The Chilli Cookoff

This isn't your dorm room canned chilli.

Chilli. It's about as crucial to the American identity as apple pie or baseball. While a bowlful of chilli can conjure up images of cowhands on an open range, what we're after is a simple one pot meal to stave of the Canadian cold. But with so many different recipes - some counter to 'tradition' - its hard to pick the right recipe. It's time for a good ol' chilli cookoff.

The beauty of chilli lies in its simplicity: a bubbling cast iron pot of richly spiced meat surrounded by a rib-sticking gravy. It's something that allows for modern chilli recipes to, sometimes quite literally, throw the entire spice cabinet at. Cooks aren't limited by choice of meat, either; beef, pork, lamb, and even game are all respectable choices. Over time, everyone adds their own touches or secret ingredients to the mix, making it a truly personalized dish.

Sidebar: One or two L's?

The simple answer is that it's either. Though the commonly accepted spelling in the United States is with a single 'L', British English most commonly spells the word with two. Further, the word for the spicy Capsicum family pod in Spanish is spelled as "chile"; so if you want to be mucho authentic, you can go this route, too.

Seeing as we're in a Commonwealth country, for the purposes of the article we're going with the Queen's English on this one. The sun never sets!

This is likely owing to chilli's roots as a a pack stable grub during the initial settlement of North America. Records of chilli go back to as early as 1850, when miners and explorers needed provisions substantial enough to weather the hot environments of the Texas and New Mexico regions. Pemmican, a survival food made of shredded beef jerky encased in beef fat, was fortified by the addition of chilli peppers native to the region. The result was a chilli brick ready to be reconstituted with water after a hard day's trek. It wouldn't have been out of the question to fortify the pot with any game or foraged vegetables found along the way.

A century later, chilli was christened as a state food of Texas. There, a true 'bowl of red', as it's often called, is made of little more than meat simmered with chilli peppers, very little tomato, and certainly no beans. It turns out that the inclusion of beans in any chilli recipe that claims itself as 'authentic' is sacrilege. Poor execution will draw the same outrage as paella-crazed Spaniards; only this time, these dissenters are likely to be well-armed.

It's not just a matter of culinary taste, either. The debate of beans or no beans runs closer to political lines. It's not uncommon to see chilli adulterated with beans to be referred as Yankee food, as opposed to the more pickup truck moniker of 'bowl of red'. Are we overthinking it to draw parallels between the colour of the dish's moniker and political party affiliation? Perhaps, since the iconic red vs blue denotation wasn't formalized until the 2000 elections, but it's still fun to think about.

There is one case of chilli culture, though, that runs contrary to political or culinary dogma. It's worth mentioning the Cincinnati chilli, if only because of its aberrant change in ingredients. Unlike the stew-like chilli many are used to, a Cincinnati chilli is more akin to a well-spiced spaghetti sauce supplemented by ground beef, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and chocolate. It's then served either atop spaghetti or hot dogs and liberally topped with diced onion, cheese, and beans - referred to as the 'ways'. Ordering a Cincinnati chilli 5 Ways will yield a dish with the works: chilli, spaghetti, and all three of the toppings.

Can three Canadians - with immigrant provenance, might I add - truly make an authentic chilli? Probably not, but we can guarantee our resulting bowls of red will be nonetheless delicious.

Good 'Ol Cookoff

For the judges' consideration, the Three Spoons presents three distinct chilli styles.

Kim was intrigued by chilli's frontiersman history of game meat, as well as the prospect of putting chocolate into a dish. We used ground venison, dark cocoa, canned tomatoes, and beans to make a chilli fit for a Colorado mountain man. Can't find venison? Sub for ground beef, and consider adding a touch of ground lamb to capture some of the gamey flavour of venison.

Nick chose to replicate the San Antonio classic - chile con carne. Nothing but chillis, a handful of spices, and chunks of meat. No beans. It's not truly authentic, though, because there's a touch of maple syrup to brighten it up - a Canadian flair. We used chuck roast as the protein of choice, though any stew-worthy cut can be eligible, such as brisket or short rib.

Finally, Abhi switched up the the base of the recipe to make a green chilli. His chile verde uses tender chunks of lamb loin brightened by cilantro, chilli, and tomatoes. You could use green tomatillo in the recipe, but life above the 49th parallel limits our produce choices in the winter time. Eat local!


San Antonio-Style Chile Con Carne

Serves 4-5 people.

The Payoff:

  1. Tear the stems off of the chillis and pour out seeds. Tear into smaller pieces. In a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, toast the chillis on medium heat until just fragrant. Set aside.
  2. Toast whole cumin, bay leaf, and cloves over medium heat until fragrant. Set aside and and grind into powder using mortar & pestle or spice grinder.
  3. Coat bottom of pot with oil or suet. Salt and pepper the chuck roast and brown in pot in batches. Set aside.
  4. Add 1 cup chicken stock to pot and deglaze the bottom. Add chillies to liquid, boil until soft: about 15 minutes. Once soft, pour chilli mixture into blender and puree.
  5. Wipe down pot, add oil or suet. On medium-high heat, add diced onions and garlic. Cook until light brown colour. Add toasted ground spices, along with paprika and oregano. Stir to incorporate and toast, about 2 minutes.
  6. Add the tomato paste. Cook for a minute, until the paste has caramelized slightly. Add the chilli puree. Cook until paste has caramelized slightly.
  7. Deglaze the pot with beer. Bring to boil. Add remaining 1 cup of chicken stock, apple cider vinegar, and maple syrup, followed by beef. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer covered for 3 hours, followed by 1 hour uncovered.
  8. Can be served immediately, or reserved in the fridge overnight to allow flavours to meld. Serve with cornbread, tortillas, or a crusty roll.

The Ingredients:

  • Chuck roast, 2.5 lbs, cut into 1-inch think steaks
  • Dried Chipotle peppers, 2-3
  • Dried Ancho peppers, 2
  • Dried Pequin chilli peppers, 1 (or more if you like spicy)
  • Chicken stock - 2 cups, divided in 2
  • Cumin, whole, 2 tbs
  • Bay leaf, 2
  • Cloves, whole, 1/4 tsp
  • Paprika, sweet, 1 tbs
  • Dried oregano, 1 tsp
  • Onions, 1 medium, diced
  • Garlic, 3 cloves, minced
  • Tomato paste, 2 tbs
  • Beer, 1 bottle (we used a darker Mill Street Tankhouse. Any red or dark ale will do)
  • Fish sauce, 1 tsp
  • Apple cider vinegar, 2 tbs
  • Maple syrup, 2 tbs
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Woodsman's Chilli - Kim

Serves 4-5 people.

The Payoff:

  1. In a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, fry the bacon on medium heat until rendered and crispy. Set bacon aside.
  2. Add the ground meat, season with salt & pepper, until browned, about 5-8 minutes. Set aside.
  3. Add onions and garlic, cook until lightly caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste, brown until caramelized, just 1 minute. Add canned tomatoes, cook for 3-5 minutes until broken down.
  4. Add cocoa powder, ancho chilli powder, hot chilli powder, cumin, sweet & smoked paprika, ground coriander, bay leaf, and espresso. Stir to combine. Add chicken stock, followed by ground meat and bacon. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for 2 hours.
  5. Add beans, simmer for additional 30 minutes. Serve immediately or reserve in fridge for 24 hrs to allow flavours to combine. Serve in bowl topped with sour cream, cheddar, and green onion.

The Ingredients:

  • Ground venison (or beef), 2.5 lbs
  • Bacon, 4 strips, medium dice
  • Onions, 1 medium, diced,
  • Garlic, 3 cloves, minced
  • Crushed tomatoes, 1 can
  • Red kidney beans, 1 can
  • Tomato paste, 1 tbs
  • Cocoa powder, 1 tbs
  • Ancho chilli powder, 1 tbs
  • Hot chilli powder, 1 tbs
  • Ground cumin, 2 tbs
  • Sweet paprika, 1 tbs
  • Smoked paprika, 1 tbs
  • Ground coriander, 2 tsp
  • Bay leaf, 1
  • Canned chipotle in adobo sauce, 3 peppers, chopped with adobo sauce reserved
  • Espresso, 2 shots (or 1/5 cup strong-brewed coffee)
  • Chicken stock, 2 cups
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • Garnish: grated cheddar, sour cream, green onions

Slow Cooker Lamb Chile Verde

Serves 4-5 people.

The Payoff

  1. Preheat oven to 450F (230C).
  2. Place onions, tomatoes, and garlic on baking tray, season with salt & pepper, roast for 30 minutes or until you see slight charring on onions and tomatoes. Remove from oven, divide into two bowls (3/4 and 1/4 of vegetables).
  3. Heavily season lamb loin with salt & pepper. In a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, brown lamb loin in olive oil & butter. Set aside.
  4. By this time your vegetables should be done. Remove from oven, then switch the oven to a high broil (500F) and char whole jalapeno in baking tray, about 3-5 minutes, or until blackened on all sides. 
  5. Using a food processor or immersion blender, lightly puree 3/4 of roasted vegetables and add to crock pot.
  6. Combine jalapeno, cilantro, and 1/4 of the roasted vegetables in a blender, pulse until coarse, scraping down the sides. Add mixture to crockpot. Add bay leaf, cinnamon stick, ground cumin, coriander, and red chilli powder. Stir to combine.
  7. Place seared lamb into crockpot. Set crockpot on high for 4 hours.
  8. Serve.


  • Lamb loin chops, 2 lbs
  • Medium onion, 1, quartered
  • Garlic cloves, 4, smashed
  • Beefsteak tomatoes, 2 lbs, quartered
  • Bay leaf, 2 leaves
  • Cinnamon stick, 1 stick
  • Jalapeno pepper, 1 pepper
  • Fresh cilantro, 1 bunch
  • Ground cumin, 2 tbs
  • Coriander powder, 2 tbs
  • Red chilli powder, 1 tbs
  • Butter, 1 tbs
  • Olive oil
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Tasting & Judgement

While no judging cards were doled out at our chilli tasting party, we still made sure to get feedback on the recipes. Unsurprisingly, Kim's Woodsman's Chilli, with its inclusion of beans and ground meat, proved to be the most familiar chilli style for a gaggle of Canadian tasters. Abhi's take on lamb chilli hid a surprising fresh element thanks to the cilantro, fresh tomatoes, and jalapenos used as the base. Finally, for those looking for an intense offering of meaty essence, my San Antonio-style chilli offered multiple layers of chilli depth.

For those looking to pair drinks with their next chilli cookoff, we had a variety of beer, ranging from fresh wheat beers to hop-forward red ales, at the ready. Straight bourbon also made an excellent addition to the meal; we found that sweeter, corn-heavy varieties help accentuate the nuanced spices put into the chillis. Wine is a more difficult beast owing to how heavy chilli as a dish is. We suggest putting out a jammier red with notes of fruit and spice, such as a Spanish Rioja or Australian Shiraz, capable of holding it's own to the chilli and cumin. You might be able to find a white wine that works, but go for something more off-dry to cut through the spice.

Putting the constraints of tradition aside, there is no wrong way of making chilli. Whether you prefer making a more 'complete' meal with the added heartiness of beans, or are looking for a more refreshing take on a heavily-spiced dish, there's a recipe out there. Take one of our recipes and play with the ingredients that you have on hand.

Words by Nicholas Wong. Photos by Abhishek Dekate.