Tolbert’s Original Bowl of Red Chili Recipe

Tolbert’s Original Red Chili Recipe is by Frank X. Tolbert, from his book, A Bowl of Red, published by Texas A&M University Press, 1953.  Frank Tolbert founded the Terlingua International Chili Championship in Terlingua, Texas and owned a chain of chili parlors in Dallas, Texas.

The most famous and well known chili cook-off took place in 1967 in Terlingua, Texas.  Terlingua was once a thriving mercury-mining town of 5,000 people and it is the most remote site you can choose as it is not close to any major city and the nearest commercial airport is almost 279 miles away.  Just getting to Terlingua requires a major effort.  It was a two-man cook-off between Texas chili champ Homer “Wick” Fowler (1909-1972), a Dallas and Denton newspaper reporter, and H. Allen Smith (1906-1976), New York humorist and author, which ended in a tie. Try making Tolbert’s Original Red Chili for your family.

Learn more about the history and legends of Chili, Chili Con Carne.

Tolbert's Original Red Chili in a white bowl with a spoon

Tolbert's Original Bowl of Red Chili Recipe:
Prep Time
20 mins
Cook Time
2 hrs
Total Time
2 hrs 20 mins
Course: Side Dish
Cuisine: Southwest
Keyword: Tolbert's Original Bowl of Red Chili Recipe
  • 3 pounds lean beef
  • 1/8 pound rendered beef kidney suet (if you want to go for it)
  • 1 teaspoon each oregano, cumin powder, salt, and cayenne pepper
  • 3 tablespoons chile powder (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon Tabasco Sauce
  • 4 hot chile peppers
  • At least 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons masa harina, cornmeal, or flour (optional)*
  1. Sear beef in a large soup pot or cast-iron Dutch oven.  You may need a little oil to prevent the meat from sticking.  When the meat is all gray, add suet, chile peppers, and about two inches of liquid (you can use water, I use beer).  Simmer for 30 minutes.

  2. Add spices and garlic, bring just to boil; lower heat and simmer for 45 minutes.  NOTE:  Add more liquid only to keep the mix from burning.  Skim off as much grease as you can, and add masa harina.  Simmerfor another 30 minutes.  Taste and adjust spices if necessary.

  3. This is a spicy chili, so leave out some of the spicy stuff in the beginning if you have a tender tongue.  At this point, I refrigerate the chili overnight which allows the chili to mellow and you can skim off all the grease.

Recipe Notes

* The masa adds a subtle, tamale-like taste, but it also thickens the chili.  Masa Corn Mix is a tradition Mexican whole corn flour that is found in the baking aisle of most grocery stores (not to be confused with corn meal).  

Source:  Photo from the Road Food website.

Comments and Reviews

10 Responses to “Tolbert’s Original Bowl of Red Chili Recipe”

  1. Scott

    This recipe is exactly the Tolbert’s version of a bowl o’ red. Because I can’t eat much red meat, and my doctor has forbade me from ingredients like suet, I had to make a few substitutions.

    First, I made a vegetarian substitute for the ground beef – it’s not exact, but the texture gets pretty close (yes, it uses tofu, but I do what I must).

    Next, to get the flavor closer to ground beef, I used beef broth in place of the water (if you can make your own with ox tails or another beef bone rich in marrow, that will also help).

    I served it with a side of pintos and fresh corn tortillas. My doctor and I can both be happy.

  2. irishconfetti

    you dont want your meet gray. you want it brown. gray means it was boiled and will impart an off taste to your chili. dont be afraid to get your pot hot and brown hell out of your chuck!

    • Linda Stradley

      This is not my recipe. Tolbert’s Original Bowl of Red Chili Recipe is by Frank X. Tolbert, from his book, A Bowl of Red, published by Texas A&M University Press, 1953.  

  3. Wastrel

    “3 pounds lean beef” does not mean ground beef. What is omitted from this recipe is cutting the meat into cubes of a desired size, say, 1/2 or 3/4 inch cubes. Chili should not be a homogeneous mass; it should have lumps of meat in it. Clearly, if you have beef that is somewhat fatty, you can omit the suet, and work harder at skimming off excess fat from the top of the pot. The masa may be omitted as well; it just soaks up some of the grease and detracts from the flavor, too, in my opinion. If you do this right you do not need any thickening agent.

    • Linda Stradley

      A Reminder: This is the original Tolbert’s Bowl of Red Chili Recipe by Frank X. Tolbert, from his book, A Bowl of Red, published by Texas A&M University Press, 1953.

  4. Eric Pearson

    I have mad this recipe many times over the last 40 years. Since the store seldom has kidney suet, I render trimmings from steaks and roasts. For the meat I usually get what the store calls ‘stew beef’ cut into cubes about 1/2″ or so.
    After this chili is cooked, it freezes very well. Make more than you need and have a pleasant surprise in your freezer.
    Experiment with the peppers. Ancho and Mulato give more brownness with less heat. Chipotle adds a bit of heat and smokiness. What most folks do not do (but is frequently done in chili competitions) is to soak the dried peppers overnight in water (or other liquid). This makes the chilis more ready to add and does not count against the 3-hour time limit in ICS competitions.

    I have had this chili in Tolbert’s long gone Dallas places and the one in Grapevine. The recipe above tastes to me like what I had in the restaurants.

    • Rick

      What type of chiles do you use, and how do you prepare them? I am seeing other tolberts bowl of red recipes that call for the stems to be trimmed, skin peeled, pureed In a blender, etc.

      If I bought 4 dried Ancho Chiles, could I just put them in the pot as is?

      • Whats Cooking America

        You could use any chiles you want. For dried chiles it’s best to follow the package directions and reconstitute in water before chopping and adding to the pot of chili.

  5. Billy Bargagliotti

    I go to the Grapevine location when I go to the Albuquerque Balloon Fest.
    And I always stop at Tolberts, But I do ask for beans, and I know that is almost againt the law in Texas.
    This is a very simple recipe, and great!
    Then in Albuquerque I go to El Pinto.
    Their Chili is New Mexico style, larger chuncks of braised beef.
    Ask for beans and you get a surprise.
    The Chili is served floating on a bed of refried beans.
    I asked where are the beans, she said you will find them.
    What a treat!
    Tolberts and El Pinto are world class in their style.

  6. David McNeely

    Well, this is ALMOST the original recipe. In the book, Tolbert stated explicitly that the chilis to use are anchos, which are large peppers, some 4-5 inches long and 3-4 inches wide at the top, tapering to a point. These are the dried form of poblano peppers. They are not very hot. Tolbert also detailed the preparation of the peppers. He said to put them in a pot, cover them with water, and simmer until the skins will easily peel off. The flesh should be pureed. The cooking liquid for the chili is the liquid from cooking the peppers.

    Tolbert did not completely eschew the use of beans. He stated that one could add cooked pinto beans to the chili after cooking it if desired, but that one should not cook the beans in the chili as it alters the taste. But he did point out that even adding beans is not preferred by true chili aficionados.


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