Even though this lentil chili is quick and easy, it's probably the best vegetarian chili you've ever had (yes, really)! There are a few key secrets to making meaty, thick, rich vegan chili, and once you learn them you'll never go back. Gluten-free and oil-free options.
The most difficult thing about this chili was figuring out what to name it because so many awesome descriptors apply! It's simultaneously:
The Best Lentil Chili
The Best Vegan Chili
Easy 3-Bean Chili
The Only Chili Recipe You'll Ever Need!
Basically, this lentil chili is perfect in every way. (In case you can't tell, I'm REALLY excited about it.) The flavor and texture are exactly what you're craving when you want chili. But it's simpler than my other chili recipe and comes together in just 45 minutes!
While I love that other, more complex vegan chili recipe, it's more of an event, you know? Specialty ingredients. Plenty of dirty dishes. And who has time for that on a regular basis?
So I wanted to come up with a chili recipe that's just as exciting, but quick enough that I (and you) would want to make it regularly.
I know, I know, everyone says they have the best chili recipe. But seriously, take a quick glance at this one and you'll see there are a few interesting ingredients - they make all the difference! This isn't some flat, tomatoey, thin, "empty" chili experience. No ma'am, this lentil chili is rich, thick, meaty, and balanced.
There's only one way for you to know whether I'm telling the truth (I AM!). 😉 So I really hope you'll try it and report back.
Secrets for the Best Lentil Chili
The same secret ingredients listed below are used in my other chili and were inspired by an America's Test Kitchen recipe. I came across ATK's version years ago, and kept tweaking it to make it easier. I even won a few local chili cook-offs with my version.
But this time I've simplified it even more. I ditched the process of making your own chili powder because I'm guessing 99.9% of you don't want to track down specialty dried peppers, toast them in the oven, then grind them into powder, right? Heard. Regular store-bought chili powder to the rescue!
But we are keeping a few of the America's Test Kitchen ideas because they're critical for making epic vegan chili (while taking shortcuts where we can).
- ground, toasted walnuts - walnuts thicken the chili and add a subtle richness missing from a lot of vegetarian chilis. But instead of turning on the oven just to toast a few nuts, we're giving them a quick toast on the stovetop in the same pot we'll use to make the chili. *If you can't eat walnuts simply omit them, and decrease the water by 1/4 or 1/3 cup.
- bulgur - bulgur wheat is inexpensive, easy to find (look for it in bulk bins), and adds a ground beef-like texture while also thickening the chili. *For a gluten-free option quinoa is an easy and nutritious substitute.
- dried mushroom powder - instead of the dried shiitake mushrooms called for in the original recipe, which then had to be ground into powder, I used Trader Joe's umami mushroom powder as a shortcut. Feel free to omit this if you can't get your hands on any powdered mushroom seasoning.
So whereas my "Best Vegan Chili" takes closer to an hour-and-a-half start to finish, this lentil chili recipe takes just 45 minutes. I'd say that's even easy enough for a weeknight! Make this lentil chili on Monday or Tuesday evening and enjoy it the rest of the week.
Tips and Substitutions
- Easily make this lentil chili gluten-free by subbing quinoa for the bulgur and using tamari instead of soy sauce.
- If you're on an oil-free diet omit the oil used for sautéing the veggies and spices. See the Notes section in the recipe card about reversing the order of Step 3. Basically, you'll add the onion mixture to the pot before adding the spices.
- With the addition of red lentils in this chili, you don't necessarily need three types of beans. So unless you just really love a bean-heavy chili, feel free to pare down to one or two of your favorites.
- In a hurry? Not into lentils? Skip the lentils, and reduce the water by 1/2 cup. This chili is still loaded with satisfying beans. As an added bonus, omitting the lentils means shaving about ten minutes off the cook time!
*Special tip: if you need to omit the walnuts or bulgur because of an allergy, stir in half a can of refried beans for extra thickening power.
Serving Lentil Chili
I love this chili so much that honestly, I don't even like the distraction of toppings. But you do you! Add your favorite chili fixings like cilantro, green onion, extra jalapeno, vegan cheese, and sour cream.
I truly hope you love this 45-Minute Lentil Chili as much as we do. If you try it be sure to leave a comment and rating below (it not only helps me, but it helps other readers find recipes they'll love).
45-Minute Lentil Chili
- 1/2 cup raw walnut halves If allergic, omit and reduce water by about 1/4 cup. TIP: another option for added thickening is to stir in half a can of refried beans at the end of cooking.
- 1 large red or yellow onion, cut into large chunks
- 2 jalapeno peppers, stems removed For mild to moderately spicy chili remove the seeds from one or both of the peppers; for extra spicy chili include all of the seeds.
- 5 cloves garlic, smashed
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil Omit for oil-free.
- 3 Tablespoons chili powder (the blend, not a specific chili)
- 1 Tablespoon ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- 2 teaspoons mushroom powder blend (such as Trader Joe's), optional
- 1 teaspoon smoked sea salt flakes (or sub 3/4 tsp regular fine sea salt)
- 1 (28 oz) can crushed fire-roasted tomatoes
- 2 Tablespoons soy sauce Sub tamari for GF.
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 2/3 cup red lentils
- 2/3 cup bulgur Sub quinoa for GF.
- 1 (15 oz) can pinto beans, rinsed and drained
- 1 (15 oz) can black beans, rinsed and drained
- 1 (15 oz) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained, optional Include these if you like a lot of beans in your chili, otherwise, skip 'em.
- Preheat a large soup pot over medium-low heat. Toast the walnuts until warm and fragrant, about 3 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Transfer walnuts to the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until finely ground. Transfer the ground walnuts to a bowl.
- Add the onion, jalapenos, and garlic to the food processor (see Notes section). Blend until mostly pureed.
- Note: If omitting oil, reverse the order of this step; add the blended onion/jalapeno mixture to the pot first, then add the spices. Otherwise, for the best flavor, bloom the spices in oil as described below.Return the pot to the stove, and increase the burner to medium heat. Add the olive oil to the pot. Add the spices (chili powder, oregano, cumin, smoked paprika, mushroom powder), and stirring frequently, cook for about 1 minute. Add the pureed onion mixture to the pot, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes.
- Add the smoked salt, tomatoes, soy sauce, broth, and water. Bring to a boil. Add the lentils, bulgur, beans, and ground walnuts, and stir well. Return to a simmer, and cook for 15 minutes.
- Once the lentils are as done as you like, turn off the heat, and give the chili another good stir. Taste and add a pinch more salt or a drizzle of soy sauce, if needed. Let stand 5 to 10 minutes. The chili will continue to thicken as it rests.