The Science and Secrets to a Perfect Chili
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The Science and Secrets to a Perfect Chili

Beans or no beans? How do you make an award winning Chili? What's the secret to the best Chili? Did Chili really originate in Texas?

Chili Chile is a Mexican Dish

There's a reasonable argument to be made that Chili is a Mexican dish. The Universal Dictionary of English published in 1897 describes Chili as being a condiment sauce made from chiles, tomatoes and spices cooked in vinegar which would be what we refer to as a "hot sauce" these days.

The first known reference to a Texan Chili is from J.C. Cooper visiting San Antonio described the dish being prepared by Tejanos in 1827. Because it was made by Tejanos (mexican immigrants), it's likely the dish originated in Mexico. What we would call Chili today has some historical references starting in the 1850's but was called "Chile con Carne", and does not seem to have any historical roots in Mexico.

There is a very traditional dish in Mexico named Chile Colorado going back to 1626 and is arguably the original Chili. The Diccionario de la lengua castellana published in 1809 describes a recipe for Chile Colorado (and has a similar description to J.C. Cooper's).

Chile Colorado, Chile con Carne and Texas Chili are very difficult to discern when looking at just their ingredients. At Rotten Recipes, when we group recipes together we typically either use a normalization technique on the name of the recipe; or we use the ingredients to determine how similar the recipes are. When grouping recipes by ingredient all of these get lumped together. More interesting is "Colorado" is Spanish for "Colored Red".

If Chile Colorado pre-dates both recipes by a century; and was prevalent in the same region with similar ingredients, well it wouldn't be that big of a leap to believe Texas Red Chili is just Chile Colorado.

Lisa Fain, a James Beard Award Winner (and a proud Texan) has an excellent Chile Colorado recipe and points out the odd similarities between the two dishes. Rick Martinez has a wonderful Chile Colorado recipe that is also very similar to a any modern day chili, although it uses pork not beef.

With such similarities Chile Colorado could have been adopted by Texans and instead of referring to it as Chile Colorado (or Chile con Carne) they just called it Chili. In addition, due to the Mexican—American war the dish may have been intentionally obscured from it's roots in Mexican Cuisine and become defiantly American. Unlike other Tex-Mex cuisines, Chili has a deeper history in Mexican culture that probably should deserve moving it from a Tex-Mex to just Mex.

However — while Chili has a much deeper history in Mexico, there is a vibrant and evolving culture in Texas that is passionate about Chili. Chili is becoming something more uniquely Texan in the past century, and because of that Chili will probably never be known as Chile ever again, and perhaps it shouldn't. In respect to the Mexican heritage and to the culture of Texans who are keeping modern Chili such a dynamic dish we may just want to keep referring to them separately and say Chile is Mexican, Chili is American.

Whole Chiles or Chili Powder?

This may come as a surprise but chili powder rated better than using whole chiles. This wasn't universal for all chili powders, but generally speaking they did better. Overall this tends to make little sense as it's generally accepted that using whole chiles would provide a better flavor. We have a few theories as to why this could be.

First, the amount of chiles used in recipes which called for whole chiles was nearly double that of chili powder. In addition, chiles can vary considerably in size so it could be the amount used in whole chile recipes is too much or too inconsistent.

Second, chili powder is generally a combination of various spices and chiles. The ratios of other things like garlic powder, onion powder and oregano (or other components) may need to be properly adjusted when using whole chiles due to there varying sizes.

Third, whole chiles oxidize faster than chili powder, most chili powders are sealed while whole chiles tend to come in loose bags or cellophane containers. It could be possible that grocery stores may not have any motivation to remove stale chiles as they're still shelf stable.

Fourth, recipes that called for toasting chili powder in oil or the chiles in a dry pan did better than non-toasted versions. However, when using whole chiles it may be difficult to get a uniform toast as they're inherently misshapen. It's also easy to burn a chile (even at low heat) causing very bitter flavors.

For chili powder there was a standout brand, Gebhardt (not a sponsor). It did uniformly better than any other brand or generic chili powder. Some other popular brands used in Chili competitions are Mexene and Mild Bills. Remember to toast your chili powder in oil and perhaps add chili powder at different stages, this is popular among chili cook-offs to add "dumps" of spices at different times.

For whole chiles; 1. When using whole chiles do not use them if they are brittle or crumble, they should be like a raisin, a bit flexible, pliable and have a bit of moisture still. 2. Cut them into strips and toast them uniformly on a low heat. 3. Discern if there are larger or smaller chiles than normal and adjust the recipe appropriately. 4. Consider using less chiles than called for.

What Chiles?

Arbol, Cascabel, Chipolte and Negro's did better than most chiles; but only marginally. Guajillo, Mulato and Pequin also did fairly well. Pasilla chiles did alright but New Mexican chiles did poorly.

What About Beans?

Recipes with beans did perform a bit better than those without them but not by any amount that would be profound (z=0.04 with vs. z=-0.41 without). As far as what beans to use (if using beans), most beans did just fine, great northern beans (a white bean) did best but there wasn't a specific bean that performed poorly. Kidney beans rated the lowest of all of them, but it still did just fine, so don't sweat what bean to use, if you have it, it's probably just fine. As far as soaking there was no difference between recipes which had instructions for soaking their beans vs. ones that don't.

The majority of recipes for Chili do include beans (a bit shy of 75%), including a somewhat curious recipe by the New York Times that claims to be Texas Chili yet includes beans, likely to the cringe of most Texans.

What about Tomatoes?

Sure, why not? Tomatoes consistently benefited the dish with the exception of raw whole tomatoes. If you plan on adding them stick to using a combination of tomato paste for body and tomato puree for flavor.

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Chili Secrets

Vinegar and sugar both correlated highly to the rating and amount used, but there's a catch, they need to be increased together in a 1:1 ratio. This could be because a sweet and sour component in chili was a nice addition, but too much sugar or vinegar independently didn't do well. In addition, apple cider vinegar and light brown sugar were by far the more popular combinations. Try adding more vinegar and sugar to your next Chili and see if it helps.

Smoky components in Chili scored very well; smoked paprika, liquid smoke and even cooking the Chili in a dutch oven over a charcoal fire (without a lid) all increased the rating. Try using smoked beef brisket in your next chili, add some liquid smoke or increase the smoked paprika in the dish. Oddly increasing the amount of Chipotle chiles (which are smoked) didn't seem to have the same effect, perhaps because it also added heat.


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What type of meat?

Turkey surprisingly performed best, turkey is also very commonly used in mexican chile dishes including moles. Beef was also an excellent choice but short rib should be avoided, stick with ground beef or chuck roast. Pork rated high but was used the least in recipes. Avoid ground pork, pork tenderloin and use a shoulder or boston butt cut. Finally, chicken performed the worst, chicken breast did OK, but avoid chicken thighs.

Making an Award Winning Chili

The Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) publishes the winning Chili cook-off recipe every year. To make award winning chili just make theirs.


Explore the Data

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Recipe Breakdown

chili powder
olive oil
tomato paste
black pepper
sour cream
cayenne pepper
ground beef
bell pepper
kidney bean