Whether you call it chili, chili con carne, or something else entirely, chili with beans is a delicious and comforting dish enjoyed by many. But the name is actually quite contentious in certain circles. Purists argue authentic chili never contains beans, while others don’t mind bending the “rules.” So what is this bean-filled chili actually called?
The Controversy Over Beans in Chili
There is an ongoing debate about whether “real” chili contains beans or not. Those who argue against beans say authentic chili is made with just meat, chili peppers, and spices. Beans are seen as a filler added to stretch cheaper cuts of meat. But others don’t have a problem with beans and think they add protein, texture, and flavor.
Some key points in the chili with beans debate:
- Purists believe “real” chili is made with just meat, peppers, and spices. Beans are not part of traditional chili con carne.
- Others think beans complement the flavor and add protein. Chili with beans has become common and accepted in many parts of the U.S.
- Bean-less chili is sometimes called “Texas red” chili after the official state dish of Texas that does not contain beans.
- Competition chili cooked to strict guidelines never contains beans. But home cooks and restaurants often add them.
So who’s right ultimately comes down to personal preference and local tradition. But what you call this chili stew depends on where you fall in the debate.
The History Behind Chili with Beans
To understand the disagreement over beans, it helps to look at the origins of chili.
Most food historians agree chili developed from Spanish stews. When Spanish settlers came to the Americas, they brought spicy stews made with peppers, tomatoes, garlic, onions, and meat. This dish evolved into modern chili con carne (“chili with meat”) in Texas during the late 1800s.
Early chili was made by cowboys over campfires using dried chilies and cheap cuts of beef. It was considered a “man’s dish” eaten around the ranch. Beans were not part of the earliest versions.
Why no beans? Some reasons include:
- Beans took longer to cook than meat in a campfire chili.
- Beans caused more “gas” which was unpleasant around the campfire.
- Beans were seen as a filler not suitable for “real” chili.
But chili with beans gradually became popular, especially during the Depression when meat was expensive. Home cooks added beans to stretch chili and add protein. Canned beans also became widely available in the early 1900s.
By the 1950s, most recipes called for chili with tomato sauce and beans. But purists still argued that “real chili” never included beans. The controversy continues today.
Regional Differences in Chili
Not only do opinions differ on beans, but there are regional differences in chiliingredients and preparation:
Texas chili is all about the meat and spices. It typically contains just beef, chili powder, garlic, cumin, salt, and pepper. Thick and stew-like, it is served as a meal rather than a condiment. Beans and tomatoes are usually excluded though recipes vary.
Midwestern chili is often made with ground beef and beans in a thick, stew-like consistency. Tomatoes and chili powder are included along with other vegetables like onions. Kidney beans are most common. This style is well-suited to chili mac dishes.
Cincinnati chili has a unique sweet-spicy flavor and thin consistency. It is served over spaghetti or hot dogs, not on its own. Their signature “three-way” dish includes spaghetti topped with chili and cheese. Tomatoes are rarely used and beans are sometimes included.
So preferences for ingredients like beans often come down to regional chili traditions.
Beans in Competition Chili
To settle debates, chili cook-offs established formal guidelines on what “real” chili is. These standards are followed in major competitions.
According to the International Chili Society, true chili is defined only by the inclusion of meat, peppers, and spices. Pinto beans and other legumes are prohibited. However, green beans or peas are allowed.
Popular cook-offs also forbid beans:
- The World Championship Chili Cookoff forbids beans along with pasta, rice, and other fillers.
- The Original Terlingua International Chili Championship has never allowed beans.
These rules support the traditional “chili purist” stance. But the public doesn’t necessarily agree. People still love their chili with beans outside competitions.
Nicknames for Chili with Beans
With all these guidelines and disagreements, what do you actually call chili that contains beans?
Here are some popular nicknames:
- Chili mac – Any chili with pasta or beans added, like chili macaroni. Popular in the Midwest.
- Forty-one chili – Comes from the former La Gloria chili brand’s #41 canned chili product which had beans.
- Frito pie – Texas chili with beans served over Fritos corn chips.
- Hoosier chili – Indiana chili with beans and tomato sauce.
- Michigan chili – Similar to Cincinnati chili but often with beans.
These names distinguish chili recipes with beans from Texas-style chili served without them. Home cooks around the country embraced the bean-filled variations.
Should You Add Beans?
Whether to add beans comes down to your tastes. Here are some pros and cons to help decide:
Reasons to Include Beans
- Beans add protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
- They provide a lower-fat alternative to just meat.
- Beans give chili a thicker, heartier texture.
- They add extra flavor from soft, creamy beans.
- Beans make chili more filling and substantial.
- Extra ingredients help stretch chili to serve more people.
Reasons to Exclude Beans
- Purists argue beans don’t belong in authentic chili recipes.
- Beans can water down and dilute the distinct chili flavor.
- Texture contrasts between tender meat and soft beans may seem odd.
- Meat can end up floating on top of dense beans and liquid.
- Excess beans leads to increased gas for some people.
Consider your tastes, nutrition needs, and how many you plan to serve. Adjust the ratio of meat to beans as desired. Use less beans for a meatier chili or add more for a vegetarian-friendly version.
Popular Variations of Chili with Beans
Home cooks have come up with many tasty variations on chili using beans:
White Chicken Chili
This uses white beans and shredded chicken breast meat for a lighter chili. Great northern or cannellini beans are common choices. Onions, garlic, corn, and chili peppers add flavor.
As mentioned, this regional chili is served over spaghetti and hot dogs. Kidney or pinto beans are sometimes mixed in. The sauce has a unique sweetness from ingredients like cinnamon and chocolate.
Meatless versions rely entirely on beans or meat substitutes like soy protein. Kidney, pinto, black, or mixed beans provide plenty of texture. Add extra onions, peppers, and mushrooms for flavor.
Elbow macaroni or other small pasta shapes are cooked right in the chili. The thick sauce clings to the noodles. Use plenty of beans to create a hearty meal.
Pumpkin puree adds sweetness and warmth to chili. The beans balance out the richness. This vegetarian chili is a nice seasonal switch from tomato-based versions.
The options are endless when you get creative with chili and bean recipes! Adjust to your tastes.
Tips for Cooking Chili with Beans
To make the best pot of chili with beans:
- Choose chili beans that hold their shape and firmness. Favorites include kidney, pinto, black, and cannellini.
- Cut canned beans in half or thirds to reduce mushiness.
- Rinse canned beans to remove excess sodium and liquid.
- Add beans near the end to prevent overcooking. Simmer just until heated through.
- Toss cooked beans with vinegar or lemon juice. The acid helps maintain structure.
- Thicken the chili with masa harina or cornmeal for a richer texture if needed.
With these tips, you can cook up flavorful chili with beans that looks and tastes homemade. Chili with beans can be a delicious, protein-packed one-pot meal.
What’s in a name?
The name you use for bean-filled chili ultimately comes down to personal preference:
- Chili – Many people don’t differentiate and just call any recipe “chili.”
- Chili with beans – A simple descriptor that acknowledges the beans.
- Chili mac – Highlights the pasta often added along with beans.
- Cincinnati chili – Refers to the unique regional style served over spaghetti.
While traditionalists argue that true “chili” never has beans, home cooks have embraced the variations. Chili with beans has become an accepted comfort food.
The chili with beans debate may never be settled completely. But most can agree that bean-filled chili makes for a hearty, crowd-pleasing dish. For an extra dose of protein and fiber, add kidney, pinto, or other firm chili beans. Just don’t call it Texas red around die-hard chili traditionalists! With flavorful chili powder and the right mix of ingredients, chili with or without beans can warm you up.