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texas chili

Texas Style Chili Con Carne

"Next to jazz music, there is nothing that lifts the spirit and strengthens the soul more than a good bowl of chili. Congress should pass a law making it mandatory for all restaurants serving chili to follow a Texas recipe." Harry James, Swing Era Bandleader

If ever there was a food whose definition could bring otherwise genial people to fisticuffs, chili is it. Everyone seems to have a definition for what it is and what it isn't. But, since it probably originated in Texas when it was part of Mexico, and since chili is the official dish of the Republic of Texas, and there is less controversy in Texas over what real chili is, and since everybody in Texas is packin' heat, I'll swear by their definition.

Chili probably originated as a peasant stew using tough, cheap cuts of meat. The original recipes were probably just trim and chunks of chewy cuts of beef or buffalo, some chile peppers, garlic, and onion boiled in a pot. It was popular with cowboys and some folks think armadillo, jackrabbit, and even rattlesnake often found their way into the kettle. But no beans. That's right, classic Texas chili is con carne? (with meat), not con frijoles (the stuff called chili that is served on hot dogs in Cincinnati is something else altogether).

And about the spelling. This stuff is properly spelled chili with a final "i". The peppers used to make it are properly spelled chile with a final "e". For more on the subject read about chiles here.

Beginning in the late 1960s, numerous chili cookoffs all over Texas, New Mexico, and many points beyond, have brought scores of tasty recipes to the fore. Here is one that contains all the classic traditional ingredients of the old timey range cook along with some clever recent additions. Like chocolate. Unsweetened chocolate was a common additive in the cooking of Mexican Indians, who first discovered the brown stuff, and a little bit adds a subtle background depth and richness that is often found in the top award winning recipes. Many cooks insist on unsweetened chocolate, but then they add sugar to the pot. And it can add bitterness as we learned while testing the recipe. But good old milk chocolate is the perfect addition.

A lot of recipes also add beer, but we thought that contributed to bitterness, so we left it out.

Another interesting addition is tortilla chips. A Mexican cook will use corn masa, the dough used to make tortillas. By adding chips we get pretty much the same result without the labor, and a little salt.

Most chili recipes start by rendering fat in the bottom of a kettle and frying the ingredients a few at a time building flavor by browning the meat, caramelizing the onions, and blooming the spices. But we know there's more flavor to be gained on the grill and smoker, so we started there.

For more info about Texas chili and winning recipes from the famous Terlingua International Chili Championship, go to the website of the Chili Appreciation Society International.

Chili is often better after a day or two, so make up more than you need.

Makes. about 3 1/2 quarts or about 8 servings

Preparation time. 40 minutes

Cooking time. 3 hours or so

Special equipment. A 2 quart pot. Although cast iron kettles and Dutch ovens are popular, a non-reactive pan would be better.

Serve with. A loaf of crusty bread, and plenty of Shiner Bock longnecks.


3 pounds of beef chuck (after trimming off as much fat and gristle as possible, see notes below)

2 large onions, sliced in half, peeled, root and top lopped off

4 strips bacon

3 carrots, peeled and chopped into cubes about 1/4"

1 red bell pepper, chopped

4 cloves garlic, pressed or minced

3 tablespoons American chili powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin seed

1 (14.5 ounces) can diced tomatoes

4 tablespoons of fresh lime juice

1 ounce milk chocolate, chopped into pea-size chunks

1 quart low sodium beef stock or water

10 corn tortilla chips, crumbled

Salt, pepper, and brown sugar to taste when it is done cooking

Optional toppings

2 jalapeños finely minced

1 cup shredded cheddar

4 tablespoons of chopped cilantro

1/2 cup sour cream

2 chopped fresh tomatoes

2 (8") fresh tortillas, grilled, and cut into strips

1 squeeze of lime juice per serving

About the meat. You need to use all beef if you want to win a competition in Texas, but for more interesting flavors you can use a mix of beef, pork, chicken, and lamb if you wish. In Texas the choice is usually cheaper cuts of beef like chuck, shoulder, sirloin roast, brisket, or stew meat, never tenderloin, ribeye, or strip. I use chuck, but short ribs and brisket point are wonderful choices. If you have leftover smoked Texas style beef brisket or pulled pork, that will work just fine. If you've got buffalo, rabbit, or rattlesnake, throw it in, too.

About the chili powder. Chili powders are blends and no two are alike. Some are quite hot, others mild. I use my own recipe (follow the link). Mine is heavy on the ancho chiles, and that is important. Most chili con carne is heavily flavored by ancho. It has a deep raiseny character and is not very hot. You can add ancho powder if you wish.

About the chocolate. Traditionalists use only unsweetened dark chocolate, but semi-sweet or sweet will do. The small amount of sweetness will not hurt the stew. If you are using unsweetened chocolate, be careful chopping it or you'll have a finger in the stew.

About the tortilla chips. You can use any of the popular storebought brands that are corn based and not heavily flavored. Because they are usually heavily salted we do not salt the stew until after it has cooked a while and we have tasted it.

About the carrots. Another controversial ingredient. I think they bring a sweetness, a crunch if you don't over or undercook them, and nice color. So there.

Optional add-ins if you are not in Texas. 2 (16 ounces) cans of kidney and/or pinto beans, drained. If you add beans, it won't be Texas chili, but it will still be good. I won't tell anyone. Add canned beans for 30 minutes before serving.

About the toppings. Garnish the individual bowls as you wish. I like to take fresh tortillas, toast them on the grill, cut them into strips, sprinkle them on top, sprinkle on some chopped onion, and add a dollop of sour cream. Or you could just put the toppings in bowls and let people garnish to their own taste. Go crazy.

Optional bottomings. Rice is a popular bottoming. Chili is great when served on pasta. Not classic, but really good. Boil 1.5 cups of water with 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Add 6 cups of cooked macaroni, penne, or rigatoni pasta. Cook til al dente. Put a cup in each bowl and serve the chili on top. I also like chili on top of baked potato.


1) It is really important to do mise en place for this recipe. That means you need to gather all the other ingredients together before you start cooking.

2) Fire up your grill for 2-zone indirect cooking or fire up your smoker at 225°F, and get some smoke rolling. Smoke the meat and the onion just enough to pick up flavor. They will finish cooking in the stew. That means about 30 minutes for the onion and 2 hours for the meat. You don't need to season or rub either before smoking. Throw them in nekkid. When they are done, coarsely chop the onion, and cut the meat into cubes about 1/2" on each side.

cili meat

3) Turn the heat under the pot to medium-low and add the bacon. When it is mostly done, remove it and add the meat and cook til it is brown on all sides. Don't crowd the pot or the meat will steam. You may have to work in batches. Then add the onion, garlic, chili powder, cumin, and cook for about 2 minutes. Stir well and make sure to get the brown bits off the bottom. Add the tomatoes, lime juice, meat, chocolate, tortilla chips, and the stock or water. Stir well. Save the bacon for a topping.

4) Cover and simmer over low for about 2 to 3 hours. Stir often to make sure it is not sticking to the bottom and burning. Don't forget!

5) When it is about the thickness you like, taste it and add salt, pepper, and brown sugar to taste. Add more water if it is too thick. If you want it hotter, add your favorite hot sauce, chipotle powder, or chipotle in adobo sauce. Add this a little bit at a time. Remember, as my barber used to say, "I can cut it off, but I can't put it back on."

6) Add the carrots and sweet bell peppers about 15 minutes before serving, before taking the chili off the heat. You want them to have a little crunch. You can omit them, but I recommend you don't. If you are serving it for a party, you can put it in a slow cooker on low and let people help themselves. Finally, top with the bacon and any of the other toppings that you want, or serve the toppings in bowls and let people pick and chose. Traditionalists serve chili straight with a good crusty bread suitable for dunking. There's a good reason.


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