Ground Turkey Chili with Pinto Beans

Sunday, September 27, 2020


This recipe is what I'd call a "pantry dump." There are days when I have time to develop complex flavors from scratch, such as my Tex-Mex Beef Chili recipe. There is nothing better than a chili that starts with dried Mexican chiles and chunks of beef, simmered for hours on a lazy afternoon. But sometimes chili cravings kick in when dinner needs to happen on a weeknight. That's where my pantry ingredients come in. With a generous helping of spices and an assortment of canned goodies, you can bring any kind of ground meat to life. Even ground turkey, which is what I've used in today's recipe.

Here are my tips on hooking up chili with common pantry ingredients:

  • My favorite ground meats to use are 80/20 or 85/15 ground beef, ground lamb, and ground turkey. If you go with leaner meat like turkey, try to find ground turkey thigh specifically. It holds up better to simmering without drying out.
  • All "chili powders" are not created equal. Some don't even contain any actual ground chiles! Read your label to see what's in it, and adjust as needed. Most chili powders include cumin, coriander, oregano, paprika, cayenne, and garlic. You can boost the flavor by adding a pure ground chile like ancho, guajillo, or chipotle. 
  • Make sure your spices are fresh for the best results. Cumin and paprika in particular are pretty stale-tasting when they're past their prime, no matter how much you add.
  • If you're short on ground chiles, a can of chipotle peppers can work. Chop a couple chiles and add it to your broth, as well as some of the adobo sauce. Chipotle peppers can be quite spicy, so add a little at a time and taste as you go until you get the amount right. Canned green chiles are also great for flavor, though not as potent.
  • Even though your seasonings may contain garlic and onion powder, starting with fresh onion and garlic in the pot goes a long way. Bell peppers are optional, but chances are you've got a random one hanging out in the fridge with nothing better to do.
  • Ingredients that have a smoky flavor add a lot of depth to chili. Consider incorporating smoked paprika, opting for fire-roasted tomatoes, or adding a splash of liquid smoke.
  • Use the best stock you have. If it's not homemade, you can improve the mouthfeel of commercial stocks with unflavored gelatin. Sprinkle the contents of two gelatin packets over 1/2 cup of stock. Let it sit for five minutes, then microwave for fifteen seconds and stir to dissolve. Stir this into the chili after adding the remaining stock to the pot.
  • A glug of coconut aminos, soy sauce, fish sauce, or Worcestershire sauce can add a boost of umami to your chili. This is especially helpful with ground turkey to give it a meatier flavor. A little bit of instant coffee or cocoa powder can be nice too.
  • Bulk up your chili with drained canned beans. It's a great way to stretch the meat with added protein. (If you have the time, cook dried beans and use the resulting bean broth in your chili for something more luscious.) Sometimes I can't use beans, like for Whole30 meals, so I'll roast a small pan of diced sweet potato and add that instead.
  • There are a number of ways you can achieve good heat, but it's more interesting if spicy notes come from a few different ingredients. That can be your chili powder, extra cayenne or crushed red pepper, fresh jalapenos or serranos, canned chipotle peppers, hot sauce, or any combination thereof.
Read on to see what I grabbed from my pantry, fridge, and freezer to whip up this bowl of ground turkey chili for dinner tonight!

Ground Turkey Chili with Pinto Beans


2 tbsp duck fat, or your preferred cooking oil; more as needed
1 lb ground turkey thigh
1 cup diced onion
1 cup diced bell pepper
3 TBSP chili powder, or to taste*
2 tsp smoked paprika
2 tbsp tomato paste
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups of your best chicken or beef stock
14.5-oz can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
7-oz can diced green chiles
2 tbsp coconut aminos
14.5-oz can pinto beans
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

*I layered 2 TBSP of Spice Tribe's California Love, a traditional chile powder blend, with 1 TBSP Masa Mole, which added ancho, guajillo, and chipotle chilies with cinnamon and allspice.

Active Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour
Yield: Serves 4 - 6 / About 2 quarts
Special Equipment: Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot

  1. Over medium-high heat, cook the ground turkey adding a couple tablespoons of fat to the pot. I like using duck fat with poultry, but any cooking oil would work here. Season the turkey with salt and pepper. As soon as no pink is visible, transfer the turkey to a bowl and set aside. (If you were using fattier meat like beef or lamb, it's a good idea to drain off excess grease.)
  2. Add more oil to the pot if necessary. Cook the onions and peppers for a few minutes, until softened. Season with a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to medium-low.
  3. Stir in the chili powder and smoked paprika. Cook for a minute to let the spices bloom. Add the tomato paste and garlic, cooking for another minute.
  4. Pour in the stock, scraping up any browned bits in the pot. Check your seasonings here; it's a good time to adjust the broth if lacking flavor. If you add any more spices, give the broth a couple minutes before tasting again.
  5. Stir in the diced tomatoes, chiles, and coconut aminos.
  6. Drain the beans, but don't rinse. Add the beans and cooked turkey to the pot and stir to combine.
  7. Simmer, uncovered, until the chili thickens slightly, about 20-30 minutes. Alternatively, if you have an oven-safe pot you can transfer it to the oven and cook at 350°F for 30 minutes. I find that it picks up some additional browning this way, which deepens flavors.
  8. Finish the chili a splash of vinegar. If you have fresh lime, that works too - any pop of acidity is nice.

To build my chili bowl, I like to start with cornbread in the bottom of the bowl. (I had some in the freezer that I reheated, which was so convenient tonight!) Then I'll ladle chili over the cornbread and top with whatever garnishes we have on hand. I like to pile it on - meanwhile, my daughter is content with a scoop of sour cream. The great thing about chili is that everybody can customize their own bowl. It gets even better after a night in the fridge!

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