You Were Right, Cook’s Illustrated. This is the Best Vegetarian (Secretly Vegan) Chili I’ve Tasted.

Denver: Different Snow Storm (2012), Same Frigid Feeling. Creative Commons Image. Credit: Kathryn Scott.
Denver: Different Snow Storm (2012), Same Frigid Feeling. Creative Commons Image. Credit: Kathryn Scott.

As the Front Range gets a breather from colder than usual temperatures this week, our Eastern neighbors have been weathering one of their first arctic blasts of the season. Your teeth are already chattering. Might as well stuff some chili down the hatch to fortify yourself against the wintry months ahead.

Chili is usually one of my least favorite meals during any season. Since I don’t eat beef, pork, or chicken, vegetarian chili not only lacks fat and flavor, it also tends to be a gut-busting bean bonanza. My husband, on the other hand, could eat vegetarian chili at every meal for a week and still scrape the bottom of the chili pot for dregs.

Husband = Stomach of Steel
Gwynne = Stomach of Colicky Toddler

Enter Cook’s Illustrated’s claim to have perfected vegetarian chili, a bubbling cauldron of umami-rich beans and sauce so good even the meat-eaters will beg for seconds. Pumping up the dish with meaty alternatives like bulgur wheat, ground walnuts, shiitake mushrooms, tomato paste, and soy sauce, you get the texture and flavor of full-bodied chili without animal fat. Of course, if you eat dairy, you can add sour cream and monterrey jack cheese as toppings to the finished product. Either way, this chili is a new winter favorite at the Middleton and Turner house.

best vegan chili
Vegan Chili, unadorned. Image by author.

Best Vegetarian/Vegan Chili (adapted from a Cooks Illustrated recipe)
Serves 6 to 8

– Salt
– 1 pound (2 1/2 cups) dried beans, picked over and rinsed
– 2 dried ancho chiles (I used 1 TBS ground ancho chile powder)
– 2 dried New Mexican chiles
– 1/2 oz dried shitake mushrooms, chopped coarse
– 10 fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and chopped
– 4 tsp dried oregano
– 1/2 cup walnuts, toasted
– 1 (28 oz) can diced tomatoes, drained with juice reserved
– 3 TBS tomato paste
– 2 jalapeño chiles, stemmed and coarsely chopped
– 6 garlic cloves, minced
– 3 TBS soy sauce
– 1/4 cup canola oil
– 2 lbs onions, chopped finely
– 1 TBS ground cumin
– 7 cups water
– 2/3 cup medium-grind bulgur
– 1/4 cup fresh cilantro

Optional Toppings
– sour cream

– monterrey jack cheese, grated

– chopped red onion

– avocado chunks

– cilantro leaves

1. Preparing the dried beans:
Bring 4 quarts water, 3 TBS salt, and beans to boil in large Dutch oven over high heat. Once boiling, remove pot from heat, cover, and let stand for 1 hour. Drain beans, rinse well, and set aside. Clean pot.

best vegan chili recipe
Cleaned, brined, and ready to go. Image by author.

2. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Arrange anchos (if using) and New Mexican chiles on rimmed baking sheet, and toast until fragrant and puffed, about 8 minutes. Transfer to plate and let cool, about 5 minutes. Stem and seed anchos and New Mexican chiles. Working in batches, grind toasted chiles, dried mushrooms, and oregano in spice grinder or with mortar and pestle until finely ground.

3. Process walnuts in food processor until finely ground, about 30 seconds. Transfer to bowl. Process drained tomatoes, tomato paste, jalapeños, garlic, and soy sauce in food processor until tomatoes are finely chopped, about 45 seconds, scraping down bowl as needed.

4. Heat oil in now empty Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onions, fresh shiitakes, and 1 1/4 tsp salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until onions and shiitakes begin to brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Lower heat to medium and add ground chile mixture, ancho chile powder (if using), and ground cumin; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add rinsed beans and water, and bring to boil. Cover pot, transfer to oven, and cook for 45 minutes.

5. Remove pot from oven. Stir in bulgur, ground walnuts, tomato mixture, and reserved tomato juice. Cover pot and return to oven. Cook until beans are fully tender, about 2 hours. (My chili needed about 3 hours in the oven before the beans were soft.)

6. Remove pot from oven, stir chili well, and let stand, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Ladle up a bowl, stir in cilantro, add optional toppings, and serve. (Chili can be made up to 3 days in advance.)

26 Comments Add yours

  1. afracooking says:

    What a unique combination of flavours – wow!

    1. gwynnem says:

      Thanks, Afra. They work very well together. I was surprised how tasty this recipe turned out.

  2. Looks wonderful, even to a more meat-focused eater like me! :3 Thanks for sharing this recipe. :3

    1. gwynnem says:

      You’ve found me out. I’ve been trying to make vegan recipes so flavorful that even an omnivore can’t resist them. I haven’t found a suitable substitute for sour cream or cheese yet, though, so I can only vouch for the vegetarian version of this chili. The creaminess of the dairy mixes a little magic into the recipe.

  3. This really sounds good. The mushrooms can give off a meaty flavor.

    1. gwynnem says:

      Definitely. The combination of mushrooms, tomato paste, and onions amps up the flavor so you don’t miss the meat.

  4. I love cook’s illustrated’s recipes! I have a number of their cookbooks and have not hit a bad recipe yet!

    1. gwynnem says:

      I haven’t bought any of their cookbooks yet, but every issue of their magazine teaches me something new about cooking, baking, and food prep for the home cook. My friends and family thank them. 🙂

  5. I love cook’s illustrated. Thanks for reminding me 🙂

    1. gwynnem says:

      You’re most welcome. 🙂

  6. I love this recipe! Thanks for posting.

    1. gwynnem says:

      You’re welcome. I love sharing vegan and vegetarian recipes that are so good folks who eat meat won’t even miss it. 🙂

  7. Josie says:

    What temp is the oven in step 4 and 5?

    1. gwynnem says:

      Hi, Josie! I’m almost positive that the temperature is 300 degrees F, but I’ll double-check the recipe when I get home and confirm. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

    2. gwynnem says:

      Josie, I double-checked the original recipe. Looks like the oven temperature stays at 300 degrees F for steps 4 and 5.

      1. Josie says:

        I ended up just cooking it on the stove top which was much faster (plus I had presoaked my beans). Thank you though!

  8. Suzanne says:

    Yes, this really is the best vegetarian chili! I’ve made this recipe twice and, dare I say, it trumps all meaty versions I’ve ever made. Both the flavor and texture are pretty much perfect. The first time I made the chili I made it as directed – in the oven for about 2 hours. The second time I just let it simmer, covered, on the stovetop for about 1 1/2 hours and it also came out great. Thank you for posting this recipe.

    1. gwynnem says:

      Excellent! I’ll have to try the stovetop version before the weather warms up here. Thanks so much for visiting my blog. Hope some of my other recipe posts strike your fancy. 🙂

  9. Steve says:

    The Cooks’ Illustrated recipe does not include fresh shiitake mushrooms.

    1. gwynnem says:

      It’s been a while since I posted this recipe, but I likely added them as a personal preference. Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Joan says:

    We loved this recipe! Just a great combination of ingredients. We made a double batch and froze batches for quick meals. We did use ground DRIED shiitake mushrooms (not fresh) as I’ve heard Cook’s Illustrated had recommended. I usually have fresh shiitakes around for “Mushroom bacon” however so one of these times I will try using those as you recommend. .

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