I Tried 8 Canned Chilis & One Blew Me Away
Is it soup? Is it stew? Or, is it just chili? Who cares? Not me. All I know is that chili is delicious, and I love it.
Many people make their own chili, but some don't have that kind of time or know-how. One step into the soup aisle at your local supermarket, however, will reveal entirely too many different kinds of chili to choose from, and few folks have the wherewithal to taste-test them all—except for yours truly, of course.
To me, what separates a chili that's just alright from a chili that's great is very simple: peppers. It's right there in the name: chili peppers. Real peppers provide a depth of flavor that simple pantry spices just can't match. Try making your chili with chili powder, then next time toast up some anchos, and tell me you can't taste the difference. You absolutely can.
Another factor is a deeply scientific and precise metric that I completely made up called soupiness. Soupiness is the ratio of broth to meat and beans present within the chili.
What I want is a high amount of pepper and spice flavor with a low amount of soupiness. Chili that's mostly broth isn't chili, it's just beef soup. Mostly, I want beans and beef to be in my bowl when I look down.
Also, I am aware that there is some sort of debate as to whether or not beans belong in chili. However, I am not from Texas, and I don't want a pile of greasy beef on my plate, so I say bring on the beans!
With all these things in mind, I've rounded up eight different brands of chili from the supermarket to figure out which is the absolute best-tasting product on the shelf. I've prepared each variety in the microwave according to the directions, usually heating between two to three minutes. (Be sure to cover with a paper towel, or be prepared to deal with major spatter later.) Then, I judged every one based on appearance and taste.
Here's how each product compared, ranked from my least favorite to the best tasting chili I could find. Let's get into it!
Hormel Chunky Beef Chili
This "hulked-up version" from Hormel promises big chunks of beef on the label, and considering the meager meat offerings of many other canned chilis on the market, a beefed-up variety would be welcome. So far, beef has been more of a suggestion than a reality. The 15-ounce can cost me $3.29.
The Look: From a pure eye test, this is a home run. What I want chili to have is meat, and a good amount of it. This delivers with flying colors. There's more beef than broth. Yet, from the moment I opened the can, I was both happy and disappointed. On one hand, I saw beans and beef galore. On the other hand, the smell was a little funky. Not bad, just funky. I expect to smell spices and peppers when I smell chili, but really all I smell is beef.
The Taste: The actual flavor of this chili is great. The problem is the texture of the beef. The meat has give where it should hold, and it holds where it should give. I want you to imagine what a good, slow cooked piece of beef chuck should feel like in your mouth, and then I want you to flip that on its head. I truly have never experienced anything even vaguely similar. Something awful happened to the meat during the cooking or canning process, and honestly it makes me sad that a cow died to produce this.
Pacific Foods Organic Plant-Based Harvest Black Bean Chili
If you've spent much time in the supermarket soup aisle, then you're probably familiar with Pacific Foods. The brand produces all kinds of broths, stocks and soups, including this organic, black bean-forward chili.
The Look: More like a barley and bean soup than chili. Why is there barley? Why are there black beans? I have no problem with barley, or with black beans, they just aren't normal chili fixtures. It also just presents like soup. I know that when you looked at that photo, you said to yourself, "That's not chili." And, you were right.
The Taste: The flavor of the black beans and the little bite of the barley is a lovely little combination. However, this is a tomato-based bean soup, not chili. This is not near the bottom because it tastes bad. It's near the bottom because it isn't chili.
Gardein Plant Based Chili
This plant-based chili from Gardein has no beans. Why? I know that some chili fans insist that beans traditionally don't belong in chili, but beans are tasty. If we're going plant based, why are we taking out the tastiest of plant-based ingredients? Anyway, this chili cost $5.99.
The Look: Not good. It looks sort of like cat food. It comes out of the can like cat food too. Not to spoil the surprise, but this chili isn't half bad, but I did not have high hopes as it slid out of the can.
The Taste: It's fine, but it could be so much better. I am here, once again, to beg you chili makers for spices. I'm two chilis deep as I write this, and I've yet to experience the flavor of a single chili pepper. The plant-based meat substitute in this version does its job, and is very easy to hide in something like chili. But a good chili needs spice, and without spice, it's not good chili.
Skyline Original Chili
Cincinnati-style chili is reputedly quite different than your typical chili con carne. For one thing, it's often served over spaghetti of all things! And it usually comes with a big pile of cheese on top. Skyline is the biggest brand of that Midwest-based food genre, operating chili parlors throughout Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and even parts of Florida. Full disclosure: I've never tried Cincinnati-style chili before, and to the good people of Cincy, I apologize that my first experience with your signature foodstuff has to come from a can. I picked up this one for $3.99 at my local Harris Teeter.
The Look: Inviting. Per tradition, I have placed abundant amounts of cheese on top. I see a bowl of chili, I see an ungodly amount of cheese, and I'm happy.
The Taste: Not bad. I did not think I would like this. I was prepared to apologize to pro quarterback Joe Burrow, fellow NFL players Travis and Jason Kelce, and whoever else associates themselves with the city of Cincinnati. But, it's better than expected. It is pretty sweet. I detect hints of cinnamon and maybe allspice in there. It tastes a little like a gingerbread cookie in chili form. It's got some acidity, too. But, most importantly, ladies and gentlemen, we have spices. Finally!
Amy's Organic Spicy Chili
Amy's makes beautiful mac and cheese, but I've been surprisingly disappointed with some of the brand's other products recently (see: burritos). Perhaps now Amy's can bounce back with this spicy-labeled red bean chili, which cost me $4.29. I can tell you that it's microwaving as I write this, and it smells amazing.
The Look: I see beans and what initially appears to be beef—it's actually tofu, believe it or not! And it looks dramatically less watery than some other contenders in this little series. Overall, a lovely presentation from Amy's here.
The Taste: "Spicy" might be a stretch. It certainly has spice, but it's hardly detectable amid all the other flavors going on. Aside from that, this tastes pretty solid. There is a slight bitterness, but it sort of works with everything else in the flavor profile, so I'm not upset about it. It's a little like a radicchio salad in that way.
But, finally, we have peppers! Bell peppers, it turns out, but peppers nonetheless. The added depth of flavor that even a bell pepper can bring to a chili cannot be understated.
Campbell's Chunky Bowls Chili With Beans
This Campbell's chili variety sells for $5.99 at my local Harris Teeter, and I can honestly say this is the best chili I've ever had out of a microwaveable plastic cup.
The Look: It could look better, for sure, but overall, my issue is more with the container than the actual food. In short: there is too much chili in this container. All the filling sinks to the bottom, and you're left with a sort of puddle of broth on top that doesn't scream "appealing."
Also, I assume this vessel is meant for a quick lunch at work, but as soon as you get a spoon in there, it starts to pour out the sides. This is a pretty good chili, but I'd recommend wrapping it in a paper towel before you enjoy it. Don't dip your spoon haphazardly into a chili like this.
The Taste: Pretty good. Can I make better chili? Yes. Can you make better chili? Yes. But, in the canned/prepackaged department, this is far better than I was expecting. My gripe, however, is this: the broth is tasty, but again, the spices are severely lacking. The reason the broth is so tasty, by the way, is the heart-stopping amount of sodium in here: 1,460 milligrams per serving, in fact. But, I digress.
Chili needs more than just your everyday table spices. I'm not asking Campbell's to start toasting dried anchos in the factory, but some cayenne or some chili powder would take this from an okay chili to a really nice chili. Also, there is a weird lack of beef in here. It's there, but it's not there in nearly enough quantity.
Marie Callender's Angus Beef Chili
I'll be totally honest: I thought Marie Callender's was a clothing brand for all 23 years of my existence, right up until I purchased this Angus beef chili. However, I've been told by trusted sources who shall remain nameless (my roommate) that I'm wrong. Let's see if this supposed food brand currently gaslighting me can make a good chili. For $2.99, it's at least chili at a good price.
The Look: Lighter in color than I generally think of when chili comes to mind, but it's not unappealing. It also presents like a chili, with beans and beef poking out of the top.
The Taste: Really good. It's rich and fatty, and that permeates through each bite you take. The beef is of normal consistency (unlike Hormel's) and there's a plethora of beans and beef within. The chili is well seasoned, if a little on the salty side: 1,200 milligrams per serving, in fact. The presence of trans fats also gives me pause. Overall, though, a very solid chili with a few health risks.
Wolf Brand Chili
I had never heard of Wolf Brand Chili before, but I was absolutely blown away by the flavor and value this chili provides. A can sells for $4.99 at my local grocery store.
The Look: A little soupy on the presentation, but a quick scoop with your spoon will reveal a plethora of beans and beef. Notably, though, it smells wrong. It doesn't smell bad, but it smells like tomatoes and peppers, when a good chili to me smells like spices and beef.
The Taste: Impressive! This is a great chili. It tastes almost exactly like the beans at the popular Mexican chain Uncle Julio's, if that means anything to anybody but me. This is definitely a bean-based chili, but what I'm getting is a subtle but correct presentation of chili flavors. I get pepper flavor, good texture on the beans, and maybe a hint of cinnamon.
Give full credit to the Wolf. You drastically exceeded my canned chili expectations.