Ah, chili. There are so many region styles and variations of chili recipes, even vegan chili, recipes out there. I can’t think of very many other dishes that get people feeling so passionately. Chili is a very personal thing and everybody has their favorite recipe.
This vegan chili made with dried beans, fresh chili peppers, and fire-roasted tomatoes is my personal favorite. While I’ve made an insane number of different vegan chili recipes over the years, I keep coming back to this one. With its rich, complex flavor that combines sweet, hot, and fruity elements in balance, it’s the best chili I’ve ever had: hearty, filling, and so satisfying.
This vegan chili isn’t trying to imitate a meaty chili. Instead, it celebrates vegetables and legumes. It’s not the quickest and easiest recipes either. Sure, you can make your chili with some commercial pre-mixed chili powder, a can of beans, and some pureed tomatoes thrown together in a slow cooker. But is the flavor going to blow your mind? Not likely.
Here are some time-honored tips and techniques that will turn your favorite chili recipe into the best chili ever.
Tips for Making the Best Vegan Chili
Chili peppers – throwing some pre-mixed chili powder from the store into a slow cooker is fine for a quick weeknight meal. However, perfect chili needs the complexity and richness you can only get from toasting and pureeing fresh chili peppers or grinding dried chilies into a powder. There are many varieties of chili peppers, depending on the region they come from. I like to make my chili powder from a combination of sweet, hot, smoky, and fruity chili peppers. Yes, I always mix and match at least four different chili peppers. Making your own chili powder (or puree) is what makes any chili more art than science.
Beans – I am a bean snob. While I understand that canned beans are much more convenient, I don’t mind taking the time to soak and cook dried beans from scratch for about any recipe. Dried beans have a more complex flavor, creamier texture, deeper color, and a better nutritional profile. If you’re intimidated by the whole cooking dried beans from scratch thing, don’t be! It’s much easier than you think. As far as bean variety goes, I like to use two different kinds of beans for textural diversity. Kidney beans and black turtle beans are my favorite, but any legumes work.
Tomatoes – you can’t beat the sweet taste of fresh homegrown tomatoes – whether you use them directly in your chili or as a cool fresh topping. If you do go for canned tomatoes, use whole rather than diced. Canned diced tomatoes contain calcium chloride (a firming agent), which prevents the diced tomatoes from softening and breaking down when you cook them. Canned whole tomatoes yield a more natural texture.
Soy sauce – you might be wondering why I’m including soy sauce as an essential chili ingredient. Well, soy sauce is a good source of glutamic acid, which is a chemical compound responsible for a savory flavor called umami. Soy sauce adds richness and depth to any chili.
Sauté all the vegetables first – onions, garlic, fresh chili peppers, celery, red bell peppers … sauté all the vegetables before you add any liquid to draw out as much flavor as possible. Onions, garlic, and chili peppers are a must. All the other vegetables are optional.
Season early – spices and herbs are key to flavoring chili. Don’t wait till the very end to add them because you’d be missing out on a lot of flavor. Sauté the spices and herbs together with the vegetables so the flavors mingle and develop a rich taste. When your spices are fragrant and toasted, add soy sauce to create the elusive fifth taste.
Low and slow – for chili exploding with richness and layers of flavor, you need to cook it low and slow. Bring your chili to a boil, and simmer for at least a couple of hours. You don’t have to worry about the vegetables and beans softening and turning into a mush. The chili base – chili peppers and tomatoes – is acidic and vegetables and beans soften very slowly in acid. Going back and forth between covered and uncovered cooking will keep the chili from becoming too watery or too thick. If your chili starts turning too thick, you can always add some homemade vegetable stock (never water!).
Thicken as needed – some cooks use cornmeal to thicken their chili, but that can be really gritty. Others use corn starch or tortilla chips. I learned to lightly mash the beans and vegetables with a potato masher to release their natural starches. It does the trick without compromising the chili flavor.
Add toppings – while not necessarily a cooking technique, garnishes can help your chili really shine. I like to use fresh tomatoes and scallions. But again, feel free to use any toppings you like.
Finally, don’t forget to leave a comment below if you try this recipe (or even if you don’t). I would love to hear from you!