The very best chili comes from a kettle that's been on the stove for hours, building intense, rich flavor by cooking onions, garlic, peppers, chilies, meat and tomatoes with secret handfuls of unidentified herbs and who knows what else. That's heaven on a spoon.
Of course, making my own is a time-intensive challenge that I can't take on every time I crave a bowl, so I decided it was time to find out which canned chilis are worth a heat-and-serve.
I like my chili full-flavored, a bit spicy, not too tomato-forward -- and I like it with beans, which I know many people consider blasphemous. I understand, but since another portion of the population defines chili as a bowl of beans flavored with meaty, chili-flavored
After a dozen spoonfuls into my research, several things became clear. Every brand has a distinct flavor profile, which is why people tend to be so brand-loyal when buying chili. In addition, it's impossible to determine quality by studying the label. You have to taste.
Here's the scoop:
Trader Joe's Premium Select Chicken Chili with Beans: One taste and I was hooked on this irresistible, well-balanced, chunky chili. Several perfectly cooked bean varieties are stewed in a rich, spicy sauce with chunks of onion, bell pepper, tomato and large bites of ground chicken. One cup
Wolf Brand Spicy Chili: This saucy, very herby chili is a bit soupy, and the bits of meat are smaller than I'd like. However, it has layers of flavor and a warm, spicy kick. This is the chili I'd want to spoon onto a baked potato. One cup has 330 calories, 1,000 mg sodium. A 15-ounce can is $2.29 at Lucky. * * * ½
Stagg Silverado Beef Chili with Beans: This chili is a bit sweeter than I'd like, but it's both fresh and hearty, with nice chunks of meat, tomato, pepper and onion. One cup has 340 calories, 800 mg sodium. A 15-ounce can is $2.49 at Raley's. * * *
Hormel Chili Hot & Spicy with Beans: Those who like chili hot and spicy should check out this superhot, tomato-forward chili. It has a fresh, bright flavor and a nice ratio of beans and meat to sauce. One cup has 260 calories, 1,120 mg sodium. A 15-ounce can is $2.19 at Safeway. * * *
Raley's Hot Chili with Beans: Even though this is a bit chintzy on the meat and the heat, it's a good version of standard chili. One cup has 300 calories, 1,030 mg sodium. A 15-ounce can is $1.79. * * ½
Trader Joe's 99% Fat Free Beef Chili with Beans: I'd eat this in a pinch, but the flavors don't blend. It tastes like all the ingredients were cooked separately, then dumped together. One cup has 240 calories, 880 mg sodium. A 15-ounce can is $1.99. * *
Amy's Spicy Organic Vegetarian Chili: As much as I want to like this organic version, it isn't my favorite. It has big chunks of tomato, onion and pepper, but it tastes more like soup with beans than chili. One cup has 280 calories, 680 mg sodium. A 15-ounce can is $3.29 at Raley's. * ½
Giant Chili with Beans: This obscure, Maryland brand of chili suffers from ordinariness, but it's tastier than many of the better-known brands. One cup has 280 calories, 1300 mg sodium. A 15-ounce can is 99 cents at Grocery Outlet. * ½
Armour Original Chili With Beans: This chili has good consistency, but it's marred by the dull flavor of undeveloped, untoasted chili powder. One cup has 350 calories, 1270 mg sodium. A 15-ounce can is $1 at Grocery Outlet. *
Dennison's 99% Fat Free Vegetarian Chili with Beans: I like the visible chunks of tomato, pepper and onion, but the flavor is flat and lacks true chili flavor. One cup has 280 calories, 860 mg sodium. A 15-ounce can is $1.99 at Safeway. H
Dennison's Chunky Chili with Beans: For years, this was the chili in my cart, but no more. It's basically a can of nicely cooked pintos, dusted with a hint of chili powder. One cup has 320 calories, 1,020 mg sodium. A 15-ounce can is $1.99 at Safeway. ½ star
Nalley's: The flat taste and small bits of tasteless meat earn this chili a solid last place. One cup has 250 calories, 1,140 mg sodium. A 15-ounce can is $1.29 at Safeway. No stars.