Confessions From a Chili Cook-Off Judge and Tips To Make Award-Winning Chili
A good bowl of chili is hard to beat! It’s the ultimate comfort food in the United States. A legendary American dish that has spurred many to put their recipes to the test at local and national chili cook-offs, game day parties, and potlucks everywhere.
I’ve eaten enough chili in my life to know a thing or two about what makes good chili. Especially since I’ve had my share of award-winning chili and not-so-good chili after judging one of our local charity chili cook-offs for 5 years straight. But I confess, I’m not a pro. Chili is serious business for many. And I’m merely in it for the fun a good chili often generates. In the end, if it tastes good, then it’s good!
I’m spilling the beans (pun intended) about what happens behind-the-scenes at the judge’s table, what makes an award-winning chili (in my book), and if you’re interested, I’m also sharing my favorite easy slow cooker Homestyle Turkey Chili recipe that I often make at home.
This southwestern chili recipe can be adjusted to your taste and preferences. Don’t like turkey or want to make it vegetarian? You can! Like it mild or three-alarm hot? You can do that too! This is the beauty of chili. The recipe can be as unique as each person making it.
Join me and let’s make an epic chili to share with family and friends. It’s time to #MakeSomedayHappen one delicious bite, sip, and trip at a time.
The Unique Chili Experience
Chili is often an experience. It’s not a quick last-minute meal. It’s planned. It requires time and the right ingredients. And, let’s not forget, it’s best after it sits in the refrigerator overnight. So again, it’s not a meal you whip up quickly.
But, with this slow cooker homestyle Chili recipe, I’m making it a bit easier for you to make award-winning chili. The ingredients are probably in your pantry. It’s a set it and forget it, dump almost all ingredients at once kind of recipe.
There’s no such thing as one way to make chili. You can make a Texas Red or Chili Verde which each have very specific requirements. There’s “homestyle” chili for everything else.
Anything goes when you make a Homestyle Chili!
Meaty or vegetarian? That’s ok. And the question of beans or no beans leads to heated debates. With homestyle chili, it often includes beans. And there are so many varieties of chili, no two are ever alike.
Cherished family recipes are passed down from generation to generation with guarded secret ingredients.
Do you have a family recipe? Want to share your unique ingredients? Please comment below.
In this Homestyle Turkey Chili, I’m adding sweet potatoes, black and red beans, and sweet corn. I like it chunky. Full of veggies. And, I love the colors and textures. You do you. If you don’t like an ingredient, skip it!
Travel Inspiration: Texas and Myrtle Beach!
Here’s a bit of chili history. It’s widely believed chili originated in Texas. In the 1880s, a market in San Antonio started setting up chili stands from which chili or “bowls o’red” were sold by women called “chili queens.”
In 1977, the Texas Legislature designated chili con carne as the official dish of the state! I would love to go on a chili-tasting spree.
Some insist the first chili cook-off took place in the early 1950s. Terlingua, Texas claims chiliheads first convened there in 1967 for the very first World Championship Chili Cook-off (WCCC). Pioneered by car racing legend Carroll Shelby.
The International Chili Society Made Chili Cook-Offs a Tradition!
Since 1967, The International Chili Society (ICS) has been bringing people together over America’s greatest culinary creation with sanctioned nationwide chili cook-offs to raise money for charities and an Annual Championship to produce a World Champion! In 2020, the top food sport organization, World Food Championships, officially acquired ICS and will host the event in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in 2021!
If you’re looking to travel for chili, check out their website for details on this event.
Behind The Scenes at a Chili Cook-Off Judge’s Table
I was honored to be asked to judge the Winter Park Rotary Club “Chili For Charity” Cook-Off event for 5 years straight starting in 2015. Participants included everyone from top chefs and restaurants in town to local colleges and organizations. The judge’s table included an illustrious group of top local food writers, city officials, and even the mayor of Winter Park.
I was happy to lend my enthusiastic taste buds and my strong stomach for a good cause. Tasting 20+ different chilis in one seating require both.
Our main criteria for judging chili were: Appearance, Taste, and Texture. We also judged for “Winter Park Attitude,” which meant your chili needed some “swagger” and style. This often involved using local ingredients, adding a unique garnish or ingredient.
We eat with our eyes first. How your chili looks is important. According to ICS “Chili that looks appealing with a pleasing aroma and that tastes good – and that meets the requirements of each category’s rules – is typically scored well.”
This is what the table looks like at some point in the process. We typically take one to two bites. If a chili encourages three tastes it’s usually a winner. If we can’t bear more than one bite, then it goes off to the side. In competition, you have to make an impact quickly. Being first in the lineup could be a disadvantage. Unless of course, you’ve made a memorable chili. So don’t worry about order and focus on quality.
Most often, the chili that won was not a crazy concoction. It was simply a well-made, properly thought out, and balanced marriage of textures and flavors. Award-winning chili is not simply about what’s in it. It’s about how every ingredient has purpose and intention and how well the ingredients work together. It’s about the blend.
How To Make Award-Winning Chili
Taste, texture, consistency, blend of spices, aroma, and color are the main criteria for a winning chili. Competition cooks spend countless hours fretting over ingredients and seasonings looking for the right blend of spices to stand out above the rest.
For most dedicated “Chiliheads,” the purest form of chili is traditional red. Also known as “Texas red.” Most red chili recipes include finely chopped meat, diced vegetables, tomato sauce or paste, garlic, chili powder, and other spices. According to official ICS rules, beans or other fillers may not be added.
Luckily at home, you don’t have to worry about rules and can simply focus on what you like and what tastes good.
Keep These Tips In Mind For How To Make Great Tasting Chili
- Use any kind of meat you like. You can even use a blend. The key here is to ensure the meat does not overcook or gets mushy. Ground turkey and chicken offer a learner alternative while still providing good texture.
- If you depart from a traditional chili, then make sure it’s just as good or better than the original. I tried several white chilis that just couldn’t compete.
- Balance flavors between sweet, spicy, and savory. Too sweet and it’s not chili. Too spicy and you can’t enjoy it.
- When using beans, it’s ok to use canned. If you’re using dried beans, ensure they are cooked properly. Hard beans are no bueno.
- Vegetarian chili can be just as good as the meaty kind. Use lots of tomatoes and veggies like in this homestyle turkey chili recipe, I’m using sweet potatoes, peppers, two kinds of beans, and sweet corn.
- Refrigerate your chili overnight and serve the next day. The more time you give the flavors to marry, the better the taste.
- Use a variety of canned tomatoes. I like a mix of Fiery Roasted tomatoes and crushed tomatoes. You can also use diced tomatoes with green chilies.
- Adjust spices and add fresh and dry chilies if you want to amp up the heat. I prefer to make a milder chili for everyone to add their own hot sauces and jalapenos or an extra sprinkling of cayenne pepper to give it a unique kick.
- Secret ingredients run the gamut from marmalade to chocolate, molasses, red wine, beer, and various hot sauces. Have fun with it. However, keep in mind that every ingredient should have a purpose and add something to the mix.
- Adjust the quantity of liquid ingredients accordingly to how many chunky ingredients you have. You don’t want it too runny or watery but you also don’t want it so thick that the liquid is gone. It’s all about balance.
There’s a lot of debate in different parts of the country about what makes a good chili but ultimately it’s a matter of preference. Whether you like a lot of meat or no meat, beans or no beans, etc. it’s up to you. What makes a good chili is the right combination of texture, and balance of flavors.
What Toppings To Add To Your Homestyle Turkey Chili
In ICS competitions no toppings are allowed. At home, go crazy! But within reason. Remember that we eat with our eyes. The toppings are the first thing we see. And the first we taste.
We had one competitor add grated parmesan cheese and it had such a strong aroma that it overpowered the chili. To boot it was from a jar and not fresh grated. Quality matters.
Balance and texture are key. Chopped onions are a common add-on but not a great one when the onions are in such large chunks all you get is a mouthful of onions on your first bite.
Have fun with your toppings! Plantain chips, avocado, pico de gallo, and cilantro were great toppings for a Latin flair.
Sour cream and freshly grated cheddar cheese are perfect if your chili is on the fiery side to help balance the heat.
Like the rule of accessorizing “take one thing off before you leave the house” the same goes with chili sometimes too much is just too much. Make sure everything is in balance.
For my Homestyle Turkey Chili I added fresh cilantro, jalapeños, shredded pepper jack and cheddar cheese, and avocado. I also served it with tortilla chips and white rice on the side. Cornbread, crackers, and Fritos on the side are more traditional.
Easy Slow Cooker Homestyle Turkey Chili Recipe
A bold and chunky chili that is easy to make in your slow cooker and easy to adjust to your tastes. Make it with ground turkey, chicken, beef, or vegetarian! Add sweet potatoes, red peppers, onions, fiery tomatoes, beans, and sweet corn. Adjust spices to make it as mild or spicy as you like it!
- 2 lbs. lean ground turkey (or chicken or beef, or omit for vegetarian)
- 1 sweet onion diced
- 2 large sweet potatoes peeled and diced
- 1 red bell pepper diced (or yellow or orange bell peppers)
- 1 14oz can fiery roasted tomatoes (or regular diced tomatoes)
- 2 14oz cans crushed tomatoes
- 4 garlic cloves minced
- 4 Tbsp chili powder
- 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
- ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp oregano
- fresh cracked pepper
- 3 cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth if making vegetarian)
- 1 15 oz can black beans rinsed
- 1 15 oz can red beans rinsed
- 1 15 oz can sweet corn rinsed
- Garnish options: fresh cilantro, avocado, shredded jack cheese, pickled or fresh jalapeño, sour cream
- Serve with tortilla chips, white rice, cornbread or crackers
Place ground meat, onion, sweet potato, diced tomatoes, garlic, all seasonings in the slow cooker. Add broth and stir.
- Cover and cook on LOW 7 hours or HIGH 5 hours.
- Stir to break up the meat, add beans and corn and cook for additional 20 minutes.
- Garnish and serve with your favorite toppings and sides.
This chili is so easy to adjust to your tastes.
- Make it vegetarian by omitting the meat and using vegetable broth.
- We like garlic but if you don’t, reduce the amount to 2 cloves.
- Don’t have fiery roasted tomatoes? You can also use regular diced tomatoes instead but the roasted ones do add a nice flavor profile.
- Don’t want it spicy? Reduce the amount of chili powder by 1 tsp and skip the cayenne.
- Want more heat? Add more chili powder and cayenne pepper. Serve with hot sauce and jalapenos.
Note on Cooking:
- All ingredients except beans and corn can be added all at once including the uncooked meat. If using ground turkey or chicken, there’s no need to cook separately as these are lean meats. If using ground beef, sautee beef first until cooked through then drain the fat and add to the slow cooker with other ingredients.
- This chili will cook in 4 hours on high but the sweet potatoes need extra cooking time. If you wish to reduce cooking time, cook sweet potatoes ahead of time and reduce the cooking time by 1 hour. Add cooked sweet potato at the same time you add beans and corn.
- Chili tastes best after spending a night in the refrigerator but we understand if you can’t wait to dig in. Start your chili by lunchtime and eat it for diner!
Do you have a favorite chili recipe? If you like this easy slow cooker homestyle turkey chili recipe, let me know in the comments and share it with your friends.
I hope you’re inspired to celebrate at home and keep your travel dreams alive. #MakeSomedayHappen one delicious bite, sip, and trip at a time. If you do make this recipe, please share on social media and tag @goepicurista #GoEpicRecipes. I would love to virtually clink glasses with you and cheer you on your award-winning creation.