Big Little Recipes

A 5-Ingredient Chili That Tastes Like It Took All Day (But It Didn’t)

Turn a few pantry staples into dinner tonight—and leftovers all week long.

October 16, 2018

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big, BIG everything else: flavor, ideas, holy-cow factor. Psst: We don't count water, salt, pepper, and certain fats (say, olive oil to dress greens or sauté onions), since we're guessing you have those covered. This week, we’re proving that weeknight chili is possible.


There are lots of Big Little Recipes already out in the world. Ones that are big on flavor, little on ingredient lists. A Spanish tortilla, for example, has three ingredients: potatoes, onions, and eggs. A grilled cheese sandwich has two: bread and cheese. Roast chicken has one: uh, chicken. And shortbread has three: flour, sugar, and butter.

Then there are what I like to call Big Big Recipes: big flavor, big ingredient list. Like chili. This time around the block, we’re making a vegetarian chili (carnivores, stay put!), so let’s peruse some like-minded recipes:

The vegetarian chili in The Joy of Cooking calls for 12 ingredients: carrots, bell peppers, onions, garlic, jalapeños, chili powder, ground cumin, canned tomatoes, canned kidney beans, canned cannellini beans, canned black beans, and tomato juice. This one from Serious Eats’ The Food Lab has 15. And this one from Cookie & Kate has one more than that. Which makes sense. Chili should be rich and spicy and hearty and, above all else, flavorful. Adding more flavors is one way to accomplish this.

Photo by Julia Gartland
Photo by Julia Gartland

Finessing existing flavors is another.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“than chilis (also wouldn't really count it- or them, since chili powders are nothing like uniform- as one ingredient). If you don't wish to work with whole dried chilis- though there's nothing remotely difficult about it- many varieties are easily available powdered without the extraneous ingredients. Most chili makers like to devise various combinations of chilis, but you can make a perfectly good single variety chili- Anchos, New Mexicos and Guajillos are good choices- or combine a couple of types. None of these have much heat- if you want more, you could use powdered chipotle, or even cayenne, or jalapeno or serrano fresh. If you don't use chili powder, you will probably want onion, cumin and oregano- it's primary non-chili ingredients- as ingredients. Poblanos, by the way, will add a great deal more complexity than bells- the flavor of bell peppers is really not very appropriate. Stores may also have other varieties- Anaheims and New Mexicos, for example- available.”
— Smaug
Comment

In this recipe, five ingredients transform into a bean chili cozy enough to compete with your favorite sweater, in one pot, in less than an hour. Most of this is inactive, meaning this is the sort of recipe you can make while changing into PJs, setting up that episode of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, opening a bottle of wine, feeding your cat, and calling your grandma.

Here’s how we’ll get the most out of each ingredient:

Salt at every step

If you don’t have a salt dish on your counter, go grab a ramekin or bowl and fill ’er up. Salt is an honorary Big Little ingredient because it’s just that important. Here especially. Like many chili recipes, this one comes together cumulatively—you sauté this, then add that, and on and on. Salting at each step builds up to a full-flavored, well-seasoned result.

Use the Beans Two Ways

Most ground meat chilis start the same way: Brown the meat. Not only does this create a crispy texture, but all those seared edges add deep flavor. Some vegetarian chilis make up for this by adding umami-rich ingredients like soy sauce. This one makes up for it by pretending beans are beef. It’s easier than it sounds: Just chop up 1 can of beans, add to a hot pan, and don’t touch. We shall lovingly call these “crispies.” Later on, we’ll add another can of whole beans for that chunky chili vibe. (Psst: I love kidney beans here for their large size and crimson color. But this is a personal matter, as I learned from our Hotline. Use whatever bean you like best.)

Fry the Chili Powder

Frying spices is an invaluable technique. In Indian cooking, it goes by many names, like tarka. In American cookbooks, it’s sometimes referred to as blooming, which is just what happens to the dried spices’ flavors: They bloom. Chili powder sometimes gets flack in the chili world as a lesser alternative to rehydrating a slew of dried chilis and making chili paste. But it’s convenience is unparalleled. And now its flavor can be too.

Pick a Midway Pepper

In addition to chili powder, a lot of chili recipes include sweet bell peppers (for chunky bulk) and hot peppers like jalapeños (for kick). Poblanos bridge these gaps. They’re relatively mild, but bring a little more personality to the mix.

Never Underestimate Butter

Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce is famous for its butter, which turns canned tomatoes into something so good, you’ll eat it from a wooden spoon standing over the stove (trust me). Turns out, this works with chili too. In addition to the small amounts of butter used to cook the beans, spices, etc, an extra knob at the end goes a long way, rounding out the chili into something that seems like it needed a lot of ingredients and took a lot of time, but didn’t. That can be our (big) little secret.

What's your favorite bean for chili? Tell us in the comments!

30 Comments

Food F. October 22, 2018
I made this chili the other night, and it was absolutely delicious. And buttery. I made it exactly as suggested, and loved frying the beans. This is definitely a keeper. Thanks!
 
Corinne S. October 22, 2018
I cannot connect to the 5 Ingredient Chili, sounds so good and easy! I keep receiving all kinds of recipes with 5 ingredients; not the one recipe I need!
 
Sandi L. October 20, 2018
Please forgive me if this comes off snarky because I certainly don’t intend it that way. But, it seems to me with our current health crisis of heart and vascular disease, it doesn’t seem “right” to call for dishes of salt to be added to the table and repeatedly added to food. If you’re using canned beans and canned tomato sauce or juice, the salt level will be adequate. <br />For those unaware of the consequences of oversalting, I highly recommend the book “How Not to Die” by Dr. Michael Geiger.
 
Deborah October 20, 2018
Unless I misunderstood, the dish of salt is for seasoning during food prep in stages - not tableside setting. As you indicated, hopefully, further seasoning will be unnecessary once served.
 
Sandi L. October 20, 2018
Yes, thank you, I believe you are right. I think it was the part about filling up a whole bowl that got me off track.
 
Sandi L. October 20, 2018
And the author’s last name is “Greger,” not “Geiger.” Sorry
 
Deborah October 20, 2018
Ok! Greatfully... on the same page about the sodium. We conrtol this!!
 
Smaug October 21, 2018
We can but hope that the current status of salt as a fad food will pass before we all die of it. Butter is currently trending on Food52, but the food industry has from time immemorial depended on our atavistic cravings for salt, sugar and fat to make sales; it's not stopping any time soon.
 
Sandi L. October 21, 2018
Agreed. But, I think being informed leads to better choices. Call me an optimist. As more information is made available to a wider population, you see changes starting to happen. For example, the decline in beef consumption and the number of people who identify as vegetarians or vegans.
 
Vicki H. October 20, 2018
Tomato sauce sounds Devine but source not found in Texas chain stores nor amazon
 
Stephanie October 19, 2018
I use kidney beans always and I am making now in Dutch oven and it looks like chili powder got burnt. First time making. I will eat it no matter what
 
JimCooksFoodGood October 19, 2018
The best eight ingredient "five ingredient" chili recipe out there.
 
Maggie October 20, 2018
They're spices, relax.
 
JimCooksFoodGood October 20, 2018
It’s sarcasm, relax.
 
Maggie October 21, 2018
Ha
 
Barbara S. October 19, 2018
I use various small beans in my veggie chili; pintos, black, white, etc. But I also use either bulgur wheat or freekeh in it as a substitute for the texture brought by meat. Love the idea of changing it up with butter, as I've tried the buttery tomato sauce and it's incredible.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. October 19, 2018
Love the idea of incorporating grains!
 
Kate October 19, 2018
Do you just add the grains as is, or do you prepare them first?
 
Maggie October 20, 2018
TVP is great for texture. I used to buy a "chili spice TVP" from the bulk store and it was the perfect base to add all your beans and fresh veg to
 
Sue B. October 19, 2018
Nooooo! Never put kidney beans in chili. Pinto, pinto, pinto.
 
Deborah October 19, 2018
Maybe I'll try pinto someday - but... I love their meatiness!
 
Michael October 19, 2018
Or black beans. Dried and soaked, of course.<br />If you live near a Mexican market, try some peruano beans as well - they are great for chili or refried.<br />I make chili at least a couple times a year and use our stovetop pressure cooker for the initial cook, then simmer another hour with the lid off.<br />
 
Deborah October 19, 2018
For "red" chili I love dark red kidney beans. For "white" chili, canellini beans!
 
Maggie October 19, 2018
Red kidney beans are the best for chili, but you could add any other kind to add colour, interest, and texture!
 
Nicki M. October 19, 2018
Is there a comprable alternative can use in place of butter to make this friendly for those with dairy allergy? Thanks!
 
Maggie October 19, 2018
Olive oil
 
Author Comment
Emma L. October 19, 2018
Hi Nicki! Ditto to Maggie—olive oil would be my next pick. Or, if you have bacon fat around (I always save it after cooking bacon), that would be great too (though obviously not vegetarian anymore!).
 
Smaug October 16, 2018
Really do not see chili powder as an alternative to rehydrating a slew of etc....In the first place, it's likely to be a lot more onion powder, oregano etc. than chilis (also wouldn't really count it- or them, since chili powders are nothing like uniform- as one ingredient). If you don't wish to work with whole dried chilis- though there's nothing remotely difficult about it- many varieties are easily available powdered without the extraneous ingredients. Most chili makers like to devise various combinations of chilis, but you can make a perfectly good single variety chili- Anchos, New Mexicos and Guajillos are good choices- or combine a couple of types. None of these have much heat- if you want more, you could use powdered chipotle, or even cayenne, or jalapeno or serrano fresh. If you don't use chili powder, you will probably want onion, cumin and oregano- it's primary non-chili ingredients- as ingredients. Poblanos, by the way, will add a great deal more complexity than bells- the flavor of bell peppers is really not very appropriate. Stores may also have other varieties- Anaheims and New Mexicos, for example- available.
 
Nancy October 16, 2018
Thank you, Smaig.. Wonderful and true! Use real dried Chile or Chile powder.