Published November 1, 2012. From Cook's Illustrated.
The key to a great vegetarian chili is not finding a substitute for the meat. It’s finding substitutes for what the meat brings to the chili.
Most vegetarian chilis lack depth and complexity. They rely on beans and chunky veggies for heartiness—but neither ingredient offers any real replacement for the flavor, texture, and unctuous richness that meat provides.
We set out to build a version as rich, savory, and deeply satisfying as any meat chili out there—one that even meat lovers would make on its own merits, not just to satisfy vegetarian friends.
The first ingredient to tackle was the seasoning that gives the dish its name. For our homemade blend, we opted for two widely available dried chiles: mild, sweet ancho and earthy New Mexican. We toasted them to bring out their flavor and then, after removing the stems and seeds, pulverized the peppers to a fine powder in a spice grinder.
Next up: beans. For greater complexity, we singled out sweet, nutty cannellinis and meaty, earthy pintos. Canned beans are convenient, but they also tend to be bland and mushy, so we opted for dried. We quickly brined them to ensure they were well-seasoned and came out evenly cooked in the oven, where the gentle heat prevented them from blowing out.
We then moved on to upping our chili’s savory depth and meatiness—minus the meat. We stirred in some nutty little granules of bulgur, which retained their shape and gave the chili the textural dimension that it had been missing. We also added a few umami-packed ingredients: tomato paste, soy sauce, dried mushrooms, and walnuts. We also found that using a bit of vegetable oil brought the flavors into focus and allowed them to linger pleasantly instead of disappearing after a few seconds.list of recipes