Wendy’s chili: Recreating this classic dish at home

Wendy's Sign (Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for Wendy's)
Wendy's Sign (Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for Wendy's) /

Taking a detailed look at the chili at Wendy’s, complete with a recipe to make your own at home.

Chili is one of the things that gives Wendy’s that slightly folksy, not-trying-too-hard feeling. It’s been on the menu since the very beginning, setting the chain apart as one that values simplicity over trendiness. Think of it as the exact opposite of a chipotle pea protein and quinoa snack wrap or whatever the other burger chains are trying out this month.

I know Wendy’s chili doesn’t please many Texans or chili snobs out there, but not every pot of chili needs to be made with tradition in mind. If you want to get lost in the weeds of a chili debate, be my guest, but there is no chili that will make everyone happy. Except maybe my chili, and I suppose Anthony Bourdain’s Southwest Beef Chili, since mine is almost entirely based on that recipe.

Wendy’s chili annoys different chili snobs for different reasons: it has an abundance of beans, a very mild level of heat, lots of tomatoes, and uses leftover hamburger meat in lieu of nicely browned chunks of stewing beef. But I couldn’t care less. I’m from Canada, where beans and tomatoes are almost ubiquitous in chili, so even though I can also make and appreciate a pot of actual Texas chili, I can’t turn my nose up at non-traditional ones on principle.

Wendy’s lists the ingredients on its website:

"Chili Base (Chili Sauce [Water, Tomato Paste, Tomatoes {Tomatoes, Tomato Juice, Calcium Chloride}, Sugar, Modified Corn Starch, Salt, Chili Pepper, Spices, Flavour Enhancer {Dextrose, Salt, Yeast Extract, Modified Corn Starch}, Citric Acid, Garlic Powder, Disodium Inosinate, Disodium Guanylate, Onion Powder, Xanthan Gum], Onions, Celery, Green Peppers), Water, Ground Beef (Seasoned With Salt), Chili Beans (Prepared Pink Beans, Prepared Red Kidney Beans), Soya Lecithin. CONTAINS: SOY, MILK."

Okay, lists like that aren’t the most appetizing thing in the world, but let’s break it down. The Wendy’s recipe features a “base” of chili sauce made with tomatoes, water, chili peppers, seasonings, and cornstarch (a thickener). This goes along with an aromatic mix of onions, celery, and green peppers (which you may recognize as the Cajun/Creole holy trinity). Next is ground beef, beans, and soya lecithin. We’re going to leave the soya lecithin out of our recipe, though it is supposedly a more or less benign additive used primarily as an emulsifier. And we’re not going to be putting in any onion powder in this either. End of story.

While I keep actual chili sauce in my fridge for use in dips and dressings, I’m fairly certain Wendy’s is using something somewhat different in its recipe. So, we’re going to go with a seasoned base of canned tomatoes and chili peppers. Rotel is a great brand for slightly spicy canned tomatoes, but you can use anything and season it to your liking. Like chunky chili? Use whole tomatoes and crush them in your (clean) hands before adding them to the pot. Like smooth chili? Use strained or diced tomatoes.

Wendy’s uses two types of beans, red kidney and pink. It probably isn’t imperative to do this in your recipe, but why not try? In my experience the kidney beans at Wendy’s are always on the large size, so do your best to find a brand that typically has those. Pink beans are smaller in general than kidney beans, making size less important, and they can be easily substituted in this recipe with white or pinto beans. Almost any beans really. But not green beans.

Ingredients List

Chili Base (recipe follows)

  • 1-2 pounds of ground beef or leftover hamburger burger meat, cooked and crumbled
  • 1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped
  • 2 ribs of celery, diced
  • 1 large green pepper, roasted
  • 1 tbs PLUS 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp PLUS 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp PLUS 1 tsp garlic powder
  • ½ tsp ground black pepper PLUS more as needed
  • 1 tsp salt PLUS more as needed
  • 1 can large red kidney beans, partially drained
  • 1 can pink or similar small beans, partially drained


First you will prepare the base.

Add one large can of tomatoes or two cans of Rotel tomatoes to a thick-bottomed pot. (Use a pot other than the one you are making the chili in if you wish to save time by browning the meat and getting the aromatics ready while this reduces.) Rinse the insides of the tomato can (or cans) with water, filling it halfway, and empty into pot. Add two bay leaves and one teaspoon each of chili powder, cumin, and garlic powder. Adjust seasoning to taste, adding ground or dried red pepper flakes for heat if desired. A beef bouillon cube or even some homemade beef stock would be a welcome addition at this point, but isn’t necessary.

Bring base to a high simmer and allow to reduce for about 60 minutes, adding more water if necessary. This step is important in helping the flavors of the base develop.

Now you will begin preparing the main dish.

Turn on your broiler and put the oven rack to its second highest position. Place the green pepper (and any other peppers you have on hand, the more the merrier!) skin-side up broil for 5-10 minutes, checking to make sure it does not burn and moving the pepper around so that it cooks evenly. Once the skin is nearly entirely blackened, it is ready. Seal the pepper in a bowl under plastic wrap and allow to steam.

Meanwhile, cook ground beef in a large, thick-bottomed pot on high heat. Do this in a few batches, adding a sprinkle of salt to each batch and stirring occasionally but allowing some bits to stick to the bottom (without burning them!). Once all the meat is cooked and has rested on a plate for a few minutes, add its juices to the base.

Lower heat slightly and add onions to the pot, seasoning with salt and pepper and stirring until they begin to soften. Add celery and cook until soft. This process can take as little as 10-15 minutes but can be done at lower temperatures for longer to achieve more deeper, more mellowed aromas. You won’t regret spending 45 minutes on onions and celery if you have the time with this recipe.

Once you’re ready to move forward, peel the roasted pepper, coarsely chop, and add to the onions and celery. Add 1 tbs chili powder, 1 tsp cumin, 1 tsp garlic powder, and ½ tsp black pepper and stir for 3 minutes.

Add finished chili base and partially drained beans to the larger pot. Simmer for 30 minutes. Add ground beef/hamburger meat. Simmer for 5 more minutes. Add 1 tsp salt and adjust seasoning to taste and serve.

Related Story. The Great Fast Food Debate: Wendy's vs. McDonald's. light

There you have it. Wendy’s chili, possibly made even better. Serve with baked potatoes, French fries, tortilla chips, or even on top of rice.

Did you take the time to recreate this classic Wendy’s dish? Let us know how it went. Craving another fast food recreation? Check out this recipe for Popeyes-style Red Beans and Rice.