Can the world ever have too much chili? We think not. Especially during these long, cold winter months.
Chili is often heavy on meat, but it doesn’t need to be. Much of its rich flavor actually comes from dried chile powder or fresh chile peppers. So it’s well suited to vegetarian or vegan variations. Meaning everyone can enjoy it.
So when it’s chilly out, you need chili in (your bowl).
We’ve made numerous versions of chili over the years. If chili making is new to you, see our Chili Basics primer.
This dish features wheat berries, which are husked whole-wheat kernels. You can soak them overnight to make them a bit quicker to cook, but we usually don’t bother. Unsoaked, they’ll usually take anywhere from 30 to (more typically) 60 minutes to cook, depending on how dry and old they are (sometimes they’ll take a bit longer, although that’s rare). For this dish, we put the wheat berries on to cook, then prepare the chili base. Finally, we add the wheat berries to the chili base when they’re done.
Cooked wheat berries have a somewhat nutty flavor. They also have a lot of texture and “chew,” which is pleasant in chili.
Prep time for this dish is about 15 minutes. Total cooking time is about 1 to 1¼ hours (much of it unattended).
This dish yields about 6 hearty servings. Leftovers will keep for a few days if refrigerated in an airtight container. Or you can freeze them for up to 2 months.
- 1 cup uncooked wheat berries (or to taste; see Notes)
- 3 cups water (for cooking the wheat berries)
- ~3 pinches kosher salt (or to taste; see Notes)
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 to 2 jalapeños, finely diced (to taste)
- 2 to 3 garlic cloves, finely minced or thinly sliced (to taste)
- 1 tablespoon cooking oil
- additional salt to taste (about 1 teaspoon kosher salt for us; see Notes)
- 1 tablespoon mild or medium chile powder (see Notes)
- 2 teaspoons chipotle chile powder (or to taste)
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander (or more to taste)
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes (can substitute crushed tomatoes)
- 2 15-ounce cans kidney beans (can substitute pinto or black beans)
- water if necessary to thin the chili (we usually add a cup or 2)
- garnish of jalapeño slices (optional)
- garnish of grated cheddar cheese (optional; use cheese substitute for vegan)
- Add the wheat berries to 2-quart saucepan (for extra flavor, you may want to toast the wheat berries first; see Notes). Add water and salt to taste. Bring the water to a simmer, cover the pan, and cook until the wheat berries are done (start checking after 30 minutes; they’ll probably be soft, but still quite chewy, at about 45 minutes – total cooking time could be anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes). As the wheat berries cook, check the pot from time to time and add water if necessary.
- Meanwhile, prep the onion, jalapeños, and garlic.
- Place a 4-quart soup pot or Dutch oven on medium stovetop heat. When it’s hot, add the oil. When the oil is heated (it’ll shimmer), add the chopped onion and jalapeños. Add salt to taste, then sauté until the onion is translucent (about 5 minutes). Then add the garlic and sauté for another minute.
- Add the chile powders and other spices (cumin, coriander, and oregano), then stir into the onion mixture. Cook for a minute. Then add the tomatoes and kidney beans. If the mixture is too thick for your taste, add a cup or two of water. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then simmer while the wheat berries finish cooking.
- Pour the cooked wheat berries (and any remaining cooking liquid) into the chili pot. Stir to combine, then taste the chili. Adjust the seasoning if necessary. Simmer for another 10 minutes or so to combine the flavors.
- Serve the chili. Garnish, if you wish, with slices of jalapeño or some grated cheddar cheese (see Notes).
- This dish is all vegan except for the cheddar-cheese garnish. If you want to stay strictly vegan, skip the cheese garnish or use a vegan substitute.
- Need more garnish ideas? Diced raw onions would work well. Or add a dollop of sour cream or yogurt (Greek yogurt is particularly nice). Crackers, especially oyster crackers, are classic.
- And you can never go wrong serving cornbread on the side.
- When we make this dish, we cook the wheat berries and make the chili base at the same time. But you could cook the wheat berries a day or two ahead of time, then refrigerate them until ready to use. Or you could cook a big batch of wheat berries and freeze them in containers.
- We usually don’t rinse wheat berries before cooking, but do so if you prefer.
- How much water to use when cooking wheat berries? Our general rule is 3 measures of water for each measure of wheat berries (plus a bit of salt to season the water).
- You can adjust the quantity of wheat berries to taste in this dish. For chili, we find 1 cup of uncooked wheat berries (which makes 2 to 3 cups cooked) is the perfect amount for each 28-ounce can of tomatoes. But you may prefer to use a bit less (we suggest ¾ cup uncooked, but even ½ cup uncooked will add lots of texture).
- Wheat berries can be either red or white. Cooking methods are the same for both.
- The flavor of wheat berries is understated, but they absorb other flavors beautifully. If you want to give wheat berries more flavor of their own, you can toast them: Just spread the wheat berries out on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven at 350° F for about 10 minutes before cooking.
- Wheat berries are quite versatile. They’re often used in salads or side dishes. We don’t always have them in our kitchen, but some good friends recently bought a large quantity and shared some with us (thanks Carol and Bob!). So we’ve been playing with them lately. Another wheat berry dish or 2 is on the horizon.
- Wheat berries are a great, healthy whole grain (millers grind them to make whole-wheat flour). But they contain gluten, and thus are not appropriate for a gluten-free diet.
- When we make this dish, we use a medium New Mexico chile powder (chile powder is made from dried red chile peppers). But use any chile powder you like. If you want a relatively mild dish, we recommend using ancho chile powder – it has great flavor and is quite mild. And we’d skip the chipotle chile powder if you want a mild dish – it’s on the hot and spicy side.
- Chili (with an i) powder in North America is usually a blend of dried chile powder, oregano, cumin, coriander, and salt. It’s intended to season chili (the dish). You can substitute chili powder in this recipe if you want. Use about 2 tablespoons (or to taste) and omit the chile powders and other spices.
- We use kosher salt in cooking. It’s less salty by volume than regular table salt (the crystals are larger and more irregular, so they pack a measure less tightly). If you’re using table salt, start with about half the amount we suggest. But always season to your taste, not ours.
“Golly, wheat berries make terrific chili,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “Who knew?”
“Took some time to develop this recipe, though,” I said. “Had to separate the wheat from the chaff.”
“That joke went a-rye,” said Mrs K R.
“I like to go against the grain,” I said.
“Not sure why I put up with this,” said Mrs K R. “Guess I’m just a gluten for punishment.”
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