Build-Your-Own-Signature-Chili (Vegan, Gluten-Free)


It seems everyone has an idea of how to best make chili. If you don’t, it might feel overwhelming to start. It’s really a great meal, as I’m sure you know already, so I thought I’d do up a masterpost on some of the different options you have! It’s a wonderful place to start cooking, very forgiving of your mistakes and easy to customize according to what you have on-hand.

Let’s go!

Tomato base + flavour base + herbs and spices+ protein + spice level + texture + liquid + toppings = chili

Tomato Base

I generally use canned whole tomatoes because I get to squish them with my fingers, a bit of tomato paste and whatever ripe fresh tomatoes I have hiding at the back of the fridge. For your tomato base, you can use any or all of the following:

  • canned whole tomatoes (with or without spices)
  • canned stewed tomatoes
  • strained tomatoes
  • fresh tomatoes
  • canned tomato sauce
    Plus Tomato Paste


Flavour Base

Your flavour base is going to include all those wonderful vegetables that give the most basic amount of complexity to any dish. You may have noticed I add them to most things I’m cooking and they are necessary staples in any kitchen putting out homemade food. You can dice them or chop them large for more texture. They are:

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  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Celery
  • Carrots

Herbs & Spices

The herbs and spices that go into a chili are so wide and varied. I like the warm background notes of cinnamon and cocoa to balance out the spiciness and to complement the acidity of the tomatoes. I should say, the only non-optional one is the chili powder and you should use about 2 tablespoons for every serving of chili you’re making, but really taste and see what you like. Choose from any of the following and add a healthy pinch of any or all of the following:


  • Chili Powder
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Basil
  • Marjoram
  • Bay Leaves
  • Savoury
  • Celery Seed
  • Cumin
  • Coriander
  • Cilantro
  • Flat Leaf Parsley
  • Cinnamon
  • Cocoa Powder
  • Paprika (sweet, smoked, spicy)
  • Salt and Black Pepper, to taste

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The protein you choose to add to your chili feels rather unimportant compared to the rest of the fun ingredients, but that’s probably just me. Use whatever combo you want/have in the pantry!

  • Textured Vegetable Protein
  • Veggie Sausages, chopped
  • Lentils
  • Kidney Beans
  • Chick Peas
  • Black-Eyed Peas
  • Black Beans
  • Pinto Beans
  • Baked Beans, specifically the sweet Canadian/British kind
  • Literally any bean…
  • Extra Firm Tofu
  • Smoked Tofuprotein

Spice Level

I’ve put spice level in a separate category because every single person has a different idea of how spicy they would like their chilli. I like spicy food, but I also think just tossing in pepper after hot pepper is a lazy way of covering up a lack of complexity. Learn to balance your food. If you’re into far spicier food than your friends, maybe think about serving some sliced peppers on the side

  • Fresh Hot Peppers, any kind
  • Canned Jalapeño Peppers
  • Hot Sauce, such as Cholula or Tabasco
  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Red pepper flakes

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Texture is the fun part! It’s where your creativity can really take over (or you can clean out the crisper)! I like to add sweet vegetables to my chili and to get a good bite, I always add butternut squash. It’s all up to your palate and budget, though.

  • Butternut squash
  • Any Winter Squash, like pumpkin or kabocha
  • Zucchini
  • Patty-pan squash
  • Sweet Potato or Yam
  • Eggplant
  • Corn, Canned, frozen or fresh
  • Bell Peppers
  • Mushrooms, canned or fresh
  • Leafy Greens, such as chopped kale or spinach
  • Golden Beets

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Some liquid will need to be added to the chili. I added some leftover wine aperitif leftover in the fridge which had hints of chocolate in it, so it was the perfect addition to this. You might also try a little of any of these in addition to water:

  • Cold brewed coffee
  • Beer, something dark
  • Red wine


To top your chili is totally optional, but dollop of this or that is really quite pretty. I absolutely love fresh cilantro on top of my bowl of chili.

  • Vegan Cheese Shreds
  • Non-Dairy Sour Cream or Cream Cheese
  • Chopped Cilantro
  • Corn Chip
  • Corn Tortillas
  • Green Onions
  • Lime Wedges

Once you have all your ingredients picked out, you can go about this two ways:

1. Throw it all in a slow-cooker  with a cup of water per serving (or pot and bring to a boil, then simmer for as long as you have).
2. Sautee your flavour base in a little olive oil, add the rest of your ingredients, bring to a boil and simmer for as long you have.


My Signature Chili Recipe for Two

1/2 teaspoon olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
1 large can tomatoes
1 fresh tomato, chopped
1/4 cup chili powder
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon basil
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon paprika
Handful fresh cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup dry brown lentils
1/4 cup chickpeas
1 large bell pepper, chopped small
1 small sweet potato, chopped small
1 cup water
1/2 cup wine aperitif

Heat oil in a medium sized pot over medium heat. Add the onions, celery, garlic and carrots and let them start to sweat. Salt them and add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, stirring often to prevent sticking. Reduce heat to low and let the chili simmer for at least 20 minutes, but keep in mind, the longer this simmers, the better it will become.

Chili Troubleshooting 101

Question: Help! My chili is a little watery and lacking that rich, dark red colour I’m used to seeing!

Answer: It’s one of two things – 1. Your vegetables are not fully cooked yet and they have not released all their water. Keep it cooking and it will reduce down to a more suitable consistency. 2. Your tomato base is the thing that is too watery. In this case, you should add a couple tablespoons of tomato paste and you should be up to speed. You might also add a couple tablespoons of cornmeal and let that cook for another fifteen minutes or so.

Question: My chili is too spicy! Can I fix that?

Answer: Easiest way to fix this is to make sure that you add the ingredients from the spice level category in conservative amounts and taste throughout to make sure you achieve only the spiciness you want. If you’ve already done it, add more vegetables from the texture category, some more beans or tofu, cinnamon and cocoa powder.

I did this once. I added a 1/4 cup of cayenne pepper instead of chili powder. Ouch. It was probably the only meal I’ve never been able to fix. Don’t do that.

If you have any concerns, let me know so I can add them into this troubleshooting guide!


4 thoughts on “Build-Your-Own-Signature-Chili (Vegan, Gluten-Free)

  1. Wow, this looks amazing!! Can’t wait to try it 🙂 I see that you suggested adding tofu to the chilli – what kind of texture would that give it? Would it make it more creamy(-ish)?

  2. Ah! I’ve never made my own chili but I want to! Thanks for detailing such a nice guide for beginners like myself 🙂

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