The secrets behind a foolproof chili

Uncovering tricks of the trade in advance of the Big Chili Contest.

A closeup of Official Chili's big pot. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

The Big Chili Contest is coming up this weekend, Jan. 24, at the Portuguese-American Club, and in light of the famous event, we wanted to prepare you with some chili history, rules, and recipes.

Before we dive into the world of chili, fair warning: Chili is one of the most controversial recipes in American history. There have probably been wars about chili, friendships dissolved over the meaning of true chili, and marriages terminated on terms of what makes a real chili. And with that fair warning, there’s one true fact we can state: True chili has no beans. There, we said it. You can discuss all you want, but after careful research, we found this statement to be true, and plan to stick by it.

If you’re outraged and want to fight about it, you can take it up with the International Chili Society (ICS), a nonprofit organization that sanctions chili cook-offs with judging, and has an entire set of rules and regulations in place, one of which is shared below:

Traditional Red Chili is defined by the International Chili Society as any kind of meat or combination of meats,cooked with red chili peppers, various spices and other ingredients, with the exception of beans and pasta which are strictly forbidden. No garnish is allowed.

In this history that’s difficult to pinpoint with accuracy, stories from the Texan cattle trails are heard often: how range cooks would plant herb gardens along the trails to use in future travels for cooking their chili. Slowly, chili moved into San Antonio, under the aegis of the “chili queens,” a group of dozens of Mexican women who cooked chili at home and sold it from small carts in the Military Plaza of San Antonio, each with her own blend of spices, trying to one-up the others. For 200 years they sold their chili, until the 1930s, when the health department shut down their operation.

Here, a basic recipe of chili from the ICS via the range cooks: Cut up as much meat as you think you will need (any kind will do, but beef is probably best) in pieces about the size of a pecan. Put it in a pot, along with some suet (enough so as the meat won’t stick to the sides of the pot), and cook it with about the same amount of wild onions, garlic, oregano, and chiles as you have got meat. Put in some salt. Stir it from time to time and cook it until the meat is as tender as you think it’s going to get.

Thanks to the magic of social media, a simple Facebook status turned into a chance to chat with Steve Jordan, local award-winning chili maker and creator of the hottest chili recipe in the past 20 years. Mr. Jordan has been even granted a lifetime achievement award, and is judging this year’s hottest chili category at the Big Chili Contest. Of course, I had to ask him his insider tips and secrets to great and spicy chili.

When I inquired about his recipe, he replied,

Ingredients include ground beef and chopped steak tips that are browned with onions and garlic, as well as chili powder, cumin, oregano, cayenne, and paprika. Chopped tomatoes, kidney beans, dark beer, and corn masa flour are added, letting it simmer until ready. You might be wondering why it’s the hottest, right? Well, I grow my own habanero, jalapeño, cayenne, and ghost peppers. Those are all processed, seeds and all, and then slowly cooked in oil. That mixture is added to the simmering chili — hottest chili ever!

Another local favorite is the delicious White Chicken Chili at Mocha Motts, made by Erica McCarron. Her recipe:

White Chicken Chili

1 Tbs. olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
4 tsp. cumin
1 Tbs. chili powder
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
4 cups shredded/cubed cooked chicken
2 (4 oz.) cans chopped green chiles
4 (14.5 oz.) cans chicken broth
4 (15 oz.) cans cannellini beans
2 cups corn kernels
½ cup half-and-half
¼ cup chopped cilantro
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Shredded Monterey jack cheese and tortilla strips, for serving (optional)


Heat olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add diced onions and sauté until soft. Add the minced garlic, cumin, chili powder, and cayenne. Cook one minute longer. Stir in cooked chicken and chopped green chiles.

Add 3 cans of chicken broth, and 2 cans of cannellini beans. Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Add corn.

In a food processor or using an immersion blender, combine ½ cup half-and-half, remaining 1 can chicken broth, and remaining 2 cans of cannellini beans, and purée until smooth. Add to the soup and simmer 10 min. Stir in cilantro and season with salt and pepper according to taste.

Serve with optional shredded cheese and tortilla strips.

Big Chili Contest tickets are available at Shirley’s True Value in Vineyard Haven and at Trader Fred’s in Edgartown for $35 each. The annual event is this Saturday from 11 am to 4 pm, and is hosted by MVY Radio, benefiting the Red Stocking Fund, and is a 21-plus event. Free bus transportation is provided from the Steamship Authority in Vineyard Haven to the Chili Contest, and will return you there at the end of the event. For more information, visit