It’s no secret that cold weather and chili go hand in hand — but chili is a great year-round crowd-pleaser. Why not mix up your summer barbecue menu Tex-Mex style with a big pot of hot homemade chili and cold brews?
Chili is also endlessly versatile, easy to make healthy or vegetarian, and fun to set up a chili bar with lots of toppings, like grated cheese, chopped scallions, sliced avocado, and more. You might even find yourself making it so often that it starts to get a little, well, boring. But those days are over.
The spicy stew is one of those dishes that’s endlessly riffable. And we’re not just talking about using ground turkey instead of beef or doing a white version with chicken. (Both of which are good options — but they’re barely scratching the surface of the soup pot.)
Here are eight easy, unexpected ways to change up your chili and give it a big flavor boost.
1. Mix up your meats
Ground beef isn’t the only protein that works, people. Try swapping 1/3 of the beef for ground pork or Italian sausage (hot or sweet both work) for a richer, more complex flavor, recommends Clare Langan, culinary producer for the A&E show “Scraps.” Or try a combo of ground turkey plus chorizo. “It’s a lighter chili that still has something going on,” she says.
Wanna really go wild? Add a few handfuls of pastrami, cut into smallish pieces. “I like to throw it in 15 minutes before the chili is done. I find it adds a smokiness and depth of flavor that makes the whole dish pop,” says Andrew Dana, co-owner of Timber Pizza Co. and Call Your Mother in Washington, D.C.
2. Spice it up
Why limit yourself to the usual chili powder or cumin? Sprinkle in some smoked paprika for extra smokiness, cinnamon for a hint of warm sweetness, or garam masala or tandoori spice blend for Indian flair, says Austin Alvarez, co-founder of the Building Our Rez blog. There’s no right or wrong amount — just add ’em to taste.
“For a toasted-spice profile, add a small fraction to the skillet or pot while sautéing the garlic before combining all the ingredients. It accentuates every subtle nuance,” he says.
3. Char your chilis
Sautéing your peppers is good. But getting them all black and charred is even better. “Charring, which I do over an open flame, gives the peppers a smokier flavor instead of the straight heat you get from fresh ones,” says Chris Morgan, co-executive chef and co-owner of Compass Rose Bar + Kitchen and Maydan in Washington, D.C.
Use tongs to char the peppers over a gas burner or wood fire. Don’t have a flame? Pan- or oven-roasting the peppers until the skins are black and papery works too, he says.
4. Booze it up
Amp up the flavor by replacing half of your water or stock with beer. “Stout works great, but any dark beer would be a good choice,” says Sandi Haustein, founder of The Welcoming Table blog. Or… try wine. You can use any kind you enjoy drinking — red or white.
Simmer 4 cups of wine over medium-low heat until it reduces down to 1 cup (the mixture will be thick and syrupy), and stir in toward the end of cooking, recommends former executive chef and caterer John Wilder. It tastes like a rich stock, but better.
5. Try some coffee
A splash of your leftover morning brew adds a rich, nutty bitterness to chili. “It has an effect similar to chocolate in a molé sauce,” says Paula Hingley, founder of the How to Make Dinner blog. She recommends pouring in 2 cups of coffee right along with the canned tomatoes and beans, after you’ve sautéed your meat and veggies.
6. Get more umami without the meat
Yup, meatless chili can still be mouthwatering. Amp up the savory flavor with 2 tablespoons of finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, says Marly McMillen Beelman, founder of the Namely Marly blog. Stir them in when you add the canned tomatoes.
Or try a few teaspoons of miso paste instead, Langan suggests. Just keep in mind that it can be pretty salty. “So you may not need to add as much salt,” she says.
7. Get a little fruity
Acai puree might be one of your go-to smoothie ingredients, but you likely haven’t tried it in chili. That’s a mistake, says Amy Reiley, founder of the Eat Something Sexy blog. “I make a pot of chili with acai puree that everyone swears is the best chili they’ve ever tried,” she says.
Try stirring in 1/4 cup in the last few minutes of cooking. Be sure to readjust the seasonings before serving. The acai adds a rich, almost chocolatey flavor — along with an extra dose of nutrition.
8. Try an edible bowl
“One way I like to upgrade a ho-hum chili recipe is by using a baked sweet potato as a bowl,” says certified personal trainer Amira Lamb. Just bake sweet potatoes at 400°F (204°C) for 45 minutes, carve out most of the flesh to create a bowl shape, and ladle in the chili. “Save the sweet potato flesh for mashed sweet potatoes!” Lamb recommends.