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The Food Lab: The Best Vegetarian Bean Chili

It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments. Note: For the four weeks between January 14th and February 11th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If certain folks had their way, chili would be made with nothing but beef, chilies, and the hair off a Texan's back. If you're one of those folks, well here's a recipe for you. Yippie ki-yay, and all that. Move along, this is not the chili you are looking for.

If, however, you are open to such atrocities as beans in your chili, keep reading. Why does vegetarian chili get such a bum rap? I mean, there's the obvious: chili is a divisive issue, even (or especially?) amongst those who love chili.

But hey, guess what? Beans can taste good in chili. Tomatoes can taste good in chili. (Don't believe me? Try out this recipe). Heck, even pork and tomatillos can taste good in chili.

So why shouldn't we be able to make a completely meatless version that tastes great as well?

Turns out we actually have quite a few great tasting vegetarian chilies on the site already, but all of them (and pretty much every vegetarian chili recipe I've seen) fall under the fast-and-easy, 45-minutes-or-less category.

This in and of itself is not a bad thing—vegetarian chilis as a general rule don't need to be cooked as long as meat-based chilies because vegetables tenderize faster than meat—but long, slow cooking also nets you another benefit in the flavor development. Fast chili recipes are inevitably not quite as rich and complex as you'd like them to be.

My goal this week is to create a 100% vegan chili recipe that has all of the deep chili flavor, textural contrast, and rib-sticking richness that the best chili should have.

The Chilies

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First things first: faux meat is not in the picture. I've already made my feelings on faux meat pretty clear, and this recipe is no different. I want my vegetarian chili to celebrate vegetables and legumes, not to try and imitate a meaty chili.

With that out of the way, we'll move on to the second thing: great chili has to start with great chilies. That's what it's all about. Heck, I've seen recipes calling for jut a couple tablespoons of pre-fab chili powder for an entire pot of beans and tomatoes. That ain't chili, that's chili-scented tomato stew.

There's nothing wrong with commercial chili powder—a pre-mixed combination of several different chili varieties, often mixed with cumin, oregano, and/or other aromatics—but it's not going to lead you to chili greatness. The only way to achieve that is to blend the chilies up yourself, starting with whole dried chilies.

Dried chilies come in a baffling array of flavors, shapes, colors, and sizes, but in the past, I've found that for the most part, they can be divided into four categories:

The goal in a great, balanced bowl of chili is to mix and match from amongst those categories so that you develop a complex flavor profile that hits notes both high and low, mild and hot. You can vary the ratio to suit your own taste, but it's always good to have at least a little bit of variety. Think of your chili pot as a 1990's mix tape. Sure, GNR is great, but you need at least a bit of MJ in there to keep Axl in check, you know?

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You can grind the chilies dry in a spice grinder to make your own chili powder, but I've found that a better way is to simmer the chilies in water on the stovetop until softened then blending them into a smooth puree. Not only do you get a completely smooth, grit-free chili base to work with, you also end up with chili-flavored water to use as the liquid base of your chili.

The Beans

For me, a great chili has to show some character and diversity. You don't want completely uniform beans in every bite, you want a range of textures. Here's where we've got to make some creative choices.

Many vegetarian chilies take the kitchen-sink, big-car-compensation approach: hey, we can't use beef, so let's throw every damn type of bean and vegetable imaginable into this pot. That method definitely gets you textural as well as flavoring variety, but personally, I feel it becomes a bit too jumbled. Better to make a couple of well-balanced choices and focus on perfecting them.

Kidney beans are a must in my chili. I grew up with kidney beans in my chili, and I will continue to enjoy eating kidney beans in my chili (you, on the other hand, are free to substitute them for whatever type of bean you want).

There's certainly something to be said for dried beans, and I do occasionally opt to brine dried beans overnight to make chili 100% from scratch, but canned beans are a sure thing. They're never over or undercooked, they're never bloated or busted. They are lacking in the flavor department, but with a good simmer in a very flavorful liquid, you can easily make up for this.

The great thing is that the liquid base for chili is naturally low in pH (both the chilies and the tomato are acidic), and—lucky for us—beans and vegetables soften very slowly in acidic liquid. This means you can simmer your canned beans for a significant period of time in your chili before they really start to break down.*

*It's also why a dish like Boston baked beans—acidic from molasses—can take up to overnight to soften properly.

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But what about more texture? I tried using a mixture of kidney beans with other, smaller beans and grains (chickpeas, flageolets, barley) but the real key turned out to be using the food processor. By pulsing a couple cans of chickpeas in the food processor, I was able to roughly chop them into a mixture of big chunks and tiny pieces. Adding this to my chili gave it great body and a ton of textural contrast.

Amping Up Flavor

The key to rich flavor is twofold: first, a long simmer during which water is driven off so that flavors are concentrated and various volatile compounds break down and recombine to add complexity, and second, a good source of glutamic acid, the chemical responsible for the flavor we recognize as savory (sometimes called umami).

I have a number of go-to umami-bombs in my arsenal.

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Soy sauce, marmite (a by-product of brewing that is essentially yeast extract), and anchovies are all packed with glutamates and they find their way into pretty much all of my savory soups and stews. Anchovies are out of the picture in this vegetarian version for obvious reasons, but a touch of marmite and soy sauce both added a ton of richness to my chili.

Other than that, the flavor base is pretty straight-forward. Onions sweated in a little vegetable oil, garlic, oregano (the dried stuff is fine for long-cooking applications like this), and a couple of chipotle chilis canned in adobo sauce to add a touch of smokiness and heat.

Finally, as I've discovered in the past, there are certain aromas that are carried well with steam, while others are in fact carried better via vaporized alcohol. My chilis got plenty of liquid in it, so the steam bit's covered. Adding a couple shots of booze just before serving takes care of the rest. I like bourbon or whiskey, because I've usually got it around, but cognac, tequila, even vodka will work well. Just make sure that it's at least 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume), and unsweetened.

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The truth of the matter is that the key to great vegetarian chili is to completely forget that you're working on a vegetarian chili. Chili greatness lies in the careful layering of real chilis, ensuring textural contrast with each bite, and a rich, thick consistency packed with savory flavor. Whether it's made with beef, beans, pork, or ground yak hearts, for that matter, if you get the basics right you're already off to a good start.

Get The Recipe!

The Best Vegetarian Bean Chili »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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