Why Walnuts Belong in Your (Vegetarian) Chili

This pantry staple adds richness and body as well as tons of flavor-boosting glutamates. We also include two more surprise ingredients: dried shiitakes and bulgur.

Published Mar. 21, 2022.

Most vegetarian chili recipes rely on beans and chunky vegetables for heartiness, but neither offers any real replacement for the savoriness that meat provides. For a deeply satisfying chili, it’s essential to develop robust umami flavor. 

That’s why my colleague, Senior Editor Lan Lam, chose to include walnuts in her Best Vegetarian Chili: a rich, tomato-based recipe that’s chock-full of dried beans and infused with mild, sweet ancho and earthy New Mexican chiles.  

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Amplifying Umami with Walnuts (and Dried Shiitakes)

To understand the role of the walnuts, let’s take a close look at umami. Umami boosters fall into two categories—glutamate and nucleotides—and they have a synergistic effect when used together. 

If nucleotides happen to be in your mouth at the same time as glutamate, the nucleotide changes the shape of the glutamate receptor on your tongue, allowing that receptor to send amplified savory signals to the brain (think of it as switching from AM radio to HD audio).

This relationship is nothing short of game changing from a taste perspective: When glutamate and nucleotides are present at equal amounts in food, the strength of umami is as much as 20 to 30 times greater than with glutamate alone.

The tomatoes and tomato paste in Lan’s chili provide a lot of glutamates. But for even more savoriness, she also includes walnuts, which are absolutely loaded with the umami compound. In fact, these everyday nuts contain more than twice as many glutamates as tomatoes.

Then, to boost the savory taste of these glutamate-rich ingredients, Lam stirs in dried shiitakes, which are high in nucleotides. The glutamate-nucleotide pairing results in an ultracomplex, supersavory chili that even meat lovers would make on its own merits.

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An Easy Way to Toast Nuts: In the Microwave

Toasting small amounts of nuts in a skillet on the stovetop requires a watchful eye and near-constant stirring to avoid burning.

There’s another option: toasting them in the microwave. The cooking is more even in the microwave, so less stirring is required. Plus, there will be less carryover cooking in a microwave-safe vessel than in a highly conductive metal skillet, so you don’t have to worry about quickly transferring the nuts to a cool bowl or plate.

Method: Place the nuts in a shallow microwave-safe bowl or pie plate in a thin, even layer. Cook on full power, stopping to check the color and stir every minute at first. As the food starts to take on color, microwave it in 30-second increments to avoid burning.

Why Bulgur Also Belongs in Vegetarian Chili

A bean chili can lack the volume and distinctive, sturdy texture of meat chili, so Lan hit the jackpot when she thought to add some nutty little granules of bulgur to the mix. 

Even after a long simmer, these precooked wheat kernels retain their shape, giving the chili hearty textural dimension. The bulgur also contains starch that helps to create a thick, velvety consistency that you can stand a spoon in.

Want to experience the power of glutamate and nucleotide firsthand? Click here to make our Best Vegetarian Chili.


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