We Tried 14 Cans of Chili — And One Brand Swept All 3 Categories
To bean or not to bean? Meat or veg? Now or next Tuesday? As the temperatures dip and Chili Season enters the chat, the question isn’t if you should stock a can of the ready-made stuff in your pantry (and hurricane season kit, like our culinary producer Rachel does), but which one(s) and how quickly. We set out to find the answers — and were shocked by the results.
We tasted our way through 14 cans (!) of chili across three categories — with Beans, without Beans, and Vegetarian — focusing on both widely available national brands and several store brands sold at retailers with locations across the country. All of the chilis were similarly priced — around $2 or $3 for a can. We also looked at recent sales data and past taste tests to round out the selection.
With the exception of the vegetarian chilis, all contenders contained either beef or beef and pork in their ingredients list. Half of the vegetarian chilis included a “textured vegetable protein” (either made from soybeans or peas), which, as the name suggests, is high in protein and adds a meat-like texture to foods. The other half leaned on legumes and other vegetables as their main ingredients.
After a crisp afternoon of tasting, followed by an evening of tallying, one brand — to our total surprise — swept all three categories. You might have heard of it.
Best Canned Chili with Beans: Hormel Chili with Beans
“Iconic.” That’s how Greg, our workplace experience manager, sums up this runaway winner (also “good!” and “best-looking chili here”). It’s the only can to earn multiple 5s — the highest mark — for its appearance. The mix of beef and pork, plus a lot of red beans, make an impression. There isn’t a single taster who didn’t comment on the overabundance of beans in the bowl, and all but one (there is always one!), are strongly in favor of it. #TeamExcess.
Its looks live up to the hype, too. The thick consistency combined with a “good balance of meat and beans,” according to Greg, is why Hormel’s chili with beans stands out from every other can. Even the “too much beans for me” taster is a-OK with the flavor. Quinn, our lifestyle editor, couldn’t get enough of its “sweet and light flavor” and “big chunks of meat.” The chili isn’t without critiques, though. In future versions, Greg would like for it to have “more kick.”
What’s So Great
- Iconic-looking chili
- “Big chunks of meat”
Good to Know
- “Heavy on the beans”
Buy: Hormel Chili with Beans, $3.22 for 25 ounces at Amazon
Best Canned Chili without Beans: Hormel Chili No Beans
Hormel may be — by far — the most popular brand of chili in the U.S, but here at The Kitchn the race for the best bean-free canned chili was decided by a single point. While two tasters did compare it to “meat soup,” others, like Brian, our director of people operations, felt the exact opposite: He was drawn to the “nice, rich color,” “light, but sweet and spicy” smell, and “consistency (not too soupy).” Mara, our senior lifestyle editor, also called it the “most appealing of the group.”
The meat — beef and pork — is noticeably chunky and has a “nice and tender” texture, says Perry, our producer. That, along with the slight kick from the chili powder, is likely why Hormel’s Chili No Beans earned the highest marks for flavor and texture. It’s a solid bowl as is, but Perry also recommends adding toppings, like sour cream, cheddar, green onions, and maybe even more beef if you really want to make a MEAL of it.
What’s So Great
- Tender, chunky meat
- “Slick kick”
Good to Know
- Too soupy, to some
Buy: Hormel Chili No Beans, $2.12 for 10.5 ounces at Walmart
Runner-Up: Armour Chili No Beans
If you like your chili sans chunks or are looking for a ready-made shortcut, then this is the can for you. Armour’s mix of pork and beef is more finely ground, than, well, all of the other contenders — earning comparisons to “sloppy Joe meat” and “a ragù” by Sam, our social media manager, and Brian, respectively.
Although meat is seasoned with a blend of chili pepper, paprika, onion powder, sugar, garlic powder, and other spices, a few felt the flavor was bland and even a little salty. (Perhaps a drizzle of hot sauce could kick things up?) But multiple tasters, including Rachel, felt the finer texture would be “good as a topping” for, say, nachos or a baked potato.
What’s So Great
- “Thick, like a ragù”
- Total topping potential
Good to Know
- Mixed opinions on flavor
Buy: Armour Chili No Beans, $2.28 for 14 ounces at Walmart
Best Vegetarian Canned Chili: Hormel Chili Vegetarian with Beans
Once again, the chili overloaded with beans (and Hormel!) takes the top spot. Truth be told, it wasn’t close. While some note the “thinness” of the broth, overall tasters are excited to see another “bean-heavy” bowl that’s studded with “nice chunks of veggies,” says Quinn.
In addition to the mix of pink, red, and/or kidney beans, it contains tomatoes, green chiles, onions, and carrots. You’ll also find seasonings (chili powder, salt, dehydrated garlic, etc.), thickeners (corn flour, tomato paste, corn starch, etc.), and other texture enhancers and preservatives/stabilizers (textured vegetable protein, citric acid). The vegetable protein does mimic the look and feel of meat, which may dissuade some purists. Others felt the chili “could use a little more oomph” or even tasted similar to BBQ beans (which they loved, but were perplexed by), but the majority of tasters approved. The “sweetness and spice level are pretty well-balanced,” says Brian.
What’s So Great
- Bean-forward with nice chunks of veggies
Good to Know
- “Could use more oomph” / “Looks a little thin”
Buy: Hormel Chili Vegetarian with Beans, $2.69 for 15 ounces at Instacart
How We Tested the Canned Chilis
We held a blind taste test of 14 different cans of chili across three categories — and recruited six chili enthusiasts and one 1000/10 chili fan (so you know they’re qualified), who work in our office to participate in this one-day test.
Once again, tasters had some feelings about what makes for the best chili. They were largely in agreement that “chili ≠ soup,” as Brian put it, and more is more when it comes to meat, beans, and, in Brian’s case, “lots of ingredients.” A few tasters were weary about overloading the bowl with beans. Also a little kick is fine, but too much where it overpowers the other flavors is a firm NO. So basically, it’s all about finding a happy medium.
To separate the chilis from the chaff, we sampled each canned chili on its own — no mix-ins or add-ons of any kind. Maya, our studio assistant, prepped it all, pouring each of the canned chilis into its respective communal bowl. The chilis were heated in batches according to category groups and given letters to conceal the brands’ identities. Tasters then spooned servings of chili into generic sample-sized cups for testing. We also had water on hand for palate cleansing.
Tasters rated each of the canned chilis on a scale of one to five (1 = No, thanks; 2 = Meh; 3 = Pretty good; 4 = Really like; 5 = Yes, Please!) across four criteria — look, smell, texture, and flavor — and included any specific observations, tasting notes, and general opinions worth mentioning. They were also asked to answer, arguably, the most important question of all: Would you buy this canned chili?
Why You Should Trust Us
This was a blind taste test, which means tasters had no knowledge of the brands being evaluated ahead of or at the time of the tasting. It was held over one day and tasters were instructed to sample the canned chilis in random order (to stave off palate fatigue and not give any one can an unfair advantage). The group of tasters included a mix of food professionals and chili enthusiasts who work at The Kitchn and/or Apartment Therapy Media (The Kitchn’s parent company). All participated in the taste test voluntarily, and we thank them for being so generous with their time and feedback.
Speaking of, each taster filled out a score sheet (without discussion or influence) ranking the canned chili across several criteria (listed above). The results were also tabulated without any visibility into the brands. Only after the numbers were finalized, did we reveal which brands corresponded to the winners.
Were you surprised by the winners? Tell us about it in the comments below.