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How to Make Chili

Here are the techniques and tips you need to make the perfect bowl of chili, with complex flavors and just the right balance of spicy, sweet, meaty, and bitter flavors.

Boilermaker Tailgate Chili

Boilermaker Tailgate Chili | Photo by Molly

Of course, just about everyone has an opinion on what should and should not go into chili. Beans...or absolutely no beans? Ground beef or cubed meat? Or no meat at all? Are tomatoes okay?

The debate will have to rage on. Because we're not here to set the rules. Instead, we'll just drop a few tips on technique, and provide some insights into how to make a great basic bowl of chili. With the basics mastered, you're set to unleash all manner of personal preferences and prejudices on your simmering pot of pure comfort food.

How To Make Chili

Making chili is essentially about slowly developing and balancing out complex flavors.

1) First, sear your meats in a little oil over medium-high heat until well-browned. Use a deep Dutch oven or heavy soup pot. If you’re using a roast, sirloin steak, or short rib, cube the meat. Then make sure it’s well-browned on all sides. Remove the meat.

2) Next, sauté your aromatic vegetables in the same pot. Start with your chopped onions, cooking until soft, about 5 minutes. Then, if you’re adding additional veggies -- like celery, bell peppers, and carrots -- put them in the pot, and sauté for another 5 to 7 minutes. Now it’s time for the minced garlic; cook, stirring until fragrant -- about 1 minute.

3) Now you’re ready for the seasonings. Stir them into the vegetables. By now, you’ll notice a dark brown crust (or fond) has formed on the bottom of the pan. That’s flavor in waiting!

4) Deglaze the pan with a little beer, white wine, broth, or even water, stirring to bring up those brown bits of flavor.

5) Return the meat to the pot and add the broth. Simmer for 1 hour, or until cubed meat is nice and tender. For best results, go low and slow. A gentle simmer on low heat allows flavors to build. If you’re using tougher cuts of meat, let the meat simmer for at least an hour in the seasoned broth. Add the tomatoes with the broth, too, if you like; or hold off on adding the tomatoes until the next step. Also, if you’re using tofu cubes or crumbles instead of meat, hold on until the next step to add them to the pot.

6) Add the beans, along with tomatoes, tofu, corn, if you’re adding these ingredients. Bring back to a simmer and cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Adjust the seasonings, and you’re ready to dig in.

7) Garnish as you like, with shredded Cheddar cheese, sour cream, guacamole, sliced jalapenos, fresh chopped cilantro, maybe some chopped green onions. Keep in mind, though, sometimes the tastiest chili is the one that's made a day ahead. If you have time, cook it up on the stove, and then reheat it the next day on the stove or in the slow cooker.

Chili with cubed meat and football shaped brownie

Photo by Meredith

So that's the basic technique. Now let's take a quick look at meats, beans, seasonings, and regional approaches.

But first, here's Chef John to show us how he builds flavor:

Chef John's Beef, Bean, and Beer Chili

Choose Your Meats

Chili does best with economical cuts of meat -- that's one of chili's best features. The slow braising technique favors inexpensive stew meats, chuck roast, rump roast, sirloin -- and also venison, buffalo, and elk. Ground meats (beef, pork, chicken, turkey) are also smart choices. For vegetarian chili, try tofu cubes or crumbles.

Choose Your Beans

Kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, white beans (great northern and navy) -- they're all worthy contenders. What about canned vs. dried beans? There's no denying the convenience of canned beans. No shame at all in using them. However, if you're using canned, watch for sodium; you might need to adjust how much salt you add to the pot if the beans contain loads of salt. And rinse the beans before adding them to your chili. If you're thinking dry beans, consider these heirloom dry beans. They'll take any chili from basic to unbelievable.

Kidney Beans: My Chili
White Beans: White Chili II
Pinto Beans: Beef, Bean, and Beer Chili
Black Beans: Fantastic Black Bean Chili
No Beans: Chili without Beans Recipes

Choose Your Seasonings

If making chili is a balancing act, much of the balancing can be accomplished with your spice mixture. For chili, you'll need cumin and coriander -- that's a given. And maybe some cayenne, chili powder, paprika; possibly a touch of cinnamon, clove, and a little star anise. You can buy chili seasoning packets at the store. But they're easy, and cheaper just to make at home. If you're grinding your own spices, try toasting them first in a skillet to unlock complex aromas.

A Few Regional Chili Recipes

There are so many regional preferences. Here several favorites.

Cincinnati-Style Chili

Cinnamon, cloves, just a touch of unsweetened chocolate...and the spaghetti garnish...make Cincinnati chili one of a kind.

Texas Chili

Beef chili with no beans, that's the Texan way.

New Mexico Chili

New Mexico-style chili is known for its roasted New Mexico chile peppers (California, Colorado, and Anaheim), pork, and tomatillos.

No time for a slow simmer? Try this pressure cooker version. It's ready in a fraction of the time.

Pressure Cooker Beef Chili


Ready to try your luck with these chili contest-winning recipes? They could be your ticket to a blue ribbon, too. Or take a peek at our complete collection of Chili Recipes.

A little cornbread with your chili? Nice choice. But consider this savory cornbread waffle. It's chili's choice companion.


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Carl Hanson

About Carl Hanson

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