Give me a group of friends, some homemade tortillas or cornbread, a warm, slightly spicy bowl of rich chili, and take a picture of my face, and what you will see is absolute bliss.
Chilis, curries, soups, and other “batch” dishes were born out of necessity, sustenance, and ease, and I think those origins are what make dishes like chili so homey.
Everyone has an opinion about how to make chili, and the fact that it is such a broad category is what makes it so exciting and fun. That’s why chili-offs are so popular, after all! There’s Texas chili, chili with beans, chili without beans, chili that leans into its Mexican origins, chili that blends world flavors — you name it.
If you’re planning your next chili night and really want to impress your family and friends, then you need to make some choices, and one of the biggest is what meat to use.
While there isn’t a perfect answer, we’re going to give you exactly what you need to make the right choice for your chili and give you some tips from the pros on how to take your chili to the next level.
But before we get into the meaty details, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page.
What is chili, exactly?
Chili is the nickname of chili con carne, which translates to chili with meat [*]. It’s generally understood to be a spicy stew that uses fresh chili peppers or chili seasonings, onion, garlic, beef, tomatoes, and beans.
It originated in Mexico and Texas, and chili die-hards argue that real chili is simply the spices, chilis, onion, broth, and meat — ingredients like beans and tomatoes are culinary preferences building on top of the original base.
Regardless of how you want to define chili, we all have a good idea of what it is — even though we may disagree on the specifics.
Now that we have that settled, let’s get to the meat.
What is the best meat for chili?
The best meat for chili depends on the type you’re making, but professionals generally use a combination of ground chuck, brisket, short ribs, or diced tri-tip sirloin mixed with bacon and sausage to layer multiple textures and flavors.
You can really use any meat for chili, but here are the cuts that are most popular for classic chili:
1. Ground beef (80/20)
Ground beef from your local supermarket varies depending on what meat trimmings and primals they used to make the ground beef. It’s often chuck, though, which comes from the chuck primal located in the upper front part of the cow.
The usual blend is 80/20, which means that it’s a blend of 80% muscle and 20% fat. This is the cheapest and easiest type of meat to use, and because it is ground and has a high fat content, you don’t have to worry about tenderizing it.
2. Ground sirloin (90/10)
Ground sirloin is from the loin primal and is more meaty than ground beef chuck, which gives it a stronger flavor and a slightly tougher texture.
Brisket is from the chest of the steer and is famous in BBQ. It has a tough, sinewy texture that needs slow cooking methods to coax out its delicious flavors.
I’d go for the flat over point when making chili — that way you don’t overload your chili with fat. You may have to trim or skim some of the fat off either way, though.
3. Short ribs
Short ribs taste amazing in chili, and you can either brown the meat with the ribs attached to get more flavor or pull the meat off before you put it in the pot.
4. Tri-tip sirloin
Diced tri-tip is a more expensive option but tastes incredible. When you pair it with a finer ground beef the combination of textures is delicious. Tri-tip, especially grass-fed dry-aged, has a rich flavor that is hard to beat.
Our 100% pasture-raised tri-tips steaks are deeply flavorful and perfect for chili.
The best meat for chili is actually a combination
I like to put chili into two camps: easy weeknight chili and all-out chili. The main differences being the cost and work required to gather the ingredients.
- Easy weeknight chili = ground chuck and pantry spices.
- All-out chili = a combination of meats + fresh chilis.
Chances are, if you took the time to seek out a blog on the best meat to use for chili, I’m going to assume you like to nerd out a bit. And what you quickly realize when getting into the world of chili is that there isn’t a single cut that works best for chili — the best chilis use a combination of meats that offer different flavors and textures.
So my advice? Take a look at your general recipe, see what you have on hand, and think about how you can stack the textures and flavors. Maybe it’s a coarse ground sirloin mixed with a tender cut or an 80/20 chuck blend mixed with shredded brisket and diced sirloin.
Regardless of what you choose, there are some guidelines you can follow to get the best results.
Best practices for choosing the best chili meat
Work with your butcher to get multiple textures
Just like we said above, try to stack your textures! And get your butcher to help with this. If you found some sirloin that you love but want it to be coarse ground instead of diced, just ask.
Use multiple animals to add depth
A lot of chili contest winners pair beef with pork or chicken to add more depth to their recipes. Try cooking your onions in bacon grease or adding sausage bits into your pot to take it to the next level.
Go for grass-fed and grass-finished beef
It’s no secret. Small-farm, grass-fed, and sustainable meat tastes better than its industrial counterparts. When the animals you eat are free from additives and preservatives and live the way they were meant to, the taste of the meat is stronger, the nutrient profiles are richer, and the texture is better. There’s really no replacement for it.
Take your chili to the next level with our 100% grass-fed and grass-finished beef.
Make sure it’s fresh
Buying meat that’s been frozen for months isn’t going to give you the best results. Buy grass-fed and buy fresh! Look for busy, active meat companies that take pride in quality.
How to cook chili like a pro
Now, let’s get to the good part. Here are a few “secrets of the trade” the team at US Wellness Meats has learned over the years.
Trim any fat as needed
If you’re using fatty cuts for your chili, you may need to do some extra work to get it ready for your chili. Fat doesn’t absorb spices as well and can get in the way of the rest of your dish by coating the chili with an oily finish. You should also check for any tough membranes that you may need to remove.
Use fresh chilis
Chili powders are inconsistent and don’t taste as good as whole chilis. While they are easy, there is no replacement for a recipe that uses fresh, blended chilis.
Don’t be afraid to get the chili to a point where it’s a tad too spicy before you let it simmer for a few hours. As the spices absorb into the ingredients the initial punch will die down, resulting in the right kind of burn.
Brown meat before cooking all the way through
Browning gives a lot of flavor, so you should consider searing your meat briefly before dicing or grinding. The taste is worth it. Also, meats with higher fat content can release a lot of liquid, causing the meat to stew in its own juices instead of brown. To avoid this, either cook the meat in smaller batches or drain the liquid out as needed.
Don’t be afraid to experiment
Chili is about experimentation! From trying more classic Mexican ingredients like adobe chilis and chocolate to messing with different meat combinations, keep refining until you fall in love with your recipe. Chili is a delicious journey.
Chill and serve your chili the next day
Don’t underestimate what a bit of cooling and time can do for your chili! Putting your chili into the fridge overnight gives it time to let all those delicious ingredients get to know each other.
5 chili recipes we love
Feeling inspired? I hope so. Here are 5 of our favorite chili recipes to get your gears moving.
For a great blend of effort and payoff, check out this classic tailgate chili from AllRecipes. It’s straightforward, but that is by no means a bad thing. Cook your own beans and mix up the meat blend to take this to the next level!
Warning: this recipe is intense. You know those recipes that try to get as much flavor from every single ingredient and are super laborious? This is one of those. So if you’re in the mood for a rabbit hole, this one’s for you.
This is a delicious and easy-to-assemble dish that is always a family pleaser. It’s super flavorful without being too spicy, and the bacon adds not only a really nice taste but also that little bit of bite beanless chili is often missing.
If you usually opt for classic chilis but want one that’s a bit different, then check out this recipe from Waitrose. It uses a wine deglaze instead of beer and finishes the chili with a spiced butter made with chili powder, paprika, and other spices.
Classic Texas chili doesn’t use beans or tomatoes, and this recipe is about returning to those roots. Make sure you have a grocery store close to you that offers fresh chilis. This recipe won’t be the same without them.
The bottom line on the best meat for chili
The best chili meat is a combination of meats, often a mix of ground chuck, ground sirloin, brisket, diced tri-tip, and/or some bacon or sausage. Do your best to mix smaller pieces with larger pieces to stack textures and make it your own!
Nathan Phelps is a writer, ethical foodie, and outdoors-aficionado hailing from Nashville, TN. He splits his time between helping sustainable businesses find new customers and managing his ever-increasing list of hobbies, which include playing guitar, baking bread, and creating board games.