by Kara Kimbrough
This article first appeared in the October 2017 edition of eat. drink. MISSISSIPPI magazine and was updated on October 29, 2023
“Chilly enough for a little chili?” These and other clichés were served up as often as the thick bowls of aromatic beef, tomatoes, and seasonings at a recent chili cook-off where EDM contributor Kara Kimbrough served as a judge. Besides sampling enough chili, she learned a lot about the dish we call a soup, stew, and main dish. Along the way, she also gathered a few recipes to test and pass along.
First, veteran chili cook-off chefs say we’re got it all wrong. We’re used to filling our chili pots with a mixture of tomatoes, ground beef, beans, and spices. The first chili dish ladled into a tin pan over a campfire somewhere out west on the American frontier was a totally different dish from the familiar red concoction we enjoy today.
Texas Rangers, cowboys, and assorted other adventurers in the 1800s made chili from dried beef, fat, pepper, salt, and chilies that was pounded together with heavy objects found around the campsite. Some carried dehydrated chili "bricks" made at home and thrown into their saddlebags. Others believe chili may have originated in Texas prisons, where large vats of leftover meat and tomatoes were an inexpensive way to feed inmates.
Today’s chili cook-offs are annually held in hundreds of U.S. cities and towns, following in the footsteps of the first one held in Texas in 1967. Genuine cook-off chili primarily consists of cubed beef with chili gravy. The cubed meat makes sense in a competition, judges say, as cooking ground meat for three or more hours makes it too soft.
Experts say chili should not be excessively greasy, too thick, or too thin. It shouldn't be lumpy, so leave out the chopped vegetables. Likewise, guard against grainy chili by making sure spices are finely ground.
When it comes to meat, select a piece with just a little marbling and not much gristle. Some chili cooks prefer chopped chuck, while others opt for mock tender (also called tri-tip), which isn't easy to find. Don't use sirloin, veterans say -- it's too mushy for a hearty chili. If you’re cooking up a pot at home and opt for ground beef, make it a coarse chili grind. This can sometimes be found in grocery stores; if not, ask your butcher to grind a piece of beef for you.
Real chili cooks don't use grocery-store chili powders, which contain a combination of ingredients like oregano, cumin, salt, and garlic in addition to chili pepper. They add these ingredients separately.
Additional tips from veteran chili cooks include:
Use chicken or beef broth instead of water for cooking liquid.
Use tomato sauce instead of chili tomatoes, so you won’t have seeds in your chili.
Spiciness should be distributed throughout the mouth when enjoying a bowl of chili. This is achieved by using a range of chilies and peppers that can include ground black pepper and white pepper, jalapeno powder and hot sauce. Use paprika to adjust color.
For a special touch, add a drop of apple juice, honey or a dash of brown sugar.
Experts also agree on the need for a side of hot cornbread to complete a bowl of simmering chili. What about a recipe that creates both in one dish? (After trying it, I’m giving One Skillet Chili and Cornbread Combo a blue ribbon.)
One Skillet Chili and Cornbread Casserole
1 tablespoon olive oil
1-1/2 pounds beef chuck, cut into small cubes
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
3/4 cup fine cornmeal, plus 1 extra tablespoon
3/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus 1 extra tablespoon
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
3 teaspoons bottled minced garlic
3-4 tablespoons chili powder (lesser amount for milder chili)
2 teaspoons ground cumin
3 cups chicken broth
2 (10-ounce) cans diced tomatoes with chilies, drained
1 (14.5-ounce) can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 large egg
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup sour cream, plus more for serving
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a 12-inch cast-iron skillet, heat olive oil over high heat, coating pan well.
In a separate bowl, mix beef with salt and pepper, one tablespoon of the flour, and one tablespoon of the cornmeal, stirring well to combine. Pour the beef into the hot skillet and cook over high heat until meat is browned, 6 to 10 minutes.
Reduce heat to medium and add chopped onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft; 7-8 minutes. Add desired amount of chili powder and cumin and cook, stirring to mix ingredients; about 1 minute.
Add chicken stock, tomatoes, and beans, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender and the sauce is thicker; about 30 minutes. Stir in a little water if mixture becomes too dry.
While chili is cooking, stir together the remaining 3/4 cup cornmeal, 3/4 cup flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, baking soda, and 1 teaspoon salt in a medium bowl. In another bowl, whisk the sour cream, milk, and egg together.
Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, stirring until well combined. Stir in the melted butter and Cheddar cheese. Drop large spoonfuls of batter on top of the chili, leaving a little space in between. Batter will not completely cover the chili.
Place oven in skillet and bake until cornbread is golden brown and the chili is hot and bubbly, about 17 minutes. Remove the skillet from the oven and let cool for a few minutes before serving. Top with additional sour cream if desired.