they will be quite delicate.
This pot now needs to cook on the stove for an hour, which should be enough time to heat everything through.
However, we like a long and slowly cooked chilli (and this recipe is nothing if not long and slow) so we’re leaving ours on the stove for about 3 hours. The same amount of time time it’ll take me to do all the washing up and clean down the kitchen.
Incidentally, Heston-fans, our chef / mentor says in the book that at this point the recipe is best stored in the fridge for 24 hours for the flavours to improve.
Now, we think this is quite a curious thing to suggest. After all, the whole ethos of the In Search of Perfection series is that no single step is too much work if it will give you a better end result. And yet here’s Heston recommending a step that’ll definitely improve the flavour, and then making that step entirely optional.
Granted, chilling to room temp and then storing this much chilli is going to take quite a while in itself, probably a few hours for this much food. Then you’d have to add a full extra day onto the recipe. My personal thoughts were “is this fucking whack-job for real!?!” – so we just carried on and ate this that same night.
Oh yeah. Add most of the diced red peppers towards the end of cooking. Careful when stirring them through – those fragile beans, remember! Save the smallest or best looking bits of red pepper for finishing the dish.
Step 20: Baking the Cornbread Muffins
Really simple. Pour the batter into muffin cases (or roughly slop it in, if your batter set hard in the fridge like ours did), then bake for 20 – 25 minutes.
We needed about 30 minutes to safely pass the skewer test.
Hey, by the way, you should remember to get the soured cream sorbet out of the freezer around now.
Step 21: Finishing the Dish
Once the muffins come out you can assemble the dish in about the time it takes for them to cool down.
You’ll want the Heston’s “Bloody Mary” Chilli Butter recipe, some diced green chilli, those confit onions and the handsomest bits of red pepper you have left.
Mix the butter through the chilli. Top with the other three garnishes. Serve the cooled cornbread muffins with soured cream sorbet alongside. Congratulations, you have just made Heston’s Perfect Chilli Con Carne recipe from In Search of Perfection. Enjoy.
There is a bitter philosophical argument that has been raging for some years in our household – whether or not one should put cinnamon in a chilli con carne. Most say no, I say yes. Heston’s chilli con carne doesn’t contain any cinnamon at all, so for me this falls a spectacularly huge distance short of “perfection”.
But that argument (and the cinnamon stick I try to sneak into the pan every time we make chilli) is part of why events like the Washington DC Chilli Cook-off where Heston researched this dish take place. There are simply so many opinions about what makes the perfect chilli con carne recipe. And so many different versions of the perfect chilli, too.
Which leads to another bit of philosophy, namely the “Life After Perfection” issue, and what we’ll have learned after making all 16 of Heston’s In Search of Perfection recipes (we’ve only got the Peking Duck recipe left to do at this point). It’s been an incredible learning experience so far, but we’ve also found that perfection can be a very subjective thing.
Some of these dishes will be everyone’s idea of perfection – the Spaghetti Bolognese, the Bangers and Mash and the Chicken Tikka especially. Other dishes from this series are more divisive – that risotto was interesting, but it was more of an edible essay than it was a meal.
What can’ be denied is that each of Heston’s In Search of Perfection recipes has a dedication to ingredients and technique that will guarantee beyond-the-ordinary results. I mean, Christ, we could drive to London, pay for parking, have dinner at Lyle’s and raid des Reves on the way home for less than it costs to make Heston’s Perfect Chilli Con Carne. That’s a round trip that’d also take about one quarter of the time it takes to make this dish. Putting that much effort into one meal guarantees exceptional results.
So, yes, this is impossibly rich and magnificently meaty with a deep and smoky character that comes from that spectacular chilli powder blend. The kidney beans practically liquefy on the tongue and the chilli heat is a slow, rumbling build that lingers pleasantly after each bite – not the harsh, lip-burning ordeal of simply picking a sauce or powder with a high scoville rating.
The sauce is as warming and thick as maple syrup, which is fitting because all the booze gives Heston’s Perfection Chilli Con Carne almost a sweetness.
Sweetness being a characteristic present, but not welcomed, in those cakey cornbread muffins. They’re really far too crumbly and sugary to make a good accompaniment, and there’s barely any corn flavour.
Not one single person in our six-strong test-group enjoyed Heston’s Cornbread muffin recipe. General verdict: you might as well serve your chilli with a Victoria Sponge.
The soured cream sorbet is difficult to use, it’s either rock hard or melts to a slurry in seconds. It is significantly less useful and less pleasant than plain-old regular soured cream.
Which means that while this is a thoroughly excellent chilli -as you’d expect from the chef, from the ingredients and from the time it took to make- it isn’t our perfect chilli con carne recipe.
There’s a lot of elements we’ll use in the future, like adding Jack Daniels or cooking brined beans in the tomato sauce. Of course some bits we definitely won’t be repeating, such as those cornbread muffins or importing our chilli powders from a different continent. The confit onions are a pointless garnish, I genuinely resent having had to make them.
But, those quibbles aside, this is an excellent recipe, and incredibly enjoyable. The techniques you will learn making this, or any, of Heston’s Perfection recipes can improve your home-cooking no end. And, hopefully, they’ll help you find you own version of perfection.
Well, we’d brine some beans, pressure-cook em in tinned tomatoes, then cook the mince in that same pressure cooker along with a load of roasted oxtail and whatever bones we could lay our hands on.
2 hours in at full pressure then a couple of hours on a low heat to reduce should give us a gorgeous chilli that combines several steps from this recipe to give you a decent chilli in a fraction of the time (and at a fraction of the cost).
While there’s plenty reports on the Heston at Home version of this dish we can only find one write up of the full perfection recipe. If you find more (or if you’ve written one yourself) please let us know.
As always we’d love to hear your thoughts about this Chilli Con Carne recipe and Heston’s approach to food. Did he get it right? Did we? Tell us below.