Chili 101

Chili with Skillet Cornbread
Chili with Skillet Cornbread

If there were ever an American classic, it must be chili.  And, you will need this dish sometime during the Holidays.  Even though the name sounds like it must have a Mexican origin, the dish is not really known there.  I did business in Mexico for 30 years and traveled extensively throughout the country.  I never ate anything resembling chili.  Take my word for it, this is an American thing – started in Texas and most likely in San Antonio where they still have the great chili cook offs every year.  Actually, there is a Chili Appreciation Society ( that lists about 200 cook-offs, of which about 95% are in Texas.

All chili starts with sautéed onions, celery and carrots to which a set of spices, usually chopped garlic, cayenne pepper, cumin and coriander, are added.   At this point the dish branches into numberless alternatives as you choose the cornerstone ingredients, which can be any combination of meats, sausages or other vegetables that will serve as the heart of the chili.  Ground beef is probably the most common choice, ergo chili con carne.  However, ground turkey or chicken is very popular and vegetarian chili is surprisingly good.  We’ll show how to make all of these below.

Chili powder, which is commonly available, is a mixture of things – usually  paprika, cayenne pepper, salt, cumin and garlic powder.  Some of the hotter mixtures add other types of peppers.  The problem is that you are never sure what is in the mix.  The Bravado approach is to prepare the spice package from scratch using paprika, cayenne pepper, cumin, coriander, chopped fresh garlic and Jalapeño.

After the cornerstone ingredients are chosen, you need to select one or two (or three or more) types of beans to compliment your meat or vegetable choice.  A combination of kidney and black beans are the usual choice with ground beef.  Navy beans and beans in the white bean family, including fava beans, often are used with ground turkey or chicken.

The final two ingredients are cooked tomatoes and a broth of some type.  Chicken, beef or vegetable broth is the usual choice, depending on the direction you have taken, although I have some friends who insist that beer is a vegetable broth.  They are technically correct and it works just fine.  Basically, chili is a dish where it is easy to experiment.

In recent years, it has become very fashionable to put out small bowls with “toppings” such as sour cream, grated cheese, hot peppers, red onions, etc. ad nauseam.  As you can guess, I am not a big fan of these complications.  I think it takes away from the basic flavor of the chili itself.  I think chili is best accompanied by a good skillet cornbread.  Take a look at the Bravado recipe (Dependable Skillet Cornbread).

Before we start, let’s talk about beans.  There is endless discussion about canned versus dry beans.  The bottom line is that while the dry beans take more time, they are about one-third the price, have no salt or preservatives, avoid BPA in cans and, most importantly, taste better.  Go with dry beans if you can.  However, if you want to use cans, you can go forward without guilt – only the real epicures will know.

The best way to prepare dry beans is to buy a one pound bag, soak them overnight or at least 3 hours, rinse and cook for about 45 minutes to one hour.  When cooking, make sure the beans are covered with about 2-3 inches of water, which you bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.  No need to cover – boil overs are too common.  When finished, drain, add a big pinch of salt and add whatever you need for the chili.  You will have beans left over.  When they reach room temperature, put one and one-half cup portions in quart Zip-Loc bags and freeze them.  Going forward, rather than open a can, pull a bag of frozen beans out of the freezer.  If you are making chili, just throw them in frozen.  For more great commentary on dry beans, check out a fellow blogger at

Bravado Level of Difficulty:  3.5 out of 10

Time Required:  2 hours – 1 hour of prep and 1 hour simmering

Servings: 8


The Basics:

  • 1-1/2 cups each of onions, carrots and celery, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 Jalapeño pepper, seeds removed and chopped finely
  • 1-1/2 tbsp. of paprika
  • 1 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1-1/2 tbsp. of cumin
  • 1 tsp. of ground coriander
  • 4 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
  • 1-1/2 cups of black (or other) beans, cooked (or one 14oz. can drained and rinsed)
  • 1-1/2 cups of kidney (or other) beans, cooked (or one 14oz. can drained and rinsed)
  • 1 28oz. can of diced tomatoes.
  • 1 tbsp. of salt
  • 1 qt. (32 oz.) of vegetable, chicken or beef broth – choose whichever goes best with your particular version.  Use homemade broth if you have it, or beer if nothing else is around.

For Vegetarian chili:

  • 2 cups frozen corn
  • 1 each red and yellow pepper, finely chopped
  • 1 zuchini, finely chopped
  • 2 cups of quinoa or bulgar wheat

For Traditional Chili Con Carne

  • 1-1/2 lbs. ground chuck (you can use ground beef or other better, leaner cuts of ground beef, but the ground chuck will give you the best flavor.)

For Turkey Chili

  • 1-1/2 lbs. ground turkey.  Some like to substitute white bean varieties for the black and kidney varieties in traditional chili.  Go for it if you wish.  Some 1will really push the “white chili” concept and either eliminate the tomatoes or use diced zucchini instead.  Feel free to experiment – it is difficult to screw up.

For Meatlovers Chili

Here is where you can really have some fun.  A good combination is 1 lb. of ground chuck and 1 lb. of mild Italian sausage.  However, for some of the greatest chili you will ever have, try our recipe for Braised Beef Short Ribs and make sure you have 4-5 extra ribs.  Save them with one cup of the red wine reduction gravy.  Strip off the meat, chop coarsely and add to the chili along with the gravy.


  1. Cook your beans according to the procedure above and make sure they are ready before you start.
  2. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a stockpot and sauté the onions for about 3 minutes.
  3. Add the carrots and celery and continue to stir and sauté for another 3 minutes.
  4. Add the spices (paprika, cayenne, cumin, coriander and salt), the Jalapeño and garlic and mix well.  Cook for another 3 minutes.
  5. At this point, you need to choose what kind of chili you are going to make.  If vegetarian, add the remaining veggies and sauté for another 5 minutes.  If you are adding meat, add and cook until well-browned – probably 3-5 minutes.
  6. Add the tomatoes (with the juice), the beans and the broth.  All of the ingredients should be covered with liquid.  Stir well and bring to a boil for 2-3 minutes, then reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for at least 45 minutes.  Longer is better.
  7. Stir frequently, and make sure you maintain a low simmer.

Serve with skillet cornbread.

Categories: Classic American Dishes, Classic Recipes by Type, Classic Soups

3 replies

  1. WOW this was absolutely terrific! A great make ahead treat and left overs always disappear. Thanks for so many wonderful recipes!

  2. Cubed tri-tip is my preferred beef over ground meat. Imparts a vastly improved beefy flavor and mouth feel…..a Bravado hallmark.

  3. I think pinto beans, the favorite in Texas, are the best.

    Ron Kurtz


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