The culinary world has long been arguing over this question, but JOW is here to settle the matter once and for all. We’ll explain just about everything there is to know about chili, soup, and stew – what makes each one distinct from the others?
Ready to finally know the answer to this simmering question? Let’s get this sorted out.
First of All: What Is Soup, Really?
We can trace the origins of the word soup all the way back to the earliest Germanic languages. A Latin word, “suppa,” was used for this type of meal, which was then carried over into French to become “soupe.”
- Fun fact: “Soup” and “Sop” have the same root word. “Sop” is a word traditionally used for a piece of bread that you would dip in sauce, soup, or gravy.
The earliest records of hot soup date back at least 25,000 years, back in the age of the Neanderthal. Once early man discovered that they could cook food over fire, bowls of hot water with vegetables in them naturally followed.
What Counts As Soup?
The criteria for soup is a bit murky. That’s where the debate over what chili comes from! Chefs and food enthusiasts around the world have argued over what counts as soup for centuries, especially because:
- Soup can be either hot or cold
- It can be either savory or sweet
- It may or may not have solid foods in it
According to dictionary.com, soup is “a liquid food made by boiling or simmering meat, fish, or vegetables with various added ingredients.” However, this definition excludes several noteworthy dishes that are definitely still soups. Gazpacho, for example, is a dish that is served cold and made from pureed vegetables. Che Thai, a soup from Vietnam, is not boiled and is instead made to be enjoyed as dessert.
So, are these dishes soups? Technically, yes! While the dictionary.com definition of soup doesn’t account for cold dishes like gazpacho, the Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a broader explanation of what soup is. Their definition reads, “a liquid food especially with a meat, fish or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food.”
A bit vaguer, the Merriam-Webster definition for soup is broader, leaving it up to each individual chef to decide whether something they’ve made is soup. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, foods like cereal – which has a liquid base and some solid food mixed in – are technically soup!
So, it’s ultimately pretty tricky to objectively determine what foods count as soup. If a meal has a liquid base – whether hot or cold, boiled or pureed – you could pass it off as soup. If all this talk of soup has you in the mood for a bowl, we’ve got your back. We’ll help you create the perfect menu, optimize it for the number of people in your household, and then arrange the easiest method for you to get your groceries so that you can get to cooking. Plus, you have the option to add more items to your cart, so if you’re looking for a little canned chili to keep in the cabinet, you’re in luck.
What About Stew?
Soup and stew are often lumped together in the same culinary category. However, there’s one big difference between these two types of meals, as revealed by the dictionary definition of stew; “fish or meat usually with vegetables prepared by stewing.”
So, what is stewing? By definition, it’s cooking something slowly in a closed pot. However, that definition could also refer to making soup. The plot (and the stew) thickens!
In many cases, the defining distinction between stew and soup is thickness. Stew, like soup, has a liquid base, but it usually contains a lot more solid foods than your typical soup. If you had to divide up your average soup and stew into approximate ratios, they’d probably be something like this:
- Soup: 70% liquid base, 30% solid food
- Stew: 30% liquid base, 70% solid food
Based on this distinction, you can usually determine intuitively whether what you’re eating is a soup or a stew. If it’s thicker and contains more solids, it’s probably stew. If it’s heavier on the broth with solids scattered throughout, it’s most likely soup.
However, as with this entire debate, the answers here aren’t black and white. One man’s soup is another man’s stew, which brings us to the next point in this ongoing argument…
What Even Is Chili?!
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines chili as “a thick sauce of meat and chilies.” Chilies, in this context, are hot peppers that are often used to make chili (the meal) spicy.
Based on this definition, there are a lot of questions that come to mind about what counts as chili. Does it have to be thick? Does it have to be spicy? Does it have to have meat in it? Let’s figure all of this out and then see if we can finally determine whether chili is a soup or a stew – or something else entirely.
What’s In Chili?
Everyone makes chili different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for this popular meal. However, there are some ingredients that are commonly used when making chili, including:
- Meat. Like the dictionary definition says, chili is typically made with meat. In the United States, some of the most popular meats used for making chili are beef, turkey, chicken, and pork. However, if you visit a chili cook-off, you’re likely to sample some bowls of chili made with game meats like venison and bison, as well as vegetarian chili.
- Beans. Black, pinto, kidney, navy, great northern, you name it… If it’s a bean, someone’s got it in their chili. Beans are traditionally paired with meat, spices, and other ingredients to make chili, adding to the protein and fiber content of the dish.
- Spices. Some of the most commonly used spices for making chili are chili powder (that one’s a bit obvious), paprika, cayenne, garlic powder, onion powder, and cumin.
- Hot peppers. As the dictionary suggests, hot chili peppers are a staple in cooking chili. Depending on the amount of peppers that you use, as well as the variety, you’ll end up with varying levels of spice. Some cooks pride themselves in their painfully spicy chili, while others like to keep it mild.
Does Chili Have to Be Thick?
Most chefs have come to the conclusion that chili is best when it’s thick. Thanks to the combination of meat, beans, and meat-based broth, your chili is likely to be far thicker than the average soup. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that chili is stew!
While chili is traditionally made to be thick, some cooks prefer to keep the liquid portion of the dish a bit thinner. This aspect of chili making is a bit subjective – it’s up to you to decide how thick you want your chili to be!
Does Chili Have to Be Spicy?
While chili is traditionally prepared with hot peppers, you can keep yours mild if you want. This isn’t necessarily the most orthodox way to make chili, but we won’t stop you! It’s like that old movie – Some Like it Hot – and some don’t. If you’re not a fan of spicy food, don’t be afraid to skip the spices when you make chili.
Does Chili Have to Have Meat in It?
Traditionally speaking, chili is often made with meat, specifically beef. Chili con carne is a staple in northern Mexico and southern Texas, and its name literally translates to “chili with meat.” This type of chili is one of the most common forms of the meal enjoyed around the world, but it’s far from the only variety.
Vegetarian chili, also known as chili sin carne (chili without meat), rose to prominence in the United States as more and more people started going vegetarian. In place of meat, some folks started making chili that included tofu, but others would just amp up the beans that they used when cooking.
So, chili technically doesn’t need to have meat in it! If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you can get a big boost of protein by making plant-based chili that’s packed with a variety of beans. Sounds yummy.
Soup or Stew: What’s The Verdict?
Ultimately, there are still plenty of mixed opinions on chili in the culinary world. Some chefs will tell you it’s a soup, while some will argue that it’s a stew. However, we’ve found that the dominant opinion is that chili, in all its spicy glory, is something else entirely.
This southwestern meal refuses to be categorized. In the words of chef BJ Smith, “Chili is its own thing and should almost be its own food group!” We’re with BJ on this one – chili really is in a league of its own.
While plenty of arguments have been made about chili’s status as either a soup or a stew, we don’t see any that convince us in either direction. That’s why we’re going to stay off of team soup and team stew, and stick with team chili. Who’s with us?