I want that chili trophy
October 26, 2011 10:58 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to win a chili cookoff. So that I can be armed with information about what appeals to the broadest audience, please tell me about your favorite chili.

I'm participating in a chili cookoff in a couple weeks and would like to maximize my chances of winning. I like the chili I usually make, but it's pretty tailored to my own tastes. I'd like to know more about what appeals to mainstream eaters who may be voting in a chili cookoff.

Questions I have about what appeals to the biggest common denominator: What kind of meat do you prefer -- ground beef, chuck, shredded beef? Tomatoes or not tomatoes? Thick, or thin? And, if you prefer it thick, do you prefer it thick with stuff, or thickened with something (some use a roux, some use masa)? Do you like visible vegetables, or just meat? Beer, or no beer? Because these answers certainly vary by region, I should point out that I'm in Northern California.

One thing I will be doing for certain is grinding my own chiles. One thing I won't be doing is making a cookoff-style chile (powdered spices and canned stock for predictability). I also won't be doing vegetarian (my personal preference), because they're lumped into the same category and I don't think a vegetarian chili would win.

This cookoff is for a school fundraiser. The judges are just folks (I think it's popular vote) -- not ICS judges.

I'm also wondering if making a unique recipe might be more advantageous than making a more traditional chili. Thoughts on which you'd pick, if you had to?

posted by mudpuppie to Food & Drink (45 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
I like my chili thick. I usually add a can a creamed corn to the pot - it helps thicken it up, and the corn gives a nice added flavor (and color)
posted by Flood at 11:04 AM on October 26, 2011

The Serious Eats chili recipe is killer (with alterations made for the sake of sanity). There's something magical about the star anise and the chocolate and the soy sauce that elevates it above run-of-the-mill chili.

I like my chili with cubed beef, the mrs prefers ground, but we both love this recipe (and try to keep a supply of the chili paste in the freezer). I don't care for chili thickened with masa or a roux, but I do like it fairly thick. Beer, sure. A little bit of whiskey, better.

Good luck!
posted by uncleozzy at 11:10 AM on October 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

Beef cut in inch-cubes, never ground.
Thick. With stuff. (Never tried it with a roux, sounds interesting.)
Yes, tomatoes.
A complex mixture of chiles, to lend depth to the flavor. Don't forget cumin of course.
Good luck; sounds good!
posted by fivesavagepalms at 11:11 AM on October 26, 2011

I forgot to mention, a bit of red wine, maybe a zin, can add zin(g).
posted by fivesavagepalms at 11:15 AM on October 26, 2011

No one ever lost a cookoff by adding more unnecessary fat; I recommend coconut milk, dogg.
posted by Greg Nog at 11:16 AM on October 26, 2011

I'm from Texas, so I don't know that my version of chili is going to go over in N. Cali. The typical bowl of Texas red uses browned coarse ground beef, though cubed is appropriate as well, tomato sauce, cumin, oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne. Thickening is done with masa. No beans.
If you're grinding your own peppers, might I suggest cascabel? Dried Anaheim would also work. If you add Guajillo, you can skip the cayenne.
posted by Gilbert at 11:17 AM on October 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was going to say "use real chiles" but you've covered that. Good for you, and don't forget to wear gloves!

You have to figure that the judges' palates will be pretty fatigued by the whole event, so you want to go in a surprising and refreshing direction that will appeal to the judges in that condition.

I like to use a couple of "secret" ingredients in my cook-off chiles. Real chiles are one. Here are some others:

I think sweet and hot go really well together, so I always add either diced or pureed mango or both. I also like to put chopped cilantro and red onion on top as a garnish. The combination of cilantro smell and mango taste will help your chili "pop".

Toss some marrow bones in there to add umami. Pull the bones out before service.

If you don't have marrow bones, some salt pork or pork belly can serve. I'd cook the belly pretty well first to render a lot of the fat out, then cut it into small cubes. Leave the skin on: the acid will draw out proteins that will thicken the chili.
posted by gauche at 11:18 AM on October 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I like it thick, and I dislike chili with roux generally; you can drain off some of the liquid if need be, that's what I do. The only liquid in my chili is from the tomatoes (which I like but a well-balanced recipe could be built so they're not needed), onions, and an ice-cube of condensed homemade beef stock. I don't use beer but it can be good. (At a point it's like asking if you like your ice-cream with chocolate in it or not; sure, if I want chocolate just then, it's good chocolate, and it meshes with the other flavors well.)

But what I wanted to talk about is onions. If you use them, experiment with different varieties. I usually use basic white onions, but there is a variety of onion found easily in Texas usually labeled as a "sweet" onion that is GREAT. I can't find it often in California unfortunately, but if you can find it, give it a try. It won't go with every recipe but nothing will, really.

Also, I don't use my own chiles because I actually don't like chili that has pieces of chiles in it. I use high quality chili powder from Penzeys and mix in chipotle or ancho powders specifically, depending. And you get different results using smoked paprika versus sweet paprika, etc. I also don't like hardly any heat.

I say that not to discourage you, but to show how subjective it is. Good advice in art and in cooking: take two polarizing extremes and combine them in a palatable way, and you will have something special that a surprising amount of people like that wouldn't otherwise. You can't make a chili everyone will like because one person's favorite thing is another's dealbreaker. What you can do is make something original and memorable that will make some people rethink their dealbreakers. There is nothing cooler than when someone makes you like an ingredient you normally hate, you know? And the people that still don't feel it will at least appreciate that it didn't taste generically unlikeable.
posted by Nattie at 11:18 AM on October 26, 2011

Personal preferences:

ground beef
*Yes! tomatoes! What kind of chili doesn't have tomatoes?
*more than one type of beans. I like black beans along with kidney or whatever.
*spicy, but not spicy enough to mask the yummy factor.
*onions, bell peppers, maybe even a bit of carrot but no corn.
*I really like chili with a bit of chocolate/cinnamon. Not enough that you can tell what it is, but enough for subtle distinction.
*I only thicken if necessary. I rarely find it necessary.
posted by dchrssyr at 11:20 AM on October 26, 2011

Hah, yeah, and as a datapoint I really dislike cubed meat in chili and love ground beef; a consensus is unlikely. Grass-fed has a better flavor, in my opinion too.
posted by Nattie at 11:21 AM on October 26, 2011

I'm sure you've already checked out the chili tag, but these threads in particular have some great suggestions. One idea I've seen mentioned a number of times here in AskMe chili threads is to add a can of peaches; I keep meaning to try it.
posted by hot soup girl at 11:26 AM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thin, Cincinnati-style.

Of course, this probably won't compete well in your Chili cookoff. But there you have it!
posted by glaucon at 11:29 AM on October 26, 2011

Reddit 2AM Chili.
posted by deezil at 11:30 AM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Adobo peppers, black beans instead of chili beans, a cubed cheap beef roast sauteed with garlic and onion, honey added for sweetness, and if all else fails (may the chili gods forgive me) a 1/2 cap of liquid smoke...
posted by Chrischris at 11:33 AM on October 26, 2011

I always add a pinch of cinnamon. But what do I know?
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 11:39 AM on October 26, 2011

Oh hey, don't be afraid to sautee the hell out of your onions as step one. Like, beyond soft, beyond translucent, on low heat into brown French Onion Soup territory. They'll still taste oniony, but they'll be hella sweet, too.

Also seconding black beans! I think I use like two parts black bean to one part kidney bean.

And I have the best luck with a mixture of beef chunks and ground beef, as you get two different textures that way!

Also, you need to kick up the umami a bit? Feel free to throw in a glob of miso paste!

And don't be afraid of the salt. Keep adding more and tasting. Ain't no one doesn't like salt.
posted by Greg Nog at 11:39 AM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have trounced the competition in work chili contests multiple times with this (that is not my post, but that's where I got it from). Definitely spicy, full flavor, beefy, beans completely optional (I don't like them but a lot of people do so if I'm cooking for others I usually add them), and cheap as hell, plus it only simmers for 30 minutes. I'm sort of ashamed of it because of all the cans of stuff and it's not "gourmet" (no chocolate, no fresh chiles, ground beef rather than cubed, etc) and I usually consider myself somewhat of a foodie but what can I say, it's one of the tastiest things I cook.
posted by agress at 11:44 AM on October 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Toast your dry spices in the dry pot before adding the rest of the ingredients. This would include things like cumin, paprika, any powdered chilies like cayenne, cinnamon, garlic powder, etc. Just dump them in, stir the pot around to mix them up and put a medium heat on them until they start to smoke. Then, continue your cooking as normal.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:44 AM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

At the chili cookoffs I've been too, I've found that one of the most important ingredients is a creative name for your chili.
posted by inigo2 at 11:45 AM on October 26, 2011

If judging is by popular vote make a lot of chili. You want to make sure as many people as possible gets a chance to taste it.
posted by plastic_animals at 11:47 AM on October 26, 2011

Esquire's White Bean And Italian Sausage Chili

One of my favorites. Not to everyone's liking.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:57 AM on October 26, 2011

I always add some unsweetened cocoa and some cinnamon. Together, these add an extra layer of flavor that's hard to identify, but is in the nature of smokiness (probably from the slight bitterness).

I often also add smoked paprika, if I'm in the mood for overt smokiness and haven't added much chipotle.
posted by odin53 at 11:59 AM on October 26, 2011

I like medium thickness, sweetness only from caramelized onions, with Worcestershire sauce and/or fish sauce for umami.
posted by runningwithscissors at 12:02 PM on October 26, 2011

I like to add a big chunk of ginger root, peeled and freshly grated into the mix. I have yet to hear a single complaint about how my chili tastes.

My wife has told me I could tame down the heat a bit though, as the last batch was "really good, but kind of like torture" in her words. That's what I get for using fresh farmer's market chilis of unknown hotness - I just chopped, sauteed and added 'em in.
posted by caution live frogs at 12:18 PM on October 26, 2011

Also it needs to pass the "spoon test" - if I let go of the stirring spoon and it doesn't stand up on its own, suspended in the mix, it isn't thick enough yet. I thicken with more ingredients, not masa or roux.
posted by caution live frogs at 12:20 PM on October 26, 2011

I always add some kind of beer, and one of my favorite recipes (now a few steps removed from the smitten kitchen chili) has plenty of carrot and celery chunks.

If you're interested in chicken rather than beef, here's a white bean chili recipe I like:

Cha Cha's White Chicken Chili
posted by pepper bird at 12:21 PM on October 26, 2011

I always try to add a bottle of Stout and some red-chili chocolate for added depth and creaminess.
posted by Jacob G at 12:43 PM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

For me, heat is a must. Lowest Common Denominator wins out here, though - my dad and I always have to add a kick to our own bowls after the fact due to my sisters. It isn't the same, but it does allow everyone to enjoy the chili. That said, he never makes it too mild, either. Just enough to add "personality", as dad calls it.

If you are going to use beans, though (and I highly suggest you do!), then don't just use one type. I cheat and use canned beans, but I typically use no less than 3 types, and if I can justify the size of the chili, 5 types is better. Red, Black, Kidney, etc. The variety adds not only flavors and color to the chili, but it also makes it seem...fancier. Or something.

The chilis I grew up with always had sliced mushrooms in them, but if you are going LCD here, then you may consider leaving them out..as much as it pains me to actually suggest that. Onions are also a good candidate. I'm indifferent on the tomatoes, though. If they are too big to fit on a spoon with a few beans and some meat, then you might as well leave them out.

Ground beef was and is the usual meat of choice in my home, though I have found shredded chicken or beef to add to that "fancy" quality.

Occasionally I buy one of those kits with the pre-measured spices. I have probably bought these 10 or so times over the past decade. I have never used the masa. A good chili thickens with both time and stuff.
posted by mysterpigg at 1:43 PM on October 26, 2011

+1 to the use of high quality cocoa powder to add depth, and also to the use of beef bones or marrow for umami. If you're going to use a beef stock, and make it yourself, you can reduce it to the point it's nearly gelatinous, which might help thicken things up without the use of masa or roux.

Can you use labeling psychology when you name and describe your chili? I don't know if this will help you, but for informal tastings, regular folks will probably prefer "Grandpa Mudpuppie's Chili with hand-ground chiles and pan-toasted cumin" to someone else's generic recipe in a close call.

Good luck!
posted by Hylas at 2:06 PM on October 26, 2011

For reasons I'm unclear on, many in my family are offended by the presence of beans in chili, declaring that they are adulterations. So, pretty much everything mentioned above except beans.

Apparently one can put chili ON beans, but beans= false chili.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:41 PM on October 26, 2011

I've been coming in the middle of the pack in my friends' chili cookoff competition for the past 4 or 5 years, because I keep trying to make the best chili ever. I've tried beer, cocoa, cinnamon, bacon, roasting and grinding my own peppers, all the usual "this will make your chili AWESOME!" suggestions. Every year I think my new chili is sure to win, because it's so damn tasty.

And every year the chili that actually wins tastes like it came from a McCormick packet.

Maybe that says more about my friends' (lack of) taste in chili, but if your competition is by popular vote I say go classic and simple. Ground beef, kidney beans, tomatoes, spices. Find a recipe on a food company's website (McCormick has quite a few, though they all use pre-mixed spices) and don't let your inner foodie get in the way of winning the popularity vote!
posted by vytae at 2:47 PM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

One small can of chipotle peppers in adobo and a bottle of beer are my go-to additions. I also like to top my chili with sliced radishes, which I'm sure is tantamount to sacrilege in some chili-eating circles.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 4:41 PM on October 26, 2011

We add about 1/4 lb. of cubed sausage (kielbasa, linguica, chourizo, andouille, etc.) to a large pot of chili, and it's awesome. I like to render it & get it brown & crispy before adding, but it's not necessary.
posted by gimli at 5:23 PM on October 26, 2011

You should really consider using ground bison meat. It's like beef, only so much deeper and tastier.
posted by corn_bread at 6:11 PM on October 26, 2011

I adapted a vegetarian chili recipe, with the logic that veggie recipes use complex combinations of spices to make up for a lack of meat. So when I then doctor it with meat (some beef, some lamb), I just get yumminess.

My chili is actually pretty similar to a lot of the suggestions above. Three things I always do:

- Use whole mustard seeds. They add texture and flavor, and I love how they pop in your mouth when you've stewed them for hours.

- Use 3 different varieties of chiles, to vary the heat and flavors. I make sure to have a little habanero in there for smokiness, and some serrano, because it hits earlier with some sharpness. The third chile varies based on whatever looks best at the farmer's market or store.

- Add cocoa powder and cinnamon. Mmmm, you just can't go wrong with those.

Good luck!
posted by nadise at 8:25 PM on October 26, 2011

1. You need to use a type of pepper that other people are not going to use. It will stand out.

2. You need to find out which kind have won in the past 3-5 years. Hopefully you have access to pics/recipes for those. This will tell you what the JUDGES like.

Me personally, I like cubed beef that is ALMOST as tiny as chunks of ground beef. Hardcore chopping...I don't know if you want that. Not inch cubes...I'm talking 1/8th of an inch. This will KILL. Quality meat, but VERY small so it doesn't seem like a stew. Nobody has the chops to hook this up, this will set you apart.

Tomatoes...you gotta use them for the acid. Also, you gotta cook it for a longer time if you use tomatoes.

Don't go for smoky flavor. It covers up all the good stuff (fresh tomatoes, onions, DIFFERENT peppers).

Don't add stuff that seems out of place (choc, beer, cinnamon) unless you KNOW how to use it in chilli...and most people don't.

Good luck and I'd appreciate it if you could post your recipe and what place you got.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:42 PM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Cubed beef mixed with cubed pork shoulder is my go to for the meat. I mix the meat with salt, pepper, garlic powder, ancho powder, paprika, cumin, and garlic, then dredge it all in flour. Brown in batches, set aside. Chopped onion and minced celery (celery is required) also dredged in flour and spice. Sauté til soft, and add in a metric fuckton of garlic and minced chipotle. add back the meat, be sure not to lose any meat juices. First liquid is stout, whatever good stuff is available locally. Simmer for a good while to really get the stout flavor a solid base. Then canned whole tomatoes. Press out the juices into the pot, then swish a cheap sharp knife in the can to mince the tomatoes. Re-season as you go with salt, pepper, ancho, cumin, garlic and oregano.

Minced red bell peppers added with the onions and celery at the start is good too, gives it some more body.

Personally, I can't stand beans, but the bean liquor from canned beans really adds something to chili. Serve with sour cream and big ass chunks of hot, moist corn bread. Have shredded cheddar cheese for any who want it. In my experience, the available sides/chili delivery system goes a long way to well received chili.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:58 AM on October 27, 2011

Lisa Fain of Homesick Texan's 7 Chile Chili is the best I've ever made.

here's what I wrote about it when i first made it, less than a month ago:
Chowhound saves the day! I'm making Homesick Texan's 7-chile chili complete with a zillion dried chiles scorched and soaked and turned into paste, coffee, Dos Equis, Xocolatl, bacon, and beef browned in the bacon's drippings...but don't have masa harina on hand to thicken it at the end. Quick CH perusal taught me to ad lib with corn tortillas grond fine in a blender, then turned into a thickening paste with "broth" from the chili. Yay.


it is really, really good and worth the bother of finding a buncha different dried chiles for (i couldn't find them all on super short notice so went with guajillo, pequin, chipotle, ancho, arbol, pasilla, and then one called "mulatto" i've never heard of, plus some little "japanese" peppers) and uh, letting simmer 5+ hours.

and if like me you don't have masa harina lying about, i learned a good tip from chowhound: just take either corn tortillas or tortilla chips and crush into crumbs in a blender or something similar for the final thickening paste step. works like a charm--makes sense; i looked at the ingredient list and the first thing is corn treated with lime, exactly what mh is.

this chili is rad bc somehow (i guess the paste?) it avoids the pitfalls of a lot of chilis, where too many flavors overwhelm and sum zero to a bland, muddied heavy mess (i'd actually written off coffee, chocolate, beer, etc. in frustration over this and was a little wary to give that anothet go this time; so glad i did! she redeems that approach) or one aspect (heat, fattiness/unctuousness, smokiness, whatever) overwhelms/eclipses all else and it's kind of heavy-handed, intense, one-note. this is really well blended, subtle, nuanced, complex stuff, like rare, good mole. delicious. the tomato cobbler rules too.

should note the online version differs a little from the print one. i recommend a lot of dried oregano as called for in the latter. the "taste and adjust" is not just a mere nicety here; i had to adjust three or four times through the five hours (more salt, more cumin/coriander/oregano) and am glad i did.

a super-foodie friend from France (she's eaten at the Fat Duck, etc.) replied right away with the following:
This is my favourite chili in the world, it's become a staple in our house!

It's very worth it! Don't forget the sprinkle of chopped onion when serving, it really adds a pleasant bit of freshness on top of all that beef. We use the leftover chili (if there is any), shred the beef and add rice and beans for burritos the next day.

I haven't tried any of her other recipes yet, I really should as I've been so happy with this one...

and I replied:
oh my goodness, so i just finished it (yes, at 8:30pm on a sunday...yes, i'm a dork planning ahead for the week bc most chilis i've encountered are best sitting for a while...), and i can already tell it's the best chili i've ever tasted probably. it has a nuanced, complex depth of flavor i've not found before, without being muddied by too many things going on or being too any one thing (spicy, fatty, smoky, whatever). reminds me of really excellent subtle mole. so happy! thanks for the tip about the onion too--i probably would be lazy tomorrow and not do the onion but now i will. (:

and she said:
yay! mole is a good comparison for it... the chocolate and the masa harina (or ground corn tortillas) at the end completes the dish in the way butter does at the end of a risotto, suddenly everything comes together and makes sense.

seriously, it is really good and worth the hassle. chili with lots of different ingredients (coffee, chocolate, molasses, cola, 50 kinds of chili powder, whatever) has burned me before, where it all summed zero to a muddled mess of non-flavor, but that doesn't happen with this chili. so good.

also in case you don't bother with that (but you should!), cook's illustrated has a chili recipe where they go and debunk lots of different common flavors like those above and wind up with one that has some of that stuff but not other things, but i don't recall which issue it's in (i only have the print copies). a goodle or CI online membership search might help.
posted by ifjuly at 5:53 AM on October 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Lisa Fain of Homesick Texan's 7 Chile Chili is the best I've ever made.

That's actually what I had planned on making. It's similar to what I grew up with, but very unlike anything you find in California. That's what prompted me to ask the question.

Anywho, thanks for all the feedback. I have some sifting to do....
posted by mudpuppie at 9:29 AM on October 27, 2011

well, if you just want opinions thrown out there, i agree with Lisa/Texans/whoever that chili is actually better when it's meat-based, not bean-based (and when it IS bean-based, frankly i tend to go entirely in the other direction, a white chili that's more '90s-trendy "healthful" seeming and lighter, with something like turkey or chicken or no meat at all and an emphasis on green herbs, but you mentioned not bothering with the vegetarian tack so), and with deep, rich flavors (concentrated into a paste beforehand=brilliant) that you've allowed to blend for a super long time (those grueling 5 hours) as opposed to tons of watered-down tomato flavor (sacrilegious i know). and bothering to use all those different chiles and use them well--the smoking, soaking, blending paste thing--is great because in the end you actually don't get a "so hot i can't taste or feel anything" result like some chilis; rather, all the nuance of the different kinds comes out and gives you an appreciation for how different they all really are--there's a lot of fruit and smoke going on. anyway, it's super involved (takes all day with all those steps and uses a zillion pots and appliances) but worth it. and the best trick of all is to let it sit overnight; chili's almost always better the longer it sits. and i agree with my friend; a last-minute topping of fresh diced onion is a very welcome counter of freshness to the rich deep dark flavors.
posted by ifjuly at 10:18 AM on October 27, 2011

Pro Tip: No matter what recipe you use, chili is always better the next day after the flavors have melded.
posted by webhund at 7:05 PM on October 27, 2011

Use more than one type of meat! Leftover rib meat or shredded beef added to ground bison is my favorite. Slow cook it in a salty marinade with a little lime juice. NOM.
posted by Demogorgon at 8:50 PM on October 27, 2011

(kielbasa, linguica, chourizo, andouille, etc.)

Russian stores have packets of all their sausage leftovers- all the end bits of the tube, so you get a nice mixture of types. I use it in okroshka and it's yummy.

Also awesome: smoked ham hock from your local independent health food store butcher counter.

But then I love smoke flavor.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:49 AM on October 28, 2011

One more thing: save bacon drippings. Keep them in a jar in your refrigerator. Use the bacon grease as your oil for sautéing the onions, celery, garlic and chile. Makes a noticeable difference in the flavor cornucopia that is chili.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:13 PM on October 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I usually go with cubed meat, not ground. But that is only good if you have time to let it cook (~4 hours). And I prefer venison. Spices and special ingredients are all very subjective, but one I really like is roasted garlic.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 10:17 AM on November 1, 2011

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