How to Make Real Texas Chili

It's healthy, hearty, and a meal unto itself (and no beans!)

Let’s first establish that if you show up at any chili contest in Texas with beans in your chili, you will lose.

Further, someone will put a rattlesnake in your sleeping bag.

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For real Texans, no chili anywhere should contain beans. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Texas. There should be no beans in chili in Cincinnati, Detroit, or San Francisco. This is why, in practical reality, Texans do not eat chili when they are not in Texas.

The fast-food restaurant Wendy’s made a catastrophic error when it opened its first restaurants in Texas. It sold chili with beans. As far as I know, the only people who eat it to this day are transients.

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Why is this? You find many explanations, but the one that makes sense to me is that beans just weren’t available on cattle drives. They had meat, dried peppers, and some onions. They made due. And the sense stuck, from the 19th century to today.

For real Texans, no chili anywhere should contain beans. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Texas.

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My family moved to the Southwest region of Texas in 1830, both sides, so the sense that the onset of fall calls for chili is deeply ingrained. The crisp air conjures up the taste on a seasonal basis.

But I’m not in Texas anymore. This means I’m like most people. I have to make it at home.

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Actually, it is very easy to do. You just have to be very aggressive with ingredients.

Start with browning the beef in a large pot on the stove. You can be fussy and use 2 pounds of steak chopped into raisin-sized bits. This is the expensive way. I used to do this, but it isn’t necessary. Hamburger meat is wonderful. In some ways, it is even better.

After you brown the meat, pour off most, but not all, of the grease. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of flour, mix it and brown it. It is OK to burn it a bit.

Remove the meat and set it aside. Now throw in two large onions finely chopped. These need to cook all the way down, so that no crunch remains.

Add the beef back in.

You need to make a decision about how you want to handle the chilis. You can buy large bags of dried chilis, boil them in water, fish them out, throw them in the blender and puree them. It’s a lot of trouble, and, again, I have doubts about the payoff of doing all this. Sure, it gives you bragging rights. But in my experience, the less fuss you put into a dish, the more likely you are to make it again.

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For this reason, I prefer chili powder. Lots of it. You need at least one small jar. Ideally, you would buy this in bulk. This powder is essentially what you get when you grind up the chilis anyway.

Add the chili powder and a few cups of water. You can also add garlic powder and cumin at this point. It is going to start smelling extremely yummy.

My next suggestion is a bit controversial and even un-Texan. But I think the improvement in the taste is worth it. I add one large can of pureed tomato. Please, purists, don’t scream it horror until you have tried. It really improves the flavor.

We are almost done but for the cooking. At any point in the next couple of hours, while it cooks on a low heat, you are ready to start adding the kick, which is cayenne pepper.

People tend to be terrified of cayenne. But you can’t be if you are making Texas chili. Each tablespoon is an alarm. I suggest five.

People tend to be terrified of cayenne. But you can’t be if you are making Texas chili. Each tablespoon is an alarm. I suggest five.

The chili might have a look of runniness at this point. The key to fixing this is cornstarch. Mix a few tablespoons in cold water until it dissolves. Pour it in and stir. It will take a few minutes. It will not only thicken the chili, but it will also add a shiny glaze to make it pretty.

At this point, you can start refining your flavor. More curry. More garlic. More cayenne.

I sometimes get frustrated at this point, sensing something is missing. What is it? As is often the case with such dishes, adding some vinegar can produce that special something that is missing. Just add it to taste.

Texas chili is a meal unto itself. Nothing else is needed. You can add cheese. You can add sour cream (please don’t). But it is not necessary.

The one thing I like to serve with this is cornbread. It’s so fast and easy — and super yummy.

In the end, you get a slightly citified version of the old cowhand meal, eaten on the trail. And talk about healthy! It’s wonderful. Make a big enough batch, and you can get through the winter months, meal after meal.

There’s nothing hateful or horrible about beans. On the contrary. But keep them away from the real Texas chili!

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