“Chili is a largely a state of mind,” wrote Bill Bridges in “The Great American Chili Book,” and nowhere is that truer than in the spicy world of chili cook-offs, where a champion’s mindset — along with the right recipe and some mad cooking skills — can lead to fame, glory and perhaps even some prize money.
Since the first recorded chili cook-off at the 1952 Texas State Fair (won by Mrs. F.G. Ventura of Dallas, whose recipe is here), major events like the World Championship Chili Cook-Off and the Terlingua International Chili Championship have grown in size and scope to attract competitors and attendees from all around the world. And while Texas is certainly the red-hot center of chili passion and lore, there are now chili cook-offs in every state, pretty much any time of year.
If you’re getting ready to compete in a chili cook-off, no matter how small or low-key, it can be a good idea to learn from the champions. We talked to several recent winners, and even checked in with a judge, to learn about the easiest ways to emerge from the fray with a culinary victory.
Find a recipe and ingredients that work for you
If you’re interested in an old-school approach, start with classic cookbooks like “The All-American Chili Cookbook,” published by the International Chili Society, which includes many winning recipes, beginning with the first championship in 1967. Or consider seminal books like “A Bowl of Red” by Frank X. Tolbert and Hallie Crawford Stillwell, or “With or Without Beans: An Informal Biography of Chili” by Joe E. Cooper.
“I always applaud culinary risks, but maybe let’s stop trying to make ‘dessert chili’ a thing. Peppermint is not a chili ingredient.”
Cook-off-winning recipes can easily be found on the internet too, where you may want to start with a basic version that sounds good, then consider how you want to adapt it to your own taste. If you’re traveling to a cook-off, be aware of the flavor profiles that work best in that region. Kathryn Williams Cavender’s recipe led her to become the 2019 Terlingua International Chili Champion. A cook-off veteran, she modifies recipes for the region where she’s competing.
“Florida likes a sweet chili, so I might use grape jelly,” she said. “Dallas likes spicy chili, but central Texas likes a milder chili. And in Arkansas, they like chili with ketchup.”
Jennifer Billock is a journalist and author who has competed in the Medinah, Illinois, Shriners’ annual chili cook-off. “My team won three years in a row, including a People’s Choice award,” she said. “I don’t have a recipe,” she said. “We called it Garden Chili and threw in a ton of veggies. Don’t tell chili purists, but it included canned beans, along with the liquid from the can,” she said. “The beans give the chili a really earthy flavor. There’s also chocolate in my chili, because I find it makes the finished product taste both more robust and smoother.”
And then there are some ingredients that champions just won’t consider. Tom Dozier has won more than 10 major chili cook-offs, and he’s been a two-time winner at big ones including Terlingua International, the U.S. National Open and the State Fair of Texas. “I don’t use oregano, because it imparts a spaghetti sauce flavor,” he said. “I also avoid cinnamon, which tends to overshadow all of the other spices, and I follow a strict ‘no beans’ policy, since I make Texas chili.”
Pay attention to technique
Billock believes in frequent check-ins during the cook-off prep time: “My guiding principle is to taste, taste, taste,” she said. “Taste it at first, when you put all the ingredients together, and then let it cook for a while and try it again.”
Additional technique tips come from Terlingua International Chili Champion Lisa Stone. “For my winning recipe, I use scissors to cut the meat,” she said. “This prevents it from getting too mushy, and I can better control the size of the chunks.” She also follows a firm “closed lid” policy. “I stay away from opening the lid to my pot, and I keep it on pretty much the whole time I’m cooking. This prevents broth from evaporating, keeping in moisture.”
Gene Moffett’s 48 Volt Maxdale Special chili earned him The Original Terlingua Chili Cook Off title in 2021. “Consistency is your friend,” he said. “I try to stay away from wild deviations from the general recipe being used. And I’ve learned to wait until the cooking is almost finished to open the first cold beer of the day, which seems to help me stay focused.”
Timing is everything
Many champions swear that success comes not just from the right ingredients in the right proportion, but also from the timing of when they’re added to the pot. A frequently used word in chili competitions is “dumps,” which refers to blended spice mixes that are added at precise intervals throughout the cooking process.
Some cook-off teams turn those dumps into a bonding experience. Becky Allen, 2021 Terlingua International Chili Champion, said: “The girls on my team have a tradition of doing what we call the Dump Dance. We gather in a circle with the small plastic cups holding our spices and do a little up-down, side-to-side dance with the cups. Then we hug and wish each other good luck. We may look silly, but it’s our tradition, and I think it brings good luck. Well, that and a shot of Fireball before turning in our entry.”
Allen’s recipe calls for two separate dumps, once after the mixture is first brought to a boil, and then after it has stood for an hour. That “standing time” is important for many of these expert cooks. Dozier is another champion who lets time do some of the work: “Chili gets better by resting off the heat, not by cooking longer,” he said. “Resting the chili allows the spices to meld together.”
Sam Merritt, a food blogger for Sugar Spun Run, reported that readers have used her recipe to win more than 100 chili cook-offs (and counting). “I’m especially thrilled when they send me photos of the trophies or ribbons they’ve won,” she said. For her, timing is critical. “I always add spices early, before the meat is fully browned,” she said. “This allows the beef to absorb a ton of flavor and helps the spices really bloom.”
Cindy Reed Wilkins has won multiple chili cook-offs, tying with Bobby Flay on “Throwdown With Bobby Flay, the Chili Challenge” and winning back-to-back Terlingua International Chili Championships. Her Cin Chili, made in three separate batches and then combined at the end, is the stuff of legend, and part of its secret, she said, is that “the timing of adding the spices is important.” She has a tiny Tupperware bowl, originally a keychain, that she uses to add her “kicker,” the last ingredient added to the cup before submitting an entry. “It brings me luck,” she said.
Is bacon the best secret ingredient?
Ed Goldfinger has won several local competitions (and says that dozens of commenters have reported taking home the blue ribbon in the chili contests they have entered). His recipe, Eddie’s Award-Winning Chili, calls for chuck meat, Italian pork sausage and ground beef, along with poblano, Anaheim and jalapeño peppers. Then Goldfinger elevates the recipe to championship levels with the addition of bacon. “In my experience tasting chilis in other contests, I began to realize that the mouthfeel of chili was about the combination of flavor, heat and texture,” he said. “Bacon adds both flavor and texture to this recipe in a major way. Also, come on, it’s bacon.”
Merritt agreed that whatever the cook-off question, bacon is the answer. “I know it’s a little unconventional, but once you try it, you’ll never go back,” she said. “I simply cook some bacon right in the pot first, then cook the chili in some of the remaining bacon grease. Building on a base of bacon fat makes all the difference, and it adds a totally new layer of complexity to the chili.”
Playing to the judges
Rachael Narins is a chef-instructor, bestselling cookbook author and founder of Chicks with Knives, a culinary consulting company. She has also judged many food competitions, including the Beverly Hills Chili Cook Off. “These are always super fun events that bring out the community for a wholesome good time,” she said.
While competitors have their secret tips and tricks, so do judges, she revealed. “The silly-but-true secret to judging chili is to let another judge taste it first and gauge how spicy it is, so you can be mentally prepared. I like to hold off on trying anything that is five-alarm as long as I can. Also I always make sure to have some crackers, water or milk on hand so I don’t blow out my palate.”
It’s a gig she clearly enjoys. “Contestants put a lot of time and effort into their dish, so you want to honor that,” she said. “Some recipes can be amazingly delicious and some just a sincerely wild mix of ingredients, which can lead to major giggling.”
Her advice is to keep things simple and control the heat. “The biggest mistake is trying to put everything imaginable into the dish,” she said. “It’s also not a strategic idea to make the chili overwhelmingly spicy. We want to taste the food, not singe our tongues.”
She evaluates based on several criteria: “I always take into consideration how much effort went into the dish, the quality of the ingredients, and of course how it tastes,” she said. “We judges appreciate the presentation, but we don’t include it in the score. And we always appreciate extras like chips, cornbread or pasta, but they don’t get included in our assessment, either.” When it comes to showing your enthusiasm, she enjoys a bit of extra effort. “Contestants who go all in and dress up in costumes always make me smile,” she said. “It’s supposed to be fun, so go for it.”
She also shared thoughts on some of the weirder recipes she’s tried: “I always applaud culinary risks, but maybe let’s stop trying to make ‘dessert chili’ a thing. Peppermint is not a chili ingredient.”
Bring the right attitude
Dozier keeps it all in perspective: “Whether I’m cooking for a cook-off or just making chili at home, I simply try to make good chili. Favorable results and wins and losses come and go, but at the end of the day there is nothing better than a good bowl of ‘Texas Red.’”
And in case you get a little too carried away with the competitive aspect, consider Wilkins’ sage advice: “It’s friendly competition among a group of people who are passionate about having fun, raising money for charity and getting their shot at winning the big event.”