Chili cook-off using (left to right) a slow cooker, a Dutch oven, and a multi-cooker.
For CR's chili cook-off, we used (from left) a slow cooker, a Dutch oven, and a multi-cooker.

Wintertime can be bleak, with unpredictable weather and shorter, darker days. But it's also peak chili season, so it's not all bad.

When done right, this hearty dish satisfies, whether you need a weeknight dinner or a slow-cooked Sunday supper. So in the name of comfort food, we set out to find the best cooking method for this classic meal.

Some common ways include using a Dutch oven, a slow cooker, or a multi-cooker. But which one turns tough chuck meat and dried beans into the best mouth-watering chili?

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To find out, we cooked batches of chili using a Dutch oven, slow cooker, and multi-cooker in its slow-cook and pressure-cook modes.

To appeal to a variety of tastes, we opted for a classic beef chili recipe with diced tomatoes, chicken broth, chili powder, cumin, dried oregano, cocoa, and jalapeño peppers. We used chunks of chuck roast (instead of ground beef) and dried, unsoaked pinto beans (instead of canned beans) to gauge each appliance's ability to cook these tough-to-tenderize ingredients. Then we conducted a blind taste test with 10 CR staffers, who ranked each batch based on color, aroma, flavor, texture, and heat. 

Here’s what we found, along with a few tips for getting the best results no matter which method you choose.

Dutch Oven Chili

Time required: 2½ hours (30 minutes to sear the meat and vegetables, plus 2 hours in the oven)

How we cooked it: We browned the beef and lightly cooked the vegetables in the Dutch oven on the stovetop before adding everything else (diced tomatoes, chicken broth, and spices) and cooked it in an oven set to 300° F for 2 hours.

Tasting notes: This chili looked nothing like the batches we made in the multi-cooker and slow cooker. It was thick, dark brown, and scored the lowest grade for color and one of the lowest for texture. “It’s dry, lumpy, and looks unappetizing,” one taster said. 

But what it lacked in looks was more than made up for in flavor. Our tasters scored the chili fairly high for aroma, flavor, and heat. The chili tasted deep and layered with enough sweetness to balance out the bitterness and heat. There was distinct chili flavor in the meat, though not as much in the beans, which were still a bit hard. And tasters noted that there was more afterburn from the spice with this batch compared with the others. “That residual heat really stays with you,” said one taster. This chili could have been the clear winner had it not been so dry.

Cooking tips: Presoak the beans. We didn’t soak them to keep the testing fair across the board, but doing so will prevent them from being undercooked and help them absorb some of the chili flavor. To prevent excessive evaporation (and a dry chili), tightly cover the pot in aluminum foil before putting on the lid.

For this chili cook-off, we used the Le Creuset Signature, our top-rated Dutch oven.

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Le Creuset Signature Dutch Oven

Price: $340

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Multi-Cooker in Pressure-Cook Mode Chili

Time required: 1½ hours (30 minutes to sear the meat and vegetables, 15 minutes to build pressure inside the cooker, and 45 minutes to cook)

How we cooked it: Using the multi-cooker, we seared the chuck using the sauté function, then lightly cooked the vegetables. Searing and sautéing in a multi-cooker is convenient because you don’t need to dirty a separate pan, but we found that the tall and narrow shape of the pot didn’t properly facilitate browning. Instead, the beef steamed in its own juices. In the lab, our multi-cooker tests have shown sautéing to be a weak spot for some models, too; the electric mechanism just can't get as hot as a pan on the stove. After adding the remaining ingredients, we locked the lid in place and cooked it on high pressure for 45 minutes.

Tasting notes: The chili was a beautiful reddish-brown color with just the right amount of gravy coating all the ingredients. Our panel deemed it one of the most attractive in our test, but overall, it didn’t live up to expectations. “It smells oddly metallic,” noted one taster. “All I smell is cumin,” noted another. The chili had a slightly bitter taste but was otherwise bland. Perhaps the thick layer of burnt black chili we found stuck to the bottom of the pot was the culprit. Some beans were tender and some were hard, while the meat was fall-apart tender, so the chili didn’t cook consistently. And though the gravy had just the right thickness, it was a bit gritty.

Cooking tips: To get a proper sear on the meat, try browning it in small batches. Our recipe said to brown the meat in two batches, 10 minutes each, but four batches would have been better. That doubles the prep time, though. Or you can sauté the meat and vegetables in a pan.

Multi-Cooker in Slow-Cook Mode Chili

Time required: 4½ hours (30 minutes to sear the meat and vegetables, plus 4 hours to slow-cook on the high-heat setting)

How we cooked it: We seared the chuck and lightly cooked the vegetables using the multi-cooker's sauté function. Just like the pressure-cooked batch, the pot steamed the beef instead of browning it. After adding the remaining ingredients, we locked the lid in place and slow-cooked the chili on high heat for 4 hours.

Tasting notes: This batch was a crowd favorite. “It has the best texture, and the meat falls apart nicely,” said one taster. “But where’s the heat?” asked another. The chilies seem to have lost their flavor in the slow-cook process, so points were docked for the lack of heat and aroma. However, this chili scored high for color and texture. Using the slow-cook mode in a multi-cooker works great if you like your chili mild. Had the beef browned properly, perhaps the flavor would have deepened.

Cooking tips: See our tip in the “Multi-Cooker in Pressure-Cook Mode” section, above. Also, consider boosting the flavor and aroma by adding more spices or throwing in some chilies at the end.

For this chili cook-off, we used the 6-qt. Zavor LUX LCD, our top-rated multi-cooker.

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Zavor LUX LCD : ZSELL02

Price: $160

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Slow-Cooker Chili

Time required: 4½ hours (30 minutes to sear the meat and vegetables, plus 4 hours to slow-cook on the high-heat setting)

How we cooked it: We seared the chuck and lightly cooked the vegetables in a skillet on the stove. We transferred them to the slow cooker, added the remaining ingredients, and slow-cooked on high heat for 4 hours.

Tasting notes: This batch had a layer of oil on top, no matter how many times we stirred it, so points were docked for that. Similar to the slow-cooked batch made in the multi-cooker, this chili lacked aroma and heat. It averaged a C for flavor because it tasted flat, though it was still beefier than the batch slow-cooked in the multi-cooker, perhaps because we browned the beef on the stove first. One taster remarked that the meat was tender and the beans were nice and al dente.

Cooking tips: Prevent a greasy chili by draining the fat rendered from the beef after browning. 

For this chili cook-off, we used the 6-qt. Hamilton Beach Temp Tracker, our top-rated slow cooker.

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Hamilton Beach Temp Tracker 33866 6 Qt.

Price: $70

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Chili Cook-Off Winner

Four bowls of chili in a cook-off tasting.
Chili cooked in the slow cooker (left), the Dutch oven, slow-cooked in the multi-cooker, and pressure-cooked in the multi-cooker.

For making great chili, it’s a tie between the Dutch oven and the multi-cooker in slow-cook mode. Each requires some tweaking in the cooking methods, though. The Dutch oven chili had the best aroma, heat, and flavor, but it looked less than appetizing due to its dry texture. And the longer it sat, the thicker it got. Our cooking tips should help keep your chili from drying out. 

The chili we cooked in the multi-cooker in slow-cook mode was picture-perfect, with the ideal consistency and color. But the flavor and aroma fell flat. Though again, a couple of simple changes can pump up the flavor in your chili.

For more on small appliances and cookware, see Consumer Reports' ratings and buying guides for kitchen appliances and cookware

And one last piece of advice for awesome chili: Don’t forget the toppings! 


Cooking With Countertop Appliances

Countertop appliances have come a long way over the years. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Sara Morrow shows host Jack Rico how it's possible to cook an entire meal without using your oven or range.