Small Batch Chili

Small batch chili with sweet onion, white cheddar, and oyster crackers
By Chris Watson

It is listed on almost every restaurant menu, right next to “soup of the day”. Recipes are highly contested from church basements to international invitationals. It is topped with cheese, onions, pickles, jalapeños, corn salad, chow chow, and a wide variety of chips or crackers AND it tops hot dogs, noodles, rice, and grits. Chili is everywhere.

Small batch chili with a variety of toppings
Small batch chili with a variety of toppings

Yet, chili like its tomatoey cousin spaghetti sauce seems to grown eat an alarming rate. We find ourselves with huge batches and way too much time invested. As it turns out small batches of chili are extremely easy to make and all they require is a little time. More importantly, what follows is a recipe that can easily be doubled for a larger family.

One Pound, Two Cans, Some Waiting

Chili ingredients are right out of the pantry basic!
Chili ingredients are right out of the pantry basic!

Small batch chili isn’t all that hard. Ultimately it involves one pound of ground beef, one can of tomatoes, and one can of beans. If you tend toward the “easy” side of things you can stop there as the rest of the recipe is seasoning and water. However, most of us also add a good amount of chopped onion and fresh garlic. After that the whole process just involves simmering.

The key is that you don’t have to stick with these portions. For instance, many don’t like a lot of beans in their chili. Fine, use half a can and throw the other half away. At about a dollar a can who cares? Same with tomatoes. Many don’t like chunks of tomatoes. No problem, use a tomato puree or even a tomato paste and just add more water. You do need the tomato base but not the chunks

As for the onions and garlic, you can use powders and skip the fresh stuff. However, why would you do that? With a recipe this easy cutting up some onion is a pretty small sacrifice. Like the tomatoes, the same rule applies. If you don’t like chunks of onion just get out your food processor and buzz the onion into a puree. For that matter, you can do the same with tomatoes. Just take the can of fire roasted tomatoes suggested in the recipe and buzz it down to fire roasted puree.

As for the waiting there is not getting around that. Chili takes an hour to an hour and a half to simmer. It is better at two hours. Some things can’t be rushed.

Chili Magic Can’t Be Packaged

There are, of course, dozens of chili seasoning “packets” sold from every roadside stand to mega-mart. DO NOT BE SUCKED IN! These packets, jars, creams, and even the “chili beans” sold in stores are mostly just salt and some very old, very weak seasonings. The basics for a good chili are seasonings that you should have around. The recipe calls for a couple of more specialized seasonings (like smoked paprika and chipotle pepper) but their standard kitchen pantry cousins are listed with the recipe.

Toast the dry, non herb, spices over medium heat then add to the browned ground meat
Toast the dry, non herb, spices over medium heat then add to the browned ground meat

The recipe also calls for “toasting” the seasonings in a dry hot pan. This seems like a fussy step but it does help. You don’t have to do it but there is something about getting the spices toasted the really brings out the flavor. We also believe that it reduces the amount you will need to develop the flavor. Many cooks refer to this process as “waking up” the spices. Don’t toast them too long. Once you start to smell the spices you will know they are ready. And DO NOT leave them. Stand right there and stir them in the dry pan over medium heat. It won’t take long.

Fire Roasted Chili for Two

Small Batch Chili
Recipe type: Main
Cuisine: American
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 2-3
A chili recipe for two or one with some left overs. Basic and fairly simple this dish can be modified a variety of ways to suit tastes, culinary needs, and above all, add personal flair.
  • 1 lbs ground beef (leaner the better)
  • 1 can fire roasted tomatoes, diced (or plain)
  • 1 can black beans, drained (or any bean)
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 tsp beef bouillon (optional)
  • ½ tsp oregano
  • salt to taste
  • 3-4 cups of water
  • Seasonings:
  • 1 tbs chili powder
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika (or regular)
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • ⅛ tsp chipotle powder (or any red pepper to taste)
  1. Brown the ground beef in a soup pot. When browned remove from heat and drain
  2. In a dry sauté pan over medium heat "toast" the seasonings (do not toast the oregano) until you just begin to "smell" them. Do not leave them un-attended and move them around the pan constantly. It only takes a few minutes to "wake them up"
  3. Place the browned ground beef back over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, oregano and seasonings and "sweat" the onions for 3-5 minutes.
  4. Add the beans and tomatoes. Add at least 3 cups of water (more as cooking progesses)
  5. Bring the entire mixture to a boil. Reduce to medium low heat and simmer at least 1 hour. Longer is better

Just a Platform

Any chili or soup recipe is just a platform, not a gospel. Unlike baking or many ethnic based dishes that require certain techniques and processes, chili is just a “throw stuff in a pot” type of affair. “Rustic” doesn’t even begin to cover the the process or possibilities. Here are just a few:

—Eliminate the meat and double the beans. You can add other vegetables at the end like corn, carrots, and celery to make a vegetarian version. In fact, it is probably vegan as well. If you have a protein product that you like (and there are several respectable versions in the deli or frozen section) chili is not significantly effected by their addition and it ups the portion count.
—There is no reason you can’t move to bison, turkey, chicken, or if you are lucky enough to have it, venison. If using ground beef use the leanest you can get. After all, you are only using a pound or two
—Bean choice runs the gamut as well. We happen to like black beans but pinto and kidney beans are pretty common choices.
—Eliminate the beans and puree all the ingredients then simmer until highly reduced and you have a chili sauce for hot dogs or Cincinnati style chili-mac
—Finally, do not knock putting a scoop of grits in the bottom of your chili bowl. It is like adding corn chips and, in our opinion, a bit healthier. For that matter, don’t knock corn chips instead of crackers and forget about the health consequences. We don’t eat chili every day.