If you ask the International Chili Society (and most Texans), a true chili is “any kind of meat or combination of meats, cooked with red/green chili peppers, various spices and other ingredients, with the exception of beans and pasta which are strictly forbidden.” That’s right: no beans (or pasta, although that one is kind of a doozy, anyway). For anyone raised outside of the Lone Star state, this rule probably comes as something of a shock and upset, defying the many, many chili recipes out there that call for a menagerie of vari-colored beans.
Texas certainly lays claim to the original meat-and-pepper-only chili. San Antonio, in particular, was once known as the epicenter of chili, with its famed “chili queens,” who would sell their homemade versions in the city’s public squares. But once you begin to look beyond its Southwestern origins, the definition of chili gets slippery. As it became more widely known across America, the dish picked up increasingly eclectic ingredients and drifted away from being a standalone stew, finding its way onto foods like hot dogs and fries.
While Texas’s signature chili con carne remains a bean-free affair, the versions you’ll find elsewhere take a more liberal definition. In fact, you could say that chili (in the broader sense) is more of a class of stews than a set recipe. It comes in myriad shades and flavors and can include ingredients as diverse as chocolate, fish sauce, and coffee. And as anyone who’s ever been to a vegetarian potluck can attest, there are decidedly non-Texan chilis that make beans the star of the show.
A complete rundown of all the versions of chili out there would fill volumes upon volumes, but you can break them down into a few basic types. Here are eight of the most well-known and iconic.
1. Chili con Carne
A traditional, Texas-style chili falls in this vein: lots of beef, peppers and spice, and not much else. There can be tomatoes and onions, if you please, but beans are 100 percent out of the question. Get our Chili con Carne recipe.
2. Chili Verde
Although there are a number of green chilis out there, the most famous of them all is the New Mexican version, which features chunks of pork simmered in local Hatch peppers. Get the recipe here.
3. Carne Adovada
Carne adovada is New Mexico’s other chili specialty. It’s also pork-based, but the broth centers around potent red dried peppers. Straddling the line between a stew and a well-sauced meat, it’s got a drier, thicker consistency to it that can even stay put inside a taco. Get our Carne Adovada recipe.
4. White Chicken Chili
White chili may be the fairest of them all, with pale cannellini beans and shredded turkey or chicken. It still manages to fit in a good deal of hot peppers and spice, though. Our recipe throws in jalapeños, poblanos, and a dash of chili powder to maintain the heat. Get our White Chicken Chili recipe.
5. Rocky Mountain Chili
Although Rocky Mountain chili isn’t necessarily a defined style or type, it hints at the use of local game as its main meat. This recipe calls for ground elk (you can substitute beef) backed up by a deeply flavored stew with chipotles, chocolate, and coffee. Get our Rocky Mountain Chili recipe.
6. Vegan Black Bean Chili
Texans, avert your eyes: this one is all about the beans. A good vegan or vegetarian chili puts the flavor and texture of the legumes first, rounding it out with fortifying and hearty tomatoes, onions, and spices. Get our Pressure Cooker Vegan Black Bean Chili recipe.
7. Cincinnati Chili
Cincinnati chili is exactly what you would expect to happen when chili stumbles up north into a rust belt town: it gets itself into a mess of of carbs and cheese (and lots of them). A fully-loaded one (known as a “five way”) consists of an (in)glorious mountain of spaghetti, beans, onions, and shredded cheddar with an oyster cracker garnish. Get the recipe here.
8. Five Alarm Chili
Ever wonder what they mean by “five alarm chili” in those antacid commercials? A “chili alarm” refers to the number of sources of (and ergo the level of) heat—you can count five different types of peppers in this recipe. Get the recipe here.
Header image: Pressure Cooker Vegan Black Bean Chili from Chowhound
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.