How a Quick Fix For Too-Spicy Chili Turned Into My #1 Chili

January  4, 2018

Potato chips, waffle cones, and my new favorite chili were all born the same way: by accident. The last isn’t as famous as the rest—yet—but it was discovered just in time for sweater socks, lavender tea, and soup all day, every day. So let me tell you what went wrong:

I was using the last of my field peas—a summer staple at North Carolina farmers’ markets—to make chili. All the usual suspects were there: onion and bell pepper, cumin and garlic, chili paste and chipotles, tomatoes and beer. But it was bland. So I added more chipotles. Still bland. More chipotles, still bland, more chipotles, and my chili was an active volcano and everyone ran for their lives.

I liken this recipe development jam to that time my friend helped me back out of the world’s most crowded parking spot. A little more, she said. A little more, she said. Emma, she said. You have to push the gas pedal. A little—stop! she yelled. Stopstopstop!

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With salt and spice, it’s all too easy to go from not enough to way too much. And just like you can’t un-bump a bumper, you can’t take back ingredients. All you can do is troubleshoot.

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Top Comment:
“This sounds great. Can you specify what "chili paste" is? Like a Thai or Chinese version? I'm not familiar. Thank you.”
— susan

Adding water or broth wasn’t enough. Dolloping yogurt on top wouldn’t be enough. So I crawled into an internet hole, dug a deep, dark tunnel, and hoped by the time I came out on the other side, my chili would have fixed itself.

This is not a volcano, but not for the faint of heart, either. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Naturally, this tunnel was full of chili recipes and dried chili descriptions and, soon enough, they all started to sound the same. “Fruity-smoky,” says Dianne Kennedy. Like “raisins,” says J. Kenji López-Alt. “Like dried fruit,” says Rick Bayless.

That’s when it hit me: I should put dried fruit in my chili.

I grabbed some prunes, simmered them in water until plump, then pureed them into oblivion. The result was thick and sultry, almost like chili paste or adobo sauce, but sweet and jammy. And just like that, my chili turned into something even more, well, chili-y. Fruity, smoky, and almost as addictive as potato chips.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Wendyl Ross
    Wendyl Ross
  • Susanna
  • susan
  • GsR
  • bobplager7
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Wendyl R. January 12, 2018
Chili and prunes...What could possibly go wrong?
susan January 12, 2018
Wendyl R. January 12, 2018
Susanna January 11, 2018
I love the idea of using dried fruit in chili—whether prunes or something else (would apricots work?). As far as I can tell this is a meatless chili. But I always like pork and dried fruit together, so wondering how that might work.
susan January 11, 2018
This sounds great. Can you specify what "chili paste" is? Like a Thai or Chinese version? I'm not familiar. Thank you.
Emma L. January 11, 2018
Hi Susan, there's a chili paste recipe provided within this one that you can use. Essentially, you rehydrated dried chilies (this version uses New Mexico and Guajillo but you can play around with the combo!) in water or stock, then blend into a paste. Super easy.
susan January 11, 2018
Ah! Sorry - didn't read that carefully enough. Thank you!
GsR January 11, 2018
I didn’t know that Chile could get to hot. Hummm, live and learn.
bobplager7 January 5, 2018
Emma: Did you happen to find my chili recipe on, or I am a 5 time World Champion chili cook, and I have used Sunsweet prunes in my recipe for a long time. You used a lot of prunes, where I only use 2 prunes in my pot. They give the chili a little sweetness, and give the gravy/sauce a beautiful shine.
Bob Plager - Winner of the ICS 2012 & 2013 World Championship and $25,000 prize each time
Emma L. January 7, 2018
Hey bobplager7, thanks so much for sharing and congrats on your many awards! I wasn't familiar with your recipe, but am excited to hear that prunes are well received in the chili world!
AntoniaJames January 5, 2018
Also, just an observation that there is something deep and wonderful about the flavor of prunes that seems to go particularly well with smoky notes: ;o)
Nancy January 5, 2018
Emma - great idea and solution to a common problem (too-hot chile)...thanks and I will make this. Nancy
M January 4, 2018
Really great idea; I'll have to try sometime instead of suffering through.