As leaves fall and temperatures drop, I start to crave warm, nourishing meals. Nothing is more hearty and satisfying than a big bowl of chili. There are numerous recipes and approaches to chili, and it’s definitely a dish that’s easy to customize, but we all want our chili to be nice and thick.
The most traditional thickening agent for chili is masa harina, a flour made from corn that’s been treated with limewater. Masa harina has a distinct, slightly sour flavor that isn’t for everyone, and it may be somewhat hard to find depending on where you live. Luckily, there are several easy substitutions for masa harina that you can use to thicken your chili, such as corn flour, cornmeal, arrowroot starch, corn starch, and regular wheat flour.
Which one you choose really depends on the flavor you’re going for and what you have access to.
Masa Harina Substitutes for Various Reasons
There are several reasons you might be looking to swap out the masa harina in your chili, and that will help guide you to the appropriate substitute.
Allergic to Corn
If yourself or a family member is allergic to corn, you’ll obviously want to steer clear of masa harina and its closely related substitutes—corn flour, cornmeal, and corn starch. But don’t worry—there are still plenty of thickening options for your chili. Classic wheat flour works just fine. Shake it up with equal parts lukewarm water in a sealed jar before adding it to your chili to avoid lumps! If gluten is also an issue, try arrowroot starch or chickpea flour instead.
Don’t Like the Flavor
If the slightly sour flavor of masa harina just isn’t to your taste, but you still want to give your chili that Mexican flair, the next best substitute is corn flour or cornmeal. Corn flour will act quite similarly to masa harina or how a wheat flour would. Cornmeal, being a bit grainier, will add a slightly grittier texture, so the end result is really up to you. If you want to be rid of the corn flavor altogether, try a plain wheat flour or add a can of tomato paste for a bit of extra flavor.
Whether masa harina isn’t available in your local shops or you’re whipping up a pot of chili and just don’t happen to have it on hand, you have many alternatives to choose from. You can try any of the above mentioned substitutes—corn flour, cornmeal, arrowroot starch, corn starch, or regular wheat flour—but there are a few other fun things you might want to try as well.
Alternative Masa Harina Substitutes
Adding potatoes to your chili may not be very traditional, but it’s both delicious and hearty. When the potato chunks cook, they release starch, which will help thicken your chili as it simmers.
Beans are one of the main components that make chili what it is. If you set some of the cooked beans aside, puree them, and then add them back in, your chili will thicken up without the need for flour or other additions. Using canned refried beans is a quick and easy option, but I found the texture to be a bit less than appealing.
Crushed Corn Chips
I have to admit I haven’t personally tried this one, but it sounds both fun and delicious and I’m definitely going to give it a go on my next round. I love dipping tortilla chips into my chili, and I sometimes crush them up on top, but mixing them right in to thicken is a whole new level. The chips will break down and thicken the chili while also imparting a toasty, salty corn flavor.
Masa harina will give your chili an authentic flavor while also adding thickness, but it’s far from the only option. If it’s not your favorite or you simply don’t have it around, you now have an arsenal of excellent substitutes that are likely already sitting in your pantry.