What Gives White Chili Its Color?

"White" foods are so-named because they're fundamentally different from their non-white counterparts. White pepper is a riper version of the black peppercorn, white barbecue sauce is mayo-based, white chocolate is made without cocoa solids, and white caviar only comes from albino sturgeon or escargot (per Imperia Caviar). Sometimes though, the name can be more confusing than clarifying. For example, "white fish" or "whitefish" can actually refer to a number of firm-fleshed, un-oily species like cod, pollock, haddock, and halibut, according to Seafood Nutrition Partnership

So, you might wonder, with all this talk about white foods, what's going on with white chili? Chili is already a divisive dish. Alongside feelings of cowboys, camping, and comfort, it evokes questions regarding where it came from, what goes into it, and perhaps most pressingly, whether beans belong anywhere near it. Among its many iterations is chili con carne, called a "Bowl O' Red" in Texas, and green chili Verde which is beloved in New Mexico (per Insider). Both attribute their color to the very add-ins that make them so rich and hearty. As it turns out, white chili is also named for the ingredients that account for its appearance.

White chili is built different

White chili is packed with pale ingredients, yet saturated in flavor. According to Southern Kitchen, white chili can be made with great northern or navy beans and chicken or turkey, along with cream or sour cream, cooked altogether in a base of chicken broth. Sometimes, other light-colored ingredients may be added like garlic and onion, or even queso fresco, sliced radish, and tortilla chips. It can also be thickened with cornstarch and white flour (via The Pioneer Woman). This is a stark contrast to what one should hesitate to call "authentic" chili, which is a rich reddish brown coloring made with beef, tomatoes, peppers, and kidney beans (if you're not in Texas, that is). 

The birthplace of white chili is difficult to pinpoint, but sources, including SFGATE, indicate it likely came from the American Southwest. This might be accurate because National Chili Day, celebrated on February 24th, reports that chili is not a Mexican dish, but became widespread in the late-1800s in San Antonio, and became firmly embedded in the American culinary tradition. SFGATE's recipe omits tomatoes and features navy or great northern beans, chicken, chicken broth, light beer, and white cheddar, making it a possible predecessor for the white chilis we know today.

How to make white chili

Since chili is a tasty, easy-to-make, and forgiving dish, many celebrity chefs and personalities have concocted their own mouth-watering recipes. Ree Drummond graces us with fast white chicken chili, which is ready in an hour and includes corn and cannellini beans. She's also got a slow-cooker version for when you need to set it and forget it. Chrissy Teigen offers a vegetarian version, and Ellie Krieger's white chili recipe has flavorful poblano peppers and hearty hominy corn. Her take also uses nonfat Greek-style yogurt for thick creaminess and that signature color.

If you need to clean out your pantry, try McCormick's southwest white chili using all dried herbs and spices. Chicken breast is a favorite protein choice — and the white meat certainly stays true to the dish's name — but white chili can also be made with turkey, pork, and even fish, shrimp, and scallops. Whole Foods Market shares a seafood chili Blanco recipe that you might find interesting, especially if you like beer. There are a lot of artistic licenses when it comes to chili. So next time you're craving it, consider white chili a perfect blank culinary canvas.