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Cooking Championship Chili

Updated on October 2, 2015

When it comes to chili, more can be less. Old chili cooks often say that to improve your chili, remove an ingredient. Indeed, a classic bowl of red consists simply of meat, peppers, spices and garlic.

Alphabet Soup

Chili's origins are unknown (the dish is chili and the pepper is chile), but it's safe to say it's not Mexican. Travelers in Texas in the 1850s pounded together a concoction made of dried beef, fat, pepper, salt and chiles. Texas Rangers and soldiers carried dehydrated brick chili on the trail. It's thought by some that poor residents of San Antonio invented chili to make use of bad cuts of meat, and others think the dish originated in Texas prisons.

Enter the Competition

The International Chili Society (ICS) and Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) sanction hundreds of cookoffs each year, raising hundreds of millions of dollars for charity over the years. ICS holds the World's Championship Chili Cookoff each fall, with the city changing each year. CASI stages the Terlingua International Chili Championship on the first Saturday of November in Terlingua, a remote town in west Texas.

Headed for someone's championship chili ...
Headed for someone's championship chili ... | Source

The CASI event traces its roots directly to the first chili cookoff, a publicity stunt that pitted Texan Wick Fowler against easterner H. Allen Smith back in 1967. Smith had displayed the effrontery to pen a piece called “Nobody Knows More About Chili than I do” in Holidaymagazine. Their co-conspirator was Dallas newspaperman Frank X. Tolbert, author of the authoritative and charming book, A Bowl of Red.

As cookoffs spread, a curious thing happened. Chili split off into two categories: eating chili and cookoff chili. The latter isn't designed to be eaten, but rather to impress a judge who likely will consume only one spoonful. It's like comparing a NASCAR machine to the make of automobile whose nameplate adorns it.

Cookoff chili is usually made from cubed beef with a chili gravy. Eating chili is less spicy, and is likely to be made from ground beef. Don't use regular ground beef; get a coarse chili grind instead. You can often find chili grind in grocery stores; if you don't see it, ask the butcher to grind some beef with a 1/2- to 3/4-inch blade.

Do Your Homework

Before you enter a cookoff, study what the cooks are doing and how the judges evaluate their efforts. You can find plenty of information online, including at the ICS and CASI websites. It's not hard to get yourself onto the judging panel of a local cookoff. Consider judging once or twice to familiarize yourself with the process.

Once you've decided on a recipe, stick with it, at least for the course of a cookoff. The key to improving and becoming a winner is predictably. You need to know how your chili is going to turn out, and to do that you need to use consistent ingredients. For example, use the same brand of powdered—not fresh—garlic each time, and if you use tomatoes, find a tomato sauce you like and use that. The same goes for onions: powdered, not fresh.

Change your recipe methodically. If you change more than one or two variables at a time, you won't know how each affects the outcome. Note your changes, the cooking conditions and their consequences.


To cook a winning chili, you need to use your head, know something about cooking and be aware of what the judges want to see. ICS and CASI don't judge exactly the same, but most judges are looking at color, aroma, consistency, taste and aftertaste.

You don't want too much grease in your chili. It should have a nice color that can range from red to brown. It should smell good, and shouldn't be too thick or thin. Dan Bauer, an Alexandria, Va. resident who has placed second twice at Terlingua, inserts a plastic spoon in his chili at an angle. The chili is the correct thickness if the spoon slowly falls over.

Your chili shouldn't be lumpy. This is another reason to use powdered vegetables instead of chopped. It shouldn't be grainy, either, so be sure your spices are finely ground. You want it to taste good, of course, and you're looking for a pleasant aftertaste, with perhaps a bit of an after-burn Good chili has a nice, round heat allover the mouth and throat. Pass on the flaming heat. Excessively hot chili doesn't score well.

What to put in your Chili

Good chili is made from good ingredients.

Look for meat with a touch of marbling and little gristle. Chuck is good, and some cooks use mock tender (tri-tip), which can be tough to find. Walk by the sirloin; it will turn to mush. Chop the meat into 3/8- to 1/2-inch cubes the night before the cookoff. Partially frozen meat is easier to cube. Cut uniform cubes and set aside anything that isn't a cube. Rinse the meat before you toss it in the pot; excess blood can form lumps.

You will need to ads some fat. You can use bacon grease, olive oil, vegetable oil or shortening, for example.

Steer clear of grocery-store chili powders. These often contain ingredients such as oregano, cumin, salt and garlic, which you want to add separately. Buy pure ground chile pepper, and consider using several types to round out the heat and add complexity to your chili's flavor.

Don't put water in your chili. Instead, consider something like chicken or beef broth. People always talk about putting beer in chili, but it can add off flavors. If you do use beer, make sure it isn't too bitter, because the bitterness will become magnified as it cooks down.

Avoid graininess and lumps in your chili. Use tomato sauce, which has no seeds like a real tomato does. Peppers should go in a muslin bag that you can remove. Alternatively, remove peppers before they break open. Take your ground spices and grind them again. You can use a coffee mill, which hopefully hasn't been used to grind coffee.

Don't be shy with the salt. You don't want inedible chili, but you do want to enhance its flavors, and your competitors will be doing the same. Adjust the color with paprika. Achieve a nice, round spiciness with a blend of peppers that might include white or black pepper, jalapeno powder, and red and green hot sauce.

A touch of sweetness can balance the heat and bitterness of chiles. Tomato sauce might do the trick on its own. Apple juice, honey and brown sugar are also good. Add sweeteners judiciously.

Thicken your creation if necessary with a neutral agent such as flour or corn starch. Masa harina is nicht so gut, as judges tend not to like its taste.

Leave the beans out of your chili, at least until after it's judged.

The Art of Dumping

Chili cooks usually add spices in stages, or “dumps”. Most use two or three dumps. The first dump goes in the meat, the second in the gravy, if it's cooked separately, and the last goes in the finished product shortly before it's sent to the judges.

You want the first dump to penetrate the meat. This provides the after-burn. Hold off on the cumin, as it becomes bitter if cooked too long. If you add a dump to your separately cooked gravy, think about bringing it to a boil and cutting the heat. This will steep the spices and break them down without overcooking. The last dump is the “kicker” or “booster”. This is meant to freshen up the aroma and flavor for the judges. This is a good time for cumin, garlic and finely ground red chile.

Don't stir your chili too much after it boils, as this will break down the meat. Bauer looks for a “nine-bubble boil”, where you see about nine bubbles on the surface at any time.

You will submit your chili for judging in a Styrofoam container. Season your container with a rub of fresh garlic around the interior, and then dust it with cumin to soak up the plastic flavors. Rinse the cup to remove any bits of garlic. Fill it with about 60 percent meat and top it off with gravy. Leave about an inch of head space, and look for the meat to float lightly in the gravy.

Be humble when the judges pronounce your chili the winner.

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    • profile image

      Ouz 2 years ago

      I remember a time long ago when I was a MIT (Manager in tininrag) at Laundry's Seafood, the kitchen manager would get the newbies to do the stuffed jalapeno poppers and the other kitchen staff would not tell them to wear gloves talking about hands, faces, and maybe eyes burning the rest of the day! LOL

    • giocatore profile image

      giocatore 5 years ago

      Thanks much. I will have to take a look at your hub. Cheers.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

      I have linked this to my hub, "How to make chili, spicy or mild" since you have such nice information on chili competitions. Thanks!