A Quicker Chili Worthy of Weeknights (& Weekends, Too!)

November 10, 2016

Never do I feel more tormented as a cook than when I’m making chili. What should be a simple preparation instead incites a stressful inner dialogue.

It begins at step 1 when I’m prompted to sauté a bell pepper. But they’re not in season, I say. It continues when cued to add the can of beans and low-sodium chicken stock. But homemade is so much better, I challenge, regretting not having any on hand. When it’s time to add the tomato sauce, I bemoan. Why don’t I know a nonna with a pantry stocked with jarred sauce made from homegrown tomatoes, I wonder.

I envy people who say, “I’m just making chili,” because if ever I am just making chili, it’s because I’ve made a series of compromises. It’s because I’ve convinced myself that Michael Pollan won’t know if I use this California bell pepper just this once. It’s because I’ve assured myself that with all those spices and fixin’s nobody will know I used canned stock and beans.

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But I can’t help but feel I’m on a slippery slope. What will I be doing next? Buying chili concentrate and reconstituting it with water?

The spices and in-question peppers and onions. Photo by Alexandra Stafford

I recognize this may all sound a little ridiculous, and I’m happy to report my neurosis is subsiding. Over the weekend, in an effort to prepare for the impending holiday madness—the house guests, the impromptu gatherings, the low energy, the time crunch—I made a few batches of chili and found a bare-bones recipe I will turn to again and again. It’s thick, smoky, and beefy, and comes together in about an hour. It has a nice kick thanks to a generous amount of chili powder and a pinch of cayenne and does not rely on prepared tomato sauce, which can taste overly sweet, for flavor—crushed tomatoes (the Cirio and Pomi brands in particular) provide a nice balance of acidity and sweetness. A blind taste test proved that canned black beans work as well as beans cooked from scratch, and onions, which sweat and stew with the spices in the first step, provide enough flavor and texture on their own, rendering peppers, mushrooms, or other vegetables unnecessary.

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Top Comment:
“Thanks for the chili recipe, I had been trying a few and nothing was fabulous. My husband will appreciate it! :) ”
— Fresh T.

I confess I’ve yet to try canned stock, but I feel encouraged by these baby steps. Soon, I have no doubt, “I’m just making chili,” will be rolling off my tongue.

Your weeknight needs this. Photo by Alexandra Stafford

A Few Tips:

  • The aromatics: At a minimum, use onion and garlic. Peppers and mushrooms will add another dimension of flavor and will give the finished chili a heartier texture, but they can be omitted.

  • The spices: At a minimum, use cumin, chili powder, and something with a kick like cayenne or pepper flakes. Coriander and oregano are nice additions. Toasting seeds (such as cumin and coriander) and grinding them yourself will offer even more flavor as will making your own chili powder.

  • The beans: Cooked from scratch and homemade stock are best, but store-bought is fine.

  • The tomatoes: Homemade tomato sauce or purée is best, but jarred or crushed tomatoes are good substitutes.

  • One last note: Remember, chili is forgiving, and the seasoning can be adjusted at the end. If the chili tastes a little flat, add more salt and a splash of vinegar. If it’s too acidic, add a pinch of sugar. If it needs more heat, sprinkle in some cayenne. Remember, too, chili isn’t complete without the fixin’s: grated cheese, diced raw onion or sliced scallions, cilantro, tortilla chips, sour cream, fresh lime. 

Alexandra Stafford is a writer, photographer, and occasional stationery designer based in upstate New York, where she is writing a cookbook. You can read more of her work on her blog.

Tell us: What makes your go-to chili recipe your, well, go-to?

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • barbara_meuleman
  • GsR
  • Fresh Tomatoes
    Fresh Tomatoes
  • Miriam B.
    Miriam B.
  • kath1
I write the blog alexandra's kitchen, a place for mostly simple, sometimes fussy, and always seasonal recipes. My cookbook, Bread Toast Crumbs is available everywhere books are sold.


barbara_meuleman November 20, 2016
GsR took 1st amendment to heart. I personally never question new recipes; if i like it ok, if not ,others might. Your chili recipe is great and I will try it as soon as I recover from surgery Keep up the good work.
Alexandra S. November 20, 2016
Thank you, Barbara! Hope your surgery goes OK. Happy Thanksgiving!!
GsR November 16, 2016
Beans? Tomatoes? Bell peppers? Ketsup? I'm not sure what this is, but I know that no way, no how is that chilie. Just reading the recipe is making me throw up in my mouth a little!
Alexandra S. November 16, 2016
Really, wow? How do you define chili? And why do these ingredients make you want to throw up?
GsR November 16, 2016
Simple, chilies is a Texas dish. With deep root in the San Antonio area, the home of chilie, what goes in and what stay out is pretty clear. Words have meanings. One just can't call any dish with chilie powder in "chilie". Chilie is a dish with chunks of beef and chilie peppers, onion and garlic are optional.
Alexandra S. November 16, 2016
That sounds delicious. A different, delicious chili. It doesn't make me want to throw up just because it is different.
M November 29, 2016
Wow - GsR, totally rude. Alexandra, this recipe sounds good. I don't put bell peppers or ketchup in my chili recipe, either, but I do add tomato paste and pretty much all the other ingredients. I only skip the bell peppers because I never eat them, and I only skip the ketchup because I add in vinegar and usually some sugar, which basically amounts to the same thing. I haven't made chili in a while, but this is making me want to whip up a batch!
Alexandra S. November 30, 2016
Thanks, M! I never thought about vinegar + sugar being a substitute for ketchup till this thread — both you and kath1 mentioned it. So smart. And I know, it's chili season!
Fresh T. November 14, 2016
Hmmmm, I think your inner voice knows my inner voice. And I've been lamenting about not having had any good tomatoes this summer, I understand the predicament. I like to freeze summer tomatoes and sauces I make. Thanks for the chili recipe, I had been trying a few and nothing was fabulous. My husband will appreciate it! :)
Miriam B. November 10, 2016
The other night, when making chili, I realized I didn't have any green peppers. Believe me: frozen bell pepper strips (they come in a bag of green, red and yellow peppers) work beautifully well. Just saute them with the onion and garlic. If you keep a bag in the freezer you have one less thing to buy for chili.
Alexandra S. November 10, 2016
Do you freeze them raw? I'm hopeless with the freezer, but this would be so nice to do because at the end of the summer, I feel I get overloaded with peppers from my CSA, and I never know what to do with them. Such a great idea!
Miriam B. November 10, 2016
No, I buy them in the supermarket! You can always find them in the frozen vegetable section.
Smaug November 10, 2016
You can, however, freeze any sort of pepper raw. Strips are about the most space efficient and are quite convenient; you don't even have to separate them on sheet pans when freezing- they don't stick much, and defrost very fast.
Alexandra S. November 10, 2016
So great to know, both that you can freeze them yourself and buy them. Thanks Smaug and Miriam!
kath1 November 10, 2016
This sounds very nice. I often put a glug of tomato ketchup into tomato based meat sauces and that would cover the vinegar / sugar / salt.
Alexandra S. November 10, 2016
So smart! Love it.