Build a Better Chili Bar

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Learn how to build a better Chili Bar so everyone can create their own dream dinner. Take a classic chili recipe over the top when you pair it with a buffet including cheese, sour cream, cornbread, hot sauce, and all the best toppings you can dream up. Chili Bars are ideal for parties in the cool months or an epic game day celebration.

Two bowls of chili on a chili bar.


 

Rewrite your definition for “BYOB.” Today, we’re focusing on building your own bowl! Just like a tapas platter and a cheese board allows guests to assemble their ideal serving, a Chili Bar dinner party is a low-fuss way to feed a crowd. (Including picky eaters.)

Whether I’m serving it to fuel a large crowd of fans on the day of a big sporting event or am simply sharing it with my crew for family dinner, a Chili Bar is one of my surefire secrets to dinner success. This dinner party idea is like edible art, only instead of a canvas, your palette is a big bowl of stew!

Ingredient notes

  • Chili: You’ll need about 8 cups to comfortably feed 4 adults, likely with a bit for leftovers. Feel free to make your favorite family chili recipe instead, or to save time, stress, and mess, simply snag a few cans of chili at the supermarket.
  • Cheese: Shredded cheddar cheese is always an easy choice, or level up your cheese choices with crumbled cotija or queso fresco, Colby jack, or pepper jack cheese.
  • Onions: White, yellow, or red onions – all good choices. Or, try pickled shallots or onions.
  • Jalapeños: Or substitute pickled jalapeño or serrano chiles.
  • Bacon: It’s easy to make bacon on the stove or in the oven, but there is no shame in using a bag of cooked bacon bits (look for ones made from real bacon instead of imitation pieces).
  • Dippers: Whether you serve them on the side or sprinkle them over the top, dippers like tortilla chips, corn chips, cornbread, piping-hot tater tots, and slices of bread are a delicious, necessary component of any chili bar. They add texture and taste while filling out the menu. I usually offer 1-2 dipper choices for every 4 people.

Step-by-step instructions

  1. Place the chili on one side of the table next to a stack of bowls. If you own a slow cooker, transfer the chili to it, cover it, and set to “keep warm” for serving. Set a ladle nearby on a spoon rest or salad plate to catch the mess.
A crockpot full of chili with toppings on a Chili Bar.
  1. Adjacent to the chili, arrange toppings in bowls with spoons or tongs to dole out the garnishes. Consider labeling each item so everyone knows what they’re piling on.
A crockpot full of chili with toppings on a Chili Bar.
  1. Set the dippers on the table next. If you’re serving cornbread or slices of baguette, add a stick of butter to the buffet.
A crockpot full of chili with toppings on a Chili Bar.
  1. On the far side of the table, include a stack of napkins and baskets or jars full of spoons and knives.
A crockpot full of chili with toppings on a Chili Bar.

Recipe tips and variations

  • Yield: This Chili Bar is sized-right for 4 servings. Scale up or down accordingly; a bar-style menu is ideal for gatherings big and small.
  • Storage: Store leftover chili covered in the refrigerator for up to 4 days or freeze for up to 3 months.
  • Make ahead: Try my Slow Cooker Chili Con Carne to set and forget up to 10 hours early, then flip it to “keep warm” come bar o’clock. Feel free to chop or slice vegetable toppings and shred or crumble cheese up to 24 hours in advance. Store each item in separate airtight containers in the refrigerator.
  • Freezer: Cool cooked chili to below 40 degrees on an instant-read thermometer within 2 hours and place into airtight containers. Frozen chili will last 4 to 6 months in the freezer. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator.
  • More toppings: Cheese, sour cream, and scallions are classics. You can also try diced avocado or heaping spoonfuls of guacamole, crispy cooked bacon, fresh cilantro, minced white onion, hot sauce, lime wedges, tortilla chips, corn chips (Fritos), or oyster crackers.
  • Favorite sides for chili: Enjoy a spicy-hot bowl of chili with classic CornbreadSoft Dinner Rolls, or No-Knead Bread. If you prefer to make cornbread from a box or buy a loaf of bread from the store, that’s fine too! Round out your menu with a simple garden salad.
  • Chili Cheese Burrito: Put leftover chili to work in this easy Chili Cheese Burrito. Just fold up leftover chili with cooked rice and shredded cheese, then toast in a dry skillet.
  • Vegetarian Chili: Use Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans. This delicious, hearty chili is loaded with black beans, vegetables, and all the classic spices. Perfect for the vegetarians in your life.
  • Classic Beef Chili: This easy Beef Chili recipe tastes just like the one mom used to make! It’s also easy to customize with your own special additions if you want to.
  • Venison Chili: If you’re lucky enough to have some ground venison in your freezer, this Venison Chili recipe is the one you’ll want to make all winter long.
  • Chili con Carne: Made with boneless beef chuck roast instead of ground beef, this delicious Chili con Carne recipe has layers of flavor from bacon, fire-roasted tomatoes, lots of garlic, and all the classic chili spices. And it’s made right in your slow cooker!
  • Turkey Chili: This delicious Turkey Chili recipe is made with ground turkey, so it’s a little bit lighter than the standard beef version. It’s full of vegetables and classic spices and it’s ready for all your favorite healthful toppings like diced avocado, green onions, and fresh cilantro.
  • Hot Dog Chili: Make a batch of Hot Dog Chili to spoon over Chili Dogs for the ultimate tailgate recipe! It’s perfect for any game day celebration.
  • Sweet Potato Chili: This hearty vegan Sweet Potato Chili is loaded with black beans, vegetables, and all the classic spices. Like all chilis, it freezes well and makes a great meal prep option.
  • Cincinnati Chili: Made famous by Skyline Chili in Ohio, this Cincinnati Chili recipe is full of secret ingredients and served on spaghetti with lots of toppings like shredded cheese, raw onions, and kidney beans. Which “way” do you want yours?
  • White Chicken Chili: When the temperature drops, slow cooker White Chicken Chili is the ultimate comfort food. Tender chunks of chicken simmering in a creamy broth studded with white beans, green chiles, and corn make for a most satisfying meal.
  • White Turkey Chili: This is my favorite soup to make after Thanksgiving when leftovers are abundant. It’s hearty, creamy, and a refreshing way to enjoy leftover turkey all over again. To keep things easy, make White Turkey Chili right in your slow cooker.
  • Chili Mac: Made in just one pot in 25 minutes or less, this easy Chili Mac recipe is like a great bowl of chili in casserole form. It’s perfect for the busiest, hungriest weeknights.
A crockpot full of chili with toppings on a Chili Bar.
Epic chili bar starring Chili con Carne, corn chips, and fresh toppings.

Frequently Asked Questions

What equipment do I need for a Chili Bar?

The proper tools are essential to host your best Chili Bar buffet. A Dutch oven, Instant Pot, or slow cooker will come in handy for the chili itself. Beyond that, you’ll need enough bowls and spoons for each diner, plus vessels and utensils for each of the topping options. And don’t forget the bottle opener to crack open cold beers for those over 21!

What desserts pair well with a Chili Bar?

The buffet alone is quite the feast, but I can always find room for something sweet! If you’re in the mood for something light and fruity, try Strawberry Shortcake or a Fresh Fruit Tart. If you want to stick to the Tex-Mex theme, bake some Mexican Wedding Cookies or Slow Cooker Chocolate Lava Cake (add a pinch of cayenne for Mexican chocolate vibes!). Or to channel your inner child, dive into Banana Splits.

More party-perfect food ideas

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Two bowls of chili on a chili bar.

Build a Better Chili Bar

Host a Chili Bar dinner so everyone can build their own dream dinner. Chili Bars are ideal for parties in the cool months or an epic game day celebration.
Prep Time 45 minutes
Total Time 45 minutes
Servings 4 servings
Course Main Course
Cuisine American
Calories 418
5 from 2 votes

Ingredients 

Main event:

  • 8 cups chili (see note 1)

Toppings:

Garnishes:

  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions or minced fresh chives
  • 2 limes cut into wedges
  • Hot sauce

Dippers (see note 6):

  • tortilla chips
  • corn chips such as Fritos
  • cornbread cut into squares
  • frozen tater tots cooked
  • baguette sliced and toasted

Instructions 

  • Place the chili on one side of the table next to a stack of bowls. If you own a slow cooker, transfer the chili to it, cover, and set to "keep warm" for serving. Set a ladle nearby on a spoon rest or salad plate to catch the mess.
  • Adjacent to the chili, arrange toppings in bowls with spoons or tongs to dole out the garnishes. Consider labeling each item so everyone knows what they’re piling on.
  • Set the dippers on the table next. If you’re serving cornbread or slices of baguette, add a stick of butter to the buffet.
  • On the far side of the table, include a stack of napkins and baskets or jars full of spoons and knives.

Notes

  1. Chili: You’ll need about 8 cups to comfortably feed 4 adults, likely with a bit for leftovers. Feel free to make your favorite family chili recipe instead, or to save time, stress, and mess, simply snag a few cans of chili at the supermarket.
  2. Cheese: Shredded cheddar cheese is always an easy choice, or level up your cheese choices with crumbled cotija or queso fresco, Colby jack, or pepper jack cheese.
  3. Onions: White, yellow, red – all good onion choices. Or, try pickled shallots or onions.
  4. Jalapeños: Or substitute pickled jalapeño or serrano chiles.
  5. Bacon: It’s easy to make bacon on the stove or in the oven, but there is no shame in using a bag of cooked bacon bits (look for ones made from real bacon instead of imitation pieces).
  6. Dippers: Whether you serve them on the side or sprinkle them over the top, dippers like tortilla chips, corn chips, cornbread, piping-hot tater tots, and slices of bread are a delicious, necessary component of any chili bar. They add texture and taste while filling out the menu. I usually offer 1-2 dipper choices for every 4 people.
  7. Yield: This Chili Bar is sized-right for 4 servings. Scale up or down accordingly; a bar-style menu is ideal for gatherings big and small.
  8. Storage: Store leftover chili covered in the refrigerator for up to 4 days or freeze for up to 3 months.

Nutrition

Serving: 2 cupsCalories: 418kcalCarbohydrates: 41gProtein: 18gFat: 24gSaturated Fat: 10gPolyunsaturated Fat: 2gMonounsaturated Fat: 8gTrans Fat: 0.01gCholesterol: 53mgSodium: 363mgPotassium: 1465mgFiber: 9gSugar: 21gVitamin A: 4777IUVitamin C: 498mgCalcium: 304mgIron: 4mg
Did you make this recipe?Tag @culinaryhill on Instagram so we can admire your masterpiece! #culinaryhill
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Meggan Hill is a classically-trained chef and professional writer. Her meticulously-tested recipes and detailed tutorials bring confidence and success to home cooks everywhere. Meggan has been featured on NPR, HuffPost, FoxNews, LA Times, and more.

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