There’s a school of thought which holds that true chili should not contain any beans but for those of us who aren’t recipe purists, a warm, spicy bowl just isn’t the same without the hearty texture that chili beans add.
What’s more is that thanks to the versatility beans offer, there’s several different types of beans you can use in your next recipe. The truth is almost any bean can be used in chili but the tested, tried-and-true ones are probably the best choice.
Because beans used in chili are subjected to extreme levels of heat when cooked over a hot stove. Since chili becomes more flavorful the longer it simmers, it’s best to pick the right bean for this purpose.
And if you’re wondering what beans those might be, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve got every popular chili bean covered so the next time you’re craving a big bowl, you’ll know just the right bean to pick to get the most out of your recipe.
Table of Contents
Common Ancestry of Chili Beans
All types of beans used in making chili are members of the Phaseolus vulgaris (P. vulgaris) species which is also referred to as the common bean. Beans in this group are believed to be one of the oldest cultivated species and are currently grown on all over the world on every continent except for one – Antarctica!
Besides being part of the same species, beans in this group are often kept cool and dry, which can give them a nearly indefinite life span. Of course, this alone makes them an incredibly valuable food resource since they are high in protein, carbohydrate and fiber. In addition, they supply high amounts of key nutrients like selenium, potassium, thiamine, iron, and folate.
Although it’s common to purchase any of the chili beans we discuss in canned form, they are all easily rehydrated after a few hours of soaking in water before being boiled. Once fully cooked, they are soft, tender and easy to chew.
The most common variety of dark red kidney beans come by their name for an obvious reason – they resemble the color and shape of a human kidney.
In addition to the dark-colored bean, there are other varieties of kidney beans including light speckled, red speckled and white, all of which we’ll touch on later.
Kidney beans are the most common type of bean used in chili recipes but is also used in other cuisines as well, particularly in the southern United States. In the late 1700s, Spanish immigrants brought the beans to Louisiana, where they quickly became part of the diet in the popular staple dish of red beans and rice.
What makes kidney beans particularly useful in chili is their ability to keep their shape and structure when being simmered. Besides their sturdiness, kidney beans are also have a hearty texture and satisfying mouthfeel.
Aside from being an excellent chili bean, pinto beans are extremely popular in a variety of Spanish and Mexican dishes. In fact, the pinto bean is grown and consumed more than any other bean in an area covering the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico.
It’s known for its speckled appearance, or frijol pinto in Spanish, which translates into “speckled bean”. The pinto bean is typically eaten whole or mashed and then served refried where it’s used as a side dish or as a filling in tacos, burritos or tostadas.
Pinto beans are known for having a texture that is on the creamier side. While still meaty, they are tender, easier to chew and possess a nutty, earthy flavor profile.
Like the kidney bean, the black bean is a commonly used type of bean in chili recipes. Also like the kidney bean, the black bean shares a similar history both in South America and in the Southern United States.
The black bean first appeared in the United States in the mid-1800s after the war between Mexico and the United States where it quickly became a staple in Creole cuisine. In Mexican cuisine, the black bean is often eaten in burritos or in a specialty dish known as frijoles negros.
Black beans are small and dense and tolerate heat very well. Once cooked, they impart a meaty, slightly crunchy texture and rich flavor, making them ideal for chili.
White Chili Bean Varieties
Although black beans, kidney beans and pinto beans are most often associated with chili, there are some other beans that feature prominently in alternative chili recipes like white bean chicken chili, white bean turkey chili and white bean vegetarian chili.
Great Northern Beans
Great Northern beans are the second largest white bean on our list ahead of navy beans but not as large as Cannellini beans. They’re roughly shaped like a lima bean and were originally cultivated in North Dakota which is where the “north” in the name comes from.
Great Northern beans have a delicate, nutty flavor. After they’re cooked, the skin of the Great Northern is firm with a meaty interior. In addition to being used as chili beans, Great Northern beans are heavily used in soups and stews since they can absorb much of the flavor of the broth they’re cooked in.
Cannellini Beans (White Kidney Beans)
The largest of the white beans on our chili bean list, Cannellini beans closely resemble the shape and texture of red kidney beans. As you might expect from the name, Cannellini beans are extremely popular in Italian cuisine and used heavily in minestrone soup.
Also like the red kidney bean, Cannellini beans are loved for their meaty texture that hides beneath a layer of tender flesh. Cannellini beans also hold their structure very well under high heat which makes them perfect for simmering in dishes like chili.
Last, the flavor of Cannellini beans is best described as slightly earthy and nutty but delicate enough to not overpower any recipe you’re preparing.
Navy beans are small, oval beans that closely resemble a pea in appearance, which is why they’re sometimes referred to as pea beans.
The bean gets its name from its use as a high protein, staple food in the United States Navy as far back as the mid-1800s.
When fully cooked, Navy beans have a soft texture and mild flavor with hints of nuttiness. Navy beans also have the highest amount of fiber of any other bean, measuring up to twenty grams per serving.
I’m Griffin and I make my living as a freelance writer and wannabe sci fi author. Besides my obsession with words, I have a few others which may or may not include craft beer, backcountry hikes and spending time with loved ones – preferably in that order. Thanks for checking out my work and I hope you enjoy it!