Probably one of the most well known American
dishes, and some people might even suggest as the best
thing that ever came out of Texas
, there are as many recipe
s for Chili as there are people who make it. There is no such thing as an "authoritative
" recipe, because you'd be hard pressed to find even a handful
of people agreeing on a certain recipe as producing the best Chili. The hearty
and heavily spiced
dish that some people dare to call a soup
makes some people drool
at the mere mention of the word - and even among those rare people who do not like any incarnation of it, many will admit to loving the smell
as it cooks. There are entire cookbook
s filled with recipes.
Note that "chile" refers to the chile pepper plant, or the fruit of the plant - or the country in South America. Chilli usually refers to the dried powdered spice, but may be a very uncommon alternate spelling. Chili is also sometimes known as chili con carne, or literally, "chili with meat" - anthropod has a good writeup over in that node.
Where did this delicious stuff come from? Well, a couple hundred years ago, when cowboys were for real, there was the need for them to figure out foods that would nourish them with enough energy to last, yet not take quite as much effort as a full-out meal as in the evenings. There was also the complete lack of refridgeration while on the trail, and fresh food was limited. So a selection of ingredients common to the area found themselves together. Pork, beef, oregano, garlic, and chile peppers were mixed and prepared, and the result was known in the area simply as "bowl", or "bowl of red". It was likely influenced Spanish stews, brought by a few colonists to the area from Spain, who had settled near the Mission San Antonio de Bejar (The Alamo). The first chile peppers used were likely to have been chilipiquíns, which grow wild on bushes throughout what is now the Southwest United States.
The first known records of an actual Chili mix were dated from about 1850. It involved a pounded mix of dried beef, fat, pepper, salt, and chile peppers. This pounded mix was formed into bricks, which could be simply put in a pot with boiling water along the trail. Some have even claimed that oregano, garlic, onion, and peppers were planted along some of the more common trails, so that those ingredients would always be available.
Some residents of prisons in Texas had also laid claim to the creation of chili. Supposedly, the ingredients available in the prisons weren't of the best quality, and the beef needed to be cut up and cooked a long time to be edible, and the spices helped make that possible. Whether or not they truly created the dish is unknown, but unlikely. Regardless, prisons used to be rated by the inmates on the quality of their chili - the places with better chili were known and desired by those unfortunate enough to be in the prison system.
The first actual chili powder is also in doubt. There are claims that either DeWitt Clinton Pendery, in Fort Worth, Texas, or William Gebhardt, in San Antonio, Texas, was the first to put together a blend of dried chile pepper, in 1890, for the purposes of making the dish known as chili. Regardless of who was truly first, both products are still available, Pendery's mix by Mexican Chili Supply Company, and Gebhardt's mix, Eagle Brand Chili Powder, by Gebhardt Mexican Foods Company. Both are still quite popular.
As cattle drives took the cowboys further north, and brough their concoction with them, it started to spread around the country, as people discovered it. In 1893, the Columbian Exposition in Chicago featured a chili booth, set up by the state of Texas. This brought the food into the awareness of the entire nation, though it was yet to really develop. In the meantime, "chili joints" spread through Texas, then into nearby areas. They didn't consist of much, perhaps just a shed, or in a nicer one, a small room with a counter and stools. They normally had poor quality food, looked at as low class - but they helped to promote the spread of the dish. In the meantime, a pair of Macedonian immigrants, Tom and John (Athanas) Kiradjieff in Cincinatti attempted to open a hot dog stand with Greek food. However, as nobody in the area knew anything about greek food, it performed poorly. So, in a bid to find something people would buy, they took what little they knew of chili, added some middle eastern spices, and tossed it onto spaghetti. Cincinatti Chili was born.
When the Great Depression hit the country, people were desperate for cheap, good food. People soon found that chili filled this role very well - tasty and hearty. The recipe spread even more, and small diners, desperate for anything to attract customers in the poor times, started working on improving their chili recipes to draw people in. It worked, keeping chili in the national consciousness. Finally, when things turned around, they didn't leave the food behind. No longer restricted to the cheapest ingredients, people began to experiment. They used different types of meats, beans, spices, cheese, and other toppings.
In 1967, the first chili cook-off took place, in Terlingua, TX. A humorist and author, H. Allen Smith, wrote an article for a magazine, titled No One Knows More About Chili Than I Do. A texas reporter Homer "Wick" Fowler decided to take him up on the challenge. The contest ended in a tie when the tie-breaker judge had a spoon rammed down his throat - but the cook-off was born. Today, many competitions occur every year. There is even the Chili Appreciation Society International, founded in 1951, which has a number of clubs across the US and Canada, and helps to support over 400 sanctioned cook-offs every year on a circuit, reminiscent of a pro sports league.
One thing to remember about making chili is that, other than the chili powder, you'll never find an ingredient that everyone agrees must be included. Feel free to experiment with your own combination.
By far. the most common type of meat you'll find in chili is beef. The exact form depends on where in the country you are, and the type of chili you are making. Southwestern-style chili, especially Texas ones, will have cubed beef, perhaps with small amounts of other meats to compliment the flavor. The chunks are anywhere between 1/4 to 1 inch in size. The cut of beef can vary, with the simple requirement that the tougher the cut, the longer the cooking time to make the meat tender. Stew beef is simple to use, and often available right from the grocery store. Ground beef can also be used, whether in a coarse grind, which is often preferred, or a regular grind as you find in a supermarket.. Be sure to choose leaner meat if using ground beef, as fattier cuts will often lead to greasier chili.
You will find any other type of meat being used, though less commonly. Ground turkey can often provide a healthier alternative to ground beef, and so can ground ostrich. Wild game is also a favorite, especially in Southwestern chili. Even soy-based meat-like substances can be used, though I don't know how that turns out.
While many die-hard chili fans will deny that vegetarian chili is truly chili, there is no requirement that meat even be included. If not, it is highly recommended to use a lot of other ingredients, such as beans and vegetables to make up for it.
Whether or not to include beans in chili is often the biggest source of debate. The original forms of chili did not include any type of bean, and many people still prefer it that way. Others insist that beans are a must to get a true chili, and worthwhile for flavor. Whether or not you include beans most often depends on the kind of chili you grew up with - if you were used to it with beans, then you will be more likely to make recipes using beans. One of the best explanations I've seen states that beans go better with ground meat in the chili - if you are using bigger chunks of meat, then leave out the beans. The suggestion was that the texture made all the difference, since there is such a difference between ground and cubed meat. I would suspect that vegetarian chili would require beans to get the texture one would expect from chili.
The most common beans used for chili are pinto beans and kidney beans, the exact one used tending to be related to geography - kidney beans in the midwest, pinto beans in the southwest. Great Northern beans are often found in while chili, but they, and any other type of bean, can be at home in the right chili recipe. Beans advertised as "chili beans" are simply beans, either kidney or pinto, in a chili sauce - recommended only for quick chili, and not for a big, more serious batch, since you have more control over the flavor without the pre-seasoned beans.
There is a lot of variety as to which vegetables you'll find in chili, though a choice few are the ones most often used.
Garlic is a very popular choice, as it adds tremendous amounts to the flavor, and few people dislike garlic. A few cloves minced, or even pressed directly into the chili is highly recommended.
Onions are also very popular, an ingredient many consider necessary, though as stated, nothing other than chili powder is truly necessary. Some recommend that only white onions be used, as they are the least sweet of all varieties. However, sometimes a little sweetness will balance well with other flavors, so never assume you must stick to any variety of onion. If the recipe calls for white onions and sugar for example, consider ignoring the sugar, and using a sweeter onion.
One may think chile peppers are necessary - though since the chili powder has already brought in their essence to the dish, they are not necessary by any means. There is way too much involved in selecting the proper variety and amount of chile peppers to put into the recipe, so I won't get into that here. I would recommend getting a good flavor with other ingredients first, then experiment to get to the desired spiciness, and learn the various flavors. It is recommend to seed and skin the peppers, as those are the hottest parts, and just using the flesh should allow more of the pepper's flavor to be used.
Bell peppers are another popular choice. They do not have the spiciness of chile peppers, so they don't have as big of an effect on the resulting flavor. They can also bring color to the dish, for a little more visual appeal.
To add, or not to add Tomato - probably the toughest question after deciding whether or not to use beans. Once again, some claim it's not truly chili without tomatoes, others abhor even the presence of tomatoes in their chili. Unlike with beans, however, there's really not any rule to follow when deciding whether or not to add them, other than personal taste. Perhaps just a little tomato sauce to help with the red color and a little flavor, maybe a bit more, such as some simple diced tomatoes, or even all out with a few whole tomatoes, roughly chopped, and tossed in. Bigger tomato chunks will stay together more in the final product, while smaller pieces of tomato might disappear completely.
About the only other vegetable you'll sometimes find in chili is celery. It has a strong aroma and taste, blending with the others to compliment them. Once again, it's little more than a matter of taste, though the crispiness of celery can also come into play in determining whether or not to add it, and when to add it.
About the only time you'll find other vegetables in chili is in a vegetarian chili.
Obviously, chili isn't just a bunch of meat and beans and vegetables thrown into a pot. You need a liquid, and you won't get enough just from the other ingredients. Water is by far the most common, and easiest to use, though definitely far from the only choice. The biggest problem when using water is that there is no flavor inherent to it. Some people even feel it dilutes the chili, and use it only for control over consistency. Broth or stock are also common choices, both beef, the obvious choice, and chicken, even with beef in the chili - some claim it helps to balance the flavors. Tomato juice is also a common selection, but it can produce a very strong tomato taste - best used when other forms of tomato are not included.
Alcohol is also another choice. Beer is common, along with wine, or even tequila. Alcohol does have a strong flavor, and it is easy to overpower the rest of the flavors if too much is added. It is probably best to add in small amounts, and definitely not as your main liquid.
There are more exotic choices that one can find, such as coffee, or even Coca-Cola. While I woundn't suggest such choices, if you're in the mood to experiment, it never hurts to try. (Though some may say that ruining a batch of chili is pretty darn painful - and I am among those people)
This is one of the most important parts to a good chili. Chili isn't simply a mix of ingredients in a liquid - it has strong flavors, flavors that come from the careful selection of spices.
Some of them are obvious. Salt and pepper, especially cayenne pepper, are staples. Garlic salt may be used if you don't have fresh garlic mixed in already. Oregano, mainly the Mexican variant, is often considered essential. Cumin is also quite necessary. Just about any chili powder you can find already has some cumin, but usually it's good to add some in addition to get that strong, distinct flavor.
Other optional spices are majoram, cilantro, and ground coriander seeds. They are also strong, and need to be balanced carefully. Paprika is also common - and as it is the powder of a dried pepper, is right at home in most chilis.
Unsweetened cocoa is also useful to consider adding. By making sure to select unsweetened, you won't get a sweet taste, but something a little more subtle and rich. Adding cocoa pays heritage to some of the Mexican roots of chili, since it is a common ingredient in some of that region's cooking, such as mole sauce.
Hot pepper sauces, such as Tabasco, are also commonly added, both for the sauce's flavor, and the spiciness that many people consider essential to a chili.
There are many prepackaged spice mixes for chili available out there. They range from simple small packets, similar to a packet for taco seasoning, to large bags full of smaller packets inside to add in varying amounts at varying times during cooking. Unlike canned/frozen chili, there's really nothing wrong with using the prepackaged mixes for making chili, as it can be considered more or less just a starting point - a certain mix of ingredients that you begin with, to be customized however you want by adding other ingredients, and additional spices, if so desired. If you are going to use such a mix, one of the larger, more complete ones is recommended, as they often package spices seperately inside, to allow you to add whatever you wish, and simply have more spices inside than the thin little packets, making sure the chili is better spiced.
While some people may like thinner, soup-like chilis (some people even call it "chili soup"), it is by far the less common variant of chili. The overwhelming choice for the consistency of chili is thick, and that usually requires something added to the liquid to thicken it up. By far, the most common choice for thickening chili is masa harina - corn flour. It will add the slighest hint of corn to the taste, especially if used in large amounts, but will help turn chili from a broth with some ingredients, to a thick, hearty consistency that allows people to use crackers or bread as a utensil for eating the chili. But it's all your preference.
When using masa harina to thicken the chili, mix small amounts of it with water/broth outside of the pot, and then stir in the mix. Adding the masa straight to the hot chili tends to form clumps, which are tougher to break up.
It's rare you'll find that the chili, straight out of the pot, is the final product to eat. While it should be exquisitely flavored and delicious as is, as there are so many different tastes people have, it's common to see a selection of items to eat with, and on top of, chili.
Crackers are very common, and you'll usually see only two different types. Oyster crackers, the small hexagonal ones, are one type. They are usually mixed right into the chili, and help to thicken it even more. A large amount may be tossed in at the beginning, or a few at a time, keeping them fresher and crunchy for each bite. Saltines are the other choice, and slightly more flexible, as they can be broken up and added like the oyster crackers, or they can be used as edible utensils, scooping up some on the cracker, and eating it just like that. Corn chips may also be served here, though less commonly.
Cheese is also very popular, usually either Monterey Jack, or a sharp Cheddar (the flavor of mild cheddar is more easily overwhelmed by the chili). It may be either shredded or cubed, though shredded is preferred, as it melts into the chili faster and more smoothly.
Diced onions and peppers are also good choices, even if the chili had some added. The crispness of the fresh diced pieces stand out more, as the cooked ones tend to soften and blend in.
Pasta and rice are sometimes used for a base to put the chili on, though this isn't that common.
Bread may also be used, in a variefy of methods. Regular or cornbread can be used to be eaten with - or even dipped in the chili. Or, if you're trying to make your presentation fancier, you can consider serving it in a bread bowl - a dish that can be eaten along with the chili. Be warned that the bread bowl will absorb some of the moisture from the chili, so it must be thick enough not to soak the bread, but not too thick, or you'll lose all of the liquid.
And always rememeber - make more than enough chili, as leftovers are a necessity. Chili, unlike many other foods, doesn't taste worse, or second-rate after it's been reheated - almost every chili actually will improve in flavor when left in the fridge for a couple days, making it even more delicious when having that bowl two days later. In fact, one restaurant's famous chili was made in huge batches on Sunday, when the place was closed, and then reheated during the week for customers.
As a reward for reading this far, I present you with the 2001 Chili Appreciation Soceity International Chili Championship Winning recipe, by Randy Moore (rewritten to avoid any potential copyright issues). This is a Texas-style, avoiding both beans and tomatoes completely.
Randy's Fool's Gold Chili
2 lbs cubed chuck beef or chili grind
1 14-1/2 oz. Can Swanson's Beef Broth
1 8-oz. Can Contadina Tomato Sauce
1 Cube Beef Bouillon
1 Cube Chicken Bouillon
1 Jalapeno Pepper
1 Serrano Pepper
2 1/2 tsp. Pendery's Onion Powder
1 1/2 tsp. Pendery's Garlic Powder
2 Tbls. Pendery's Fort Worth Light Chili Powder
2 Tbls. Gunpowder Foods Texas Red Chili Powder
2 Tbls. Gebhardt's Chili Powder
1 Tbls. Pendery's Ground Cumin
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 packets Sazon Goya
1/2 tsp. Pendery's Mexican Oregano
Brown the beef.
Add the beef broth, tomato sauce, beef and chicken bouillon. Float the Jalapeno and Serrano pepper in the liquid. Heat to a boil.
Add 2 tsp of onion powder, 1 tsp of garlic powder, 1 Tbsp of he Light Chili Powder, 2 Tbsp of the Red Chil Powder, 1/4 tsp black pepper, and 1 packet of Sazon Goya.
Reduce the heat, and simmer the mixture for about an hour.
Add the oregano, the rest of the onion and garlic powders, the rest of the chili powders, the rest of the black pepper, 1/4 tsp of cayenne pepper, and half a packet of Sazon Goya.
Continue to simmer for another 30 minutes, then squeeze the peppers, and discard the pulp.
Add the rest of the ingredients, and simmer for another 10 minutes.
Chili at About.com, http://mexicanfood.about.com/library/weekly/aa100400a.htm
The Chili Connection, http://members.tm.net/montague/chiliconnection.htm
Chili Appreciation Society International, http://www.chili.org/rmoore.html
See Also: Chili Recipes