Chili 101

By William Turner

If ever there were an American classic, it would have to be chili. And yet, the closest most of you have come to making this wonderful dish is to use a can opener. There is something magical about making chili from scratch and you will definitely need this dish sometime during the holidays. So, show your patriotic spirit and commit to this project.

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, chili is an American thing — its origins are in Texas and most specifically in San Antonio where they still have the great chili cook-offs every year. There is a Chili Appreciation Society ( that lists about 200 cook-offs, of which about 95 percent are in Texas.

All chili starts with sautéed onions, celery and carrots to which chili powder is added. At this point the dish branches into countless 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 explain how to make all of these below.

After the cornerstone ingredients are chosen, you need to select one or two types of beans to complement 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 experimentation is easy.

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. 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 our recipe at

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, and, most importantly, taste much better. If you use dry beans, you also avoid BPA in cans. And finally, dry beans that are soaked overnight produce less intestinal gas, which many find important and many more should find important. Go with dry beans if you can.


Servings: 8


  • 1 1/2 cups each onions, carrots and celery, chopped
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 Jalapeño pepper, seeds removed and chopped finely
  • 2 Tbsp. chili powder (preferably the homemade variety)
  • 1 1/2 cups black (or other) beans, cooked (or one 14 oz. can drained and rinsed)
  • 1 1/2 cups kidney (or other) beans, cooked (or one 14 oz. can drained and rinsed)
  • 1 can (28 oz.) diced tomatoes.
  • 1 Tbsp. salt
  • 1 qt. (32 oz.) 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.


  • 2 cups frozen corn
  • 1 each red and yellow pepper, finely chopped
  • 1 zucchini, finely chopped
  • 2 cups quinoa or bulgur wheat


  • 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.)


  • 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 will 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.


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. For some of the greatest chili you will ever have, go to and try our recipe for Braised Beef Short Ribs. Make sure you save the red wine reduction gravy. Strip off the meat, chop coarsely and add to the chili along with the gravy.


  1. Cook your beans as described at right 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 (chili powder, cumin, coriander and salt) and the Jalapeño pepper 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, cook until well browned, probably 3-5 minutes, and add.
  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.
  8. Serve with skillet cornbread.

Stop thinking about how much fun this is going to be and go do it!


The best way to prepare dry beans is to buy a one-pound bag and soak them overnight or at least five hours. Then, 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 low simmer and cover. When finished, drain, and add a big pinch of salt.

Each one-pound bag of beans will produce six cups of cooked beans. After taking what 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 Ziploc® bags and freeze them. The next time you are making chili, just throw a couple of bags of frozen beans in the pot. For more great commentary on dry beans, check out


Chili powder, which is commonly available, is a mixture of things – usually cayenne, paprika, oregano, 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. Try making your own and brag about it when serving the chili — I like equal portions of the five ingredients.

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