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  • Writer's picturedeborahreinhardt

White Chicken Chili

Updated: Jan 26, 2022

White meat chicken chili is a tasty alternative to the traditional bowl of "red" most of us grew up with.

chili with white chicken meat with northern beans topped with sour cream
This white meat chicken chili is a lighter alternative to the traditional bowl of "red."

If my family was anything, it was traditional. My grandma washed clothes on Monday and ironed on Tuesday, no exceptions. Sunday dinners were usually fried chicken or roast beef. And chili was red. Period.

So, when my Aunt Georgia, Mom’s youngest sister, shared a recipe for white chicken chili, it upset the Reinhardt’s recipe box. Gasp! White chili? Who ever heard of such a thing?

Georgia Anderson probably was the gourmand of the family. She actually cooked from Julia Child’s cookbook. Going to the Anderson house in Bridgeton, Missouri, when I was growing up was a bit like dining in a restaurant: fancy food (by our standards), drinks before dinner, wine with the meal, elegant desserts. Georgia was a good hostess; I imagine that skill came over the years because she was married to Lee, a naval officer, so she probably had to entertain as part of her husband's career.

But the Reinhardt women didn’t embrace this recipe because it went against the norm. The hot pink recipe card, while likely from the 1980s, looks almost newly transcribed in my mother’s hand. The title suggests the recipe is inspired by Lewis & Clark's restaurant in St. Charles, Missouri, whose white chili today remains a house specialty. But that’s my only my best guess; I can’t imagine the explorers making this on their trek west from the banks of the Missouri River.

So, where did this upstart white chili come from? I couldn’t find a clear consensus. It’s not even mentioned on the National Chili Day website (next holiday is Feb. 25, 2021). But food writer Anne Bryn researched the dish to a Los Angeles chef, Michael Roberts, who used duck in a white bean chili for a new Southwestern take on a cassoulet. By the end of the 1980s, food writers were on the white chili bandwagon, seeing it as a fresh take on the heavier bowl of “red.” Apparently, Aunt Georgia was once again a trendsetter.

But like its red cousin, white chili can have a variety of iterations. Some recipes will add more chilies for heat or corn for sweetness. This recipe seems to make a chili thinner in consistency. Those who like a thicker chili can add cream. I like to say chili is a canvas on which creative cooks can go all Jackson Pollack; add whatever you'd like into the pot.

A great side to the chili would be easy Corn Dog Muffins.

White Chili

Yield: 8 servings

I have also used ground turkey in this chili when I’m without chicken in the freezer.


3 pounds cooked Great Northern beans; or use 3 (15.8 ounce) cans, rinsed

2 pounds boneless chicken breasts

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 medium onions, chopped

2 teaspoons ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon dried oregano

2 to 4 ounces chopped mild chili peppers (I used a 4-ounce can)

4 cups of chicken stock

20 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, freshly grated

Sour cream and freshly sliced jalapeno pepper to garnish


1. Cook chicken breasts 15 to 20 minutes until tender. (If you wanted a little color on the chicken, you could brown these in extra olive oil. I poached them with a couple of bay leaves and a tablespoon of peppercorns.) Cool and cut into ½-inch pieces.

2. In a large stockpot, heat olive oil and add onions. Cook until translucent. Add garlic, chilies, cumin, cayenne, oregano, and clove. Cook about 3 minutes.

Add chicken, broth, and 12 ounces of cheese. Simmer for 15 minutes.

3. Serve in bowls and top with remaining cheese, sour cream, and jalapenos.

(Tip: You might be tempted to buy grated cheese in a bag, but this doesn’t melt as well as cheese you grate yourself. The grated, bagged cheese contains preservatives meant to keep it from clumping, while the cheese you grate yourself doesn’t contain these ingredients.)


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