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12 Secrets to a Perfect Chili Recipe

Large pot of homemade chili made with beef, butternut squash, and plenty of spices and chile peppers.

Chili con carne is one of the most straightforward recipes out there. Its name literally means “chile peppers and meat.” While more traditional versions keep it simple with chiles, meat, and maybe a tomato or two, chili is a dish perfect for spice customization and ingredient adaptations. We reviewed all our favorite chili recipes and figured out which spices, ingredients, and techniques make them so delicious.

Spices Should be Cooked Too

Okay, spices don’t really need to be cooked, but blooming your spices releases more flavor than tossing them into the pot later. You can bloom ground spices by gently heating them in a bit of oil or fat. Don’t let the spices burn as they will taste bitter. You could also add them in with any onions or vegetables you may be sweating in the pot. The goal is to gently heat the spices to unleash their aromatics before adding liquid to the chili recipe. 

Use the Correct Oregano

Dried Mexican oregano herb for making authentic chili.

Chili recipes frequently call for “oregano,” but don’t always specify the variety to use. Mexican oregano is the herb you should be using for chili recipes. (Along with any other southwestern or Mexican recipe for that matter.) Mexican oregano is more robust and citrusy than Greek oregano, standing up to the bold, competing flavors in chili recipes like cumin and chile peppers.


Take Things Slow

Chili is not a 30-minute meal. The best recipes require at least an hour of simmering over a flickering flame, especially if you’re using dried beans. Some purists swear that chili should always be eaten the next day. Something about letting the fat solidify in the refrigerator allows all the flavors to infuse together.

Add a Little Chocolate

A couple tablespoons of cocoa powder or baker’s chocolate will add further depth and richness to your chili recipe. If you like Oaxacan-style mole, you will love the flavor cocoa adds to a pot of chili. Start with a tablespoon of cocoa powder for every gallon or so of chili.


Use Broth Instead of Water

If your recipe calls for four or five cups of water, substitute a good soup broth instead. This will significantly improve the flavor of your chili. Concentrated soup base dissolves faster than your average bouillon cube and tastes better, too. Use beef stock base for traditional beef and game chili, chicken stock base for everything poultry, and vegetable stock base for your vegetarian recipes. Note: Use a diluted broth if you intend for it to simmer and reduce so the end result is not too salty.

Thick Meat and High Heat

Ground beef is the most convenient meat to use, and still makes for a good pot of chili. The problem some cooks have is ground beef is hard to caramelize as it releases its juices and stews instead of sears. Some of the best chili recipes call for whole beef steaks, cut into ½ inch cubes. You don’t have to choose expensive cuts of steak, chuck roast, sirloin, and even brisket will make for delicious chili as those cuts need to stew slowly anyway. Sear your meat in batches so you don’t crowd the pan. You want the meat to caramelize, forming a fond on the bottom of the pot. This is the foundation of flavor, which can be deglazed with broth.

Try the Whole Chile Pepper

Dried hot chile peppers for making chili con carne recipes.

Chili powder (spelled with an 'i') was invented for convenience, and conveniently it’s delicious too. If you have the time, however using whole chile peppers gives you greater control over the flavor and heat of your recipe. To use whole dried chiles; remove stem and seeds, rehydrate them in hot water for 15 minutes, puree them in a blender, and add them right to the pot. Whole chiles like ancho, guajillo, chipotle, and pasilla will make an amazing chili. If you prefer powder, you can always customize the heat and flavor with our ground dried chiles like ground guajillo, ground New Mexican, or ground habanero.


A Dash of Tomato Powder

Tomato powder is instant umami flavor. You can use just the right amount of tomato powder you need, instead of having to open a whole can of tomato paste for just a tablespoon. Tomato powder can even also be mixed into your cornbread recipe, making your chili fixings all the more savory.


Use Fresh, Roasted, and Black Garlic

Various dried garlic and onion spices for making chili con carne.

Inspired by many salsa recipes, using both roasted and fresh garlic cloves gives you the best of both worlds. Sweet, mellow, caramelized garlic gives a nice body to a pot of chili. Adding fresh garlic to stew gives a fresh, zesty flavor. If you’d rather skip the peeling and mincing, use original garlic powder or roasted garlic powder. Black garlic takes roasted garlic’s savory elements and runs wild with it. A spoonful of black garlic puree will add deliciously deep flavors reminiscent of chocolate and molasses.


Break Open Your Baking Cabinet

Baking spices like cocoa powder and cinnamon for chili recipes.

Chile peppers, chili powder, cumin and coriander are the typical spices for a pot of chili. This secret might raise a Texan’s eyebrow, but common baking spices like cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and even a Mexican vanilla bean will add aromatic complexity to the overall flavor profile. This flavor profile is also influenced by many Mexican mole sauce recipes.


Take a Coffee Break

Coffee can add deep richness to chili just like cocoa powder and black garlic do. (This will come as no surprise if you’re already a fan of our Oaxacan Ancho Coffee Rub.) Some cooks swap a cup of beef broth for brewed coffee instead. You could also add a little bit of espresso powder or instant coffee, tasting as you go.


Get Your Smoke On

Add a fireside touch to your pot of chili with our smoky spices and ingredients. Reach for hickory smoke salt or smoked sweet paprika for a delicious smoke flavor without spicy heat. You can also lean on chipotle peppers or smoked hot paprika for both smokiness and some chile pepper heat.


How Do Spice Experts Like Their Chili?

A bowl of homemade chili with all the ingredients laid out around it.

The Spice house’s staff is full of amazing cooks, many of whom have worked years in professional kitchens. We asked them for their chili-making secrets and favorite ingredients for cooking a good bowl of red.

Stephanie, Manager—Milwaukee

Spices: Chili Con Carne and lots of cumin.

Secret Ingredients & Technique: Canned chipotle in adobo sauce. It rounds out the acidity of the tomatoes and adds a hearty earthiness to compliment the assortment of veggies and beans.

Charlie, Chief Operating Officer

Spices: Freshly ground cumin is a must. If it's not fresh, then don't bother.

Secret Ingredients & Technique: I like extra hot chili, so I round up all spicy ingredients. I cool it down by piling on lots of fresh fixins' including scallions, cilantro, and sour cream.

Eric, Production

Spices: I use Pilsen Spicy Adobo Seasoning, cumin, hot chili powder.

Secret Ingredients & Technique: I like to use a mix of hot chorizo and hot Italian sausage for my meats.

Billy, Customer Support

Spices: I like simple flavor, some cumin, coriander, allspice, salt, and fresh tomato, onion, and garlic.

Secret Ingredients & Technique: Fresh chile is key and any will do, I prefer Datil because of its unique flavor. Whole pork and steak cuts (not ground!). 'If you know beans about chili, you know chili ain't got no beans.'

Chasity, General Manager—Evanston

Spices: I like chili powder and smoked paprika but chipotle works too.

Secret Ingredients & Technique: Toss stew meat or short ribs in Quebec seasoning and flour, sear then remove, saute onions, add tomatoes, scrape the brown bits, add chili powder and smoked paprika. Add meat back, broth, three kinds of beans, and simmer till it falls apart.

Alex, Operations Manager

Spices: I like guajillo chiles for their brightness. A pinch of Ceylon cinnamon goes in about half-way through the simmer and a tsp or two of natural cocoa powder to finish.

Secret Ingredients & Technique: Fire-roasted tomatoes and beef stock. Develop deeper flavor by browning your meat of choice and make sure to bloom your chili spices in the hot oil before adding your liquid.

Geoff, Marketing

Spices: I season my beef chili with ancho and chipotle chiles, cocoa powder, Ceylon cinnamon, coriander, LOTS of cumin, black garlic, and a big teaspoon of Mexican oregano.

Secret Ingredients & Technique: Instead of canned tomatoes, I like to oven roast, peel, and chop fresh tomatoes from my garden. I'll sometimes use tomatillos instead for a more tangy flavor.

Explore Chili Recipes





Sean on October 10th, 2022

Love the article on making chili, wanted to save it as recipe? But your web site had no function I could find

David Spies on October 25th, 2021

Just a side note, I learned that it helps the flavor of the dried chilis if the are roasted after you remove the stems and seeds, then after they are soaked, pureed and strained you fry the chili paste in hot oil till it turns dark red and then add about a tbl of sugar to melo the bite of the chilis (technique from Rick Bayless) and I add Better Than Bouillon Chili Base to the beef broth and I simmer the finished chili for about 3 hrs with 7 bay leaves added. I like the chocolate and coffee idea I’ll try adding next pot I cook. (don’t forget to remove the bay leaves)

Edgar on October 22th, 2021

Awesome email!

John Podulka on October 5th, 2020

Some excellent suggestions here for building delicious, complex chili. I’m intrigued with the idea of adding some cocoa and will certainly try it next batch.
The one important consideration I will add, for all who want to rehydrate and blend dried chili is this: strain them! Otherwise you’ll wind up with unappetizing pieces of tough chili skin in your finished dish. I use ancho, pasilla, guajillo and nuevo mexico chilis, probably at least 3 of each, let them rehydrate for hours, blend them with the soaking water (except the dregs), then force the good stuff through a strainer with the back of a large spoon — you’ll see the sludge that’s left.
Absolutely agree that clove, cinnamon, allspice are great additions along with black pepper, garlic, salt, cumin, coriander — don’t forget the onions and celery!

Suzanne Rausch on October 5th, 2020

Just loved12 secrets to a perfect chili and the reviews. Gave me some good ideas to improve my chili. I have used some of those ingredients but certainly not all. the Mexican oregano was a new one on me. As was using stock instead of water. In these cooler months ahead I Iove nothing better then a good, hearty, thick and full of flavor chili. Have used your spices for years when I loved in Milwaukee and since moving, I love that you can send them. Can’t cook without them.

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