Texas Chili: What it is, What it Isn’t & Why I’m Obsessed With the State’s Favorite Dish
What style of barbecue is best? Sauce or no sauce? Breakfast tacos or breakfast burritos? Kolaches or klobasniky? Whataburger vs. In-N-Out Burger? (Okay, that last one isn’t even a contest.) Of all these, few food debates in Texas bring the heat quite like chili con carne, both figuratively and literally. No matter how you prefer yours, chili perfectly reflects the cultural kaleidoscope that is the Lone Star State. If you love chili like I do, or even a mite less, read on for a bit of history.
While chili con carne, also known as Texas chili, takes influences from all over the Americas, and is indeed similar to many other dishes that came before it, it has its own identity. There are a few general rules of thumb associated with this style of chili. It should be red to brownish-red, thick enough to eat with a fork and, as indicated by the name, predominantly made with chilis and meat. Beef (ideally cooked in suet or tallow) is the preferred protein, and the rest of the main ingredients are dried chili peppers — which are native to Mexico, Central America and South America — onions, garlic and spices, such as cumin, chili powder and smoked paprika.
(Holy frijoles! Where are the beans, you ask? I’ll dive into that towards the end of this article.)
Numerous historic events have influenced how chili recipes have been interpreted since its first documented mentions in the early 1800s, including those from Canary Island immigrants in San Antonio and the San Antonio chili maids, the great Texas cattle drives of the late 1800s, the advent of powdered paprika and dried chili spices, prison chili, beef scarcity and brick chili — hunks of dehydrated meat, fat and seasonings sold in compacted bricks that had to be reconstituted to eat. Lyman T. Davis sold these bricks at his Corsicana meat market for 20 years before deciding in 1921 to put his product into a can with a picture of his pet wolf on the label. He called it Wolf Brand Chili. Though Davis wasn’t the first to can his chili, its convenience launched the food’s popularity into the stratosphere.
(For those interested in an entertaining rundown on chili’s history, cooking traditions and cultural influences, I highly recommend “The Chili Cookbook” from three-time James Beard Award winner Robb Walsh, who was a co-owner of El Real Tex-Mex Cafe in Houston, which served one mean bowl of chili before the restaurant closed in 2019.)
Growing up in Houston with an Ecuadorian mother who loved to cook and a father from Oklahoma who loved to eat was a formative experience. My mom would make a diner-style chili with beans that had only the faintest whisper of heat. I’d greedily devour a second helping by the time my family had finished ladling their first bowls. (This often happened after reading issues of the comic book “Green Arrow” written by Mike Grell, whose 1987 run highlighted the titular hero’s love of scorchin’ hot chili.) My mother worked at George Bush Intercontinental Airport for over 20 years, so I grew up attending weddings, dinner parties and holiday gatherings with her international friends and co-workers who had immigrated from countries that included Vietnam, France and Russia. It was also supremely important to her that I travel and see the world through more than one lens, and I continue to believe that experience and education are paramount to appreciating life and humanity.
As an adult, I developed a fervent affinity for spicy foods, and chili became a nexus point for bringing together the piquant, redolent flavors from my childhood. Chili’s bold flavor profile is similar to other global dishes, such as vindaloo, chile colorado, Sichuan boiled beef, and Nigerian beef stew — all of which are readily available in Houston. The endorphin high caused by capsaicin, the active component in chili peppers, was a happy side effect.
I constantly tweaked my own chili con carne recipe and entered my first competition nearly a decade ago. My ever-changing recipe won a dozen or so cookoffs at local bars and pubs — and I’ve also judged just as many. There’s no single “secret ingredient” that guarantees that your recipe will bring home a medal. The best advice I have is to make everything from scratch, even the spice mixes, powders, stock and chili paste. You can find a version of my recipe at the end of this article. Feel free to tweak it yourself and make it your own.
As continuing education, I’ve sought out and enjoyed a bevy of styles that have the moniker of “chili” (sometimes erroneously), which include:
- Pedernales River Chili: a favorite of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who emphatically stated that, “Chili concocted outside of Texas is usually a weak, apologetic imitation of the real thing. One of the first things I do when I get home to Texas is to have a bowl of red. There is simply nothing better.”
- Coney Island Hot Dog Sauce
- Sloppy Chili Hot Cakes from Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles — which also serves its chicken chili on a bun or over fries, rice or beans.
- Cinnamon Roll Dip (A Midwest “specialty” where a bowl of chili is eaten with a cinnamon roll on the side).
- Skyline Chili, or Cincinnati-style Chili, poured over spaghetti with oyster crackers.
- Dixon’s Famous Chili, also known as Kansas City-Style Chili: This was the chili of choice for President Truman and is served on a plate, with or without beans, with accouterments served alongside.
- White Chili (with chicken or turkey)
- Springfield Chilli (Yes, with two L’s.)
- Colorado Green
- Hawaiian Chili Dog Plates
- Black Bean Chili
- New Mexico Verde
- Vegan and Vegetarian Chili
The most offensive iteration I’ve come across was at a chili pop-up in Denver, Colorado. They had the audacity to put beans, black olives, tofu and hominy in a bowl with tomato sauce and call it traditional Texas chili. Out of curiosity, I tried a spoonful and was just as bewildered as the cowboys in the Pace commercial when they discovered their picante sauce was made in New York City.
Restaurants rarely serve a chili as spicy as I like. For a true five-alarm experience, I suggest attending a chili cook-off at your local bar or brewery, or pack a weekender bag and seek out one of the larger competitions. The International Chili Cook-off in the Trans-Pecos ghost town of Terlingua, Texas should be at the top of every chili lover’s bucket list. The event is split into two camps: the Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cook-off, which takes place the first weekend in November each year and is hosted by the Tolbert Chili Organization, and the CASI Terlingua International Chili Championship, a four-day event held at the end of November each year that’s hosted by the Chili Appreciation Society International. The two groups are bitter rivals that diverged from the original competition decades ago.
The International Chili Society also hosts its World Championship Chili Cook-Off each fall, as well as a panoply of other fun events nationwide throughout the year. The small Texas town of Flatonia, which is about 20 miles north of Shiner, hosts Czhilispiel — one of the biggest and longest-running chili festivals this side of Terlingua — at the end of October each year.
A Hill of Beans to Die On
You can’t talk to a Texan about chili without asking or being asked “with or without beans?” The debates can reach levels of heat rivaling the spiciest peppers on the Scoville scale. I have no qualms about chili with beans and quite enjoy it on occasion. The issue that browns my beef is when folks boldly claim that true Texas chili has beans by default. (Don’t get me started on tomatoes.) Chili with beans is more akin to vegetable stew.
Joe Cooper, an authority on chili who authored “With or Without Beans: an Informal Biography of Chili” in 1951, included his recipe, which noticeably leaves out beans. (The book is now a serious collectible, selling for around $125 for a used copy.)
The subject was also exhaustively researched by journalist and historian Frank X. Tolbert in his 1953 history of chili, “A Bowl of Red”, which was a direct follow-up to his article “That Bowl of Fire Called Chili”. The book, lightly updated by Hallie Crawford Stillwell in 2002, definitively states that the dish is sans legumes. In fact, when New York author (and humorist) H. Allen Smith pissed off the entire state of Texas by publishing a chili-with-beans recipe in his article “Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do” and claimed that beans are an essential ingredient, it famously led to The Great Chili Confrontation of 1967 in Terlingua. The competition ended in a draw after one of the judges declared that tasting chili with beans had poisoned his taste buds.
Shortly thereafter, beans were outright forbidden by the Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff — founded by racing icon and chili aficionado Carroll Shelby, who also had a hand in the aforementioned confrontation — and chili con carne was officially declared the state dish of Texas.
Furthermore, the International Chili Society has strict definitions in their competition rules. These are the big leagues for chili heads. Each category is clearly defined, and Traditional Red Chili is separate from chili with beans, the latter of which is found in a sub-category called Homestyle Chili. The definitions are as follows:
- Traditional Red Chili is any kind of meat, or combination of meats, cooked with red chili peppers, various spices and other ingredients. Beans and non-vegetable fillers such as rice and pasta are not allowed. Preference is not given to either cut meat, ground meat, shredded meat or cubed meat.
- Homestyle Chili is any kind of meat, or combination of meats, and/or vegetables cooked with beans, chili peppers, various spices and other ingredients. Homestyle Chili may be any color. Beans are required. Preference is not given to either cut meat, ground meat, shredded meat or cubed meat. Seafood is allowed.
Boy howdy, the category that allows beans also allows seafood! Taste may indeed be subjective, but the addition of beans changes a bowl o’ red just as much as coffee, cinnamon, chocolate, carrots, corn and bell peppers. Just as added ingredients can change the style or category of a beer, such as an American adjunct lager, beans change the style of chili. These adjuncts also make up what’s called Mock Chili, which became popular after World War II when meat was rationed and replaced with filler vegetables. The general public grew accustomed to it. It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention, but that doesn’t change the original product and its history. We could reach a détente by just calling chili with beans something fun like “cowboy cassoulet” and be done with it, but I think Texans secretly like their food arguments to be as hot as their chili.
To counter the naysayers who say chili without beans is just hot dog sauce, I say there’s a good chance they’ve yet to savor a true Texas chili worth its salt. That stuff that John Mellencamp was suckin’ on outside the Tastee Freez isn’t proper chili con carne. It’s either Coney sauce or chili gravy, the latter of which is the liquid skimmed off the top of pot of chili that’s sparsely populated with flecks of meat and thickened with ingredients such as masa, stale bread, crackers or even old hot dog buns to make a better topping. The Coney stuff is sweeter and closer to Cincinnati-style chili, a dish which Greek immigrants adapted from kima — and it is a far cry from Texas chili.
When it comes to beans, people have been putting “the musical fruit” in chili since shortly after its conception. In fact, the chili maids themselves started serving it with beans and tortillas in the late 19th century. These days, chili with beans is probably the more popular style. Eat what you like, because in the end, adaptation, improvisation and experimentation with new ingredients and flavors is what makes cooking exciting and has led to all of the world’s great cuisines.
I will, however, end this with the official International Chili Society anthem played at every Terlingua Chili Cook-Off, where no chili-with-beans recipes are allowed to compete in the Traditional category, followed by my own recipe.
You burn some mesquite
And when the coals get hot
You bunk up some meat
And you throw it on a pot
With some chile pods and garlic
And comino and stuff.
Then you add a little salt
Till there’s just enough
You can throw in some onions
To make it smell good.
You can even add tomatoes
If you feel like you should
But if you know beans about chili
You know that chili has no beans.
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.
“If You Know Beans About Chili, You Know That Chili Has No Beans” — Ken Finlay, 1976
Madman Mario’s New-Fangled Chili Con Carne
- ½ cup of rendered tallow, suet or lard.
- 2 ½ pounds chopped or ground beef chuck. I like to vary the texture and grind some while also cutting some into small cubes. You can even cook large cuts, shred the meat once it’s tender and return it to the pot.
- 9 ounces beef chorizo
- 1 cup of homemade dried chili paste*, plus more to taste
- 2 cups of homemade beef stock, plus more to taste
- 2 destemmed red jalapeños or serranos, finely chopped, with or without the seeds
- 6 large cloves of freshly grated garlic (I use a whole bulb)
- 2 large yellow onions, finely chopped or grated
- 2 tablespoons of cumin seeds, toasted and freshly ground
- 2 teaspoons of homemade garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon of homemade onion powder
- 1 teaspoon of dried Mexican oregano
- 1 teaspoon white pepper, plus more to taste
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- 1 tablespoon homemade or New Mexico chili powder
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper, plus more to taste
- 2 bay leaves
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Kosher salt to taste
- 1 tablespoon masa harina to thicken (optional)
*For the chili paste: Bring half of a pot of water to a boil. At the same time, toast a blend of destemmed and cleaned guajillo, ancho, pasilla, chile de árbol and New Mexico chiles in the oven. A small handful of each will work until you become familiar with the tastes, heat level and color of each and can dial in your own proportions. Once fragrant, remove the chilis and turn off the stovetop. Rehydrate the chilis in the pot. After an hour or so, discard the water. Use an immersion blender, or carefully add the chilis to a blender or food processor, to blend the chilis until smooth with seven ounces of canned chipotles in adobo sauce, ½ a teaspoon each of ground cumin, onion and garlic powder, white pepper, a pinch of salt and enough homemade beef stock or water to achieve your desired thickness (about three cups). Strain the blended sauce and set aside. I like to use both chili paste and chili powder to enhance the overall body and depth of flavor.
In a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, begin adding tallow by the tablespoon, followed by the beef. Season with salt and black pepper. Cook in batches if necessary until it begins browning. Remove from the pot and set aside.
Add the onions and garlic and sauté in the leftover drippings. After a couple of minutes, add about a ¼ cup of the stock to deglaze the pot. (Alternatively, you can use a malt-forward beer, such as a Dunkel, whiskey or even wort — sweet, unfermented beer. Cook until the alcohol is reduced before the next steps.) Scrape the meaty bits off the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon as it simmers.
Bring the beef back to the pot and add the chorizo, chili paste, peppers, smoked paprika, cumin, powders, white pepper, Mexican oregano and garlic, onion and chile powders. Stir to combine. Use a few tablespoons of tomato paste if you’d like to sweeten the pot, and your favorite hot sauce or chili crunch if you’d like to heat things up. If it’s too spicy, vinegar can help temper the heat and adds tanginess. I’ve had some delicious results after adding berbere, Cajun seasoning, black garlic, piri piri peppers and gochujang.
Add the stock and bay leaves, stir and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer partially covered for about three hours with intermittent stirring. Check to make sure the bottom of the pot isn’t burning. Add more stock, seasonings and salt as needed. Remove the bay leaves.
If you’d like to thicken the chili, skim a few spoonfuls of the chili oil from the top of the pot and put it in a cup. Slowly mix in the masa harina, creating a chili gravy slurry. Stir it back into the pot until you achieve your desired thickness.
Serve in a bowl neat, over Fritos or tamales, or garnish with chopped white or green onions, shredded cheese, sour cream — whatever you like! Cornbread, crackers and tortillas are all great side dishes. It will be even better the next day once all the flavors have melded. I like finishing it with smoked sea salt or pickled red onions.
Transfer the remaining chili into airtight containers. It should last for three to four days in the refrigerator.
Mario-Sebastian Berry is a wine and spirits vendor who has been in the hospitality industry since 2002. Currently, he represents Blanco, Texas-based Andalusia Whiskey Co. and multiple wine labels. Somehow, he also finds time to be Houston Food Finder’s associate editor and social media manager.