Award-Winning Vegetarian Chili Without a Recipe

Last year, on a whim, I entered a vegetarian chili cook-off at my alma mater. It was a festive evening, a great learning experience with my chili won a prize!  However, I can’t share the recipe with you, because I didn’t use one. But, read on and check out the guidelines I always use and customize each time -as you should as well.


Yield: 1 gallon (16 cups)

Here I’ve listed some basics, my starting point ingredients for making vegetarian chili without a recipe along with improv tips. Some recipes add one group of ingredients after another until the pot is full.

That works well if you have a large, wide-bottom pan, think Dutch oven, which I don’t. I use a tall, thin pasta cooker, which works fine if you remove items (tempeh and vegetables) from the pot, after sautéing so that there’s room for the next item. Saute and season with salt as you go. No matter the shape of the pot, make sure it has a heavy bottom.

If possible, make the chili a day before eating. This chili doesn’t require a long cooking time. But, those flavors will deepen and if allowed to mingle overnight. Then, simply reheat and adjust seasonings as needed.


Cooking Oil: I use extra virgin olive oil. But, avocado or other any high quality, heat-stable and neutral-flavored oil will work.
Tempeh: With all the beans, this chili is already protein rich. But, tempeh will add extra texture. I like to mix two different flavors of tempeh, adding 8-16 ounces per batch. Simply grate or crumble, then sauté.
Vegetable Mix: For the vegetables, try to use a combination of vegetables which only need a quick saute (bell peppers and mushrooms), as well as some sturdier varieties (squash), to give your chili a mix of textures and colors.
To roast the butternut squash or sweet potatoes:  Toss with olive oil, sea salt and some of the spice mix, then spread out in a single layer on a baking sheet at 400°F until tender, 20-30 minutes.

  • 2 yellow onions, medium dice
  • 8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 pound mushrooms (crimini, shiitake or a blend)
  • 1/2 yellow bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 orange bell pepper, diced
  • 1 yellow squash, cut into half-moons
  • 1/2 butternut squash, peeled, diced and roasted (or two sweet potatoes)

Spice Mix: For the spices, try to add in some smokiness (smoked paprika or smoked chilis), strive for a blend of chilis for complexity and don’t be afraid to try something new -perhaps chipotle chili or harissa -or my new favorite half and half, it’s a winner! I used New Mexico chili powder for the contest, which is somewhat mild. Don’t forget to add sea salt as you go.

  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 tablespoons red chili pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoons cumin
  • 1 tablespoon cacao or 2 ounces dark chocolate (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon or 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 tablespoon smoked or regular paprika
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt (adding in increments during cooking)

Bean & Liquid Mix: Beans are the foundation. So, use whatever varieties are your favorites, just swap out equal quantities. Or, try a new variety, such as Adzuki beans!

  • 26 ounces diced tomatoes (fire roasted is great if available)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons umeboshi paste (optional)
  • 1 15 ounce can pinto beans, drained and rinsed (or 2 cups cooked)
  • 1 15 ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed (or 2 cups cooked)
  • 2 cups broth (vegetable or chicken)
  • 6 ounces beer (optional)

Acid: Finally, don’t be shy with the acid when adjusting the seasonings at the end. A little extra apple cider vinegar or lime is often all it takes to make your chili sing. Go slow. Add just one teaspoon at a time, but add it! I usually add about one tablespoon of either per batch.

Garnish Options:

  • Green onions, sliced on the bias
  • Chopped cilantro
  • Dairy cheese or Daiya vegan cheese
  • Dairy or vegan tofu sour cream


  1. Cook Tempeh and Vegetables with the SpicesIn a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add tempeh and stir until lightly cooked. Add vegetable and spice mixes and cook until the vegetables are tender, stirring frequently to coat the vegetables with the spices, about 5 minutes. If needed, cook in batches, distributing spices evenly, to avoid over-crowding the pot and give everything a nice sauté.
  2. Add the Beans and Wet IngredientsStir in the beans, tomatoes, beer and broth. Turn the heat down to low and simmer for about an hour. Taste for seasoning, add acid to taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary.
  3. Serve it Up!When ready, transfer the chili to serving bowls, add toppings and garnish. Serve with rice, tortillas or Gluten-free Cornbread.

Keep in mind that these vegetarian ingredients and quantities are just suggestions. This is chili, not croissants we’re making. So, be sure to make it your own signature blend! Be bold. On that note, these recommendations will give you a chili ranking probably a 6 or 7 (out of 10) on the heat scale. Adjust accordingly to your preferences.

Finally, give yours a clever name and tell me about it! I think I’ll call mine New Yorxico Vegetarian Chili. What do you think? Please leave a comment below!


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