Hello, friends, and welcome to the first instalment of the Skillet Chilli Cook-Off. Let me start out by saying that this thing is probably going to go on longer than I initially intended. I know I said I would be picking eight (8) chilli recipes to make, eat and ponder, but you simply sent me too many enticing entries.
Besides, I’m the boss in this corner of the internet, and I can make as many of your delicious chilli recipes as I want to! I have no desire to limit myself (or you) to eight, and I won’t do it. Anyway. Let’s meet our first bowl of meaty wonderment: a simple, honest Texas chilli.
I only know two things about Texas: They don’t allow beans in their chilli, and their spiders are not to be trifled with. (My family lived in Texas briefly right after I was born while my dad was inspecting cattle or something. I got bit by a spider, and the mark did not fade until I was well into my teens.)
The “no beans” rule never quite made sense to me. As a maximalist who likes beans, I didn’t understand why the addition of a legume was so upsetting to so many people. But contributor The Notorious H.A.M changed my mind with their measured, gentle tone and simple, no-frills recipe. Was I influenced by the description of this chilli as “rural,” and “working class”? Of course — I’m a communist from Mississippi. Did the words “limited-ingredients-by-necessity” give me a thrill? You bet it did. I’m a sucker for food that anyone — no matter their income or location — can make and enjoy. I also liked that H.A.M. said we could have pintos as a treat, if only as a side dish. This allowance demonstrates a flexible, but still principled, approach to eating and cooking.
There’s no need for me to re-type H.A.M’s detailed, clear instructions. I’ll just drop them here and meet you on the other side.
This is my dad’s Texas chili recipe. My variations are in parentheses, and his very strict rules are in quotes (this is a also a glimpse into the way my dad writes emails). This is chili we’re talking about — rules matter. This recipe is very true to the style, and while you can fancy it up with better beef and secret ingredients like coffee and chocolate and peanut butter, the more you do that, the further you will get from the rural, working class, limited-ingredients-by-necessity roots of the Texas version of this classic dish—in other words, try it once by the book before you start riffing, gentle readers.
3 pounds lean beef, “coarse ground or chili ground is best but ground meat will work” (I sometimes use ground turkey, too.)
1 large onion, chopped
Up to three cloves of garlic “or you can use the kind already chopped and add to taste. Needs plenty.”
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
4 tablespoons chili powder (I sometimes use smoked chili powder for a slightly different flavor.)
2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon sugar
3 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons paprika
1 x 225g can tomato sauce “not tomato paste”
Masa Harina flour if thickening is required (or corn starch)
Cooking oil (dealer’s choice)
(I almost always add roughly a tsp of fish sauce for an umami boost, and if it starts to veer toward too rich/heavy, I’ll add some red wine vinegar to balance it out)
“If you are making it in a cast iron pot which is best, sear the meat with just enough oil to sear it all to a light grey color. Of course stir while searing. You can also do it in a large skillet and then finish in a crock pot and let cook all day.”
After searing the meat, “In whatever pot cover the meat with just enough water to cover.” Add the rest of the ingredients and stir. “If cooking in a pot, simmer for at least 2 1/2 hours. Crock pot cooking can be several hours on low. Skim the grease and taste to see if done. Masa Harina flour can be added if to thicken and cook a little longer. If you started with just enough water to just cover the meat you should not need to thicken the chili.”
“Remember that true Texas Chili never ever under any circumstances is cooked with beans. Use them for a side dish if you want and they must be pintos. Do not mix them.”
(I highly recommend topping with something pickled, such as onions or jalapeños, to balance out all the umami—or see the bit above about the red wine vinegar.)
(To eat it like you got it from a concession stand at a Texas high school football game, a la Friday Night Lights, serve it over Fritos and top with shredded cheddar [fancy] or Whiz [tasty], chopped onions, and pickled jalapenos and enjoy the deliciousness known as Frito Pie.)
I followed H.A.M.’s instructions exactly, right down to the addition of the fish sauce and red wine vinegar, both of which added their own unique flash of subtle specialness in their own way (umami and brightness, respectively), but the chilli would still be good without them. I didn’t feel the need to thicken the chilli, so I omitted the Masa Harina, but I have used it in other recipes and can confirm it would work well in chilli.
This chilli kicks arse. It’s meaty and rich, but not too heavy, with just the right amount of acidity and sweetness. It was a little spicier than I was expecting, but that was a good thing. The heat ebbed and flowed with each bite, never obliterating my palate and always leaving me craving another bite.
My only note is that I recommend letting the chilli sit overnight. The flavours really do develop and meld into something even better than the fresh-off-the-stove iteration. It’s truly worth the wait.
Again, I must highlight how accessible and easy this chilli is. All of the ingredients can be found at any grocery store, and they are all extremely reasonably-priced (especially if you already have a halfway decent spice rack). The dried spices do a lot of work here, and they do it beautifully. The result is a something that tastes more nuanced and developed than most people would expect, and that’s a valuable lesson. I’m very guilty of “riffing” before even establishing a baseline, and this chilli reminded me that sometimes simple is all you need. Honestly, it’s kind of a relief.
Oh, and you should definitely use this chilli to make a Frito pie, and you should make the Frito pie with Whiz. It really is the platonic ideal of a sporting event snack, and I’ll probably eat it every day until I run out of chilli.