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Competition Chili vs. Eatin' Chili

by John Raven, Ph. B.

Every weekend there are dozens of chili cook-offs. These competitions are to determine who makes the best (in the opinion of the judges) chili for the day.



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We are going to take a little time to compare "competition" chili and "eatin'" chili. First of all, competition chili will contain a lot more spices and seasonings than eatin' chili. Eatin' chili may contain beans, but competition chili won't contain beans or any other substance considered filler; i.e., macaroni, rice or oatmeal. It is quite acceptable to have chunks of onion, pepper and tomato visible in eatin' chili, but knowledgeable chili judges don't want to see anything but meat and gravy in competition chili. Also, there will not be any red grease floating on top of competition chili.

Classic eatin' chili will be made of less desirable cuts of meat. The meat can be beef, pork, venison or a combination of these. Competition chili will be made from chuck tender, sirloin or top round. The eatin' chili meat will either be in chunks or ground with the course blade of the meat grinder. It may contain some fat and connective tissue. Competition chili will be precisely diced into cubes of about three-eighths of an inch in size. There will be nothing white in the meat.

Eatin' chili will be cooked in a cast iron pot or whatever other pot of suitable size is available. Competition chili will be cooked in a "nonreactive" pot, usually stainless steel.

Before chili powder was invented, all chili was made with dried chile pods, usually the ancho variety. The pods were either boiled or had hot water poured over them to revive them. Then the pulp was extracted with a food mill and used as the main seasoning. A few folks still use this method. Other spices include cumin, black pepper, cayenne pepper, oregano, garlic, onion, tomato and whatever else the chef might deem suitable.

Over the thirty plus years of chili competition, many innovations in the processing of chili have been developed.

When the chili craze started there were probably less than a dozen brands of chili powder available. Now, there are hundreds of sources for the main ingredient. What most of us call chili powder is actually a chili blend. That is, along with the ground chile, it contains cumin, garlic, oregano and other spices selected by the maker. Serious chili chefs will seek out a pure chile powder, and then they have control over the other seasonings. Any brand of chile powder will vary from batch to batch. Growing conditions produce changes in the flavor and color of the chiles. When a serious chili chef finds a really good batch of powder, he or she will buy a lot and store it in the freezer. (All spices survive better in the freezer). Other spices are selected with care. (When buying bottled spices, pick the bottle way in the back of the display, the older spices are moved up front).

One of the secrets of competition chili is double ground spice. That is, the chef will run all his spices through a spice grinder to get the finest size particles possible. This lets the spice release its flavor faster and more completely.

Cumin, the spice that gives chili its distinctive aroma, comes in either powdered form or in seed form. The seeds can be toasted in a skillet, and then ground for a more pungent flavor and aroma. Also, the essential oils of the cumin can be extracted by toasting the seeds, boiling them in distilled water, and then skimming the resulting oil off the top of the water. This oil can be added to the chili for an extra boost in flavor and aroma.

Dozens of cooking techniques have been developed by cook-off contestants over the years. One of the most favored is the "dump" method.
Competition chili judges don't want to see any chunks of onion or garlic in the chili, so the chefs either finely dice or pure these so they will disappear in the cooking process. Some favor onion or garlic powder.

Flecks of black pepper are frowned on, so white pepper is substituted for the "up front" bite. ("Up front" bite is the tingle from the pepper that you taste immediately; "back bite" is the tingle that comes later, usually from cayenne).

Tomato sauce is favored, as it contains no offensive seeds or skin.

Canned beef or chicken stock is used for thinning the mixture to the desired consistency. If water is used, it will probably be bottled water to avoid the chlorine.

Dozens of cooking techniques have been developed by cook-off contestants over the years. One of the most favored is the "dump" method. The spices are divided into several portions or "dumps". The dumps are added to the pot at varying time intervals. Some flavorings such as garlic lose their potency when overcooked, so you add that near the end of the cooking process. During a competition, you will hear a lot of kitchen timers reminding the chefs to add the next dump.

In the past, one of my favorite methods to watch was the It-tastes-better-the-next-day method. This was based on the theory that chili stored in the refrigerator will develop some good tasting sugars. So the chefs would cook their chili, and then put it in an ice chest to cool it off, and the chemical changes were supposed to happen. Then the chili was reheated for judging. This turned out to be too much trouble, so the method was abandoned.

Another technique that you don't see used at home was the washing of the chili meat. After the meat is ground or diced and stored, juices tend to seep out. For some reason, the chefs decided this seepage was undesirable, so you would see them with sieves and water washing the meat before cooking it. I noticed recently, however, that chefs are storing their meat in sieves so that the juices drip out and don't contaminate the flesh.

There are dozens of other little secrets of competition chili that we really don't have the space to go into here. Perhaps at some later date we will cover them and give some examples of "bending the rules" for advantage.

My favorite example of the tenacity of the serious competitive chili chef comes from watching Bob Moore of Spring, Texas, who was the 1980 World Champion Chili Chef. Bob was cooking in the Chilympiad, the Texas Men's Championship Cook-Off, and he was upset because his pot was not boiling evenly across the surface. One side had a little more vigor than the other. So, Bob rounded up some sticks and stones to adjust the attitude of his stove until he had an even boil across the pot. He might have been on to something, as Bob is the only chili chef to my knowledge to win both first and second prize at the same cook-off.

The Ritchey family of Garland, Texas, has had phenomenal success in chili competitions. They can account for five world championships. The late Wes Ritchey won the CASI championship once, and his wife, Dorene, has won the "Behind the Store" Championship four times. This recipe, courtesy of Dorene Ritchey, is a proven winner.

5-R Chili

  • 2 pounds Cubed or coarsely ground boneless, trimmed beef (chuck or shoulder arm preferred)
  • 1 tablespoon Vegetable shortening
  • 1-½ teaspoon Hot sauce
  • 8 oz. Tomato sauce
  • 2 Beef bullion cubes
  • 2 Jalapeño peppers, skin surface slit
  • 6 tablespoons Chili powder (or to taste)
  • 4 teaspoons Ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon Onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon Garlic powder
  • ½ teaspoon Salt
  • ½ teaspoon White pepper
  • 3/8 teaspoon Cayenne
  • ¼ teaspoon Oregano
  • 1/8 teaspoon Crushed bay leaf
Cook meat over medium heat in melted shortening until meat is gray in color. Add hot sauce, tomato sauce, bullion cubes, 1 jalapeño and water to cover. Simmer, covered, 40 to 60 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add water if needed. When jalapeño is soft, squeeze in juice and discard pulp and seeds.

Mix together chili powder, cumin, onion, garlic, salt, white pepper, cayenne, oregano and bay leaf; divide into 3 portions. Add one portion spice mixture and remaining jalapeño. Continue to cook for one hour adding water as needed. Remove jalapeño, squeeze juice into chili and discard pulp and seeds. Add second portion of spice mixture. Continue cooking for another 30 minutes, adding water if needed. Add remaining spice mixture and cook 15 minutes more. (Chili should be kept thick during cooking. Adding too much water keeps the spices from permeating the meat.)

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