A Basic Template for Making Chili on the Fly

published Mar 18, 2018
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

The thing I love most about chili (aside from each bite!) is how versatile it is to make. Anything goes with chili, and the best version doesn’t come from one prized recipe, but from building it just the way you like it. In fact, I don’t think you always need a recipe — just a basic template that guides you along to make a pot of chili just the way you like it. Here’s how to make any kind of chili without a recipe.

A Basic Template for Making Any Kind of Chili

When it comes to chili, recipes serve as creative inspiration more than rulebook. In order to make a good pot of chili anyway you like it, what you really need is an understanding of the major components and how they work together. This template will walk you through the major components and show you how to put them together for a freestyle chili made just how you like it. To begin lets talk about the major components. Chili has five key building blocks: the base components, vegetables, spices, sauce, and toppings.

A basic template for any chili:
base components + vegetables + spices + sauce + toppings

Once you know what’s going in your chili, the next decision is how you plan to make this chili. This is how you put your template to work. Choose the method that works best for you and your schedule, either on the stovetop, in a slow cooker, or in an Instant Pot.

3 Methods for Making Any Chili

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

The Base Components: Choose 2 or More

The base components are what give your chili substance, both in the form of protein to make it filling and the ingredients that create a hearty texture. This includes any combination of meat, beans, and lentils. There are no hard-and-fast rules about how to combine things: You can use two different kinds of meat, meat and beans, beans and lentils, or any combination that sounds good to you. Two contrasting base components give you variety in both flavor and texture.

For example, tender lentils would be delicious with seared cubed beef, or maybe try chorizo and kidney beans in your next pot. Want to keep things plant-based? Lentils and toothsome kidney and black beans are a favorite and show up in our vegan chili recipe.

For a Chili That Serves 4 to 6 People

For the simplest, most classic meat-based chili, you’ll want to chose at least one pound of meat and one can of beans.

For the simplest vegetarian chili, we recommend at least two cans of different beans or one cup of lentils and one additional can of beans.

  • 1 to 2 pounds of meat: Ground beef, ground turkey, cubed beef, chorizo, crumbled sausage, or bacon
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans beans: Kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, or Cannellini beans
  • 1 cup dry lentils: Red lentils, brown lentils, or green lentils

Step One: Brown the Meat

When adding meat to any chili, step one is always to sear or brown the meat first, regardless of whether you’re making chili on the stovetop, in the slow cooker, or Instant Pot. Any beans and lentils will get added along with the liquids (stay tuned for more on this).

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

The Vegetables: Choose 2 to 3

Vegetables in chili are always a good idea, and can serve several purposes. As far as what veggies to use, that part is entirely up to you.

Keep in mind that not all vegetables get added to the pot at the same time. For example, vegetables like onions, bell peppers, and green chiles work as aromatics, while mushrooms lend meatiness to the pot. Want to make your chili extra hearty? Include thick-cut root vegetables or winter squash to bulk it up. Or opt for something like zucchini, corn, or greens for a pop of freshness.

For a Chili That Serves 4 to 6 People

For the simplest, most classic meat-based chili, you’ll want to chose an onion and bell pepper.

For a simple and hearty vegetarian chili, we recommend an onion and mix of root vegetables or one root vegetable, mushrooms, and hearty greens.

  • 1 large aromatic vegetable: Onion, bell pepper, celery, or chopped green chile. Cut these a bit smaller and add them early in the cooking process.
  • 1 pound root vegetables: Carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, winter squash, or white potatoes. These veggies add some vegetal sweetness and help to thicken the chili with their natural starches. Cut these into 1-inch chunks.
  • Up to 1 pound meaty vegetables: Mushrooms should be quartered and sautéed earlier in the cooking process along with any aromatics. Cauliflower florets, which can break down during cooking, should be stirred into the chili in the last 10 minutes of cooking.
  • Up to 1 pound tender vegetables: Chunks of zucchini, corn kernels, or torn kale or chard should be added in the last 10 minutes of cooking as well.

Step Two: Soften the Vegetables

Next it’s time to add the vegetables to the pot. If your chili includes meat, the vegetables will be the second set of ingredients to hit the pot, and if you’re going meat-free, you’ll start by giving the veggies a quick sauté. Stir them into the pot and cook for several minutes to help them soften. Some vegetables should be added later in the cooking process if you want them to hold their shape. If you’re cooking your chili in the Instant Pot or slow cooker, consider stirring greens in at the end.

A note on frozen vegetables: You can always use them in place of fresh — just wait to stir them into the pot in the last few minutes of cooking so they don’t get mushy.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

The Seasoning Mix: Choose 2

Your spice cabinet is a powerful tool when it comes to flavoring a pot of chili. In addition to salt and pepper (always a given), a mix of a couple ground spices sets the tone for the underlying flavors and aroma in your chili. We recommend mixing up your own chili seasoning, but if you’re in a hurry and need to sprinkle things into the pot as you go, here’s the basic rundown.

Get the recipe: How To Make Chili Spice Mix

Chili powder and cumin are a classic pair that give chili its signature spiced-smoky aroma. Want some extra smokiness with just a hint of warm spice? Double down on the cumin and add just a pinch of chili powder, like we do in our white chicken chili. Reach for cayenne pepper when you want to bring some extra heat to the pot.

For a Chili That Serves 4 to 6 People

For the simplest, most classic chili, we recommend 2 tablespoons of chili powder and 1 teaspoon of cumin.

For a spicier chili, choose 2 tablespoons of chili powder and up to 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper and keep the cumin level the same (1 teaspoon).

  • 1 to 2 tablespoons chili powder: Use regular or chipotle chili powder for warm heat and gentle spice.
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons ground cumin: This will bring smoky undertones to the chili.
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons dried oregano: A spoonful of oregano brings some herbal notes to the pot.
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons paprika: Use sweet or smoked paprika for an extra layer or warmth and smokiness.
  • Up to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper: It you want chili with heat, cayenne will do the trick.

Step Three: Add the Spices

Here’s our one rule about chili and spices: They should always be added before the liquid. This gives them a chance to coat the ingredients in the pot, mix with the oil, and bloom (read: release the full extent of their flavor).

When making chili in the slow cooker, bloom the spices with the meat and/or vegetables on the stovetop before transferring everything to the slow cooker.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

The Sauce Ingredients: Choose Up to 2

Flavorful liquids are essential to create a rich and delicious broth for your chili. While something as basic as water will get the job done, broth is a quick and simple way to give chili an extra-savory flavor, and canned tomatoes can add a layer of sweetness. When adding beer or wine, you’ll want to keep it to about 1/2 cup when using the slow cooker, so the flavor isn’t overpowering.

Stock or a mix of stock and canned tomatoes is my top pick for a classic, straightforward chili; it’s the combination I use most often. Give chili a malty undertone by adding beer or a little extra richness with red wine.

For a Chili That Serves 4 to 6 People

For the simplest, most classic chili, you’ll want to chose one can of diced tomatoes and one cup of broth.

For a simple chili with a twist, use one can of tomatoes and swap all or part of one cup of broth for an equal amount beer.

  • 1 (28-ounce) can tomatoes: Diced or crushed tomatoes. Pick one.
  • 1 to 3 cups of broth: Beef broth, chicken broth, or vegetable broth
  • Up to 1 cup beer: Ales are a good choice, although any type of beer you like will work.
  • Up to 1 cup red wine: Any type of red wine you have will work.

Step Four: Add the Liquids to the Chili

Choose your sauce ingredients of choice, and add them into the pot on the stovetop, slow cooker, or Instant Pot. As a rule of thumb, the ingredients should be mostly but not fully submerged. We want braising — not boiling here!

Once added, let the chili simmer anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours on the stovetop; at least 4 hours in the slow cooker on LOW, and 15 minutes on HIGH Pressure in the Instant Pot (followed by a natural release for 15 minutes).

Don’t forget about your beans! Now’s the time to add the cooked beans and/or lentils you selected. You’ll add them to the pot along with sauce ingredients.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

The Toppings: Choose Two

I am a very firm believer that no bowl of chili is complete without toppings. The role of the toppings is really to balance the flavors and ingredients in the chili; toppings take the bowl from good to great.

For example, additions like avocado or sour cream add a cooling contrast to spicy chili, while jalapeños give more mild versions a punch of heat. Cilantro and sliced scallions add a pop for freshness to extra-hearty and rich chili.

  • Creamy and cooling toppings: Sour cream, Greek yogurt, avocado, shredded cheese
  • Spicy toppings: Sliced fresh or pickled jalapeños
  • Fresh toppings: Cilantro, scallions, chopped red or white onion, lime
  • Crunchy toppings: Tortilla chips or corn chips

Step Five: Finish with Toppings

After ladling the chili into bowls, finish them off with a couple of your toppings of choice. Then it’s time to dig in.

Troubleshooting Your Chili

So you free-styled your chili but you’ve run into an issue. No sweat! There’s a ready solution available for nearly any chili emergency. Whether it’s too thin, too spicy, or just a little boring, we’ve got a set of tips to help you out. Get a handle on them so you can tweak your final pot as needed!