Never in the history of chili making, did anyone who spent countless hours perfecting their chili recipe NOT believe theirs was the best chili EVER. So I think my less-than-humble claim to the ‘Best Damn Vegan Chili’ is probably acceptable—even in here in the Midwest, where only Canadians surpass us in politeness and humility.
My best vegan chili recipe is an evolution of the traditional, rich and ‘meaty’ chilis I’ve been cooking up most of my life—some as a vegetarian, some as an omnivore, and now this vegan version. What I’ve strived for in all these recipes is a balanced blend of spices, a just-right beans-to-chili ratio, and most important, a rich, hearty texture.
I’ve made (and enjoyed) plenty of ‘many vegetable’ chili recipes with ingredients like zucchini, eggplant, corn and the like. But, in my book, these are more like chili-flavored stews than real chili. For me, the best vegan chili has gotta have that rich, hearty, ‘meaty’ mouthfeel—without the meat, obviously.
In this best vegan chili recipe, the convincing texture, and much of the earthy flavor, comes from mushrooms. Wait! Before you say you lost me at mushrooms, hear me out! In this recipe, we transform those fungi!
How you ask? First, while you can use any kind of mushrooms, I recommend a blend of creminis and shitakes. Shitakes are a bit expensive, but they have a wonderful, full-bodied, earthy flavor that’s kind of magical in this chili.
Second, rather than simply slice or rough-chop the mushrooms, they get ground in the food processor (see photo). I imagine you could also do this by hand. The key is, you don’t want to turn them into mush, just a nice fine dice.
Third, the mushrooms get thoroughly browned until all of their liquid is released. This does away with their spongey, wateriness while concentrating and enhancing their umami flavor. The result is a rich, healthy, hearty stand-in for meat, with a texture and flavor guaranteed to please all but the die-hard mushroom hater/meat lover. And the best vegan chili, ever.
Finally, if you’ve skipped down to the recipe and are wondering if ‘¼ cup of strong coffee or espresso’ is a mistake, it’s not. Like the well browned mushrooms, the coffee provides an added layer of complexity and helps balance the strong flavors of the mushrooms and ground fennel seed in this chili. Besides, could this really be the best vegan chili if it didn’t have a secret ingredient?
Bake up some Rustic Polenta Muffins and get ready to sop up every last drop of this delicious, satisfying chili.
Best Damn Vegan Chili is loosely inspired by Forks Over Knives Bean and Mushroom Chili–and dozens of chili recipes I’ve made throughout the years.
- 1 teaspoon grapeseed oil (or use water if oil free)
- 1 pound cremini mushrooms cleaned and finely diced (see notes)
- 1/2 pound shitake mushrooms cleaned and finely diced (see notes)
- 1 yellow onion diced
- 6 cloves garlic minced
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon ancho chili powder
- 1 tablespoon ground fennel
- 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 28 ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes, chopped, with liquid reserved (see notes)
- 1 15 ounce can pinto beans drained and rinsed (or 2 cups of cooked beans)
- 1 15 ounce can black beans drained and rinsed (or 2 cups of cooked beans)
- 1/4 cup strong coffee or espresso (the secret ingredient!)
- 1 1/2 cup water
- Sea salt to taste
Brush the mushrooms clean with a dry towel. Place mushrooms in a food processor in batches, about 1/4 at a time, and pulse several times to grind. You want them finely diced, but not mushy. (See notes.)
Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat (or use water to keep things from sticking). Add the onion and a pinch of salt and saute for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for 2 minutes.
Add the mushrooms and saute until well browned and the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes.
Reduce the heat to medium, add the cumin, chili powder, fennel, cayenne pepper and cocoa powder. Stir, and cook 3 minutes, adding water 1-2 tablespoons at a time if things begin to stick.
Deglaze (loosen and scrape up any brown bits) with the coffee. Add the smashed tomatoes and their liquid, beans, and water and simmer, covered, for at least 30 minutes and up to one hour.
- Shitake mushrooms can be expensive, but add a rich, earthy flavor. It's fine to use a smaller amount shitakes or substitute them completely with cremini or white button mushrooms. Just make sure you have about 1 1/2 pounds total.
- Shitake mushrooms have a tough section on the end of their stem. I snip those off with kitchen shears.
- If some large pieces of mushrooms remain, don't keep pulsing. You want them finely ground but not mushy. Remove any large pieces and set them aside. Transfer the ground mushrooms from the food processor to a bowl. Then, add any large pieces back to the processor with the next batch and repeat until all of the mushrooms are finely ground.
- Chopping whole tomatoes can make a mess! To avoid this, I empty the whole can into a large bowl and break them up them with a potato masher. I prefer to use whole tomatoes, as canned diced tomatoes contain a chemical (to keep them from dissolving), which alters the flavor. Also, I find there's no match for the flavor of San Marzanos.