9 Easy Ways to Make Better Homemade Chili

Want to learn how to make the best chili? These test kitchen tips are a good place to start.

Published Feb. 1, 2017.

During the cooler months, we can’t get enough of our favorite chili recipes, whether it’s simple beef with beans or complex vegetarian chili. Done right, these dishes are hearty, flavorful, and comforting—just what we want this time of year. If you’re ready to take your chili game to the next level, look no further than these simple test kitchen tips and the dozens of foolproof chili recipes in our archives.

Fresh chili powder amps up the flavor in any dish

1. Make your own chili powder

Store-bought chili powder is convenient, but making your own is an easy way to enhance chili—it’ll improve both the texture and flavor of the dish. You can make a simple version by toasting dried chiles, or you can make a dressed-up homemade chili powder, as senior editor Andrew Janjigian did in our Best Ground Beef Chili recipe. He started by toasting ancho chiles in a Dutch oven until fragrant. After they cooled, he processed the chiles along with herbs, spices, and tortilla chips, which added bulk for the food processor and thickened the chili.

2. Spice up the spices

When it comes to herbs and spices, it’s not just how much you add that matters; how you add them also affects the flavor of the dish. To intensify spices, especially commercially ground blends like chili powder, we recommend cooking them in a little butter or oil first—called “blooming”—which makes them more potent and complex. If a chili recipe calls for sautéing aromatics, you can add the spices once the vegetables are almost cooked.

Using even-sized pieces of ingredients such as peppers and onions is one way to ensure a better tasting chili.

3. Prep vegetables properly

If you’re a Cook’s Illustrated regular, you’ve probably heard this one before. Cutting aromatics and other vegetables into even-sized pieces is one of the most basic ways to become a better cook. Doing so means your dish will be evenly cooked; otherwise, you could end up with a perfect bite followed by one with raw or overcooked pieces.

Speaking of vegetables, you can also use them to thicken a chili that’s too watery. Simply puree a portion of them (along with some beans, if you’d like) to add body, just as we do in our White Chicken Chili recipe.

4. Give your beans a brine

We typically call for canned beans in our chili recipes, but if you’ve opted for dried beans, you should brine them first. This will tenderize the beans’ skin and allow them to soak up liquid without rupturing. If you’re not sure how to brine beans, use our bean-brining formula: 3 tablespoons of salt dissolved in 4 quarts of cold water for 1 pound of dried beans. Let the beans sit for 8 to 24 hours. To speed up the softening and further reduce cooking time, you can also add a pinch of baking soda—but be careful not to add more or your beans will taste soapy. For more information, see our handy guide on how to add beans to a dish.

For meat that's tender, we recommend treating it with a mixture of water, salt, and baking soda prior to cooking.

5. Treat your meat right

Baking soda isn’t just useful for softening dried beans; it can also help make the meat in your chili juicier. In our Best Ground Beef Chili recipe, we call for tossing the beef with a mixture of water, salt, and baking soda and letting it sit for 20 minutes. The baking soda raises the pH of the meat, which means its proteins attract and hold onto more water. But it has another benefit too—it speeds up the Maillard reaction, so the meat browns more quickly.

Another way to boost your chili from good to great? Use freshly ground beef—even if it means grinding it yourself (it’s not hard to do, we promise). Grocers who offer freshly ground beef generally start with whole primal cuts. Those that don’t usually purchase bulk packages of ground beef from processing plants and regrind and supplement it with meat scraps. Freshly ground beef is not only meatier in flavor, but there’s also less risk of bacterial contamination compared to the preground stuff.

For chicken chili, we like the texture of shredded chicken breast rather than ground chicken, which can turn rubbery.

6. Choose the right kind of chicken

When developing our recipe for White Chicken Chili, we found that ground chicken turned rubbery, not to mention it looked crumbly and somewhat unattractive in the dish. We upgraded our chili by using bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts instead. To build flavor, we browned the chicken first and then poached it in a mixture of broth and vegetable-bean puree. When it was done cooking, we removed the chicken from the pot, allowed it to cool and then shredded the meat into bite-size pieces and discarded the bones.

7. Go low and slow with ground beef

Ground beef might not seem like it needs much time to cook—many chili recipes call for 45 minutes or less—but you’ll get better results if you simmer it longer. Why? Ground chuck contains the same proteins and collagen as a chuck roast, so it needs just as much exposure to moist heat to properly break down and turn tender. In our Best Ground Beef Chili recipe, we let it cook for 1½ to 2 hours.

The orange fat that rises to the top of the pan is full of flavor, so don't skim it off.

8. See fat as flavor

When making chili from scratch, you might notice a bright orange slick of grease at the top of the pan, especially toward the end of cooking. Don’t give in to the temptation to skim it off. Instead, stir this valuable fat back into the chili, otherwise you’ll be removing important flavor compounds and risk ending up with a lackluster dish despite all your hard work.

9. Add a boost of umami to vegetarian chili

Meat-free chili is a good option whether you’re cooking for a vegetarian or are simply looking for a healthier option. One of the keys to making the best vegetarian chili is to use ingredients that contribute umami, or rich meaty flavor, without the meat. Soy saucemushrooms, and tomatoes are all common umami boosters. For more tips, check out our quick guide to amping up the savoriness of food.

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