During my stint as a vegetarian, bean-laden, meat-free chili was one of the dishes I turned to most. While I loved it because it was hearty and comforting, I'll be the first to admit that it never tasted as good as traditional chili, no matter how hard I tried to get it there. The meat in traditional chili lends flavor that's hard to find in beans and veggies. Luckily, there are a handful of vegetarian ingredients that can provide as much, if not more, flavor to the pot — many you may already have in your pantry right now. If only I knew that back then!
1. Chipotle in Adobo
This tiny can holds a powerhouse of flavor. Both the chipotle peppers and the red adobo sauce they are swimming in can add something to a pot of chili. The peppers lend smoky heat, while the adobo sauce adds a bit of tangy sweetness. You can purée them together and add a spoonful, or you can simply stir in a diced pepper and a glug of the sauce. Just start small and taste as you go since the peppers have quite a kick.
Get a recipe: Black Bean, Sweet Potato, and Quinoa Chili
Swap out some of the broth or water for a can of beer, which will add a malty sweetness to the chili that makes for a nice depth of flavor. If you're simmering the chili for a while, pretty much all the booze will cook off but that earthy complexity will stay.
3. Soy Sauce or Tamari
Soy sauce (or its gluten-free cousin, tamari) may seem like a strange addition to chili, but it brings the umami richness vegetarian chili is often missing and balances out any sweetness in the pot. A spoonful or so should do the trick — just remember that both are naturally salty, so you may want to be conservative with the actual salt in the recipe and taste and adjust as needed.
4. Cocoa Powder
Sure, you're more likely to reach for cocoa powder when you're baking brownies, but try it in your chili and you'll be rewarded for your boldness. A spoonful or two adds a rich, hearty, savory flavor to meat-free chili. Just be sure you use unsweetened cocoa powder, so you're not adding sugar to your dish!
Get a recipe: Slow Cooker Black Bean Chili
5. Nutritional Yeast
You likely may be familiar with nutritional yeast if you're vegetarian or vegan, as it adds salty, cheese-like flavor to everything from popcorn to pasta. Sprinkle some on top of your bowl of chili for same effect.
Regardless of the type of vinegar you have in your pantry, it can make your vegetarian chili (or really any chili, for that matter) better. A splash of vinegar stirred in right before serving will brighten up the finished product with its tang. Balsamic, sherry, and apple cider vinegar will also add a touch of sweetness, which is a nice contrast, but even just a bit of red wine vinegar will lift the chili and have people guessing what your secret ingredient is.
Get a recipe: Slow Cooker Vegetarian Chili
7. Smoked Paprika
Similar to chipotles in adobo, smoked paprika brings a heady smokiness to a pot of chili. It differs in that it comes in various levels of heat, so if you're not looking to add spice to your chili but still add smokiness, this is a good option. Smoked paprika can go from making something taste incredible to making something taste like it got lost in a campfire, so use a light hand — start with a pinch or two, taste, and add accordingly.
Molasses definitely brings a bit of sweetness to chili, but what it excels at is adding a smoky, mild bitterness that gives your chili serious intrigue. You don't need much to reap it's benefit — just a drizzle should do — and either light or dark molasses will work.
9. Tomato Paste
More tomato in chili may seem redundant, but tomato paste is different. Since it's made from fresh tomatoes that have been cooked down, the flavor is highly concentrated. It actually works as a flavor-booster when used in cooking, as it adds its own savory notes while enhancing other flavors in the dish. Add a big spoonful just after you've cooked your onions and garlic and sauté it for a minute or two so that it darkens and intensifies.
10. Fresh or Dried Mushrooms
Either sauté a bunch of fresh mushrooms with the rest of the veggies you're using, or soak a few dried mushrooms in warm water to rehydrate them, chop them up, and add them to the pot. Mushrooms are another great source of meaty, umami flavor. Plus, more vegetables never hurt anyone!
Read more: How to Prepare Dried Mushrooms for Cooking