Smokey-sweet Chili

It is freezing outside.

Seriously. Yesterday morning it was -4°F with the wind chill. I know it is February in Ohio. I know we have gotten off pretty easy this year. But dang! When that wind tears through you, it feels as if you are permanently stuck in Antarctica!

Our Berners love this weather. The colder, the better for the boys. Not so much for the humans.

This weather calls for comfort food, so I decided to make chili. It’s crazy how many different ways there are to make chili. Some friends of ours hold a chili cook-off every November. Usually, there are anywhere from 15-20 entries, and they are all different. From white chili to scorching hot chili. Beans vs. no beans. Chunky vs. smooth. The variety is endless.

I have a white chicken chili recipe that is the standby in our house. Jeff and I don’t do well with red sauce (hello, heartburn!), so white chili is a safe bet. But I have figured out a red chili that uses sugar to offset the acidity in the tomatoes. It has a few surprising ingredients, though!

Yes. That is cocoa powder and cinnamon that you see in the background. Brown sugar is peeking in at the right corner. But don’t be dismayed. You really can’t tell!


  • 2 cans crushed tomatoes (28oz size)
  • 1 can tomato paste (small)(optional if you want even thicker chili)
  • 4 cans beans (I used 2 black and 2 red), rinsed and drained
  • 4 lbs pork loin, cut into chunks
  • 2-3 lbs ground beef (85% lean)
  • 1 smoked ham hock
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 cup diced onion (red or yellow, as you prefer)
  • 2 tbsp chili powder (more or less to your taste)
  • 2 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 – 1/2 c. dark cocoa powder
  • 1/2 c. brown sugar


The base is pretty typical with crushed tomatoes, onions, garlic and chili powder. I absolutely love McCormick’s hot Mexican-style chili powder. It really isn’t hot, hot. But the flavor is rich and bold. You can totally sub in your favorite chili powder if this one seems intimidating.

Which meat to use is always a debate among chili-makers. For this recipe, I used a combination of pork and ground beef. The chunks of pork mixed with the beef create a layered texture that we just love. And because you let the chili simmer, the pork becomes super tender.

Usually, I opt for super lean cuts of meat, as I like to reduce the fat in my cooking. For this recipe, I used 85% lean ground beef. The higher fat content translates to a richer flavor, and I can drain off the excess fat AFTER the chili is ready to go. But I’ll come back to that later.

You can buy pork chunks at your local grocery store, but this boneless pork loin prime roast was on sale, so I snagged it. I was making a LOT of chili, so I bought two packages, totaling close to four pounds. If you’re making a smaller batch, just cut quantities in half. But this does freeze really well, so I would go big, and just freeze into portions fit for your family.

One of my secret ingredients is a smoked ham hock. I have a thing about authentic smokey flavor in my cooking. There is something called ‘liquid smoke’ that you can find in the BBQ sauce section of the grocery store. It’s an easy way to add smokey flavor to chili, stew – whatever you want, really. But I just can’t do it. The flavor has a chemical aftertaste that lingers. A smoked ham hock, simmered into your recipe, ups the quality of the flavor, and is easy to work with.

Start by adding the crushed tomatoes to a heavy dutch oven. I tossed in a couple cloves of minced garlic and dropped the ham hock right in the middle.

Turn your heat to medium, and let simmer while you cook the meat.

Brown the ground beef and onions in a saute or frying pan. While that is cooking, cut the pork loin into chunks.

As soon as the beef is finished, you can add it to the tomato mixture and move the pork chunks to the pan. You’re just going to brown them, which helps hold in the moisture so the pork doesn’t dry out.

Now is the part where you have to be patient. Let the mixture simmer for an hour or so. Take out the ham hock.

Add the cocoa powder, brown sugar and chili powder. I gave my quantities for these ingredients, but you can add a little at a time until you get the flavor you want.

The cocoa powder is a Mexican twist. The richness of the chocolate offsets the smokiness of the chili and creates a rich layer of flavor. The brown sugar deepens that while offsetting the acidity of the tomatoes.

Let it go…

Simmer for another 30 minutes. You’ll know when to remove the chili from the heat when the mixture looks dense and the fat has risen to the top.

Turn off the heat, and use a baster or a large spoon to skim off that excess fat. This is also an optional step. Some people like to mix that fat right back in. I admit, dipping a chunk of bread into that greasy goodness is pretty epic. But I’d rather save those calories for cornbread dripping with butter. Just sayin’.

Where are the beans?!

You’ll notice that I have not added the beans yet. This is because I intended to freeze the chili for later in the week. Many people will freeze chili with the beans mixed in. I find that makes the beans mushy when I reheat, and I am not a fan of mushy anything.

So I leave the beans out if I’m going to freeze it. If you are eating the chili right away, add the beans at the same time you add the cocoa powder & brown sugar.

Otherwise, wait until your chili has thawed and mix them in then. I used both black and red beans, but again, you use what you like. It really doesn’t matter if you use red, black or white!

I tossed my mostly-frozen chili into two crock pots, added the beans to each pot, and set the temperature on high for 4 hours. By the time we were ready to eat, the beans had mixed themselves in, and the chili was a mass of bubbly goodness.

Top with cheese, sour cream, corn chips…whatever makes you happy! Serve with cornbread or a crusty sourdough, and you’ve got a hearty meal worthy of any appetite.

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