Stock photo of toppings. You already know what cheese and sour cream looks like.
The Great Toppings Debate: All or Nothing
Rob Iracane: In regards to toppings: yes to onions, jalapeños both raw and pickled, sour cream, and a resounding hell yes to cilantro. Not sure I’ve ever found a shredded cheese that I like on my chili although I can see why you’d want to pile a ton of it on that Cincinnati slop.
Sarah: I love that story, Fesser. Food that has ties to family (and sports) adds an extra depth to what you serve.
Flubby: I generally avoid adding sour cream as a topping. It blunts a lot of the chili’s flavors. Maybe in thin chili or when recommended by the cook. Or in bad chili.
Michael Felder: I’m so violently lactose intolerant that I go no sour cream and no cheese as a mere necessity. I wouldn’t even get to enjoy the chili if those things were included in my experience.
Flubby: I use shredded cheese sparingly if at all. Having onions and jalapenos nearby is helpful, but if the recipe is on point then I might not even need those.
Old James: I’m on team sharp cheddar and, brace yourselves, a scoop of guacamole instead of sour cream. I’m also partial to Fritos sprinkled on top. And a side of cornbread, preferably of the jalapeño variety.
Andrea Hangst: I top mine with finely shredded sharp cheddar, Tabasco because I like vinegar heat, and sometimes green onions if I have them on hand. And always corn chips though I’m not a Fritos fan. I hate sour cream in pretty much every application so nope to that.
Sarah: I would put sour cream on my sour cream if it were socially acceptable. I am also terrible with very spicy foods, so I need to have have sour cream around for chili. Guac on everything is also glorious.
Stephanie Stradley: As for strangest thing I’ve seen at a chili cook off in terms of the chili, I am not sure. Lots of mystery things in chili which is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes you can tell that they used the wrong/tough kind of meat or overcooked it. I like a ton of heat in my chili but at some point the heat becomes ridiculous and you can’t taste anything else. Salt levels are usually the biggest problem.
Was grim participating in a chili cook off in college, and then having my mom and dad show up from out of town the next morning at my dorm unannounced. Easily in the top five of most miserable feelings I’ve experienced in my life. A nausea-enveloped headache that only appeared to be human.
Flubby: I prefer tortilla chips on the side to Fritos as a topping.
Michael Felder: Tortilla chips. The best move.
Sarah: By the way, Stephanie. I agree on the heat issue. I’ve written about this before in a few of my recipes, but when something is so spicy you cannot taste anything else, you’ve just wasted perfectly good food in my mind.
RobotsFightingDinosaurs: I dunno.I’m going to be the lone asshole here and say that if you make a good chili, the only topping you should need is a bit of shredded cheddar. I’m also a fan of cornbread, but to diminish the noble cornbread as simply “a topping” is an insult to its brilliance. Cornbread is served alongside chili, as its equal – a bready, sweet yin to the yang of a good chili.
Sarah: Well, you’re also getting close to a good tamale pie if you have too much corn bread.
Celebrity Hot Tub: There’s a texture element you get with a nice corn chip, though, and I’ll go ahead and throw in for tortilla chips over Fritos. Not that I’d turn down the latter if that’s what was put before me.
But I do think, from a guest perspective, if you’re eating someone else’s chili, it’s poor form to cover it in cheese/sour cream/whatever. Kind of like drowning a good piece of sushi in soy sauce. (Exceptions can be made if the chili is lousy, of course.)
Jeb Lund: I love grabbing some good tortilla chips and crumbling them onto the top, but that shouldn’t be necessary as a flavor component. You should be doing it for texture—i.e. you can’t make “crunchy” chili, so this is a way of adding a crunch vector. If you think it needs it, you’ve done something wrong. This is just fun. Ditto cheese, which is pleasant to cut a little of the heat, but the heat should be manageable for anyone eating already. Mind your guests, mind the palates, be a thoughtful host/cook.
Ted Berg: I like a little sour cream, but too much and I feel like I’m eating chili-based dip rather than proper chili. Definitely some cheddar, too. I usually get tortilla chips because they’re more versatile for non-chili purposes than Fritos, but if it’s just about the chili, I’d prefer Fritos. They’re thicker so their crunchiness holds up better. And that’s what they’re there for anyway.
Stephanie Stradley: I don’t mix my chili with my Mexican food game. Fritos have the perfect salt/heft for good chili. Tortilla chips would just get soggy and break. Not a fan with cornbread with chili either but I’m more of a sweet cornbread person, and that particular sweet/salt combo doesn’t work for me.
As for toppings, I love it with a good shredded cheese, a bit of sour cream and chopped raw white onions. To me, that is a great combination of flavors and textures. Makes a good chili even better.
I like the onions to be chopped in a perfect uniform small size, and this cheap thing I bought at the grocery store recently is the best way to cut perfectly sized onion bits for large numbers of people. It’s the handiest kitchen item I’ve bought in a while, mostly because I like a lot of chopped onions.
Unsilent: I need cornbread on the side, because cornbread is the best. Tortilla chips don’t hurt either. Both work to help cleanse the palate a bit between bites.
Flubby: Cornbread and bean soup are the world tag team champions. Not with my chili, thanks.
Celebrity Hot Tub: I had very little to contribute to this chain overall, because I am, it’s clear to me now, a chili amateur. But, having learned boatloads from the rest of you throughout this, I did just make my first batch that qualifies as actual chili, and, yeah, I’m pretty thrilled. So thank you all – I owe you each a drink. Except Jeb, who will soon have Slate money.
I would also like to share the following TLC-themed names for chili recipes that I thought up while making this today:
Red Bean Special
What About Burnt Ends
Old James: I like that. I’m gonna start calling mine (Orega)No Scrubs.
(Is this thing on?)
I’d also like to thank everyone else for sharing. Took my own chili to another level tonight that wouldn’t have been possible without your input. Even learned a few things, namely: 1) Homemade chili powder > store bought and, 2) Arbol chiles are NOT to be effed with.
Unsilent: I used arbol once. Once.
Stephanie Stradley: If you mess with chiles much, I strongly suggest having disposable chef gloves on hand. They are cheap, and far superior than accidentally touching your finger to your eye when you thought you had washed your hands well enough.
Sarah: Agreed on gloves. I actually have a really strong reaction to capsaicin and have to use them even when chopping jalapeños, or washing off cutting boards and knives I have used during prep. Any on my skin and it burns and turns red.
RobotsFightingDinosaurs: Hell, I itched my eyes after handling chipotles this afternoon and it still twinges. You can’t fuck around with that shit.
Unsilent: I ripped through my last pair while seeding my first chile. I keep touching my eyes like an idiot.
Jeb Lund: I think the ultimate anxiety of chopping and handling chiles when making chili is when you’re halfway through the cooking process and suddenly realize you need to urgently go to the bathroom.
Film Crit Hulk: SORRY, BEEN AWHILE SINCE HULK CHIMED IN! RE: TOPPINGS… NO TOPPINGS. NO CORNBREAD…. THE CHILI IS THE STAR, SO IT SHOULD BE THE STAR. BEST ACCOMPANIED BY A GOOD PILSNER.
Stephanie Stradley: Eh. I feel the same way about no toppings chili as I do about no sauce BBQ. Yeah, I know people preach that, but why not turn the food up to 11?
Film Crit Hulk: IT’S ACTUALLY A RATHER VALID ARGUMENT AND WHAT YOU SAY ABSOLUTELY MAKES SENSE. IF ONLY BECAUSE MOST PEOPLE SEEM TO AGREE WITH YOUR APPROACH. BUT FOR HULK, BBQ SAUCE IS ALREADY AT 11 IF THAT MAKES SENSE. TO ADD IT IS JUST TO MASK THE SUBTLETIES, JOYS, AND ARTFULNESS OF THE THING ITSELF. RobotsFightingDinosaursE GOES FOR CHILI.
IT’S LIKE SRIRACHA. DELICIOUS. SURE. BUT IT CAN ONLY MAKE EVERYTHING TASTE LIKE SRIRACHA.
… APPARENTLY, THEMS IS FIGHTING WORDS TO SOME PEOPLE BUT THERE WE HAVE IT.
Dan Pashman: Toppings are what you put on mediocre chili to make it better. But great chili shouldn’t need them. Especially raw onions, eating those is like waterboarding your palate.
Stephanie Stradley: No raw onions? Noooooooooo! I don’t put onions in my chili because I prefer them raw on top.
Unsilent: The green onions I put on my chili last night were heinous. I had to pick them out. Pickled worked out much better.
Dan Pashman: The onions need to have their bite cut a bit somehow, through pickling, cooking whatever. If they’re sliced ridiculously thin then maybe it’s ok, but unless you want to be burping raw onion for two days, action must be taken.
Unsilent: It really depends on the onion. A fresh diced white onion can be fine.
Dan Pashman: I don’t know. To go to the extents called for in many of the awesome recipes discussed here, only to overpower so much of the flavor in one careless flick of the wrist?
Unsilent: Eh, I like a little freshness and crunch.
Dan Pashman: SCALLIONS.
Unsilent: Yeah, that’s what I usually go with. Last night’s had more offensive onion flavor than any white onion.
Dan Pashman: Huh. I blame global warming. Maybe some lightly sauteed onions are your best move, still crunchy but a little sweet.
Sarah: 1) I accidentally left Chris Mueller from KDKA 93.7 The Fan off this email thread. Apologies. His chili recipe looks quite good. He’s on now and thrown into the fire of chili toppings fighting. 2) What if the author of a recipe says to add toppings, like Iracane did in the recipe he sent me? 3) Starting to worry Albert fell into a well.
I want more like this!
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