Kidney beans, black beans and pinto beans show up in countless chili recipes, and many pro chefs and home cooks swear by these hearty legumes as an integral part of a satisfying chili.
But in Texas, beans have no place in a pot of chili.
The classic Lone Star State chili, popularly known as “Texas Red,” includes a small and carefully curated selection of ingredients, and its bean-free simplicity is a point of pride for generations of Texans. (If you Google “recipes for Texas red chili,” you’ll find recipes from blogs with names like Beef Loving Texans and Meat Church.)
To explain why Texas Red is, in the words of Andy Knudson (the executive chef of Tillie’s at Camp Lucy in Dripping Springs, Texas), the “king of all chili,” we turned to Texan chefs with very passionate views on this controversial topic. Here’s what they shared with us.
“Texas Red” chili is all about pure beef flavor (with plenty of spice).
“Texas is the originator of chili as we know it today,” said Evan LeRoy, co-owner and master barbecuer of LeRoy and Lewis in Austin.
Texas Monthly backs up this claim, tracing the origins of meat-based chili (or “chile con carne”) back to 18th century San Antonio, where immigrants from the Canary Islands introduced a slow-cooked meat stew seasoned with hot peppers and cumin that was later embraced and adapted by San Antonio’s “Chili Queens” (a collective of Mexican American home cooks who served chili to farmers, soldiers, cattle ranchers and other Texans in the years following the Civil War), setting it off on a path that would lead to chili’s destined status as Texas’ official state dish.
While the Chili Queens did sometimes add beans to their chili, cooks throughout the state slowly but surely helped this stew evolve into a dish that’s both wildly flavorful and elegantly simple.
“Some beef, spices and a chili puree are all you need,” LeRoy said.
The natural flavor of beef is critically important to a great pot of Texas Red. In fact, Jason Cunningham, executive chef of The Carillon in Austin, told us: “Texas chili really opened my eyes to the flavor of the beef. Beef chuck and brisket are loaded with flavor. If an ingredient isn’t adding anything, then it really doesn’t need to be in there.”
When it comes to beans, Cunningham dismissed them as “a filler” that doesn’t “really add anything in the way of flavor.”
LeRoy agreed, emphasizing the value of keeping Texas Red chili simple.
“Other versions of chili try to use the dish as a catch-all for all kinds of ingredients, from chocolate to chicken,” LeRoy said. “The only two absolutely necessary ingredients in Texas Red chili are beef and dried chiles. Texas chili is the dish in its purest, most unadulterated form.”
“Frito Pie” is a quintessentially Texan way to serve chili.
Texas Red can certainly be served in a bowl like any other type of chili. But its vibrant, unmuddled taste profile gives it an appealing level of versatility. This beefy, spicy, beanless chili offers “an increased number of options” for serving, said Kyle Barham, chef de cuisine at The Carillon.
“Sloppy Joes, chili dogs, nachos — they all taste better with more meat and less beans, in my opinion,” Barham said.
But if you want to serve this chili in a flavor-boosting way that’s fun, easy-to-execute and unapologetically Texan, then Knudson and LeRoy are happy to introduce you to the Frito pie.
“In my humble opinion, the best way to eat chili is to pour it over the top of a bed of Fritos with pickled jalapenos, sour cream and sharp yellow cheddar cheese,” Knudson said.
LeRoy (who serves a widely acclaimed Frito pie loaded with Texas Red at his Austin BBQ truck) explained that Frito pie is an ideal vessel for this chili because “the crunch from the Fritos brings a great textural element. Plenty of shredded cheddar and diced white onion round out the dish with creaminess and sharpness.”
To make a great batch of Texas Red at home, keep things simple and focus on quality ingredients.
Because Texas Red doesn’t call for an essay-length grocery list, our experts strongly recommended making sure that the meat, peppers and seasonings that you choose are “good, fresh ingredients,” as Cunningham put it.
As we already mentioned, beef is the key element of a successful batch of Texas chili, so take the time to seek out the good stuff. Instead of standard-issue ground hamburger, Knudson likes chuck flap (a very thin steak that comes from a bottom sirloin butt cut) and LeRoy goes with beef cheek scraps. In terms of texture, either dice your beef or put it through a coarse grinder. The finished meat should have a nice bite to it.
You can feel free to use any dried chiles that you like, but LeRoy called out ancho, guajillo and arbol chiles as especially strong options. To prep them, he steeps the dried peppers in hot water, then purees them in a blender with a little water until smooth.
As spices go, cumin is a classic choice (and one that hearkens back to chili’s original Canary Islands form), but garlic powder, onion powder, dried oregano, cayenne, chile powder and paprika are also excellent partners for beef and dried peppers. Play around with different spices until you find the perfect blend for your palate (and don’t forget to salt the chili throughout the cooking process).
Some chefs like to add beef stock and beer to their Texas Red to give it a slightly soupier texture, so feel free to experiment with these ingredients as well. And while classic Texas Red never includes tomatoes, Knudson admitted to us that he does like to add “crushed tomatoes and tomato paste” to his version. If the sweetness and tanginess of tomatoes in a pot of savory chili make your tastebuds happy, then we promise it’ll stay between us.
Finally, LeRoy gave us a brief and straightforward how-to guide for making a batch of Texas Red (and provided a link to his YouTube channel, where he guides viewers through the process of making LeRoy and Lewis’ iconic Texas Red chili and Frito pie.)
He starts by browning his beef in the oven overnight to “break down all of the connective tissue and render out a lot of the fat.” If you don’t have time for an overnight browning session (or if you don’t decide to make a pot of chili until the day of), LeRoy said that you can “easily brown your beef in a saucepan or stockpot.”
Next, he uses the blender to make a puree out of soaked chile peppers. He adds the puree to the browned beef, seasons with salt and spices, then lets it simmer on the stovetop until the flavors come together.
Take your time with the cooking process, because longer, slow cooking on the stovetop will make the flavors meld better.