Texas chili is the stuff of legend. Some people refer to it as chili con carne, but in Texas it’s just called ‘chili’. The ‘con carne’ part is a given. Of course it’s with meat. For that matter, there is no need for the “Texas” qualifier either. To Texans, who proudly refuse to entertain the idea that other styles exist, the term “Texas Chili” is redundant, Given that chiie was invented in San Antonio (we’ll get to that later), it’s hard to debate them on this point.
Birth of the Texas Chili Project
Like most Americans, I grew up eating chili. It was sort of a meaty stew made with ground beef, canned tomatoes, kidney beans, and of course a lot of “chili powder” you dumped out of a tin or a jar from the grocery store. This was Great Lakes region chili. No self-respecting Texan would call this stuff chile.
I was married once to a vegetarian hippie girl. In that era I made vegetarian three bean chili. It had a lot of allspice and cider vinegar in it and it was fantastic. No self-respecting Texan would call this stuff chile either.
I’ve sampled chili here and there over the years, all over the country, and I’ve found the quality to vary from disgusting (that runny, greasy ground beef and chili powder flavored glop they slather on ‘chili dogs’ is technically chili con carne), to mediocre (bad Tex-Mex restaurants), to absolutely sublime (made by proud chili snobs). A few years ago (2013 I think) I decided I probably ought to figure out how to make it. And thus the Texas Chili Project was born. I researched and experimented. I made a lot of chili, which I’ll discuss in more detail below. But first, let’s look into this chili stuff conceptually, culturally, and historically.
Texas Chili: What it is and What it isn’t
An entire culture and ethos exists around chili that is in many ways similar to barbecue culture. There are rules, methods, arguments about what makes it great, and closely guarded recipe secrets. Chili masters compete fiercely in chili contests for #1 bragging rights in much the same way that barbecue pit masters compete in barbecue competitions.
Conceptually it’s a pretty simple dish: a kind of thick stew-like concoction made from dried chili peppers (ground into a powder, or reconstituted in hot water and pureed) and beef, slow simmered until it’s melt-in-your-mouth tender. That’s chili at its essence. Surely it also has a few other herbs and spices (amounts and types varying recipe to recipe), and probably some onion and garlic, maybe an acid (vinegar) or a sweetener (brown sugar), and perhaps (although not necessarily) even a bit of tomato product and/or a pinch of masa as a thickening agent. That’s pretty much it. Of course it’s the infinite variability of these ingredients that complicates the game.
Notice that beans are conspicuously missing from the list. That’s right hippie. No beans. This is actually kind a of big deal, which brings to mind a favorite Texas pastime: when they aren’t remembering the Alamo, or talking about how much bigger stuff is where they live, Texans absolutely love to act horrified by the suggestion that it’s somehow acceptable to put beans in chili. Outside of Texas it’s very common. In Texas that shit don’t fly. In Texas there are rules to making chili, and while you can get away with taking some license with ingredients here and there, there simply are no damn beans in chili! End of discussion. It’s a specific rule unto itself at most chili cook offs–just to be crystal clear about the matter. And while we’re at it, you don’t eat chili over spaghetti with cheddar cheese and raw onions like the folks do up in Cincinnati (unless, of course, you’re in Cincinnati).
This chili ethos is well reflected in a 1976 song “If You Know Beans About Chili, You Know That Chili Has No Beans,” written by Ken Finley and adopted as the official anthem of the International Chili Society:
If you know beans about chili / You know it didn’t come from Mexico
Chili was God’s gift to Texas / (Or maybe it came from down below)
And chili doesn’t go with macaroni / And damned Yankees don’t go with chili queens;
And if you know beans about chili / You know that chili has no beans.
Caveat Emptor: I’m Not from Texas
Louisiana has its gumbo, Maine has its lobster rolls, and Florida has its key lime pie. But in Texas chili is the official state dish. It’s a big deal, and like its brethren, barbecued brisket, it’s definitely a point of state pride. Consequently, Texas chili is one of those specialized regional dishes that one is lead to believe that only a native can cook properly. I am not from Texas, nor have I ever lived in Texas, and I fully understand that to Texans this admission immediately makes me suspect. However, I don’t think that this means that I can’t make a batch of kick-ass “Texas rules” chili. If I’ve unwittingly committed any culinary sins, people from Texas I welcome you to enlighten me as to the error of my ways. I’m here to learn.
The History of Chili
Cooking with chilies, meat, and herbs was certainly not unknown to Inca, Aztec, and Mayan culture. However, from what I’ve been able to discover, the dish we know as chili con carne originates with the “chili queens” who served it food cart style to working men in San Antonio’s Military Plaza as early as the 1860s. If you want to go back to roots, here is an original chili queens chili recipe (containing both pork and beef, and heavy on the suet) from back in the day, courtesy of the Institute of Texan Cultures. Eventually chili caught on as a popular cattle trail food, and cowboys spread the chili gospel until ‘chili joints’ serving up a “bowl of red” popped up all over the American Southwest.
It’s also a big deal to Texans to insist that chili is not Mexican in origin. It’s a touchy subject. The Alamo, you know. Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. In the end, however, the facile debate about modern nation states and patriotism are really beside the point. You’ve got some native people (Payaya Indians) living in Yanaguana, right? Then in 1691 some Spaniards show up and, being hardcore Roman Catholic colonial types, they set up a mission and rename the place after St. Anthony of Padua. Suddenly Yanaguana is San Antonio, a town in Nueva España. But wait, by 1821 it’s a town in Mexico (¡Viva México!). Wait, by 1836 it’s a town in the Republic of Texas (Remember the Alamo!). Wait, in 1845 the Republic of Texas was annexed by the United States of America (Bob Wills is still the king!). All of these outside influences have an impact on regional cuisine, and chili is from San Antonio. Let’s leave it at that.
Chili Goes All American
At the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago (i.e., The World’s Fair), Texas operated a San Antonio Chili Stand, which helped introduce chili to other parts of the United States. Soon people were putting it on Hot Dogs, hamburgers, french fries, omelettes, and spaghetti, substituting tomatoes for the chilies, and yes, sometimes even adding beans and elbow macaroni (chili mac). Over the course of the 20th century chili took on all of the weird regional variations we know today.
But enough about history and macaroni. Let’s get to the chili recipes.
Some Observations About Texas Chili Recipes
In my quest to develop a decent, authentic Texas chili recipe I’ve noticed a few things that are…disappointing. This is the section where I probably stick my foot in my mouth and get in trouble with certain Texan chili aficionados.
I was curious to find out what cut of beef was popular in Texas chili. I really didn’t know. It could have been brisket for all I knew (some folks do use brisket). Most recipes I see, however, are made with sirloin or chuck roast or tri-tip roast, or a roast I’ve never even heard of called a ‘blade’ roast. But here is where it gets strange (to me).
While some chili recipes council cutting the meat into small cubes (the size varying according to the preferences and logic of the author), I’ve noticed that a lot of chili recipes begin with ground beef. Granted, they stipulate “chili grind“, which differentiates itself from ‘hamburger’ by being a coarser grind. Maybe this is a Texas chili faux pas, but this just seems wrong to me. I don’t care if it’s ‘chili grind’, you’re making hamburger soup. It makes me think of that greasy chili people put on chili dogs. I’d rather have a chili with a slightly more stew-like texture. Granted, it’s more labor intensive to dice three or four pounds of beef with a knife, but I think it’s worth it. I wonder if simple laziness is the primary reason for grinding it instead. At any rate, I don’t want this for my chili. I’ll dice my beef by hand with a very sharp knife, thank you.
Packaged Processed Ingredients?
I’ve noticed that some award winning chili recipes are made from various packets of purchased and prepared chili powders and spices mixed into a pile of hamburger meat. I’m thinking here primarily of CASI (Chili Appreciation Society International) competition chilies. The recipe ingredients lists look something like this:
2 tsp [Brand Name] Onion Granules
¼ tsp [Brand Name] Cayenne Pepper
2 tsp [Brand Name] Beef Granules
1/8 tsp [Brand Name] Cayenne Pepper
1 Tbsp [Brand Name] San Antonio Original Chili Powder
1 Tbsp [Brand Name] Cowtown Light Chili Powder
With all due respect for the good folks at [Brand Name], who probably make top notch product (it certainly wins a lot of chili contests), I just don’t think dumping a mixture of powders from store bought packages into a pot is really cooking. Where’s the mortar and pestle? Where’s the knife and cutting board? Where are the dried chilies? I can appreciate that this is largely a complex chemistry experiment, and getting the blend and amount of packet ingredients takes a lot of patience and meticulous trial and error. But just like the ‘chili grind’ hamburger, this just seems wrong. It seems more akin to preparing a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, except instead of adding the packet of cheese sauce you add many packets of subtly different spice mixes.
I wouldn’t think of making Thai food with a purchased jar of prepared curry paste–not for company anyway. I’d make that curry paste from scratch. I also concoct from scratch the various masalas when I cook Indian food. And if quality gumbo requires stirring flour and fat constantly for an hour until you have a chocolaty brown roux, then damn it that’s what I’ll do. I’m a “from scratch” kind of guy, because I think the artistry, care, and attention to detail are reflected in the quality of the end product. You can taste the love. Cooking from scratch is what distinguishes cooking as an art form from “throwing something together for dinner”. With all due respect to Sandra Lee’s Infamous Kwanzaa Cake, any hack can pour a jar of processed “stuff” into a pan or open a packet of seasoning mix.
This being the case, I’d prefer to roast and grind my own spices when I can. And instead of chili powders, I prefer to buy whole dried chili pods, stem and seed them, re-hydrate them, and grind them into a paste. This is cooking, right?
I’ve noticed a lot of chili recipes have Goya Sazón in them, which is a seasoning bouillon cube that reputedly imparts a “Latin American” quality to foods (whatever that means). It consists mainly of MSG, and also has Coriander, Annatto, garlic, salt, and tricalcium phosphate. Mmmm. Tricalcium phosphate! Is this somehow essential? It pops up in recipe after recipe. As we’ll see, I tried it in a batch and didn’t care for it. It adds a metallic, chemical aftertaste to the chile. In fact, it’s really awful. I expect that some people grew up with it and there is a nostalgia associated with the flavor. If this product sends you down memory lane, have at it I suppose. Otherwise I recommend skipping it.
The Matter of “Dumps”
I’ve also noticed that the timing of adding certain ingredients appears to be significant, at least to the competition chili cook. All of those spice mixes and chili powders are divided into “dumps”, which are added at various stages of the cooking. I read one explanation stating that things like coriander or cinnamon can burn, so you want to add them later. That makes a certain amount of sense I guess. But some of these dump divisions seemed like alchemy to me, like something a Shakespearean witch would find important when adding eye of newt and Wolf’s Bane to a cauldron of witches brew.
The Texas Chili Project Recipes
In the end, I learned that ‘competition chili’, with its refined packaged powders and aversion to fat that might pool in the surface and offend a judge (that’s apparently a thing), just doesn’t fit my more rustic, whole foods, scratch cooking ethos. So the chili recipe I landed on reflects that ethos. Here is how I got there back in the day: starting with the original and appropriately named batch #1.
Texas Chili Project Batch #1
I used sirloin, cut into ⅓ inch cubes. It’s very lean. The competition set doesn’t like much fat in their chili (boo!). I used dried chilie pods (Anchos, New Mexicos), which I rehydrated, and also some powdered cayenne pepper for some heat. And while I did saute an actual raw yellow onion, I ended up using a lot of dried spice powders (garlic powder, onion powder, ground cumin, ground coriander, ground cinnamon. I also used a bit of apple cider vinegar for some acidity–added towards the end to rescue an otherwise muddy flavored gravy. Other than this I didn’t pay attention to “dumps” and timing. I just cooked it all at once, for about three hours until the beef was fall apart tender.
Results? It was very good. Again, a lot of chili recipes don’t call for vinegar, but I found it bland without some acidity. The cayenne gave it a nice amount of heat (which is completely relative, I realize). I didn’t puree the rehydrated chiles very well though, and there were large bits of chile skin in the final chile which I found to be a bit unpalatable. It was also slightly bitter. A lot of recipes have a bit of sugar added to counter this. Lessons learned.
Texas Chili Project Batch #2: Competition Style
This time I tried to go all fancy and make a chili competition style Texas chili. The recipe was the same as batch #1 except I also added New Mexico and Pasilla Molido chile powders. I was careful to puree the rehydrated chiles well. I also added chicken bouillon (a lot recipes call for it) and a cube of the notorious Sazón Goya con Culantro y Achiote (an almost ubiquitous ingredient). Finally, I added a ¼ cup of brown sugar.
Results? Too sweet, and with a metallic, chemical aftertaste. This really put me off of all of the processed ingredients, competitions be damned.
Texas Chile Project Batch #3: Just right (a la the Three Bears Franchise)
For years now I’ve been a strong advocate of scratch cooking whole foods. I think they’re healthier (on the assumption that the less processed the better), and frankly tastier. I’ve decided this ethos works for chili as well. Overly refined competition style chili just doesn’t have a rustic soul. So I used real whole foods. Raw onion rather than onion powder. Raw garlic rather than garlic powder. Dried whole chili pods rather than chile powder mixes. And so on. I cut the sugar back to a single tablespoon–just enough to cut the bitterness of the chilies but not enough to make it too sweet (or to spike my blood sugar). Also, I switched to ground chuck, which is marbled with a bit more fat (and thus more flavor). And finally, finally, I used whole dried spices, dry roasted them to bring out more flavor, and ground them in a mortar and pestle like the Chili Queens of yore. The recipe in this post reflects this style and this cooking ethos.
This shit is the bomb. I hope you’ll try it and I hope you enjoy it.
- Quart of Water
- 2 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 Medium Yellow Onion. Diced
- 3 Cloves Garlic, peeled and minced
- 2 Ounces Dried New Mexico Chiles
- 2 Ounces Dried Chiles Negros
- 2 Ounces Dried Chiles Arbol
- 4 Dried Habanero Chilies
- 4 Pound Chuck Roast, cut into ¼ inch cubes
- 1.5 teaspoons Kosher Salt
- 1 Can (8 Fluid Ounces) Beef Consomme
- ½ teaspoon Fresh Ground Black Pepper
- 1 Cinnamon Stick
- 1 Tablespoon Dried Coriander Seed
- 1 Tablespoon Dried Cumin Seed
- 1 teaspoon Allspice Berries
- 1 Teaspoon Brown Sugar
- ½ Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
- Bring the water to a gentle simmer in a large pot. Remove the stems from the chiles. Rip them open and shake out the seeds while they’re still dry.Add the chiles to the pot of simmering water and simmer until the chiles are soft--about five minutes.
- Transfer the chiles to a blender, reserving the liquid. Pure until smooth, adding simmering liquid as needed to make a thin paste. Puree it well so there are no bits and pieces of chile skin in the final soup. Set aside.
- Gently saute onion in olive oil in a large lidded pot until tender. Add garlic. Cook until garlic is fragrant and onions are translucent, but be careful not to burn the garlic (about 15 minutes).
- Add the pureed chiles, the beef conomme, the beef, the salt, and the ground pepper. Simmer, covered, over low heat for one hour.
- Meanwhile, toast the spices in a dry skillet untl fragrant and just beginning to brown. Be careful not to burn them.
- Grind the cumin, coriander, and allspice in a mortar and pestle. The cinnamon is difficult to grind in the mortar and pestle, so use a coffee grinder if you have one. Or you can just simmer the whole piece of cinnamon bark in the chile stock.
- After the first hour has passed taste the chile and adjust the seasoning (it may require a bit more salt). Add the remaining ingredients. Simmer gently on the stovetop, covered, stirring occasionally, until the beef is very tender--about another hour and a half to two hours.