The heat is on: Tips for making great chili for cookoff
Discover tips for cooking chili under pressure at the World's Championship Chili Cook-Off -- or even in your own kitchen.
A former World's Chili Cookoff champion should be among the most qualified to offer tips about competing under pressure. And while Carol Hancock was a 1985 champion, she took home $25,000 then, a testament to her skills and chili knowledge, which continue today.
That's because she now is chief executive officer and owner of the International Chili Society, which sponsors the World's Championship Chili Cookoff. She also has years of experience judging, so there is no one better to talk to about grace under fire!
About 400 chefs are expected to compete in this year's competition, scheduled for Oct. 16-18 at the Grand Sierra Resort. That competition falls into four categories, including homestyle (with beans!); salsa; chili verde and -- yes! -- the traditional red, for which there will be a $25,000 grand prize.
More than 120 chefs are expected to battle it out in the traditional red chili cook-off on Sunday, having one hour to prepare and three hours to cook. When the time is up, the true anticipation begins: The judges start the process of blind tasting and blind judging. It can mean pressure of many sorts, but these are chefs who have qualified regionally and know there are expectations. Still, how does one stay focused and plan for the best outcomes?
Here are some tips from Hancock about creating great chili:
- Bring the essential ingredients when you can. While not everyone arrives by plane for the championship, bringing in the essentials can be challenging for those who even drive in. Packing preferred meats in dry ice for a trip is possible, but sometimes it's just easier to buy local for the event, including from event sponsors (which includes Smart & Final for this year's event). That said, many contestants do travel with the essentials, like their spices and powders, which often are hand-made or preblended. "Fresh onions and canned things can be bought locally," Hancock said. "A lot of chefs blend their own spices at home."
- Be consistent. Cooks sometimes sprinkle in spices or pour in random liquids without exact measuring, she said, which leads her to wonder how they will be able to duplicate their recipe if they win. Of course, since all cooks must qualify for the event, it's not like anyone is a novice and taking a guess about what goes in. "There is enough variable in the ingredients already, which is why I say that one secret to great chili is measuring."
- Make sure your spices are fresh. "If they have chili powder that they bought in Mexico three years ago, that is not what I would recommend using," she said. Powders lose their color over time and when they start to turn brown, their flavor is slipping away, too. "Quality ingredients are key," she said.
- Prep as best as you can. As far as preparation goes, just do what you can with the time given. However, sometimes this requires adjustment. "If you cut an onion and it's green, and the edges are green, you don't want to use that," she said. Sometimes you have to make do with what you can or see if you can borrow from a competitor.
- Know other contestants. Many chefs in the World's Championship Chili Cookoff know each other -- there even is a grandfather, father and son competing -- or have been there multiple times before. That can be a benefit because there's sharing and understanding among compadres and friends. So when that green onion pops up during prep time, a cook can ask a fellow cook if they have anything extra available for use.
- Do what you can to stay calm when cooking. "I think even the most experienced cook experiences anxiety," she said. "There's no question." So what can they do to stay calm during three hours of cooking? Engaging with the crowd can be one solution. Offering up samples and chatting with attendees are others. "I don't know if there is any one calming element for them," she said.
Recipe: Shotgun Willie Chili
6 pounds prime beef, cubed or coarsely ground
4 medium onions, finely diced
1 15-ounce can Hunt's tomato sauce
6 New Mexico dried pepper pods
6 pasilla dried pepper pods
4 cups beef broth
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 teaspoon Tabasco
16 tablespoons Gebhardt Chili Powder
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon MSG
¼ teaspoon sugar
14 garlic pods, crushed, use remaining pulp
1 cup water
1 tablespoon oregano leaves
2-3 tablespoons Wesson Oil
salt to taste
Remove stems and seeds from pepper pods and boil chili peppers in water for approximately one hour until pulp separates from skin. Scrape pulp from skin, mash into a paste. Use 2 cups of finished pepper paste paste in recipe.
In the 1 cup of water, bring the oregano leaves to boil, steep like tea. Strain, reserving liquid. Add the strained liquid to chili mixture. Brown beef, a small batch at a time in hot oil, adding onions and black pepper to each batch. Remove meat to chili pot as it browns. Add remaining ingredients, blend well. Cover and simmer 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
Recipe provided by the International Chili Society