Food Snob Chronicles — Texas Chili 101 (Recipe: Texas Competition-style Chili)

First things first. Chile is the country and the fruit. Chili is the concoction. Who makes the best chili? Well, that all depends on where you live.

If you are an Ohio native, you prefer your chili spiced with cinnamon and cloves and served over a bed of spaghetti. If you are from the northeast – New York, New Jersey et al – your favorite chili is mild and almost sweet, with plenty of Bell peppers and beans. And California? Well, anything organic qualifies. In Texas, we have our own rules.

Did you know?  It might not make Food & Wine’s list of Best Places to Get Chili in the U.S., but Wendy’s is the most popular stateside spot. Interestingly, the restaurant’s batches of chili are made with left over hamburger patties. Safe? Absolutely. Good? Well, that’s for you to decide.

First, a true bowl of Texas Red contains no tomatoes. And no self-respecting Texan serves chili made with beans. But there are exceptions. Want a chili dog? That chili is generally made with smashed beans, ground beef and chili powder (in the South) or meat, ketchup and a few other spices (also known as Coney Island Dry Sauce) in the northern states. Eating Tex-Mex? Well, that too is a different type of chili. When it comes to the main dish though, there’s only one true Texas way: chiles, onions and a few other spices, and cubed beef. It’s absolutely divine, but here’s a dirty little Texas secret: very few of us actually make and eat it that way.

Enter competition-style chili.

If you’ve been invited over for chili in Texas, the cook’s ladle will most likely be stained red. As in tomato red. Blame President Lyndon B. Johnson’s doctor, who insisted that he improve his diet after the then-Senate majority leader suffered a heart attack. LBJ’s healthier-version, Pedernales River Chili, included tomatoes and onions. So did Homer T. “Wick” Fowler’s. Yes, he was the same Wick Fowler who invented the Two-Alarm Chili mix available in stores today. Not long after he started his little chili mix company, Wick won the 1970 International Chili Society’s world championship in Terlingua (middle of nowhere), Texas. Tomatoes, or at least some sort of tomato product, soon became a standard ingredient in Texas-style chili – or competition-style chili – in kitchens across the Lone Star State.

Chili has two governing bodies, as far as competitions are concerned, the ICS and Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI). Just like your typical independent church, someone’s feelings were hurt at some point and one group split into two. Making the whole thing even spicier, Carroll Shelby (the Shelby Ford Mustang guy) was part of the split back in the 1970s.

Fortunately, neither chili faction decided that the national dish of Texas should be cooked with beans.

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I grew up eating … chili.  On those nights I could count on a pot of relatively thin chile-infused soup with ground beef and chopped onions. It was good — I have fond memories of eating it over a bowl of elbow macaroni. Still, as I’ve grown older, I prefer a version that better sticks to my ribs.

The following recipe is loosely based on a version handed to me more than 20 years ago by a CASI champion chili cook.  That version (cooked by yours truly) won the Taster’s Choice award at the Rose City (CASI) Chili Cookoff in 1993. Truth be told, it’s the only recipe contest that I’ve ever won, unless you count the pumpkin cook-off at a newspaper I once wrote for.

Texas Competition-style Chili

Texas-style Competition Chili — This is the stuff legends are born from.

Texas-style Competition Chili — This is the stuff legends are born from.

1 each – 12 oz & 6 oz can, tomato paste
3 lbs – Beef chuck, coarsely ground
2 qts – Beef stock
1/2 cup – Chili powder
2 – Dried Ancho chiles, stemmed and torn into 3-4 pieces
1 – Chipotle chile en adobo, roughly chopped
1 – Large onion, diced
3 – Garlic cloves, minced
2 TB – Cumin powder
1 TB – Oregano, preferably Mexican Oregano
1-3 tsp – Cayenne pepper, depending on your heat preference

Salt, to taste

In a large Dutch oven or stock pot, combine beef stock and tomato paste; mix in next 8 ingredients; then add (raw) beef. Stir lightly to combine. Cover, bring heat to medium, stirring occasionally. After about an hour, the pot should come to a light simmer. Once there is slight bubbling, turn off the heat and allow to cool. — Refrigerate overnight.

The following day (or even 2-3 days later), skim congealed fat from cold chili; then cover and place over low heat. Once it has warmed to room temperature and liquified somewhat (about 30 minutes), remove the lid and raise heat to medium, stirring occasionally. (The consistency should still be slightly soupy. If not, add another cup of beef stock.) Simmer uncovered for about 1½ hours, until chili has reduced and thickened slightly. Season to taste.


  • Sharp Cheddar, shredded
  • Queso Quesadilla or Mozzarella (mild white cheese), shredded
  • Chopped fresh Cilantro
  • Sliced Jalapeno peppers
  • Hominy
  • Beans (Pinto)
  • Saltine crackers
  • Corn/Tortilla chips
  • Elbow macaroni
  • Rice



  1. OH Hell yeah! I’m so happy to see a recipe for chili from someone who KNOWS how to make it! So much like mine………and since it hasn’t risen above freezing for 2 days here there will be chili on the stove in the morning for Saturday night or Sunday night consumption, because you always have to let the flavors marry in the fridge for a day or two or it tastes off. I have never added in the chipotle adobo before but I believe I will add that to tomorrow’s – the rest is pretty much spot on just like yours. Once every so many years I make my Rootin’ Tootin’ Chili which is incredibly complex with about a million ingredients – but if you don’t let it sit in the fridge overnight it’s going to taste awful!

  2. I am a native Ohioan I’ve never put cinnamon and cloves in my chili a I’ve never eaten it over spaghetti and neither to people I know.

    • adamjholland says:

      Good for you, Tammie. I am speaking of authentic Cincinnati chili when I say that.

      • I grew up in North Eastern Ohio and did not have Cincinnati Chili until I was grown up at a restaurant. I thought it was good and different. I got the recipe for it from a PBS cooking show about 15 years ago. I make it for myself and freeze it around the holidays. My family don’t like it. A Greek family created it for their restaurant in Cincinnati. Now if you run over to St. Louis, they serve chili in after midnight greasy spoons with fried easy over eggs on top of it. It will sober you up a little bit on the way home or if you are a truck driver keep you awake the rest of the night.

        Thanks Adam for a walk down memory lane. I have a quart of left over chili in the freezer that I will serve over mac this week end. I feel a little lazy.

        • adamjholland says:

          I love the term “greasy spoons” and really like the idea of eating a fried egg over chili after a night out drinking. Seriously. 🙂

  3. Hold up a minute Adam! You are telling me that in Ohio, they serve chili over spaghetti – and they still call that chili? Now I’m going to have to find a way to work that into a conversation soon. It’s too bad they just had a chili cook-off in my daughter’s town with a lot of variations of ‘Boston’ chili. I’ll bet I could have dropped that nugget into some conversation.
    All always, you are a wealth of information. And I have to tell you – I made my very first ever chili recipe (yes, it had beans in it & it took my husband 2 phone calls from the grocery store to figure out what kind of beans to buy – I went with a black beans and white beans since I couldn’t decide).

    • adamjholland says:

      Oh, Diane! Why couldn’t you just serve the beans on the side? Please tell me more about ‘Boston’ chili. Does it pronounce ‘r’ as ‘ah’? 😉

      • Well you probably would not approve of the Bawhston chili’s but there were a lot of varieties. My daughter just moved to Dorchester (Dawchesta) which is a southern neighborhood in Boston & I’ll tell you, even I can’t understand them – south of Boston is about as thick an accent as you’ll find. Her new neighbor’s entry was a chicken chili with apples in it…now what do you think of that?
        I couldn’t serve the beans on the side because, well then it just didn’t look like chili to me. Plus, I dumped everything into the crock pot. Okay, I know I need to go outside my comfort zone on this & will just keep trying.

        • adamjholland says:

          Apples? In chili? For crying out loud! Please encourage your daughter and her husband to come to Texas for a week. My goodness! 😉

  4. Hey Adam, that looks and sounds like some awesome Texas chili! I was introduced to Cincinnati Chili (Five Ways!) when I lived in Ohio. My husband makes a killer version of it. And yes, I am from Texas and put beans in my chili, but I would not ever think to put them in this recipe!

    • adamjholland says:

      Kathryn – Just be careful throwing beans in the chili when you’re here. In Texas, that’s a felony. 😉

  5. What about the torn ancho chili’s, wouldn’t these pieces be problematic with texture? I’ve had guests pick very small pieces of reconstituted guajillo pepper out of their mouths eating Thai curry, let alone the large pieces described here, and that’s after being pureed to a paste. I’ve considered buying a Ninja blender for this problem, do you have a method not mentioned, do you pick the large pieces out?

    • adamjholland says:

      Dried Ancho chiles, when cooked for this amount of time (or soaked for more than 20 minutes) are very soft in texture. Never had a problem with people picking pieces from their mouths while eating. If that concerns you, you could certainly chop it finely. But I wouldn’t buy a Ninja. Go ahead and splurge for the Vitamix. There’s a reason that it’s the standard in restaurants and bars, and you’ll never have to buy another blender.

      • Thanx for the reply, I found some information on a dried pepper blog that said guajillo peppers have a much tougher texture than most dried peppers , so that may explain the experience I had with them. I tried your Chili recipe and it was delicious. I used my dried guajillo peppers instead of ancho, due to having a lot of ancho powder in my chili powder and used a submersion blender before adding the beef (I also sauted the onion beforehand.) I see the reason for the coarse grind, I used regular and it gave a finer texture than I would of wanted, tho putting it in raw gave the chili a nice silk like consistency.

        • adamjholland says:

          Glad you liked it. I use guajillos on a regular basis and don’t have issues with them being tough. They might be thicker-skinned that some other peppers, but oh well. Again, glad you liked it. Please tell 50 of your closest friends about this little place. 🙂

  6. Mike Foley says:

    I really enjoyed the story – and the comments… but it’s hard for me to witness a discussion on Texas chili without hearing the name Frank X Tolbert mentioned…

    • adamjholland says:

      Guilty as charged, Mike. And I damn well should’ve known better, especially considering I interviewed one of Frank’s kinfolk way back in 1989 for a radio feature story. — For those who don’t know, Frank and Wick co-founded the Terlingua competition. Frank was a longtime journalist-turned-chili enthusiast, who not only chronicled his chili fancies (‘A Bowl of Red’ is a must-own for every Texan and cook) but also operated Tolbert’s Chili Parlor in the Big D.

      • Jamie Pickrell says:

        Can you let me know how many servings this makes? Thanks!

        • adamjholland says:

          That’s a trick question, Jamie. This recipe serves my family (of 5) about 2 servings each on the first go-around. Then, I usually take a serving or two to work for leftovers — and still freeze a couple of servings. Remember, we’re talking about 3 lbs. of meat to start with. When you add crackers, cheese, etc., it stretches even further. — I know that’s not a straightforward answer, but it’s how things roll here and I hope it helps. 🙂

  7. Dang! I done been ejjjucated on chili! Man, I gots to have my beans in chili…reckon I’d be losing a TX cookoff!! Good good stuff here, darlin! xo

  8. Christine says:

    Good stuff here.

  9. To bean or not to bean!?! LOL Your chili looks and sounds awesome! I love the pure recipe. I admit I do add beans normally (except for hot dog chili) because I use them to stretch meals especially for feeding large crowds. Also working in restaurants, I know the thing about Wendy’s chili and another place that uses leftover chicken for chicken salad. Not a fun job, de-breading chicken!

    • adamjholland says:

      How funny. Hot dog chili is usually the only chili concoction that I find acceptable for beans. Thanks, Lynn. 😉

  10. I’ve heard of this no-been chili you speak of, but can you believe I’ve never had it?! That’s gonna change soon – thanks to this recipe. This was a really fun post… I learned a thing or two about chili! Thanks, Adam! Oh, and it’s so good to see you!!!!!! 🙂

  11. Hi Adam, great post! Thanks for sharing your chili wisdom. I do like it better with a bit of tomato in there, as I find it too earthy otherwise. The chili powder you mention in the recipe, is that ground chiles (and if so, which kind) or is it a spice blend that also has other ingredients like cumin? Interesting that you don’t brown the beef, which makes sense as ground beef would very easily dry out that way. Your first step sounds almost like sous-vide and I am tempted to do a sous-vide version.

  12. That’s what I love… An All Meat Man! Thick, dense, flavor-packed meat sauce! Y’all can add what ever you like after this is served, beans and all, but for me, crust bread, cheese, and wine is all this dish needs!

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