Friday, December 17, 2010

Chili Cook-Off Strategy

I like chili.  For more than 15 years I have toyed with different recipe variations for chili, from the basic to the more "open" shall we say.  All that remains the same is that my recipe always uses beans, beef, and tomatoes; I don't cook white chili or chicken chili or what have you.  Way back in the early days someone asked me if my recipe had a name.  I chose "Chili for Forty Humans," an oblique reference to the first Simpsons Treehouse of Horror.  The recipe has evolved but the name has not.


My chili is a weekend chili.  The kind that stays on the stove for three days as the liquid reduces down and the taste homogenizes between the ingredients.  Only this past year have I had the opportunity to participate in chili cook-offs.  I have not won.  I have not even come close.  Today was a good example.  It got me thinking, what makes a good cook-off chili?  These are the things I will be thinking about next year at my employer's cook-off.

  1. Thickness - since each person could not possibly take an entire bowl of every entry, you chili should be thick enough to have a small ladle full contain most of the key ingredients and hardly any liquid.  My chili was way too soupy today, but after it simmers for another six hours it might be okay.
  2. Punch - the chili should have an immediate taste/heat effect upon eating.  People are trying lots of chili, and if yours is mild or subtle it will come off as tasteless.  Again, that's where mine was inferior.  After tasting some of the other entries I could barely even taste mine, and I know what my chili tastes like.
  3. Quantity - this one is mostly smoke and mirrors.  The photo above is a good example of an obvious incongruity in popularity.   If you had to pick which two of the above three chilis would finish first and third, which one would you not pick.  I filled that crock pot up practically to the top, and even though it got consumed a fair bit it still looked like someone had seen a fly floating in it and word got around.  Granted, it wasn't exactly terrific but if it can't be popular it could at least look popular.  By the way, congrats to Josh (left) and Brian (right) for their winning chilis.
There you have it.  I'm not, by nature, a sore loser but I am a curious loser always looking for ways to improve.  There, if someone ever needs to write something about me they can truthfully say "self described curious loser."  That's just great.


  1. When it comes to a cook-off situation I'm going for the one that looks like something I wouldn't make myself at home. The ones flanking your selection look kind of like plain old chili I can do myself, I'm looking for something out of the ordinary.

    Sorry buddy, you'll get 'em next time!

  2. Mike-

    I make the best chili in the world, after eating mine, most people will eat nothing else or complain that whatever they eat is just missing something.

    There are lots of different types, and you need to figure out what you are going for.

    Your list of main items is lacking the most important item, for which the dish is named, I would start there.

    You must also consider your target audience, 90% of the regular Joes out there are low to average tasters, but a few are high or super tasters. You can cater to both after you figure out which you are.

    You need to make each of your ingredients stand out. All beef is not the same, nor beans, chili peppers, and even tomatoes.

    For starters "real" chili has no beans, if you want beans in it, its chili with beans.

    Beef- Ground beef has to have fat in it, if its lean it will lack beef flavor which is in the fat. You can also use unground beef in small cubes like chuck, which must also have some fat marbling to taste good. Either will have to be browned in a frying pan to keep it from turning to mush, strained and added to you slow cooker.

    Beans- canned work fine, use three at once, black, kidney and pinto, all drained of fluids and just dump them into the crock pot with the meat. You can also add a half can of drained corn for some color, it will also add starch to thicken things up a bit.

    you can use canned tomatoes, but make sure they are diced, small pieces, these you should not drain and just dump the whole can in juice and all. Also add paste.

    Peppers- fresh bell, jarred sliced jalapeno which you should dice, and diced in a can green chilis. Also chili powder, and a bit cayenne powder.

    Onions should be diced and browned with the meat, and Garlic minced from a jar into the crock pot.

    Cumin is what makes chili taste and smell like chili so don't forget it, but don't use too much.

    Chili should be thick enough to stand a spoon in, so keep the fluids down, as everything will cook down and you will get enough from the peppers and tomatoes as they render.

    I hope this helps, eating is as much of an eyes thing as a taste thing, using lots of colors with peppers and beans will make it look interesting and the variety of flavors will close the deal.

    Now get to work, you should make a batch for a bunch of guy friends, for a game night or painting party, or ball game on TV, and tell them to be honest with you, your family will lie to you to save your feelings.

    It's perfect chili weather, get to work and good luck.

    Super Taster,
    Santa Cruz Warhammer

  3. I love chili - sometimes I like different types of chili. To use a brand name as a reference point, I love Steak & Shake's chilli, as it uses a bean paste for a base. It makes it nice and hearty. (But lacks heat.) I like Tim Horton's Chili occasionally as it is different than any I have had anywhere else. It uses mushrooms in it. But it is too thin. I had a chili at the local pub/pizza place (Aubree's Saloon for those near Ypsi.) about 10 years ago and the taste and texture have stuck with me. They had different "flavors" that you could try. I will put them here as they appeared on the menu.
    1.) Momma's Chili - You may as well get it in a bottle, baby.
    2.) Mild - Wimp!
    3.) Medium - Ok, you're starting to impress us.
    4.) 5 Alarm - Call the fire department, your mouth is on fire!
    Despite the lame menu writing, I chose the 5 Alarm. As good as it was, it had too much heat, as I couldn't taste anything else the rest of the day, and I could only do like 3 bites, and was full. However, that is the kind I always ate. (Because it was fun.) Nowadays, I don't think I could even try it, due to heartburn. (It sucks getting older.) Ok, I'll get to the point. IMHO, the best chilis, are those who are thick, hearty, and have a bit of heat, but not so much that you fill up quickly, or lose your sense of taste temporarily. The balance is delicate, and I applaud your efforts.

  4. My chili was the one on the right, which is a recipe I've been making for a wile. It's what I like, but I also agree with SC John said about makes great chili. It defiantly tends to be on the hot side, and I was a bit surprised that it was so popular being so hot, probably a bit of the "punch" phenomenon Mike was talking about.
    It's a pretty simple recipe really and I have always been willing to share it, so here it is:)

    Brian's First Place Firewall Chili
    1 lb Hamburger
    1 lb Hot sausage
    1 cup Onion
    1 cup Bell Peppers
    3 cloves Garlic (minced)
    0.5 tsp cumin
    2 15oz can tomato sauce
    1 15oz can chopped tomatoes
    1 can french onion soup
    1 15oz can kidney beans
    1 6oz can hopped green chilie
    1 tlb Tabasco
    1 cup Celery
    3 large jalapenos
    2 Habaneros
    3 tlb chili powder
    1 tlb cayenne
    1 tsp oregano
    1 tsp salt
    0.5 tsp sugar

    Brown hamburger and sausage with onion, bell pepper, garlic and cumin
    Mix everything into big pot
    Cook on medium heat for 2 hours