Chili is a beloved dish that elicits very strong opinions and allegiances. Some people are pro-beans, while others are adamantly against them. Some need tomatoes, green peppers, onions in their chili, while others are into pure Texas-style (which has no beans and no tomatoes).
The lists of preferences and the amount of digital ink spilled on this subject is vast and even occasionally contentious, so I knew that when I set out to create a keto-friendly chili I was going to be in fraught territory. Still, I bravely forged ahead, hoping the many challenges and opportunities to offend would be worth it. And in the end, after much testing, I think I was right.
A Chili That's Plain Delicious
First and foremost, this chili is delicious. If you don't trust me on this, just ask all my non-keto friends who devoured a whole batch at a potluck last night. After that experience, I knew that I had achieved my main concern when developing any keto recipe: deliciousness first, keto-friendly a close second.
What does it mean to be keto-friendly? With a ketogenic routine, you are going for a very low-carb, high-fat, and medium-protein nutrition profile. Most people on keto average around 20 grams of carbohydrates a day. Keeping that in mind, I aimed for a chili that came in at roughly 7 grams of carbs per serving, before toppings.
Here are some challenges that make a classic chili recipe less than keto-friendly, along with my solutions.
Not all people agree that chili should have beans, but beans are still a classic addition. With keto, though, there's no debate: The beans have to go. The challenge here is that a bowl full of nothing but ground meat and some spices might be a little too intense for some people. Beans add flavor, sure, but they also add bulk and textural contrast.
My solution: Add chopped mushrooms! Mushrooms have some carbs but not a whole lot, and they provide a nice, chewy texture. Plus, they absorb any flavor they're cooked with. If they're chopped to roughly the size of a cooked chickpea, they really take on the role of beans without the enormous carb impact.
Tomatoes fall on the maybe-to-no list for keto. Technically a fruit, they contain a fair amount of sugar and can really sneak in the carbs. One solution would be to go for a Texas chili which is just dried chilis and meat (no beans, no tomato) or a beanless white chili or chili verde. But I wanted to take on a more classic red chili recipe here, which meant I needed to solve the tomato dilemma.
My solution: A few tablespoons of tomato paste plus beef or chicken stock. Tomato paste still has carbs, but it packs in a much higher flavor-to-carbs ratio than fresh or canned tomatoes, so it's worth the addition. I also added red wine for additional acidity, liquid, and color.
Onions and Garlic
Like tomatoes, onions and garlic are tricky territory for keto. While not strictly forbidden, they contain a fair amount of sugar and so can quickly elevate the carb quotient.
My solution: I cut the amount of onions in half and used no garlic. At first I was worried about the lack of garlic, but my tasters didn't notice and keeping it out bought over a gram of carbs per serving. Eliminating onions as a garnish is another possibility, or try using green onions instead, as they tend to have less carbs than yellow or red.
It's important to get in your vegetables when doing keto, and this chili recipe offers some flexibility for that. For instance, in one iteration I threw in a few handfuls of chopped kale when I added the stock (it was delicious, by the way.) Other possibilities are to add zucchini or green pepper when sautéeing the onions. Just be sure to check on the carb counts for these vegetables and adjust the final carb numbers accordingly.
I used bacon in this chili for its fatty richness and smoky flavor. For textural reasons, I advise chopping it fairly small (1/2-inch pieces) so it disappears into the dish. Encountering a chewy, flabby slice of bacon is not very appetizing, in my experience. And, as usual for keto, be sure it's a low- or no-sugar variety.
Finally, the question of spiciness is a moving target. Between personal preferences and the vast variations of heat in chili powders, it's hard to nail an amount that will please every palate. To solve this, I made the hot smoked paprika and cayenne optional. As with any recipe, taste and adjust as you go along. If the hot smoked paprika is too hot, consider adding regular smoked paprika, as it's nice to have a little smokiness to enhance the bacon's flavor.
Serves 6 to 8
low- or no-sugar bacon slices, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
large yellow onion, diced
white button mushrooms, medium dice
ground beef (or 1 pound ground beef and 1 pound ground pork)
1 1/2 teaspoons
hot smoked paprika (optional)
dry red wine
low-sodium beef or chicken broth
red wine vinegar
Place the bacon in a large skillet and cook over medium-low heat. When the bacon is soft and just starting to brown, add the onion and a pinch of salt. Cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion has softened. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until they release their liquid and start to take on a little color. Increase the heat to medium and add the meat. Cook, stirring occasionally, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan, and breaking up any large clumps, until it loses all of its pinkness and is cooked through.
Add the chili powder, oregano, cumin, and salt. Cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Taste for spiciness and add the paprika and/or cayenne if desired. Reduce the heat to medium-low and clear a space in the middle of the pan. Add the tomato paste in the space and fry, stirring constantly, until darkened in color, about 1 minute. Add the wine and broth and stir to combine. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is glossy and has thickened, 10 to 15 minutes. Taste and season with salt as needed. Just before serving, stir in the vinegar.
Optional garnishes: Shredded cheese (about .5 to 1 grams of carbs per serving), sour cream (.5 grams of carbs per tablespoon), avocado (about 2 net grams per half), green onion (about .2 grams per tablespoon), pickled jalapeños (almost no carbs), cilantro (1/4 cup is .1 gram)
Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 2 months.