This Butternut Squash Chili is a hearty, comforting dish perfect for a cozy night in or a festive gathering. It starts with a base of sautéed onions and garlic, to which diced butternut squash is added, lending a sweet, nutty flavor that pairs beautifully with the bold heat of jalapeños and the smokiness of chipotle in adobo.
The richness is further deepened by a hint of cocoa powder, a classic chili powder blend, earthy cumin, and aromatic oregano. Canned diced tomatoes and tomato sauce form a thick, savory broth, while black beans bring protein-packed substance to the table. It’s a colorful, flavorful twist on traditional chili that’s as nutritious as it is delicious, perfect for warming up on a chilly day or impressing at a potluck.
This vegetarian chili recipe is also gluten-free!
While the vegetables I planted in my garden this past summer were a study in mediocrity, the butternut squash that was a volunteer from our compost bin hit the ground running and never looked! Most people give away zucchini over the summer, but we were pawning off our butternut squash to anyone and everyone! To that end, I’ve been working butternut squash into as many recipes as I can, and this is the latest that I wanted to share with you.
Ingredients in this Butternut Squash Chili
- Olive Oil: A staple for sautéing; it adds a subtle, fruity undertone. If you’re watching your budget, you can also use vegetable oil, but olive oil offers a richer flavor.
- Onion: The base of any good chili, onions are sweet and savory. Y
- Garlic: Fresh minced garlic will give you the best flavor.
- Jalapeño or Poblano: Jalapeños bring the heat, while poblanos are milder but fuller in flavor. Remove the seeds if you want to keep things on the cooler side.
- Butternut Squash: The star of the show. Cutting them uniformly helps them cook evenly. Pre-cut, cubed butternut squash is a time-saver, but chopping a whole squash can be cheaper.
- Chipotle in Adobo: These smoked jalapeños in a tangy sauce add a deep, smoky heat. A little goes a long way, so adjust based on your heat preference.
- Cocoa Powder: Cocoa powder adds a rich and earthy depth to chili that complements the natural sweetness of tomatoes and butternut squash. It gives your chili a more rounded taste profile. Just like in a good mole sauce, cocoa can give a velvety richness to sauces and stews, chili included.
- Chili Powder: The key spice for any chili, offering a complex mix of sweet, savory, and spicy flavors. Quality varies, so find one you love.
- Ground Cumin: Earthy and slightly bitter, cumin is essential for that quintessential chili taste.
- Oregano: Adds a slight bitterness and an aromatic touch. Mexican oregano is preferred for authenticity, but regular oregano will do just fine.
- Diced Tomatoes: Canned tomatoes bring acidity and sweetness, plus they save time. Fire-roasted can add a smoky twist if you’re feeling fancy.
- Tomato Sauce: It thickens the chili and adds a smooth tomato base. No need to splurge here; the store brand is often just as good as any.
- Black Beans: The heartiness in your chili. Canned beans are a convenience, but if you have time, cooking from dry is cost-effective and can reduce sodium.
- Vegetable Broth or Water: Broth adds more flavor, but water works in a pinch. If you have bouillon cubes or powder, you can make your own broth as needed.
- Cornmeal: This is your thickening agent. It gives a subtle corn flavor and improves the chili’s texture. A little goes a long way!
Butternut Squash: To Peel or Not to Peel
Hmmm…that’s the question, isn’t it?
I’m in the “not peel” camp. You can tell that the peel is there, but it doesn’t bother my family enough to peel it.
If you do decide to peel your butternut squash:
- Use a sharp vegetable peeler: A good peeler can make the job easier. Start at the top and work your way down to the bottom.
- Stability is key: Cut off the top and bottom ends of the squash first to create flat surfaces. This makes it safer and easier to peel and cut.
- Scoop the seeds: After peeling, cut the squash in half lengthwise and use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and stringy bits.
- Be careful: The squash can be slippery, so take your time and use a steady hand.
Variations and Suggestions
- Meat Lovers: Add ground beef, ground turkey, or ground chicken for a protein boost. Brown the meat with the onions before adding the other ingredients.
- Grain Inclusion: Stir in quinoa or bulgur wheat with the vegetable broth to add texture and make it even more filling.
- Different Beans: Swap out black beans for red kidney beans, pinto beans, or a mix to play with different flavors and textures.
- Veggie Variety: Throw in some green or red bell peppers for sweetness, corn for crunch, or zucchini for extra veggies. You can also substitute sweet potato for the butternut squash. Sweet potatoes tend to be a bit firmer than butternut squash, so they hold up well during long cooking times.
- Leafy Greens: Add kale or spinach at the end of cooking for added color and nutrition.
- Sweetness and Spice: For a sweeter version, add a touch of brown sugar, maple syrup, or honey. Increase the heat with extra chipotle peppers, red pepper flakes, or a dash of cayenne pepper.
- Beer: Deglaze the pan with a splash of beer after sautéing the onions and garlic for an added layer of flavor.
- Toppings: Offer a variety of toppings like shredded cheese, chopped green onions, avocado slices, tortilla strips, or lime wedges for a burst of freshness.
- Roasted Squash: For an added depth of flavor, try roasting the butternut squash first until it’s slightly caramelized.
- Cheese: Stir in some cubed cheese (like pepper jack for heat or cheddar for classic comfort) until melted and creamy.
- Slow Cooker Adaptation: For ease, you can adapt this recipe for the slow cooker, adding all the ingredients after the sautéing step and letting it simmer on low for several hours.
Make this Butternut Squash Chili in your Slow Cooker
Follow the recipe as written through step 6, at which point you will add all ingredients to your crock pot or slow cooker. Set your crockpot on low and let your chili cook for 4-5 hours, until the butternut squash is tender. Then, finish by adding the beans and corn meal 10 minutes before serving.
Can You Use Frozen Butternut Squash?
Yes! But keep the following in mind:
- You can add frozen butternut squash directly to this butternut squash chili recipe as it cooks. There’s no need to thaw it first, which saves time and keeps the squash from becoming too mushy.
- Frozen squash may require a slightly longer cooking time to reach the desired tenderness compared to fresh squash. Just keep simmering the chili until the squash is cooked to your liking.
- Since frozen vegetables can release more water when cooked, you might find your chili is a bit more liquid than you like. If this happens, you can let it simmer uncovered for a little longer to reduce or add a bit more cornmeal to thicken it up.
- Frozen butternut squash is blanched before freezing, which might affect its texture slightly, making it softer than fresh squash. The flavor, however, should be very similar to fresh.
Making Ahead and Storing this Vegetarian Chili Recipe
Make it Ahead of Time
Butternut squash chili, like most chili recipes, actually often tastes better after a day or two in the refrigerator because the flavors have time to meld together.
For the best blend of flavors, you might want to make your chili at least a day ahead of when you plan to serve it. Generally, chili will keep well in the refrigerator for about 3 to 4 days. Make sure to store it in an airtight container to maintain freshness and prevent it from picking up other flavors from the fridge.
After cooking, cool the chili down quickly to reach a safe refrigerator-stored temperature. You can do this by placing the pot in a sink filled with cold water and stirring the chili to release heat.
When you’re ready to eat your butternut squash chili, reheat only the portion you plan to consume.
If you anticipate not consuming the whole batch within three days, it’s a good idea to freeze the remainder as per your usual method using freezer pods.
Remember to stir the chili well before serving again, as the ingredients can settle and separate in the fridge. If it thickens too much upon cooling, just add a bit of water or broth while reheating to reach the desired consistency.
Storing the Butternut Squash Chili
Let the chili come to room temperature before you freeze it in an airtight container or containers. This prevents condensation from building up inside, which can lead to freezer burn. I like to portion it into freezer pods because I can store and defrost just what we need and not the entire container. And the smaller pods are easier to store than one big container.
If you have different sized containers, use smaller ones for individual servings and larger ones for family-sized portions. Chili expands as it freezes, so leave about a half-inch of space at the top of each container to allow for expansion.
Use labels to mark the date and contents on each pod. This Butternut Squash Chili is best used within 2-3 months of freezing for optimal flavor.
Thaw the chili in the refrigerator for 24 hours before you plan to eat it. If you’re in a hurry, you can also thaw it in the microwave or on the stovetop over low heat. Then, reheat it on the stove or in the microwave until it’s hot all the way through. If it seems too thick, add a little water or broth to reach your desired consistency.
Once reheated, consider adding fresh toppings like chopped cilantro, diced avocado, a squeeze of lime, or shredded cheese to bring back a touch of freshness.
Food Storage Favorite
I’ve been using Freezer Storage Cubes and Freezer Pods for years! We use the 1 cup, the 1/2 cup, and the 2 tablespoon trays.
The 1 cup is perfect for lunch portions of soup and chili, as well as beans for meals.
The 1/2 cup size is great for freezing buttermilk and cream. We also portion out 1/2 cup portions of our seasoned meat for our weekly nachos.
The 2-tablespoon trays are a great size for tomato paste and chipotle in adobo.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 onion, diced
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 jalapeno or poblano, diced
- 3 cups diced butternut squash, aim for 1/2" to 3/4" dice. (See note 1)
- 2 tablespoons diced chipotle peppers in adobo
- 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
- 1 tablespoon chIli powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 1-15 ounce can of diced tomatoes
- 1-15 ounce can of tomato sauce
- 2-15 ounce cans of black beans, drained (or 4 cups of soaked and cooked black beans)
- 2 cups vegetable broth or water
- 1 tablespoon cornmeal
- Add oil to a large (4- to 6-quart) heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven pan over medium heat until the oil is shimmering.
- Add onion and cook for 4-5 minutes until translucent.
- Add garlic and saute for 2 minutes.
- Add diced jalapeno and diced butternut squash and mix to combine.
- Reduce heat to medium-low and add cocoa powder, chili powder, ground cumin, and oregano. Stir constantly and cook for another 30 seconds, until fragrant.
- Add diced tomatoes with their juices, tomato sauce, chipotle in adobo, and broth or water.
- Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer and let simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until butternut squash is tender.
- Ten minutes before serving, stir in cornmeal and beans. (see note 2)
Serve with grated cheese, cilantro, and sour cream.
Note 1: I never peel butternut squash; I can tell the skin is there, but it doesn't bother my family. That said, feel free to peel it if that's your jam.
Note 2: When using canned beans, I often add them at the end of the cooking so that they don't get mushy. If you are using beans you've soaked and partially cooked, you can add them earlier. Use your judgment.
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