What to Do When Your Chili Is Too Spicy, Too Thin, or Too Boring

updated Dec 1, 2022
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Chili brings out my Goldilocks tendencies. I want one that’s spicy, but not so spicy that it has me breathing fire; I want it to be chunky and hearty, but not so much so that it’s like wading through wet cement with the occasional bean floating by; and, of course, I want it to be dynamic (the first spoonful should be just as exciting as the last).

That’s asking a lot of chili, but you know what? This is a dish that can handle all your requests because by its very design, chili is set up to accommodate all our desires. So say you’ve found this hallowed chili recipe but you still need to tweak it a bit to get it to your idea of the best. You’re going to need to know some tricks.

Well, here’s a bag full of them so you can have the best damn good chili recipe anyway you like it.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

For Chili That’s Too Spicy or Not Spicy Enough

I grew up in a household where a homemade jar of hot peppers was put on the table when it was time for dinner — as a result, no meal was made spicier than what the least spice-tolerant person could handle. This is a good principle to live by when it comes to the heat level in your chili.

If this is a dinner you need to feed to your whole crew and your whole crew includes people who do not like it hot, then you might not want to overdo it with the chili spice mix seasonings. Instead, include options for everyone to spice it up themselves. That’s the easy way out of this scenario.

3 Ingredients to Spice Up Chili

  • Hot sauce
  • Pickled jalapeños
  • Cayenne pepper

Now say you were feeling overzealous and you added way too much chipotle pepper in adobo to the pot and you cried a little after tasting a spoonful because you felt like your mouth was on fire (I’m speaking from experience here, folks). What do you do? You remember that’s there’s nothing a potato can’t help.

How to Fix a Too-Spicy Chili

  • Add a few whole, peeled Russet potatoes to the pot. As they cook, they will sponge up some of the cooking liquid and the spices along with it. You’ll probably need to add some more liquid once the potatoes are cooked through since they will also release a considerable amount of starch as they cook, thickening the existing chili. Remember to remove the potatoes from the pot once they’ve done their job, but don’t toss them! Chili-soaked potatoes make for killer lazy mashed potatoes when smashed with some butter and cream.
  • Use strategic toppings. Cool and creamy dairy works wonders to balance out the heat. Sour cream, Greek yogurt, and even cheese help.
  • Remove some of the chili. If things still aren’t moving in a milder direction, start by removing a quarter of the volume of the chili (and save it as a chili starter for your next batch) and add in another can of beans and diced tomato. Since you’re literally removing some the heat, you’re guaranteed to reduce the spice level by about 25 percent. Make sure you give the pot a good stir before you take this route.
(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

For Chili That’s Too Thin and Thinks It’s Soup

Thin chili makes me so mad. If I wanted soup, I’d eat soup, but when I want chili I need texture and contrast. What I need, by all practical definitions, is a stew. A good chili recipe will keep all this in mind from the get-go, but if you find yourself with a pot that’s soupier than you’d like, you’ve got a few options on how to whip it into shape.

How to Thicken Chili

  • Simmer with the lid off. Did you try this yet? Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with your chili and you just need to cook off some of the excess liquid. Bring it to a vigorous simmer for about five to 10 minutes and watch the excess liquid cook off.
  • Add beans or veggies. Thick-cut root veggies will release their natural starches as they cook and help thicken the pot. Sweet potatoes, winter squash, and a regular potato all work. Adding more beans helps too. Thick, refried beans can do wonders for a thin chili.
  • Mash it. This is a dead-simple solution and probably my favorite. Grab your potato masher and get to mashing. If there are beans in this chili of yours, mashing them will help immediately thicken it. You could probably do this with an immersion blender or stand blender, but the masher works just fine.
  • Add masa harina or tortillas. These are options I recommend only if you’re game for a different chili texture all together. Adding masa harina (aka corn flour) to your chili will certainly thicken it, but you’ll also have a pot with a gritty texture. The effect is best described as crumbling cornbread into your chili. It’s the same deal when you add corn tortillas or tortilla chips. This can be pleasant in its own way, but start slowly since masa takes a few minutes of cooking to hydrate and thicken. You can go from soupy chili to basically cornmeal mush before you know it, so err on the conservative side.
  • Make a cornstarch slurry. In a separate bowl mix together two parts cold water with one part cornstarch and then add to the chili pot. Cook the chili at least 10 minutes more and any liquid in the pot will take on a heavy, velvety consistency.
(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

For Boring Chili That’s a Potential Disappointment

What gives, chili? How could so many delicious things come together to make a ho-hum dish? The reality is sometimes this happens, and when it does you’ll hear people throw around the phrase “it tastes flat.” Flat really just means boring, and nothing banishes the boredom of chili better than something acidic.

How to Give Chili a Flavor Boost

  • Add something acidic. Apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, and that fancy cara cara orange and vanilla vinegar you been hoarding are all fair game. One tablespoon in a pot is enough for it to start signing a tastier song.
  • Try to identify what about your chili is boring. This line of thinking will help tailor the remedy. Is it lacking in savory depth? Add a hit of soy sauce, Worcestershire, or tamari. These salty, savory powerhouses won’t dominate or change the flavor of your chili so much as amplify what’s there. Start with one tablespoon, stir, and taste before you add another.
  • Add tomato paste. If you’re going to go this route, don’t add it to the pot without cooking it a bit in some fat first. It can taste raw when it isn’t cooked, and a quick sauté in a small skillet is worth the more flavorful outcome.
  • Drop in some chocolate. We’re all about adding some cocoa to your chili, especially in the early stages of cooking when you’re blooming your spices, but I like to drop a few pieces of dark chocolate into the pot too. This lends a faint sweetness and a bit of strategic bitterness and, best of all, it gives you the satisfying knowledge that there’s one more thing that chocolate can help make better.
  • Embrace pickling liquid. Adding some of the brine from pickled jalapeños isn’t so strange, but plain pickles, and even sauerkraut, aren’t as common. All three bring salt, acidity, and sharpness and help wake up a sleepy chili with just a tablespoon or so.
  • Stir in some molasses. I think I’ve had the same jar of molasses in my house for years because it’s not something I break out on the regular. But it’s great in chili — especially those featuring lots of cumin and black beans. Its smoky, bittersweet flavor adds complexity to chili and you won’t need more than a teaspoon to capitalize off of its assertive and distinct taste.

So there you have it! Some solutions for the most common problems a pot of chili can give us. It’s not a complete list because with chili, there never really is one. In fact, each of these ideas are just an invitation for you to make a better pot of chili with more knowledge under your belt.

How do you trick out your chili for your version of the “best”? Tell us in the comments!