A bowl of chili is not just easy to make—it’s easy to make well, whether you’re an inexperienced home cook, a cowboy, or a Texan prisoner.
See, there is no one definition of chili. Its history is murky and at least two groups—the Texans and the Western cowboys—claim the one-pot meal as their own, though the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs probably ate some form of the stew centuries before that.
Supposedly, prisons in Texas served grub so bad that inmates added tons of peppers to mask the taste—that’s the literal chile con carne, or “peppers with meat”—while the Western cowboys were trying to turn the dried meat they carried around into a proper meal as a last resort. In both cases, bowls of spicy, garlicky meat did the trick. And so chili comes down to us in so many meaty forms: a Super Bowl main, a topping for fries, a sauce to be mixed with spaghetti (that’s Cincinnati style), and even a healthful, meatless vegetarian dish.
And that’s why its hazy definition makes chili an ideal candidate for your culinary mastery.
“If it’s a peasant dish, all bets are off,” said Matt Timms, who founded the Chili Takedown cooking competition. “And chili is a peasant dish.” That means there’s always a way to customize chili, creating a signature version that’s right for your needs, whether that means an NFL Sunday feast or weeknight dinners that’ll leave you with leftovers for the week.
But if there’s no definition, though, where to start?
The basic bowl of competition-grade “Texas red” contains bacon fat, chile peppers, spices, meat, and garlic. But most conventional chilis also use onions, garlic, tomatoes, and beans. To perfect your own, we’ll start with a basic version, hitting all the benchmarks while leaving room for you to mount your horse, make like a cowboy, and add your own pizzazz.
Here are the components of (almost) every chili, and tips for how to tweak them to your needs. Grab a heavy Dutch oven with a lid, then get to work.