The Ultimate Guide to Chili

Everybody has their own flavor when it comes to chili. We spill the beans on how to make chili from scratch—with a little something for everyone.

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Chili is a seemingly simple dish, but everyone makes it a different way. Some people keep their award-winning chili recipe as a closely guarded secret, while others will happily give you the recipe but won’t touch a bowl that has beans in it. You’ll find chili loaded up with all kinds of untraditional ingredients, too: butternut squash, sweet potatoes, olives or mushrooms.

We prefer a classic chili—one that’s made with ground beef and has plenty of rich tomato flavor—although sometimes we like it with beans, and sometimes we prefer it without. We’ll teach you how to make chili both ways, including a few variations.

What Makes Chili, Well, Chili?

Well, it depends on who you ask. Chili is a very regional food with a lot of variations. (Don’t believe us? Check out our guide to the best chili recipes from coast to coast.) That being said, most people would agree that chili is a thick, hearty stew made with some combination of meat and/or beans, spices and vegetables. When comparing soup vs. chili, you’ll want to take a look at how much liquid the dish contains. There are bean-based soups that will use similar ingredients to chili, but use much more broth. If you’re looking for a unique twist, these unusual chili recipes are a great place to start.

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What Are the Different Types of Chili?

When most people think of traditional chili, they picture a tomato based-broth with chunks of beef and/or beans. Not in the mood for beef? There are plenty of other types of chili to try:

  • White Chicken Chili: This chili variety relies on chicken, white beans and oftentimes dairy mix-ins (such as cream cheese or milk) for its light hue. You can find our best white chicken chili recipes here.
  • Turkey Chili: Lighten-up your meal with lean ground turkey instead of beef. You can find the best-ever turkey chili recipe here, or choose from one of these other reader-favorite turkey chili recipes.
  • Vegetarian Chili: Skip the meat altogether with our favorite vegetarian chili recipe. This hearty dish gets its bulk from beans, veggies and rice.

What Spices Do You Need for Chili?

Well, it depends on how spicy you like your food! Most chilis can be seasoned with basic ingredients you already have in your pantry. Most recipes call for chili powder, plus other spice-cabinet staples like basil, cumin, garlic powder, salt and pepper. You can also finish your chili with fresh herbs. Parsley, fresh cilantro and chives are budget-friendly options that add the perfect pop of color to your finished dish.

What Tools Do You Need for Chili?

To make chili on the stovetop, you’ll need some kitchen basics, including:

How to Make Homemade Chili

This recipe for homemade chili makes a massive 16 servings (about 4 quarts). You could half the recipe, but we love having leftovers—they taste better than the first day! Use it to make chili cheese dogs, loaded nachos, chili stuffed baked potatoes or chili mac casserole.

If you still have chili in your fridge after a few days, pop it in the freezer, where it will stay good for up to six months.

Ingredients:

  • 3 pounds ground beef
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 medium green pepper, chopped
  • 2 celery ribs, chopped
  • 1 can (29 ounces) tomato puree
  • 1 jar (16 ounces) salsa
  • 1 can (14-1/2 ounces) diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 2 cans (14-1/2 ounces each) beef broth
  • 1/4 cup chili powder
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon dried basil
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons steak sauce
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
  • For chili with beans: 2 cans (16 ounces each) kidney beans, rinsed and drained
  • For chili without beans: 6 dried guajillo chilies, seeded, soaked for 15 minutes in hot water
  • Optional garnish: chopped onion, shredded cheese, cilantro, diced avocado or sour cream

Step 1: Cook the Meat

Grab a large stockpot or Dutch oven. This recipe makes about a gallon of chili, so make sure your pot is plenty big. Heat the pot over medium-high heat. Add the beef, onion, green pepper and celery. Use a large spoon to break up the chunks of beef as it cooks. When the meat is browned all the way through and the vegetables are tender, drain off the excess grease.

Step 2: Simmer Away

Add the tomatoes, salsa, diced tomatoes, beef broth and seasonings. Add the beans if you’re making chili with beans. If not, drain the soaked chilies and puree them in a blender or food processor before adding them to the pot.

Bring the mixture to a boil before reducing the heat to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, until the chili is nice and thick and the flavors have come together.

Step 3: Garnish and Serve

Ladle the chili into bowls. Garnish each serving with chopped onions, cheese, cilantro, diced avocado and sour cream, if you like. The chili is delicious on its own, but buttery cornbread really completes the meal.

What Is the Best Secret Ingredient for Chili?

There are all kinds of ways you can upgrade your favorite chili, from adding a splash of bourbon to swirling in some chocolate. My favorite way to take chili to the next level is to add a little Worcestershire sauce at the end. This flavor-enhancing ingredient is like an umami powerhouse, adding a burst of savory flavor that makes the chili feel complete as you eat it.

The possibilities for variation are endless here, but give these secret ingredients a try the next time you make chili.

  • Try using coffee or beer instead of water to add depth of flavor.
  • Add lime or orange zest at the end to add a burst of fresh flavor.
  • Simmer the chili with a cinnamon stick to give it an extra level of spice.
  • Add pureed chipotle peppers for those who like it hot.
  • Swap out the beef for elk or venison to give it a wild-game spin.

How Do You Make Chili Thicker?

The easiest way to thicken a chili with beans is to go at it with a potato masher. The beans will release starch as they’re crushed and thicken up the liquid. Don’t worry; there will still be plenty of intact beans left in the chili. For a no-bean chili, try adding two to three tablespoons of masa harina flour and simmer it in the chili for an extra five minutes. This gluten-free flour is usually used to make corn tortillas, but it thickens beautifully in a stew.

How Do You Make Chili More Healthy?

In its simplest form, chili is a protein-rich dish packed with nutritious veggies. To amp up its health factor, try these easy tweaks:

  • Opt for lean proteins—like chicken, turkey and beans.
  • If you’re sticking to a recipe, reach for one of these healthy chili recipes.
  • Add more veggies! Any chili recipe can benefit from more carrots, onions, celery, mushrooms, etc. Feel free to be creative.
  • Watch sodium levels—especially when working with canned ingredients. Pick up low- or no-sodium beans, broth and tomatoes.
  • Avoid caloric garnishes (like cheese and sour cream), and stick to low-fat options such as green onions, lime wedges or chopped onion.

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What Are Some Sides That Go Well With Chili?

While chili is a hearty meal on its own, there are plenty of toppings and side dishes that can take it to the next level. We love topping chili with cheese, sour cream, sliced green onions, tortilla chips, jalapeno or avocado. On the side, cornbread is the classic accompaniment to chili, but feel free to think outside the box. When we’re feeling lazy and don’t want to spend more time cooking dinner, a handful of tortilla chips, saltine crackers or a warmed flour tortilla work just as well.

If you’re looking for vegetable side dishes to up the plant-based content of your dinner table, serve up a side salad, creamy coleslaw or one of these tasty non-lettuce salads. When we want to make the meal more filling, we usually opt for starchy vegetables like baked potatoes or corn on the cob.

How Long Does Chili Last? Plus, How to Store It.

Chili stores exceptionally well, so don’t be afraid to make this dish ahead of time and reheat it when you’re ready to eat. You can easily meal prep this chili for the week by storing it in individual containers in the refrigerator. We think it tastes best when reheated on the stovetop over medium heat, but you could also use a microwave or a slow cooker.

For freezer storage, divide cooked chili into freezer-safe containers labeled with the date. To reheat, let chili thaw in the fridge overnight, then place in a saucepan and simmer until heated through. You can add a little broth or water if necessary. Chili will stay fresh in the freezer for 4-6 months. For more tips, check out our guide to freezing soup.

Bonus: Our Top 10 Chili Recipes
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Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.
Katie Bandurski
Katie is an Assistant Editor for Taste of Home, specializing in writing and email newsletters. When she’s out of the office, you’ll find her exploring Wisconsin, trying out new vegetarian recipes and combing through antique shops.