Stirring the Pot: 6 Tips for Award-Winning Chili

Your grandmother's grandmother's chili recipe blows the brains out of anybody else's chili, bar none. Especially the way you prepare it, with your extra super top-secret thing you do. Her index card recipe is all faded, but its trembling scrawl barks out the necessary measurements. This is the Perfect Chili, evolved over a century.

It's hour two after the second chili dump, so the pot is bubbling away and you've been drinking. Why not add a little bit of this and a little bit of that? And wait a minute — you're drinking. What if... maybe you could... in goes your glass of bourbon, because what the sh*t, this is chili and anything goes, plus there's still a bunch more in the bottle for you and maybe this might work out, who knows. And it does. It does!

God damn, this is why chili is so bizonculous. The recipes are as old as time, but the constant urge to tinker makes every generation think they've perfected it. Pitch in a cup of apples, or coffee, or anchovies, and you're The Revolution in your apartment.

Eight years strong, my own Chili Takedown series in Brooklyn has been a smash hit — if only because it celebrates the no-rules style of chili. (If you're making chili in NYC, somewhere there's a Texan frowning, so just go ahead and break all the rules.) I don't hate on beans or tomatoes — and if a veggie chili wants to enter, by all means... At a Takedown, audiences browse the various chilies and taste each one before casting their vote to crown the next Chili Takedown Viking Warlord.

But here are a few tips before you enter your first Chili Takedown, or any chili-off, for that matter:

1. Make it a Face-Puncher: Your audience is only getting a taste of the hours you have spent on this chili, so better make it a face-puncher. Use any flavor enhancer you can imagine — the smartest being salt... A few crushed anchovies are good, but better for small batches, in my opinion. I mean, don't let's supersaturate the stuff — that would be gross — but use salt or any other method you can think of to maximize flavor! You only get one chance to shine!

2. The Kitchen Sink? Maybe not. It’s best to drive your chili in a specific direction but get creative. Chocolate chili? Magic. Coffee chili? More, please. Peaches chili? Absolutely. But a Chocolate Coffee Peaches chili might have you sobbing in the corner, counting your nightmares.

3. What are the judges looking for? Taste: Obvs it should taste good, so keep tasting yours while cooking and ask yourself: Have the chili flavors wedded successfully? Does the spice hit fast and fade, or linger happily over the entire mouthful without overpowering the other flavors? Only a small percentage of your audience wants to die by fire. 

4. Texture: Hopefully your meat isn't all mushy, like in an NYC burrito. Hopefully your beans have been soaked long enough to stay firm, but are cooked thoroughly. Hopefully there's no sand or pebbles in your chili. Just make sure.  

5. Color: This is a matter of preference — especially at a no-rules competition, where you might see a chili verde up against a chili con carne up against a root-veg chili! I will say that when it comes to the chili sauce, I always prefer a rich red/brown sauce, that hasn't been too reddened by the addition of tomatoes. I haven't talked this over with food photographers, but since I've never seen a good picture of chili, it's not inherently an aesthetically pleasing dish. I mean, it just looks like red slop, doesn't it? But the less it looks like vomit, the better. Right on Timms, that's a good note...

6. Originality: I always LOVE to see original takes on the dish that is chili. I was super pumped when Melissa Sands of Forkthis won with her Pineapple chili in 2009. And two years before that, a seitan chili won People's Choice top honors, partly because the cook never admitted he used seitan. Chili is a great improvisational dish, and when you tell people you added lemons, candy bars, quinoa, scotch, or pumpkins that goes a long way to charming the crap out of others' palates...

After hosting these bad ass events for the past eight years, I got a sense of what wins and what loses. But at the end of the day, a chili is a matter of personal taste. Hit up a Chili Takedown some time and watch the bloodbath ensue...

(Photos courtesy of Matt Timms)

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