Behind the Seasonings: Chili Powder

The fourth Thursday of February is the hottest day of winter, that’s because it’s National Chili Day! We recognize the delicacy of the original Texas “Bowl of Red,” but also admit a hankering for the spaghetti-laden Cincinnati Chili. On this occasion we show our love for that piquant beef stew and the herbs and spices that make it all possible.

The spicy nomenclature surrounding chili is confusing. In the United States, we recognize a clear difference between the two spellings of chile and chili.

Chile refers to actual chile peppers and members of the genus Capsicum. This includes everything from Sweet Bell Peppers to Carolina Reapers, and even Paprika. Chile, pronounced CHEE-LAY, is the Spanish word for hot pepper and it comes from the Nahuatl word chīlli of the same meaning. Nahuatl is the language of the Aztecs, one of the first peoples of Mexico.

Chili refers to the dish, chili con carne—Spanish for, “peppers with meat.” At its simplest level, it is a stew of dried chile peppers and meat. 

Chili powder is a mixture of spices commonly used to make chili con carne. The blend is traditionally made from ground ancho chiles, Mexican oregano, cumin, and garlic powder. Our chili blends are made this way and vary from mild to hot. Each of our chili powders has a flavor that is rich, bittersweet, and earthy, with savory notes from the ground cumin. 

Peoples of Mexico and Texas have been stewing meat and chile peppers together since antiquity. Chili as we know it evolved in Texas at the turn of the 20th century. Chili con carne was popular all over the state, San Antonio in particular. Chili Queens of San Antonio would sell their spicy stew at stalls in the city’s Military Square. Texas-style chili con carne is principally prepared with beef, bison, or venison, onions and dried chile peppers. Beans do not belong in a classic bowl of Texas Red. Even tomatoes are controversial in Texas chili.

Old school preparations of chili con carne call for dried, whole chile peppers like ancho, guajillo, and pasilla. The peppers are rehydrated in water and ground into paste with a Mexican-style mortar and pestle called a molcajete. Meat is seared in a pot, the paste is added with broth or water, and then left to simmer for over an hour. Chopped onion, garlic, and cumin are often added as well.

European immigrants living in Texas wanted to make their own chili, but found the traditional methods time-consuming. Chili powder was created so people could quickly make the dish at home.

The kings of chili powder were DeWitt Clinton Pendery and William Gebhardt. Both men are credited for inventing premixed chili powder. What’s certain is that they brought chili powder to the mass market and Tex-Mex cuisine to national attention.

Many of you will venture into the spice blending and rule bending world of chili making. I welcome you flavor seekers. We compiled over eighty different spices, herbs, seasonings, and ingredients for all types of chili con carne.

I’m happy to live in Chicago, far away from silly food laws that ban beans and tomatoes from my chili. Keep your ketchup off my hot dogs though. I will put tomatillos, tomatoes, and beans in my chili. I use nine different herbs and spices in my recipe, including our medium chili powdercocoa powder and Ceylon cinnamon. It’s not authentic, but it’s delicious.

Check our collection of chili recipes for even more inspiration. A personal favorite of mine is Mike Kutka’s Dark Side Chili. It features our Black Garlic, and is fit for a Sith Lord. Mike always stirs up something interesting for the annual Market Vendor Chili & Beer Tasting, held at the Milwaukee Public Market.

If you’re feeling competitive, enter a cook-off near you! There are strict rules and categories in official chili cook-offs. Fillers are forbidden in traditional red chili cook-offs—No beans, rice, corn, or similar ingredients. Check the International Chili Society’s official rule form more of these guidelines. These cook-offs are serious; the World Champion Cook-off winner walks away with a spicy trophy and a $25,000 prize!

The best chili in Wisconsin is made with Spice House spices. Warren Fowler, pictured above, has won the Wisconsin State Chili Cook-off six times. Warren has used our freshly ground and blended spices in every chili cook-off he’s entered, including wins in Minnesota and in Chicago. Besides using our spices for chili, Warren says that they’re also the only spices he buys. We caught up with the Green Bay native over email, and he gave us some pointers.

Can you share any tips or secrets for a good pot of chili?

Keep it simple. You want to go for consistency. If you have a really involved recipe, there are too many variables, and something can go wrong. I make my own chili powder, using regular, medium, hot, ground cumin, and a few other ingredients… So, when it comes to cooking the pot, all I do is add tablespoons of my powder. If something goes awry, I have individual spices, to try to correct the situation. When you are cooking out of state, you have to expect something to go wrong. It might be cold, the wind might be blowing hard, in the desert with no humidity your liquid evaporates quickly. At altitude, your chili boils at a different temp and there is no humidity.

What types of chile peppers do you prefer in competition?

I generally don’t use individual chiles in competition. Too much variation can happen. I occasionally use individual powders, such as jalapeño, cayenne, and chile de arbol, mainly to adjust heat level or move the heat around your mouth. You can also use hot sauces to adjust the heat.

What kinds of meat do you like to use?

Cooking in Wisconsin does not require any special meat. Usually hamburger, or a combination of hamburger and cubed sirloin is what wins. Depending on what part of the county you are cooking in determines your meat choice. In Illinois, there is no reason to use cubed meat, hamburger pretty much always wins. If you are heading west, starting in Colorado, cubed meat is the only meat that will win. Sirloin or tri-tip sirloin, cut into 1/4 inch cubes.

How do you like to serve your chili?

Beans on the side.  Chopped onions, cheddar cheese, and most important chopped Kosher Dill pickles. And of course crackers or tortilla chips.

If you have chili questions or want some spice recommendations, email us at Do you have an obscure recipe for authentic Alaskan-style chili? We want to try it! Share your recipe with us here. From your friends at The Spice House, Happy Chili Day!

Geoff Marshall is Web Content Manager at the Spice House. He loves writing stories and recipes for the blog. When he’s not nose deep in one of Tom and Patty’s many spice encyclopedias, you’ll find him daydreaming of dinner prep or riding his bicycle.

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