J. Kenji López-Alt Says This Is The Hardest Part Of Making Chili Burgers

If you've ever sunk your teeth in a sloppy, loaded chili burger, then you know that this ground-beef-on-ground-beef classic is a true carnivore's delight. Originally known as a "chili size," the fast food treat was invented by restaurateur Tommy de Forest in the 1920s (via The Los Angeles Beat). De Forest's chili parlor, Ptomaine Tommy's, was located in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of LA between 1913 and 1958 and was frequented by silver screen starlets of the day, including Mae West and Mary Pickford.

De Forest appears to have come up with the "chili size" by serving a large ladle of his acclaimed chili over an open-faced burger and covering it with cheddar cheese and chopped onions, a luxurious option that cost 20 cents in its heyday. And while Ptomaine Tommy's closed its doors many decades ago, the chili burger lives on in diners, drive-ins, and dives all across the country — especially in its hometown of Los Angeles.

If you love this fast food burger but want to try your hand at making it at home, there's one thing you should keep in mind, according to Serious Eats culinary consultant J. Kenji López-Alt: The chili is the most challenging part of the dish.

Chili for a burger can easily overwhelm the patty

You might think that making this burger would be as simple as stirring up delicious chili, patting together a tasty burger, and uniting the two elements. But according to J. Kenji López-Alt via Serious Eats, the outlet's former culinary director, perfecting this dish takes some more care and thought.

When López-Alt set out to develop Serious Eats' recipe for a chili burger, he realized that making a fantastic chili was not the goal. As he points out, a wonderful chili is an amalgam of many flavors and textures, including a thick sauce and small bits of beef contrasted with larger, softer chunks of meat — all of which come together in a delicious symphony. But ladled over a burger, a superb chili will totally overwhelm the patty (or, incidentally, a hot dog or French fries, over which López-Alt's resulting dish can also be spooned).

Instead, López-Alt created a version that was more like a condiment, one with a thinner, more sauce-like texture that better stays between two buns, with no large chunks of meat that will diminish the burger. In order to achieve this, he makes a fairly standard chili and then, at the end of cooking, whisks it briskly to break up any too-large pieces of meat. The resulting dish might not be up to snuff for eating all on its own, but it's the perfect sauce for a burger, dog, or basket of fries.