Chili is easily the best known Tex-Mex dish. It has been so popular for so long that it has transcended its regional roots and grown into a truly American dish, not just a Southwestern one. The popularity is due in part to the spices it contains. They give it a distinctive savory flavor that is shared across most iterations of the chili dish. Most chili recipes adhere to a core set of seasonings. Some spices may be added to that core (cinnamon is popular in some places, for example) but what is generally considered to be the best spices for chili tends to remain the same.
Chili powder is a blend containing most or all of the spices that are recommended for use in chili. It is different from 100% chili pepper powder, which consists of dried and ground chili peppers with no additives. You can use chili powder as your sole source of those spices or you can supplement it by adding more of some constituent ingredients to emphasize your preferred flavors.
The main ingredients in chili powder are ground chili pepper, cumin, and garlic. These provide the heat and savory notes that make up the classic chili taste. You can buy a pre-made chili powder that is made with the manufacturer’s standardized ratio of herbs and spices or you can simply add each spice separately.
Chili is the shortened name for chili con carne, which means chilies with meat. In other words, the name of the dish indicates that it has to include chili peppers. In most cases, the chili pepper is in the form of powdered chili peppers. While a mild version of chili can be made, heat is one of the defining characteristics of the dish. The chili pepper used in chili powder is usually the ancho pepper, which is not excessively hot but does deliver a moderate level of heat along with a deep red color.
Cumin is an aromatic spice that is used heavily in Mexican and Mexican-influenced dishes. Along with the heat from chili peppers, cumin’s flavor is one of the essential elements of chili. The liberal use of this spice is much of what identifies the dish as chili, as opposed to a spicy pasta sauce.
Garlic is a versatile spice that is used by virtually every culture around the world. It is known to work especially well in tomato-based dishes like chili. It provides a strong savory note that offers an excellent background for all of the other flavorful ingredients in chili. Ideally, you will want to use fresh garlic but dried and powdered garlic is more likely to disappear into the sauce and will be easier to blend with other spices if you make your own chili powder.
Oregano is one of the staple ingredients that show up in most chili powder blends. It is said to have been in the first chili powder made by William Gebhardt, who some historians believe was the first to assemble Mexican spices into a single standardized chili blend. Oregano is pungent and savory. In most chili powder blends, it serves as the lone herbal component and is an excellent partner for garlic and tomato.