Why It Works
- Using several types of whole dried chiles with different flavor profiles creates a spicy, smoky, and well-rounded chili and toasting the chiles heightens their flavor.
- A long simmer concentrates the chili's flavor. Since the chili contains acidic ingredients, the texture of the beans and vegetables is preserved despite extended cooking.
- Adding liquor at the very end volatilizes more flavor compounds, resulting in an intense chili aroma.
If certain folks had their way, chili would be made with nothing but beef, chiles, and the hair of a Texan's back. If you're one of those folks, well here's a recipe for you. Yippie ki-yay, and all that. Move along, this is not the chili you are looking for.
If, however, you are open to such atrocities as beans in your chili, keep reading. Why does vegetarian chili get such a bum rap? I mean, there's the obvious: Chili is a divisive issue, even (or especially?) amongst those who love chili.
So why shouldn't we be able to make a completely meatless version that tastes great as well?
Turns out we actually have quite a few great tasting vegetarian chili recipes on the site already, but all of them (and pretty much every vegetarian chili recipe I've seen) fall under the fast-and-easy, 45-minutes-or-less category.
This in and of itself is not a bad thing—vegetarian chilis as a general rule don't need to be cooked as long as meat-based chilis because vegetables tenderize faster than meat—but long, slow cooking also nets you another benefit in the flavor development. Fast chili recipes are inevitably not quite as rich and complex as you'd like them to be.
My goal: create a 100% vegan chili recipe that has all of the deep chili flavor, textural contrast, and rib-sticking richness that the best chili should have.
First things first: Faux meat is not in the picture. I've already made my feelings on faux meat pretty clear, and this recipe is no different. I want my vegetarian chili to celebrate vegetables and legumes, not to try and imitate a meaty chili.
With that out of the way, we'll move on to the second thing: Great chili has to start with great chiles. That's what it's all about. Heck, I've seen recipes calling for just a couple tablespoons of pre-fab chili powder for an entire pot of beans and tomatoes. That ain't chili, that's chile-scented tomato stew.
There's nothing wrong with commercial chili powder—a pre-mixed combination of several different chile varieties, often mixed with cumin, oregano, and/or other aromatics—but it's not going to lead you to chili greatness. The only way to achieve that is to blend the chiles up yourself, starting with whole dried chiles.
Dried chiles come in a baffling array of flavors, shapes, colors, and sizes, but in the past, I've found that for the most part, they can be divided into four categories:
- Sweet and fresh: These peppers have distinct aromas reminiscent of red bell peppers and fresh tomatoes. They include: costeño, New Mexico (aka dried Anaheim, California, or colorado), and choricero.
- Hot: An overwhelming heat. The best, like cascabels, also have some complexity, while others like the pequin or árbol, are all heat, and not much else.
- Smoky: Some chile peppers, like chipotles (dried, smoked jalapeños), are smoky because of the way they are dried. Others, like ñora or guajillo, have a natural musty, charred wood, smokiness.
- Rich and fruity: Distinct aromas of sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, chocolate, and coffee. Some of the best-known Mexican chiles, like ancho, mulato, and pasilla, are in this category.
The goal in a great, balanced bowl of chili is to mix and match from amongst those categories so that you develop a complex flavor profile that hits notes both high and low, mild and hot. You can vary the ratio to suit your own taste, but it's always good to have at least a little bit of variety. Think of your chili pot as a 1990's mix tape. Sure, GNR is great, but you need at least a bit of MJ in there to keep Axl in check, you know?
You can grind the chiles dry in a spice grinder to make your own chili powder, but I've found that a better way is to simmer the chiles in water on the stovetop until softened then blending them into a smooth purée. Not only do you get a completely smooth, grit-free chili base to work with, you also end up with chile-flavored water to use as the liquid base of your chili.
For me, a great chili has to show some character and diversity. You don't want completely uniform beans in every bite, you want a range of textures. Here's where we've got to make some creative choices.
Many vegetarian chilis take the kitchen-sink, big-car-compensation approach: Hey, we can't use beef, so let's throw every damn type of bean and vegetable imaginable into this pot. That method definitely gets you textural contrast as well as variety in flavor, but personally, I feel it becomes a bit too jumbled. Better to make a couple of well-balanced choices and focus on perfecting them.
Kidney beans are a must in my chili. I grew up with kidney beans in my chili, and I will continue to enjoy eating kidney beans in my chili (you, on the other hand, are free to substitute them for whatever type of bean you want).
There's certainly something to be said for dried beans, and I do occasionally opt to brine dried beans overnight to make chili 100% from scratch, but canned beans are a sure thing. They're never over or undercooked, they're never bloated or busted. They are lacking in the flavor department, but with a good simmer in a very flavorful liquid, you can easily make up for this.
"beans and vegetables soften very slowly in acidic liquid"
The great thing is that the liquid base for chili is naturally low in pH (both the chiles and the tomato are acidic), and—lucky for us—beans and vegetables soften very slowly in acidic liquid. This means you can simmer your canned beans for a significant period of time in your chili before they really start to break down.*
*It's also why a dish like Boston baked beans—acidic from molasses—can take up to overnight to soften properly.
But what about more texture? I tried using a mixture of kidney beans with other, smaller beans and grains (chickpeas, flageolets, barley) but the real key turned out to be using the food processor. By pulsing a couple cans of chickpeas in the food processor, I was able to roughly chop them into a mixture of big chunks and tiny pieces. Adding this to my chili gave it great body and a ton of textural contrast.
Amping Up Flavor
The key to rich flavor is twofold: first, a long simmer during which water is driven off so that flavors are concentrated and various volatile compounds break down and recombine to add complexity, and second, a good source of glutamic acid, the chemical responsible for the flavor we recognize as savory (sometimes called umami).
I have a number of go-to umami bombs in my arsenal.
Soy sauce, Marmite (a byproduct of brewing that is essentially yeast extract), and anchovies are all packed with glutamates and they find their way into pretty much all of my savory soups and stews. Anchovies are out of the picture in this vegetarian version for obvious reasons, but a touch of marmite and soy sauce both added a ton of richness to my chili.
Other than that, the flavor base is pretty straightforward. Onions sweated in a little vegetable oil, garlic, oregano (the dried stuff is fine for long-cooking applications like this), and a couple of chipotle chiles canned in adobo sauce to add a touch of smokiness and heat.
Finally, as I've discovered in the past, there are certain aromas that are carried well with steam, while others are in fact carried better via vaporized alcohol. My chilis got plenty of liquid in it, so the steam bit's covered. Adding a couple shots of booze just before serving takes care of the rest. I like bourbon or whiskey, because I've usually got it around, but cognac, tequila, even vodka will work well. Just make sure that it's at least 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume), and unsweetened.
The truth of the matter is that the key to great vegetarian chili is to completely forget that you're working on a vegetarian chili. Chili greatness lies in the careful layering of real chiles, ensuring textural contrast with each bite, and a rich, thick consistency packed with savory flavor. Whether it's made with beef, beans, pork, or ground yak hearts, for that matter, if you get the basics right you're already off to a good start.
3 whole sweet dried chiles like costeño, New Mexico, or choricero, stems and seeds removed
2 small hot dried chiles like arbol or cascabel, stems and seeds removed (optional)
3 whole rich fruity dried chiles like ancho, mulato, negro, or pasilla, stems and seeds removed
1 quart water
2 whole chipotle chiles in adobo sauce with 2 tablespoons sauce from can
2 (14-ounce) cans chickpeas
1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes packed in juice
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, grated on a microplane grater
1 1/2 tablespoons cumin
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon marmite or vegemite
2 (14-ounce) cans dark red kidney beans, drained, liquid reserved separately
2 tablespoons vodka or bourbon
2 to 3 tablespoons masa
Add dried chiles to a large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or stock pot and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until slightly darkened with intense, roasted aroma, 2 to 5 minutes. Do not allow to smoke. Remove chiles to small bowl and set aside. Alternatively, place dried chiles on a microwave-safe plate and microwave on high power in 15-second increments until pliable and toasted-smelling, about 30 seconds total. Transfer to a 2-quart microwave-safe liquid measuring cup or bowl. Add water and chipotle chiles, cover with plastic wrap, and microwave on high power until gently simmering, about 5 minutes. Remove from microwave and set aside. Transfer chiles and liquid to blender and blend, starting on the lowest possible setting and gradually increasing speed to high (make sure to hold the lid down with a clean kitchen towel or a potholder to prevent it from blowing out). Blend until smooth, about 1 minute.
Drain chickpeas, reserving liquid from can. Transfer chickpeas to a food processor and pulse until just roughly chopped, about three 1-second pulses. Set aside.
Roughly squeeze tomatoes through your fingers into approximate 1/4-inch pieces. Add to chickpea water along with any juices.
Heat oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, until softened but not browned, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, cumin, and dried oregano and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add puréed chiles, soy sauce, and marmite and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add reserved chickpea/tomato water mixture and stir to combine. Add chopped chickpeas and kidney beans. Stir to combine.
If beans are sticking out of the top, add reserved kidney bean liquid until just barely submerged. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce to a bare simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until thick and rich, about 1 1/2 hours, adding more reserved kidney bean liquid as necessary if chili becomes too thick or sticks to the bottom of the pan.
When cooked, add vodka or bourbon and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and whisk in masa in a slow steady stream until desired thickness is reached. For best results, allow chili to cool and refrigerate for at least one night and up to a week. Reheat to serve.
Serve, garnished with cilantro, chopped onions, scallions, avocado, lime wedges, and warm tortillas as desired.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 11g||14%|
|Saturated Fat 1g||6%|
|Total Carbohydrate 81g||30%|
|Dietary Fiber 22g||77%|
|Total Sugars 17g|
|Vitamin C 52mg||258%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|