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You Can Overcook Chili (Here’s How Not To!)

Let’s talk about cooking chili. It’s time to put the faith of your favorite dish back into your own hands.

Chili, a staple dish on the American dinner table, goes along with almost anything. From chili and cornbread, a Southern favorite, to chili dogs, chili Fritos, or chili with rice, the list goes on and on for how you can cook your chili.

And yet, for something as simple as ground meat and red kidney beans with veg and spices, chili can be notoriously difficult to cook—with one of the most common complaints from our readers being overcooked chili.

Like any meal, chili can be overcooked. Not like other dishes, this can happen at any step and not just at the very end. Whether for weeknight supper or a weekend cookout, time and technique are of the essence for the perfect chili.

For starters, you can overcook the ground meat. Brown the meat till it’s released some of its moisture and fat, and its color has become golden brown. Add the rest of the ingredients before you’ve cooked it all the way through, or it will stiffen up and come out as easy to chew as a leather shoe.

Especially if you’re making chili in a slow cooker, you can overcook the beans and sauce to mush. The result is a sticky, viscous chili that tastes good, but that tastes heavy and is hard for the stomach to digest. You want the legumes and veg to have a certain crispness to them.

As you read on, you will find different ways to cook chili—and what can go wrong when it is overcooked or undercooked. We will also take steps to cook chili, with or without beans. That is a personal preference, but we will show you the quick, easy, and slow, old-fashioned ways throughout this article.  

The Process of Cooking Chili, With or Without Beans

Beans or no beans? For a nation bound by unity, this debate has Americans deeply divided. If you’re in the market for advice, it comes down to your personal preferences and what you’re planning to do with the dish.

Chili with beans, for example, doesn’t do well on chili dogs. Some would say it doesn’t go well with chili Fritos either. That said, chili with beans goes great cornbread, or chili that is by itself for a meal to warm up the body on a freezing-cold day.

Listed below are the steps for cooking chili, and the step of putting in the beans is optional according to your dish. Afterward, we will break down this list by giving you insights into the fast and slow cooking of chili.

Step 1: Brown the Ground Beef

The first thing you want to do is brown the ground beef. It does not have to be browned entirely because the slow cooking process will cook the meat thoroughly. Rather, the browning gives it color and flavor.

Step 2: Drain the Grease

Once the beef is browned, you will want to drain the grease. This can be done by using the pour spouts on the skillet or draining the fat off the meat in a colander. Leaving some will help with flavor, but too much will make your chili greasy.

Step 3: Add the Onions

Now it is time to add the chopped onions. You can use any color onion, but we recommend yellow or white. This is because they are not as strong as other onions, and so they will not overpower the chili flavor.

Step 4: Cook the Onions

Cooking the onions, for 5-10 minutes over medium-low, is essential so that it becomes translucent. This means that it has been cooked long enough so that the chemicals have broken down, and it becomes a softer texture. If you do not cook it enough, the onion will be crunchy and more potent.

Step 5: Add the Garlic

Next, you will want to add garlic (whether minced garlic or garlic powder). Again, this is a crucial step because it infuses the chili with flavor. Adding it too early will burn it and make your chili taste terrible.

Step 6: Add the Chili Powder

Now is when you want to add the chili powder. How much you add is up to you, but we recommend starting with 1 tablespoon and then adding more later if needed. This will give your chili its prominent flavor.

Step 7: Add the Tomatoes and Tomato Sauce

You want to add the chopped tomatoes and tomato sauce at this step. If you are using canned tomatoes, make sure to drain them first. Otherwise, your chili will be too watery.

Step 8: Add the Other Spices

Now is the time to add the other spices. We recommend adding salt, black pepper, and cumin powder. You can also add other spices such as cinnamon or cocoa powder if you want a richer flavor.

Step 9: Add the Beef Broth

The beef broth helps give your chili a more liquid consistency and adds more flavor. You can use beef broth or chicken broth, but we recommend beef broth because it has a more robust flavor.

Step 10: Let It Simmer

Now put a lid on your pot and let the chili simmer—giving it the occasional stir to prevent it from sticking to and burning the bottom of the pot—for about 30 to 45 minutes. This will allow the flavors to develop and the meat to become tender.

Adding Beans to Chili

If you want to add beans to your chili, you can do so at the step where you add the tomatoes and tomato sauce. Just make sure that you rinse and drain them first. Otherwise, your chili will be too watery.

The Fast Way of Cooking Chili

Looking at the steps listed above, we can tell you the only fast way is to cook the chili stovetop on a burner. Medium heat will speed up the process, but you have to watch it closely because it will burn quickly and stick to the pot. Once the chili sticks to the pot, it will be challenging to work it from there.

The fast way is how most cooks at home or the restaurant make it to serve the dish to those who purchase chili-based meals, and the home cooks so the family can eat at a decent hour. Once you get started on chili and love to cook, you will want to make the experience and beautiful aroma last for as long as you can.

The Slow and Old-Fashioned Method of Cooking Chili

The two methods are a stovetop and a slow cooker. The low and slow method is the way to go when time is not pressing. It is also more fun, especially if you love to cook. Others find it feasible to run the slow cooker while you sleep or throughout the day and have it ready for supper. 

The Stovetop Method

It is essential to remember the low and slow method that breaks down the food particles. With this in mind, the meat and beans will become mushy, and the texture will be ruined. It could also soak up the water and become dried out, making it tough to chew.  

It is difficult to say how long you can cook it low and slow on the stovetop. The best advice is to watch the beans if you have them with the chili. When the beans are done, the chili is done.

The Slow-cooker Method

It is possible to overcook chili, even in a slow-cooker. It will become a pile of mush, or if there is not enough water, it will become a burnt clump of tomato meat. It can only go four hours on a medium setting. Eight hours tops are enough at the lowest setting.  

Summing It Up

The most we can say is it is within the preference of what you are cooking the chili for and if you want beans or not. The beans will tell you when the chili is done and go by the sauce’s texture for thickness if you go the route without beans. Do this, and you will never go wrong with your chili.

Know your author

Written by

Jim is the former editor of Home Cook World. He is a career food writer who's been cooking and baking at home ever since he could see over the counter and put a chair by the stove.