Dinner/ Lunch/ Recipes

How to Make a Pot of Chili

A pot of chili

I grew up with a Dutch grandfather who was a cattle farmer on the Alberta prairies. Every meal that I can remember eating at his house was beef, potatoes, and vegetables (often roasted or boiled far beyond what I would ever recommend!). This is the environment that my mom grew up in: on the farm, with basic meals centred around meat and potatoes. 

At least a few times, I remember Grandpa gifting us a freezer full of beef cuts – our freezer probably always had beef in it. But, aside from that, our family didn’t have the same unlimited access to beef or the financial means to always be eating roasts and steaks like it seemed my grandparents were always doing. 

But, for my mom and for my parents, meat was still a central part of the meal, and particularly beef. So, my mom cooked A LOT with ground beef, a cheaper yet equally meaty option for the large family they had. And most of the nostalgic childhood foods that I remember and love are based around ground beef. Beef stroganoff (which I riffed into lamb stroganoff). Spaghetti with meat sauce. And, probably the king of them all (for me), chili. 

Chili is quite a contested dish in the Americas, with people holding strong to their families recipes and claiming regional variations that are important to them. Where does it originate? Do you use chunks of beef or ground beef? Do you use beef broth and dried chillies? Do you add tomatoes? Do you add beans? All of these are questions that can evoke strong responses depending on which region of the Americas you’re in. Chili dots the potluck tables around the country, and there are people who gather for chili cook-offs.

For my mom, she cooked the type of chili that you would expect from a white woman on the Canadian prairies in the 1980s and 1990s – with a tomato base, ground beef instead of chuck beef, and the addition of red beans. She had her own twists too, which were also somewhat indicative of the time she was cooking in – an addition of that ubiquitous can of condensed Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and kernels of corn from a bag in the freezer. 

For her, chili was a meal that she could quickly manufacture out of what was in her pantry and freezer, a staple with what was on hand. It was hearty and satisfying for a meat-loving family and came together relatively quickly. She would whip off a batch of cornmeal muffins to go with it, and dinner was taken care of for the day. It was always made in large batches and leftovers would be transported into Tupperware in the fridge to be eaten for lunches or transformed into the next night’s dinner by mixing it with rice to create what she called ‘Mexican Rice’, what is ultimately a shortcut, white-folks-on-the-Canadian-prairies version of arroz rojo (‘Red Rice’). 

Since then, with my own family and as I cook in my own kitchen, I’ve wanted to create that same sense of comfort with my chili, while also taking it a little closer to the ‘original’ forms of chili that were more based around… wait for it… chilies rather than tomatoes. As well, as I’ve expanded my pantry to include a wider array of ingredients, my pantry meal has taken more in depth forms as I try to increase the flavor, layering different complimentary flavors and adding lots of umami to boost the meaty, savory, comfort food levels.

I recently posted the most recent iteration of my chili on Instagram and had a raft of people asking for the recipe. Which caused some pause for me because chili has been one of those meals where I just grab what’s available in the pantry at that moment, a meal where I play and see what happens. But, I also have started coming back to some familiar versions, certain ingredients that always get added because they work so well together in the pot. Playing in the kitchen is a good method of learning what works best.

So, this is an attempt to post a chili recipe that both honors the type of chili that I grew up with – I use ground beef, tomatoes, and beans (though, I switch these to black beans which are smaller and appeal more to my kids mostly because they’re smaller and less obtrusive) – which relies heavily on dried chilies (and a variety of them), and which adds a wide world of pantry staples, from Turkish pepper paste to Vietnamese fish sauce.

I’m also going to try a slightly different format for sharing this recipe with you, and hopefully it’s a format that frees you to adapt this recipe to whatever is in your pantry and wherever your own taste buds take you. If you’re someone that likes exact measurements, though, this recipe might not be for you. But, even if you are that person, I’d like to think you’ll learn a little bit and find a little bit of enjoyment in reading through the process.

So here we go:

A bowl of chili with a slice of cornbread

Eric’s Chili Recipe

To begin, I grab the biggest pot I own; chili is a dish to make in big batches – for leftovers, for sharing, for freezing for later, for eating at midnight in your underwear. Whatever, I don’t judge. 

I always start with the fat. It can be canola or vegetable oil as it often is for me, as it’s the easiest and most accessible in my pantry. Any other oil works too. This time I used some ghee and that was delightful. Some chopped up smoked bacon would be superb to begin our time in the pot: fry it up, remove it, use the bacon fat to cook with and add the chopped bacon back in later.

Next is a couple diced onions, which I fry in the fat with a sprinkle of salt (salting as you go always makes for the best dish, and I stick to kosher salt to help ensure I’m not over salting) for a couple minutes until fragrant and translucent. 

Then I’m adding whatever concentrated flavor pastes I’m using. I like Turkish pepper paste here, or tomato paste to add a dose of more concentrated tomato flavor. By adding it to the oil and onions at this stage, it gets to fry for a minute or two which infuses the oil, toasts the paste, and hopefully even leaves a bit of caramelized paste stuck on the bottom of the pot (which will deglaze later). It’s a method for more flavor. Today, I add a large spoonful of both tomato and Turkish pepper paste.

I’m also going to add my spices at this point, with a caveat. Adding spices here does the same thing that I want to accomplish with the pastes – it infuses the oil with the flavors and ‘wakes up’ those dry spices. Your nose lets you know that’s exactly what is happening, as when you add them here you begin to smell all those fantastic aromas. This is the idea behind the technique in Indian food called “chhonk” or “tadka”, which I learned a lot of from Indian food and, specifically, Priya Krishna in her writing. The caveat is that ground spices burn quickly – so if you’re at high heat or don’t have the meat ready to go right away after, or are just a little timid at first (which is totally fine), switch the order here and add the spices after the meat.

For spices, I’m reaching for things like Mexican oregano, ground cumin, garlic powder, and sumac – as well as ground chilies like smoked paprika, urfa biber, and Aleppo peppers. These all go in the pot today. The idea is that they will add a background flavor profile, so smoky things are nice, a little earthiness doesn’t hurt, either. I’d consider other things like onion powder, black cardamom, other chili flakes you have around, maybe even some mustard or taco seasoning (which is going to have a lot of the above spices in it). You get get experimental and try a spice blend like garam masala or baharat that has some warming spices in like cinnamon and all spice. I’ll sometimes use a cheaper spice mix which has a bunch of the above and then supplement with the flavors I want to emphasise. Regardless, burnt spices taste bad so be ready to make sure they don’t burn in that hot fat you’re adding them too. 

Then I’m adding the beef. Ground beef is easy, cheap, and often comes in large ‘family packs’ that feed a crowd. That’s what I’m using, and the whole 4+ pounds are going in the pot here. I’m going to break it up, and fry it until I’m not seeing any pink anywhere. If I’m adding spices at this stage, add them in at any point while the beef is cooking. This isn’t supposed to be high stakes; do what works for you and doesn’t stress you out. 

Dried Chili Slurry

At some point in my prep, maybe even while the beef is cooking, I’m prepping my dried chili peppers. This is the heart of the flavor profile I’m going for, along with the tomatoes. I use whole dried chilis and the ones you choose will go a long way to deciding the flavor and the heat your chili might have. I tend to use chilies that give big flavor without big heat – all four of my kids are going to eat this version. Today I’m using two pasilla chilies, two anchos, and two mulatos (a riper version of anchos). Feel free to use whatever you have, guajillos are great, chili de arbol would give a little more heat, or this could even be that little tin of chipotles in adobo if you’ve got those (though they are spicier than these dried peppers), or if you can’t get any dried whole peppers, you’re going to want to amp the chili powder/flakes. How I prepare these (and the kids often help me with this task) is take off the stem, deseed and de-rib them (the seeds and ribs are the spiciest parts, and this prep limits any spiciness), and soak them in enough hot water to just cover them. After about 5 minutes or so, I take my immersion blender and thoroughly blend this mixture into a silky, rusty red liquid that has loads of chili pepper flavor and almost no heat at all. 

I add this pepper slurry once the beef is cooked, along with the tomatoes. I always have canned, diced tomatoes on hand in my pantry and that’s what I’m using today (two cans of them for this amount of beef). Jarred passata would work well too, whole tomatoes might need a quick chop or blend with the immersion blender (one of my most used kitchen ‘gadgets’!), and jarred tomato sauce can even work if that’s what you have. Fresh tomatoes I’d chop and add, though they will need a bit more time to break down and I would definitely make sure I was adding tomato paste back in the paste stage if I went this way. Canned tomatoes are cheap, easy, and in line with this being a pantry meal – that’s what I’m doing today. 

Some possible ingredients.

From here, I add flavor additions and I’m looking for three specific things: 

  1. Umami: This one is the biggest component, and, if you don’t know what umami is… It’s one of those indescribable words that foodies like to throw around without really knowing what it means either! Jokes. I totally know what it means. It’s a savoury, meaty, depth of flavor that is essential to chili. I’m adding a goof glug of dark soy sauce (regular works too), three spicy dashes of worcestershire (no way I didn’t write that without spell check), a good glug or two of fish sauce, and a half of a mug of a lovely, fruit-forward Ethiopian coffee. That fried bacon you did up (if you went that way) would be in here, and I wouldn’t be against adding a pinch of two of straight up MSG if you’ve got that in your pantry (as I do) because that stuff is powdered umami. I’m also adding that canned condensed mushroom soup here (it used to actually contain MSG, but no longer does), because even if there was no idea my mom and millions of white women in Canada didn’t know what umami was yet, that was exactly why they were adding it, though it actually adds a bit of creaminess as well that will cut the astringency of the chili peppers and coffee. Adding some minced shitake mushrooms, instead, wouldn’t be out of line either. Want it a bit thinner? Add some beef broth which also adds umami (or beef bullion is the same idea without the liquid). 
  1. Acid: A bit of vinegar is going to help us amplify the flavors and ‘perk’ our tongue right up. This is where I admit I haven’t read Samin Nosrat’s now near canonical book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat beyond the title (but I did watch the show!) but the title pretty much sums it all up for us – we need some acid in our food for it to be its best self. The tomatoes are adding some but a glug of white vinegar keeps it simple and give these a boost. White vinegar is the ‘basic girl’ of vinegars but sometimes we just need to keep it basic. Apple cider vinegar works here, as would balsamic to be honest. Actually, I’m going to need to try some balsamic next time because that sounds like a good idea….
  1. Sweet: Lastly, a little sweetness to balance out that acidity, spiciness, and the astringency. Here I’m looking for sweet ingredients that bring a bevy of other rich, dark, deep flavors to the table as well. The unrefined side of things. I typically reach for blackstrap molasses and a couple seconds of thick drizzle goes in the pot. Cane sugar, coconut sugar or my own ‘sugar of the moment’ muscovado would be fantastic here. Maple syrup would definitely work, the darker the better, but then again that stuff is amazing with anything and is worth its weight in gold.

Lastly: I add beans. Black beans specifically, though sometimes I do kidney beans for their giant meatiness and to make it a little more ‘classic’. If I’m in a pinch, I use a tin of beans (just rinse them first) but if you’ve got the time, cooking a batch of beans from dried is the far superior version, both in flavor and texture (and it’s cheaper). If I cook up a pot from dry beans, I often do some quick variation on Layla Schlack’s recipe for perfect beans that has so many of the same flavors that are already in the chili. I’m a believer that if each ingredient you put into a dish tastes delicious already, your finished product will also be delicious. Put delicious beans into your chili. Or, don’t. Do what you want.

I also add kernels of corn, because that’s what my mom did and I like it for two reasons: it adds these little sweet bursts in each bite, and it adds some color to what is otherwise a pretty monotone dish. I use frozen corn, though in season I’ve also added fresh, roasted corn from the cob and that’s pretty spectacular. 

The final two steps/notes are what is going to decide if this is possibly the best pot of chili you’ve ever had.

Taste the chili. No seriously, how do you know if it’s any good without tasting it? Does it taste balanced? Do you want a bit more cumin to come through? Does it taste too bitter (add some sweetness)? Does it taste too sweet (add some acid)? Does it taste too bland (add some umami) or maybe, the most important addition yet…

Have you used enough salt? You know how many recipes tell you how much salt to add? There’s no formula that works without tasting it because: did the spices you added include salt? Did the broth or canned tomatoes you added have salt added? How much soy sauce did you add, was it dark or light? Because that has salt in it. What type of salt are you using? It matters. What brand of salt are you using? It matters. Regardless, you have to taste it and get a sense for what it tastes like. Two helping hints though: One) typically home cooks tend to under salt their food. If it doesn’t taste robust and rich at this point, after all those flavors we just layered together, it probably needs more salt. Two) by using kosher salt, it’s a little easier to add salt as we go and not worry about over salting the final product. It’s less salty per volume and once you get a hang of  it, it allows you to confidently salt all the way along the process without over salting. You know those online videos you watch and you gasp because of how much salt they’re adding to the food? It’s because they’re using kosher salt (and because they know that they need salt to make their food be its best self). Slowly add salt, tasting as you go, until it hits a spot that makes you smile. That’s the happy place.

Damn, this was long. I’m not sure this was useful, but it’s how I think of making chili and I hope once you’ve read it that it makes you confident enough to dig into your pantry and make an amazing pot of chili. If it was useful, I’d love to hear in the comments or on Instagram!

Lastly, feel free to top your chili with whatever you have – sour cream, cheese, tortilla chips, Doritos, whatever. Or add it to your french fries with cheese curds (or just shredded cheddar) for chili fries. Or to your hot dog for a chili dog. Or to your baked potato. Or to rice, like my mom did. Or serve, just as it is, with a slice of fresh cornbread (like I did). Or, just eat it at midnight in your underwear (like I also did). This is your food, and I’m just giving you the ideas and tools to make it happen. 

Eric's Chili Recipe

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By Eric Ritskes Serves: One Large Pot

This is an attempt to post a chili recipe that both honors the type of chili that I grew up with - I use ground beef, tomatoes, and beans (though, I switch these to black beans which are smaller and appeal more to my kids mostly because they’re smaller and less obtrusive) - which relies heavily on dried chilies (and a variety of them), and which adds a world of pantry staples.


  • Fat (oil, ghee, etc)
  • Onions (diced)
  • Ground Beef
  • Concentrated flavor pastes (tomato or Turkish pepper)
  • Spices (cumin, oregano, garlic powder, urfa biber, sumac, etc)
  • Dried Chili Peppers (such as pasilla, guajillo, ancho, etc)
  • Tomatoes (canned)
  • Umami (soy sauce, worcestershire, fish sauce, coffee, etc)
  • Acid (vinegar)
  • Sweet (blackstrap molases, muscovado, cane sugar, etc)
  • Beans (canned or dried)
  • Corn (frozen)



See the original post for a detailed break down of the process!

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