Variable’s Chili Recipe

When I was just beginning to feel brave in the kitchen, I asked a co-worker if she had a good chili recipe. Sadly, the only one she knew was the one that satisfied her 8-year-old son’s discriminating palate, but it was a good place to start.


  • 1 large can of diced tomatoes
  • 1 yellow onion
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 large can of kidney beans (about the same volume as the tomatoes)
  • Chili powder

Pour the beans and the tomatoes into a pot and get them simmering. Dice the onion and put it into a skillet or frying pan with the ground beef. When the beef is browned, add it to the tomatoes and beans. Add a little chili powder. Serve.

I hope she eventually started making a separate batch for herself with more stuff in it. Or taught her kid how to appreciate complex flavors.


This is one of the first recipes I came up with on my own, and I have been tweaking and perfecting it over the years. The only complaint I’ve ever received was that it was way too spicy-hot for normal people, so I’ve cut down on the hot peppers a bit. If you’re like me and prefer your mouth to be on fire, add more. One nice thing about this recipe is that it’s very forgiving and easy to customize. Also, once you know what you’re doing, it only takes about an hour from start to finish, so you can make it on short notice.


I love to have a lot of pre-made meals in the freezer for nights that we don’t feel like cooking, or just in case a surprise party of Dwarves and a wizard shows up at my door (HINT HINT, STILL WAITING), so I usually make enough chili to fill an 8-quart stock pot. Adjust these amounts to suit your needs.

Chili Ingredients

(Note: For this batch, I tried using dry beans instead of cans, since I recently discovered that my Instant Pot can prepare beans in about an hour without all the overnight soaking. They turned out great, and it was cheaper than buying eight separate cans.)

  • 8 15-16 oz cans kidney beans (4 dark, 4 light. Cheap ones are fine. Pre-spiced are fine too, but I like to start with a blank canvas.)
  • 3 38 oz (1lb, 12 oz) cans diced tomatoes (or dice your own fresh ones)
  • 1 10-11 oz can of tomato soup
  • 2 medium yellow onions
  • 4 largeish bell peppers (I like to use one of each color, just for aesthetics, but you don’t have to)
  • All the hot peppers you can stand (These days I use 2 large Anaheims, 2 large Poblanos, and 4 or 5 medium Serranos.)
  • At least 3 pounds of lean ground beef or ground turkey (leave this out or substitute fake meat if you want a vegetarian meal, but I’ve never made it that way so you’ll have to let me know how that goes)
  • Olive oil


  • Cilantro (if you’re one of those unfortunate souls who thinks that cilantro tastes like soap, leave it out. More for the rest of us.)
  • Chili powder
  • Crushed red pepper
  • Onion Powder
  • Corvin’s Quintessence Spice Mix (for the meat)


Pour two cans of tomatoes into the stock pot. (The third one comes later.) Add one diced onion and start it simmering (bubbling, but not quite boiling). Add the onion powder, chili powder, cilantro, and crushed red pepper.

Tomatoes, onions, and spices in the stock pot

Drain the excess liquid from the beans, and add them all to the stock pot.

Beans added to the stock pot

There was a lot of liquid in the Instant Pot when the beans were finished, and it’s delicious, so I saved it in the freezer. What will I use it for? I don’t know! Stay tuned for further bean adventures!

Dice the bell peppers; add them to the pot.

Colorful bell peppers added to the stock pot

Dice the hot peppers, add them to the pot.

Hot peppers added to the stock pot

Image is a little foggy…mmm, steam, delicious steam.

Stir everything together and turn the heat up to high. You want this to boil for just a few minutes–some of the stuff will burn to the bottom of the pan, and that’s a good thing! The “burny” taste adds a yummy smoky hint to the overall flavor. It’s worth the extra few minutes of clean-up time. Stir often with your long spoon, scraping the bottom of the pan to get the charred bits circulating throughout the mix. Turn it back down to simmer after 5 minutes or so. You don’t want to carbonize the whole batch or let the peppers to turn to mush.


While the beans and veggies are simmering away, dice the second onion. Pour a couple-three tablespoons of olive oil into the skillet or frying pan, and turn the burner all the way up (check the heat by tossing a few pieces of onion in there; when they sizzle, it’s ready). Add the diced onion and the ground meat. Sprinkle to taste with <a href=””>Corvin’s Quintessence</a> meat spice mix (and/or some more of the spices you already used for the veggies ).

Ground burger browning in the skillet with onions and spices

Chop and stir with the spatula, chop, stir, chop, stir…until there’s no pink left in the meat. When the meat is cooked all the way through, add it to the stock pot along with all the lovely meat juices and oil. Careful–if you make as much as I do, that skillet is going to be heavy. Hot meat grease makes a mess and HURTS when it inevitably spatters on you, so get someone to help if you can’t manage it. A ladle is a safer choice than the spatula. This is a lesson that you should only have to learn once.

Let the meat and veggies simmer all together for ten minutes or so, stirring often. Remember to keep scraping the bottom. Taste-test (as if you haven’t already)! Does it need more spices? (Answer: Yes) If it seems to need salt, try adding more onion powder before you dump any salt in it. If it’s not spicy enough, add more chili powder. If there’s not enough of an undertone that you can’t quite describe but you know it’s missing, try more cilantro, or maybe some garlic.

But wait, where did all your tomatoes go? The flavor is there, but they’ve cooked down so much that you can hardly find any. This is where that third can of tomatoes comes in. There’s a flavor and texture difference between boiled-to-nothing tomatoes and new ones, and both are important. (If you’re using an 8-quart stock pot, it’s going to be full just about to the top at this point, so pour and stir gently. I finally got smart and bought a 16-quart pot a few weeks ago.)

Almost ready! But it’s kinda runny now, and you wanted chili, not soup. You’ll need to need to drain the excess liquid.

Ladle dipped in the chili, draining the excess liquid

I learned this time that the liquid from a batch made with dry beans is a lot thicker than that from the canned beans and you can’t get quite as much out, but that’s okay.

Carefully dip the ladle just under the surface of the chili. You’re trying to collect as much liquid as possible without getting any chunks (though a few chunks are okay). Depending on how thick your chili is so far, and if you’ve made as much as I do, you should be able to pull out about 6-8 cups of liquid. Don’t take much more than this.

Excess liquid in storage container

Take a taste of this juice–OMG. Wouldn’t it be a shame to just throw it away? I did for a long time, and felt bad about it, until I realized that I could repurpose it. I usually use it as starting stock for a delicious spicy beef stew, and it also makes a great base for a healthy, savory smoothie. Put your excess sauce into the fridge or freezer, and stay tuned for these recipes.

Now. You’re almost ready to eat, but it needs just one more thing. Dump that can of tomato soup in there and mix it up good. It doesn’t seem like much, but something about the soup just pulls all the other tastes together and mellows out the spices.


Finished chili in a bowl with shredded cheese and a raw jalapeno on the side

We serve ours with shredded cheese and tortilla chips. It’s good with oyster crackers too (those will help counteract the spices). Since I tone down the hot peppers in this chili recipe to accommodate wussies those with sensitive taste buds, I like to cover mine with cracked black pepper and eat it with a raw jalapeno for an extra lip-tingly kick*.

Many storage containers full of chili for the freezer

The leftovers freeze well and will last quite awhile in there. (Let them cool down in the fridge before they go in the freezer so the heat doesn’t start to thaw everything else.) We get about 20 meals out of one 8-quart batch…at the time of this writing, it costs around $30.00 to buy all the ingredients, so that’s less than 2 bucks per bowl. Not bad. Enjoy!

Corvin doing the dishes after I finished cooking, ha ha

PS: Whoever cooks doesn’t have to do dishes, so go ahead and let that bottom burn!

*Protip: Do not absentmindedly wipe your eye or scratch inside your nose whilst eating raw jalapenos by hand. Just. Do not.

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