It’s surprisingly easy to make chili from scratch. Plus you’ve probably already got everything you need to make a great chili in the kitchen cupboard.
Because it’s so popular, there are thousands of recipes out there. Easy crock pot ones, stove top recipes, chilis with beans, versions without tomatoes, and more. To try and make sense of it all, I’ve gone through twenty recipes for chili to find out what’s popular, and what’s not, to help you choose an approach or a recipe that suits you the best.
Before I dig into it though, where did chili come from?
Who created it?
Like so many popular dishes, the true origins of chili con carne are lost to history. Theories abound, and include the Spanish, the Aztecs, and early Texans, with dates that stretch back to the 1500’s. Whatever it’s true origins are, there seems to be agreement that the chili vendors of San Antonio, the “chili queens” of the late 1800’s, had much to do with its emergence as an everyday dish.
Regardless, it is now enormously popular, and exists in so many different guises that “chili” is more of a category of dishes than a specific one.
Which is the best chili?
If you’re searching for the best chili recipe, eight of the recipes I reviewed use the word “best” in their title, so you won’t find any help there.
Why are so many authors convinced their chili is the best? Because more than almost any other dish, chili means different things to different people. Beans or no beans, tomatoes or no tomatoes, spicy or mild, ground meat or chunks, soupy or thick – the list goes on. At the end of the day, chili is like wine. The “best” one is the chili you like the most. And the best way to figure that out? Make lots of different chili recipes!
What do you need to make chili?
Listing the ingredients that go in chili risks the ire of aficionados, but based on these twenty recipes they are:
- Ground/minced beef
- Canned tomatoes
- Kidney beans
- Onion and garlic
- Chili powder and cumin
- Beef stock
So if you’re making chili from scratch, these ingredients are pretty much your bare minimum (although we’ll talk more about chili powder and it’s role in a scratch-made chili later).
As you can imagine, there’s enormous variation amongst the recipes both with the ingredients on this list and others beyond it, so let’s look at each in turn.
The carne in chili con carne
All but one of these recipes is for a beef chili, and sixteen of them use ground/minced beef. About half of these authors specify which grade to use, and the majority recommend lean meat to prevent an overly greasy chili.
The other four authors prefer chunks of meat, three using diced or chopped beef (chuck steak or brisket) and one pork variation from April at Girl Gone Gourmet. While it’s true to say that these recipes must cook for longer, most of the ground beef recipes also call for a long, slow cook, so there’s no real differentiation in this regard. If you’re keen to try one of the chunky chili recipes, I’ve listed them separately at the bottom of the page.
Eight of the recipes include more than one type of meat. Five authors supplement their beef with sausage, mostly Italian. Bacon also makes five appearances, used in smaller amounts for flavour, smokiness or both.
It’s also worth noting that a couple of recipes call for all three meats. Truly con carne.
The inclusion of tomatoes can be contentious amongst purists (Texans should turn their heads away now). But as far as these recipes are concerned, you need tomatoes to make chili. Only two of the twenty recipes don’t include any. Amongst the eighteen that do, some use less than others, but most use two or three different types of tomato products. The most common choices are:
- Fourteen used diced canned tomatoes.
- Eleven use tomato paste/puree.
- Nine include some tomato sauce. If you’re not from the US or Canada, this is not what you think it is. Think passata and you’ll be close. Check out my glossary for more information on different tomato products.
- Four use crushed canned tomatoes, and one, Sarah from The Urban Cowgirl, uses whole canned tomatoes that she crushes with her hands. I’ve done this and it’s surprisingly satisfying. Just don’t squeeze too hard…
- Lauren at Tastes Better from Scratch includes both tomato juice and ketchup in her chili.
Of the recipes that use canned tomatoes, the fire-roasted ones are popular because the flame not only adds smokiness, but also brings out the sweetness in the tomatoes. If you can’t find them, you can substitute them with regular canned tomatoes. If you’re looking to closely match the flavour, the addition of a little smoky paprika and sugar will come close. And if you’re really keen to go completely from scratch you could try grilling/barbecuing or oven-roasting fresh tomatoes.
How much tomato?
There’s an enormous amount of variation in how tomatoey the authors like their chili. Based on rough averages by weight, the recipes range from having four times as much meat as tomatoes, to having more than two times as much tomato as meat! That’s not allowing for the inclusion of tomato paste either. And don’t forget, two, April from Girl Gone Gourmet and Mike at Chili Pepper Madness, don’t use any.
Beans are another contentious ingredient in serious chili circles (sorry Texans, time to look away again). But just like tomatoes, based on these recipes beans really are a key ingredient in chili, with fifteen of the authors including one or more types.
What type of beans go in chili?
Kidney beans are overwhelmingly the most popular, appearing in fourteen recipes. The other types are pinto beans and black beans, but these are both much less common.
A few readers ask about using dried beans. The best advice seems to be to soak and cook the beans separately and add them later in the cooking process. This is to ensure they are thoroughly cooked, which may not happen if they are added dry to the chili.
Lots of beans?
Like tomatoes, there’s a lot of variation in the amount of beans included, although not as much this time. If you really like beans in your chili, several of these recipes include one-and-a-half to almost two times as much beans as meat (by weight). If you’re not such a big fan, a few have about half as much beans as meat, and five don’t include any at all. I’ve listed these five separately at the end if you’re interested.
Aromatics are ingredients, mainly vegetables like onion, carrot and celery, that develop deep flavour and aroma when heated. They are usually sautéed or sweated at the beginning of the recipe. Most of the common aromatics appear amongst these recipes, but there are two stand-out favourites – onion and garlic.
- All but one recipe includes some diced or chopped onions, typically one or two large ones. A lot of authors don’t specify which type to use, but of those that do, yellow/brown are the most common.
- Fifteen recipes include minced garlic. There’s huge variation in how much, with a few authors preferring only two or three cloves, several recommending six, and one garlic fan using ten!
- Eight recipes include chopped green or red bell pepper/capsicum, with two of these recipes using both.
- Three recipes use a small amount of celery.
So if you’re wondering what you need to make chili, then onion and garlic should be right up high on your list.
Although they are technically an aromatic ingredient, I haven’t mentioned chilies yet. Because of their importance to this dish I’ll consider them separately.
In case you haven’t guessed, you need chilies to make chili. Without chilies you’ll be making bolognese sauce, or maybe savoury mince. Whatever it is, it won’t be chili.
All twenty recipes include some type of chili. Unsurprisingly there’s a wide variety of types and styles used:
- Eighteen recipes use chili powder. I’ll dig into this more in a moment.
- Seven recipes include a small amount of cayenne powder. Cayenne chilies are hot, so we’re only talking a quarter of a teaspoon in most cases.
- Six add one or two diced fresh Jalapenos.
- Four use pickled mild green chilies from a can.
- Mike from Chili Pepper Madness uses two dried varieties, guajillo and ancho, and April from Girl Gone Gourmet uses dried mild red chilies in her pork chili.
- A couple of recipes included a small amount of powdered chipotle (smoked, dried jalapeno).
All of this variation is scattered throughout the recipes too, with all but four using two or more types of chilies.
Depending on where in the world you live, chili powder means different things. Although I’ve included it under chilies, it’s not actually straight chili peppers.
In North America chili powder refers to a powdered spice blend for making chili, rather than powdered dried chilies. This distinction is important because in some parts of the world, like here in Australia, chili powder is just powdered chilies. So if you followed one of these recipes and used three or four tablespoons, your meal would be so hot that for most people it would be inedible. Or at least lead to a very uncomfortable twenty-four hours.
The chili powder used in these recipes is a store-bought mix, typically containing ground dried chilies, oregano, cumin and garlic, and potentially other herbs and spices as well.
Interestingly almost none of the authors specify a brand, so if you’re looking to replicate their recipe exactly you won’t be able to. I suspect that most of the big name brands available in grocery chains are very similar, so I don’t imagine it’ll make a huge difference if you pick up a different brand to the one the author uses.
Because so many use a store bought pre-mixed spice you could quite rightly argue that most of these recipes aren’t “from scratch”. But chili powder is such a ubiquitous ingredient that it seems unreasonable to exclude it. Especially for a dish that makes such a great weeknight meal. But if you’re keen on making your own, Holly from Spend with Pennies provides a separate recipe for homemade chili powder.
Like everything above, the amount of chili powder used varies significantly, from as little as a tablespoon to as much as a quarter of a cup.
Herbs and Spices
There’s quite a variety of other herbs and spices included in the recipes, but there are some strong favourites. Many of the recipes include two or more of the following ingredients too.
If you’re going to make chili then you need cumin. Every one of the twenty recipes includes this popular spice.
It’s mainly used in smaller amounts of one or two teaspoons, but this is likely because it’s also a primary ingredient in chili powder. A few authors are clearly fans, choosing a couple of tablespoons along with two or three tablespoons of chili powder.
Karen from The Food Charlatan uses whole cumin seeds, although she mentions she normally uses the powder. Apparently the whole seeds work well, but probably only for a slow-cooked recipe (which hers is).
Eleven authors include some paprika in their chili, with smoked being the most popular (although a number of authors don’t specify which type). As well as flavour, paprika adds colour to the dish.
Another common ingredient in chili powder, oregano is included in ten of the recipes. A tablespoon is the most common amount, although the second most common is just one teaspoon.
Mike from Chili Pepper Madness uses Mexican oregano, which has a hint of lemony citrus flavour to it, making it a good complement to the other spices in chili. It can be hard to find, which may be why it’s not more popular.
Other herbs and spices
There are a number of other herbs and spices appearing in the recipes:
- Six authors use garlic powder, usually instead of fresh garlic, although a couple use both.
- Three recipes each use ground coriander and bay leaves.
- A couple of recipes include dried basil.
- Dried thyme and onion powder each appear in one recipe.
Other flavours and ingredients
Beyond the really common ones already highlighted, there are other flavour additions worth mentioning in case you’re interested in experimenting a bit:
- Nine recipes include some sugar, most commonly a tablespoon. This is often added to offset the potential bitterness of canned tomatoes.
- For those in search of a bit more of the savoury umami flavour, four recipes include some Worcestershire sauce and one uses some soy sauce.
- Three add some masa harina, a specially-treated corn flour used for making tortillas (and other things). In chili it serves as a thickener, and the authors that use it all recommend the flavour it adds as well.
- Holly from Spend with Pennies and Kathleen from Gonna Want Seconds add a bottle of beer to their chili.
- Jaclyn from Cooking Classy includes a couple of teaspoons of cocoa powder in hers. Unsweetened chocolate is not uncommon in Mexican cooking, and as well as depth of flavour it can help balance the acidity of the tomatoes.
- Sarah from The Urban Cowgirl adds half a cup of strong black coffee in her recipe. Coffee doesn’t only add flavour, it can help tenderise meat.
- Stephanie from Spaceships and Laser Beams uses a small amount of baking soda right at the end, which apparently neutralises the acid of the tomatoes.
You don’t need any of these ingredients for chili, but there are plenty of interesting options to play around with.
Fourteen of the recipes include some stock to thin the chili sauce without diluting the flavour. Beef stock is overwhelmingly preferred, with just one of the fourteen choosing chicken stock, but this makes sense in Girl Gone Gourmet’s pork chili. A couple of other authors choose bouillon powder or cubes over stock, and add some water for volume.
Cooking your chili
There are several variations on a consistent process with regards to how to cook your chili con carne:
- All twenty authors brown their meat. This adds the wonderful flavour of the Maillard reaction, which is the chemical magic that happens to proteins in meat at high temperatures.
- Almost every recipe guides you to sauté your vegetables to soften them before going into the sauce. This also helps to release their aromas.
- Add the spices. Half of the authors add their spices to the onions they’re almost done, and cook until the spices are aromatic. Trust me you’ll know when – the smell is intoxicating. This is known as blooming, and it noticeably increases the depth of flavour of dried spices. Fresh garlic is best treated the same way too.
- Add the rest of the ingredients. Some authors do this in steps, some add everything else at once.
- Cook to completion. This step is where the greatest variation appears, in particular how long the chili is cooked for.
Note that the first step, browning the meat, is important if you’re going to use a slow cooker. Putting raw mince in a slow cooker is dangerous because it will stay at a temperature that allows bacterial growth for a long time. Browning the meat first rapidly increases its temperature before it goes in the slow cooker, reducing this risk.
There are other important differences in some of recipes, such as preparing dried chillies or making separate sauces, but these are the exception rather than the rule. The most important difference is in how long the dish is cooked for.
Fifteen of the twenty recipes are slow-cooked during the fifth step. In fact, six of these are cooked in a slow-cooker, typically for two to four hours on high, or six to ten hours on low. Those done on the stove top are typically simmered for between one and three hours.
Remembering that most of these recipes use ground/minced beef, this long slow cook is not strictly necessary. But like a Bolognese sauce, the additional cooking time not only allows the flavours to develop more, it also significantly softens the meat until it is almost falling apart, creating a very different texture. The recipes for chunky chili will obviously need this time to tenderise the chunks of tougher cuts of meat.
The other five recipes are cooked much more quickly, but amongst them there are two very different results.
Three are cooked on the stove top, with the final simmering stage only being fifteen to thirty minutes. The texture of the ground beef will change very little in this time, but this approach is obviously ideal for a quick weeknight meal, or a last-minute chili fix.
The other two recipes utilise a pressure cooker (such as an Instant Pot). If you haven’t used one before, pressure cookers seal and generate significant internal steam pressure, which increases the boiling point of water. This means the sauce can get hotter and cook the food, in particular the meat, much faster (up to four times the speed of normal boiling). As a result, these recipes can achieve the benefits of slow-cooking in dramatically less time – in this case twenty to thirty minutes at pressure. If you don’t have a pressure cooker there is no way to achieve the same effect other than a few hours of cooking time. It is worth noting that the pressure then takes fifteen minutes or so to release, making the process take a little longer than it first seems.
Making chili it in advance
A number of authors recommend making your chili the day before, and refrigerating it overnight to allow the flavours to marry together even more. Like a curry or a Bolognese sauce, some things are even better when they’ve had time to sit! Happily, it also freezes very well.
The essence of chili con carne
If you’re looking to make chili from scratch based on the most popular approach, you’ll need the following ingredients:
- Ground/minced beef, preferably lean.
- Canned diced tomatoes, and maybe some tomato paste, tomato sauce, or both. The ratio of tomatoes to meat is completely up to you, but equal parts is a good place to start.
- Kidney beans. Like tomatoes, the ratio’s up to you, but again equal parts beans and meat is a good place to start.
- Onions and garlic..
- A generous dose of chili powder.
- Smaller amounts of cumin and maybe some oregano.
- Beef stock. How much you need will depend on how you’re cooking it, and how saucy you like the finished dish.
To cook your chili, you won’t go far wrong with the following process:
- Brown your beef.
- Sauté your onion until soft.
- When the onion’s nearly done, add your spices and garlic for thirty seconds to a minute.
- Add the rest of your ingredients.
- Simmer for two to three hours, or slow cook in a crock pot for even longer.
So there you have it – the essence of chili. Hopefully this has helped you to choose an approach, or a recipe, that suits you the best.