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How to Make Great Vegetarian Chili Without a Recipe

There are as many opinions about what authentic chili has in it as there are people making it.  Some purists think “real” chili should never have beans in it but other sources suggest that beef, being expensive, was not always the main ingredient and that beans were probably traditionally used by many poor people either with or without meat.  The main thing about chili is that if it doesn’t have chili peppers in it in some form – it isn’t chili.

As a life-long vegetarian I have never associated chili with meat.  For vegetarians it’s nearly always a bean and chili pepper based stew that may have a bunch of other vegetables in it – or not.  I’ve been making chili for as long as I’ve been cooking and I have never once used a recipe.  I made the best batch of chili I’ve ever made just the other night (according to Philip) and so I planned to make it a couple more times paying close attention to measurements so I can write out the recipe to share.  Maybe I’ll still do that, but today I am going to share my guidelines for making great vegetarian chili without using precise measurements or ingredients.  What will make it great is that you’ll make it to your tastes, not mine.  If you already make chili all the time yourself then you don’t need this set of guidelines.  This will be similar to my post Soup Philosophy which is a guideline for making soup without recipes for people who aren’t confident or experienced enough yet to trust themselves to wing it.  Being able to cook great food from scratch without recipes is a cook’s greatest tool in the kitchen.

I need to mention that I always cook my beans in a crock pot now so I can put them in and then not worry about them until I need them.  This works really well for me.  If you don’t have a crock pot then you’ll either used canned beans or you’ll have to cook them on the stove top: soak the beans over night, then cook them for a couple of hours before preparing the rest of your ingredients.

Chili essentials:

The foundation ingredients for vegetarian chili:

  • beans, chili powder, diced tomatoes, onion, and salt.  Everything else is just building on those ingredients.  So when you’re making chili from scratch without a recipe, consider that your foundation.

The rest of the ingredients:

  • I am giving you a list of ingredients to work with.  Consider it a list of possibilities – things that go well with the foundation ingredients.  I have made great batches of chili using every possible variation of the ingredients I’ve listed.  It’s YOUR chili so you get to leave out anything you don’t like and add everything that sounds good to you.

Why you don’t need precise measurements:

  • As long as all the ingredients you’re working with are complimentary to each other – you can’t ruin a dish by playing around with them.  If you’re tasting your work as you add things to it you have control over the flavor.  You don’t need exact amounts of beans.  If you add two cans of beans to the pot and it doesn’t seem like enough, you can add another one.  How will you know if it’s the “right” amount?
  • There is NO such thing as “right” or “wrong” amounts.  There’s only a question of what you like.
  • If you follow my general guidelines you’ll have an idea of the general proportions of ingredients that I like to use.  But that’s highly personal to ME.  If I’m using rice I like to use a ratio of beans to rice that’s close to 4 to 1.  But that’s just how I like it myself.  My ratio of beans to veg is much closer.  In the summer when there is fresh corn and summer squash my bean to veg ratio is around equal parts.  In the winter when I don’t have so much fresh veg available the ratio is more like 3 to 1.

Adjusting the water or stock:

  • A lot of the flexibility of soups and stews of all kinds is that you can adjust the consistency very easily with the addition of water or stock.  You don’t measure how much of everything you added to the pot so how do you know how much water you need?  You don’t.  You start with what I list in the guidelines I give.
  • You will absolutely, no matter what, need at least a quart of water.
  • If you aren’t using diced tomatoes you will need to use at least two.  This you can count on.  If you decide you want to make a much smaller batch than I always do – then start with a little less.  If you’re making a much bigger batch than I list here (like making two pots at one time, for example) you will use more.
  • You can tell when you need more water because your chili will be getting too thick before it’s done cooking.  You add more.  The more dried rice you use the more water you’ll need to add too.
  • If you add too much water, you simply cook it down.  It takes a little longer but if you’re checking on it periodically and stirring it, it’s no big deal.

Batch size:

  • If you were to make a batch of chili using all my suggested ingredients in one batch at the largest amounts suggested you would probably be able to feed about 10-12  people with generous portions.
  • If you use the lower amounts of every ingredient listed you would probably be able to feed 6-8 people with generous portions.
  • If you use only half the suggested vegetables and omit the rice you will probably still be able to feed about 6 people.
  • If you omit all but the very basic veg (onion and tomatoes) and omit the rice to make a very basic chili, you will probably have enough to feed 4 people.
  • My point is this: the amount you end up with really depends on how many ingredients you use.  Every ingredient that isn’t a spice adds volume.  If you like your chili ingredients proportioned like I have them but you only want enough to feed 2-4 people (I have never done this in my life, by the way.  Even when living alone I always made enough for at least 6 servings and would freeze some and eat leftovers several times too) then you only use half an onion, 1/2 to 1 stalk celery, use 1/2 to 1 carrot, etc.  Just go down the line of ingredients and halve the smallest portion I suggest.

Experimentation and repetition make perfect:

  • “Perfect” in this case meaning a chili that you love and want to make again and again.  The more you make chili without a recipe the more you’ll end up having a basic “recipe” of your own based on tried and true preferences.  But it won’t really be a recipe because you won’t ever have to measure anything.  You’ll just KNOW.  You’ll develop a feel for making it just how you like it.  If you make a batch that is crazy good – like everyone who tries it is asking for more – and you want to remember how to make it like that again?  Make it again within a day and write down what you used and approximate measurements.

What can go wrong with a batch of chili?

  • Burning it.  You forget it’s on the stove and it sticks and burns.  OR you had the heat on too high and it cooks down faster than you can keep track of and the liquid all cooks down and it burns.  Burnt chili is not nice.  Although I once burnt a batch and my mom and Philip said it was really good and had a “smoky” flavor.  Huh.  I think maybe they were just so hungry that day that they were light-headed and easily pleased.
  • Too much of a particular spice.  This is why you add spices in increments and taste as you go.  That prevents major problems like half a jar of cumin resulting in chili that smells like a gym.
  • Undercooked beans.  Now that I cook my beans in the crock pot I haven’t had this issue.  Cooking them on the stove top – I get impatient.  Once or twice over the years I’ve considered the chili done only to find that the beans weren’t quite done.  Total fail.  Not good for the digestive system either.  You avoid undercooked beans by taking a few out and trying them.  You’ll know.  They’re tender when done.  Not crunchy or chewy or chalky.

That’s it.  So if you aren’t already skilled at making chili from scratch I hope these guidelines will give you the confidence to start making it without a recipe.  Let me know if you have any questions not answered in this tutorial.

How to Make Great Vegetarian Chili Without a Recipe

How to Make Great Vegetarian Chili Without a Recipe


  • 3 Tbsp oil
  • I usually use olive oil but you can use vegetable oil instead if you like. If you're only going to sautee onions and celery from this list of ingredients - reduce the oil amount to 1 Tbsp. If you're using tons of the vegetable options listed - use 3 Tbsp cause that means you're making a fat pot of chili and you need more oil to get a good browning on the vegetables.
  • Vegetables you can include in your chili:
  • 1 onion, diced
  • If you're making a huge batch of chili you may want to use 2 onions.
  • 1 - 2 stalks celery chopped
  • I frequently leave out the celery but it really adds a nice base flavor along with the onion. If you like it use it. For smaller batches or lighter celery flavor, use 1 stalk.
  • 1 - 2 carrots, chopped
  • I personally love carrots in my chili. I love having lots of vegetables in it but carrots only make it into my chili about 50% of the time.
  • 2 - 4 summer squash of any kind, chopped chunky
  • Use what you have on hand or leave it out entirely. I love summer squash in my chili and my favorite to use is zucchini or Mexican summer squashes but you can use patty pan or crookneck too. You chop them chunky so they don't completely disintegrate into the stew as they cook.
  • 2- 4 ears of corn, kernels sliced off the cob
  • I doubt corn has ever been considered a traditional ingredient in chili by anyone - I'm not a purist and when there is fresh corn available this is an amazing ingredient to include.
  • 1 quart of diced tomatoes with all the liquid OR 6 - 10 tomatoes (depending on size) diced
  • My chili is always tomato based. Always. But you don't have to use them if you don't like them or don't have them. If you don't use tomatoes then you may want to increase the amount of chili powder you use to add richness and color. Another option is to use 1 quart of diced tomatoes in their juice and an additional quart of tomato sauce . This will result in a much more tomato-y and rich chili but tomato sauce is thicker than water and so if you do this you are almost certainly going to have to add a little bit of water too - even for smaller batches. I've done this from time to time depending on what tomatoes I have left in my pantry. Most commonly I just use the quart. Home canned quart = 28 oz commercially canned. They're equivalent enough for our purposes here.
  • 3 - 6 small fresh chilis of any kind, minced OR 3 - 6 pickled jalapenos, minced
  • I make my own pickled jalapenos and I started using these in my winter chilis because I don't buy fresh peppers out of season. It turns out that I prefer using the pickled to fresh now because it adds a slight tang with the heat. You don't have to use any fresh or pickled chili peppers at all if you don't tend to like them. I usually use a mild chili powder so I like to add heat with small fresh ones. It's up to you. Experiment.
  • 1-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • Sometimes I use garlic, sometimes I don't. Think of garlic not as a main flavoring agent but as a subtle one here. You want your chili flavor to shine.
  • Beans:
  • 2- 3 cups dried beans OR 4 - 6 cups cooked beans
  • Pinto, black, kidney, or any heirloom dried bean that is similar in character to these are great choices. (I DON'T recommend using navy beans, chickpeas, cannellini beans, lentils, mung, or black eyed peas). How much beans to use? If you're making a med sized batch (to serve around 6) I would use 2 cups dried or 4 cups cooked but for a larger batch use more. If you're only wanting to serve around 4 people, use even less.
  • Rice:
  • 1/2 to 1 cup dried OR 1 - 2 cups cooked
  • Rice is not a traditional ingredient in chili, however, rice with beans makes a complete protein so for vegetarians this is a good addition nutritionally. Use a little or a lot. I don't want my chili with tons of rice so I add a modest amount of 1/2 cup dried rice per pot of chili. The more rice you add the more water or stock you'll need to add too. Just bear that in mind.
  • Seasonings/spices:
  • 1 - 40 Tbsp chili powder
  • The all important chili powder! As I mentioned - I go light on the chili powder but this is where you must taste as you go to find out how much you like. There are a million different chili powder blends out there - I have yet to find a favorite - that's a different quest. I use mild but many people like their chili to be HOT. What do you like? Try different blends to find what works for you. I tend to use between 1 and 2 Tbsp of chili powder per batch - very little. I think this is a good place to start but the average person is probably going to want to use a lot more. Start with 1 Tbsp and taste, add another, taste. Let it cook for a few minutes and then add more. And so on. Keep tasting. That's how you'll get an idea of how much you like in your own chili. It's very personal. Once you've made chili a few times just winging it - you'll have a sense for how much to add and without even measuring you'll end up using approximately the same amount every time.
  • 1 - 2 tsp cumin
  • Cumin smells like armpits. It's true. I like it, but in moderation. I rarely add more than a teaspoon. I like to use it to add depth of flavor. But sometimes I want a cleaner brighter flavor so I'll leave it out. Cumin is earthy and heavy so add in small increments to find out how much you like, if at all. If you already know you hate cumin - just skip it.
  • 1- 2 tsp salt
  • I don't like to over-salt my food. For a medium sized batch start with 1 tsp. This is often enough for my tastes. You can always add salt at the table.
  • 1- 2 tsp Mexian oregano or regular oregano
  • This addition will not make or break your chili but it's a pleasant subtle addition that I really like. Try it out.
  • 1 bunch cilantro, minced
  • For the best batch of chili I ever made I didn't use any cilantro. I don't think leaving it out is what made it the best batch, but it just goes to show you that you don't need this. Some people think cilantro tastes like soap. Soap soup is no one's idea of delicious. If you hate cilantro - leave it out because this is definitely not a traditional addition to chili either. I love it though. LOVE IT! I use an entire bunch per batch. Especially in the winter when I want more green and fresh tastes.
  • juice of a lime
  • Secret ingredient. Not traditional but it adds a brightness the same way a little vinegar would, or more salt. I often add the juice of a lime at the end of cooking at the same time I add the cilantro. Give it a try - but know that great chili doesn't require lime juice.


    Cook your beans:
  1. Put them in a crock pot several hours before you need them and cook them on the high setting. Or cook them overnight on the low setting. I usually put about 4 cups of dried beans in my crock pot and then fill it almost to the top with water.
  2. If cooking on stove-top you want to soak your beans over night. In the morning you pour off the soaking water and rinse the beans. Put in a big pot and fill the pot with water covering the beans by several inches. Bring water to a boil and then turn it down to medium. Cook them until you forget about them and they stick to the bottom of the - whoops - sorry! Cook them for 2-3 hours until they are tender. Check frequently to stir and add water as needed. (You need to add water if the beans aren't tender yet but you don't see much liquid.)
  3. Your third option is to use canned beans. This is the expensive but convenient and super quick option. There's no shame in using canned beans. To use canned beans - haha - if you don't know how to open a can of beans - email me. We need to chat.
  4. To make the chili:
  5. In a large soup pot heat the oil on high. Add all your vegetables with the exception of the pickled jalapenos (if using them) and the garlic. Sautee your vegetables on high until they start to brown at the edges. Browning them adds depth of flavor. Stir frequently so they don't burn.
  6. Once you've got some good browned edges going on - add your diced tomatoes and a quart of water (or stock) and stir. Bring to a boil and then turn the heat down to medium.
  7. Now add any of the following that you're going to use: garlic, chili powder, salt, cumin, oregano, pickled jalapeno.
  8. If you're using rice, add it now. Cook for about a half an hour and then check to see if you need to add more water (You need to add more water if the chili is already thick without the beans in it). Depending on how much rice you used you may need to add more water. Chili is meant to be thick but you don't want it to stick. Add water in pint increments. If you add too much water - you can cook it longer to cook it down.
  9. Add the cooked beans, however much you're using. If you cooked your own beans - include the congealed cooking liquid. If you're using canned - rinse them off before adding because that canned liquid is creepy. Turn the heat down to med/low and cook for a half an hour, checking on it periodically to stir. if it gets really thick and starts sticking to the bottom of the pot - add more water.
  10. Turn the heat off and if you're using cilantro and lime - stir it in now.
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I made a garnish of fresh tomatoes, finely diced red onion, some minced cilantro, and a squeeze of lime.  It was an excellent topping for this batch of chili!