Secret Ingredients You Should Be Using In Your Chili

There's no better cozy meal to warm you up on a brisk night than a bowl of chili served with cornbread. And there are as many ways to make a batch of chili as there are chili lovers. There are a few key ingredients that you'll find in most chili recipes, including a blend of spices, peppers, tomatoes, meat, and beans. Plus, you can dress your bowl of chili up with your favorite creative chili toppings like sour cream, shredded cheese, and fresh slices of avocado. But, even before you add the toppings, there are so many flavorful ingredients that you can add directly to your chili recipe to make it your own.


Whether you're making chili from scratch or want some easy ways to make canned chili taste better, there are so many simple changes that you can make to take your batch of chili to the next level. We've compiled 12 of our best tried-and-true secret ingredients. These additions are the perfect way to enhance the flavors of your chili for a signature recipe that you won't be able to get enough of.

Pour in a splash of beer

Adding beer to chili is a popular way to pump up the flavors. Beer not only adds depth of flavor, but it also helps to tenderize the meat. The lightly malty sweetness also balances out the spiced and savory flavors in the chili. Even if you aren't a big beer drinker, this trick is worth a try. As long as you only add a bottler (or less) to your batch of chili, then the flavor of the beer will not be overwhelming. It won't make the chili taste like beer so much, as it highlights the other flavors and adds more depth to the recipe overall.


What beer you pick will make a big difference in the flavor results. Some of the best beers to add to homemade chili are lagers, which have a lighter, crisp, but malty flavor. You could also try your favorite type of ale or stout.

Keep in mind that while some of the alcohol will cook out, there may still be traces. The alcohol content is such a small ratio compared to the whole dish that it's typically not something to worry about, but it's good to keep in mind if you're serving anyone who is alcohol-free.

Sweeten chili with a touch of brown sugar

This sweet addition will completely transform your chili. It may sound strange to add sugar, but a small amount is an excellent addition to savory and spicy meals. Many recipes like stews, sauces, meat dishes, and chili include brown sugar or another sweetener in the ingredient list. Adding just a tablespoon or two can make a world of difference in your homemade chili. Mix the brown sugar into your chili until it's well blended with the tomato and chili base. The sugar will contrast with the tangy and spicy notes for a complex and delicious explosion of flavor in every bite.


Brown sugar balances out the spicy ingredients to make everything more well-balanced. And, as long as you're only adding a spoonful or so, it won't be too sweet. Just a little brown sugar enhances the taste of your chili without overwhelming it.

You could use other types of sweeteners to substitute for brown sugar. However, brown sugar is typically preferable to white because it has a richer, slightly caramelized flavor that pairs better with the other chili ingredients.

Add toasted spices

Any good chili — like this spicy slow cooker beef chili — is made with a delicious blend of spices. Although the exact spice blend will change from chef to chef, in classic chili recipes and chili seasoning blends, you'll find a mix of warm, earthy, and spicy seasonings like garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, paprika, and of course chili powder. While a classic blend of spices already lends chili an excellent flavor, you can take that a step further by toasting your spices before you add them to your batch of chili.


The main reason to toast your spices is for a bolder, more aromatic flavor. Using a premade seasoning packet or ground spices from your pantry is less time-consuming, but toasting your spices is worth it for the perfect pot of chili. While ground spices can lose their potency over time, especially if they aren't stored correctly, starting with whole, freshly toasted spices guarantees a beautiful blend of mouthwatering, spiced, smoky flavors.

To toast your spices, start by assembling your spice blend. You'll need to use whole spices like cloves, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, black peppercorns, and dried chilies. Add your choice of spices to a large skillet and spread them out evenly. Toast over medium heat, stirring as needed, to cook the spices evenly. The longer you warm them, the stronger the flavor will become. But be careful to remove the spices from heat before they brown too much and burn.


Raise the heat with hot sauce

For some of us, the standard spiciness in a bowl of chili is already more than enough, but for others, there's no such thing as too spicy. The great thing about making chili at home is that you can easily adjust the spices and add or take away ingredients based on your own preferences. It's easy to make chili as spicy as you want with one simple ingredient in the recipe. If you're a real spice lover and prefer your chili with a bit more heat, just stir in a splash of hot sauce.


After blending your tomato sauce, spices, beans, and ground meat, taste-test your child to see how you feel about the heat level. Then, you can mix in a little hot sauce as desired. When adding a bold ingredient like this, it's best to start small. Add just a few drops of hot sauce first, then stir and test the blend. If it still needs more spice, you can always add extra hot sauce. But it's a lot harder to fix if you add too much at the start.

You can also wait to add your hot sauce until the chili is served. If only some people in your family like the same spice level, then leave it out of the full batch and let everyone add hot sauce to their personal serving according to taste.

Add liquid smoke for smoky flavor

Liquid smoke is a bit of a controversial ingredient. People tend to either love or hate it. While some people swear by liquid smoke, others feel it has an artificial and burnt flavor. Whether or not you like this secret ingredient is really dependent on your personal taste.


Liquid smoke is exactly what it sounds like it is. The polarizing ingredient is made by concentrating smoke from burning wood into a liquid. Once it's in a liquid form, you can use the ingredient to add to stews, meats, and sauces and give recipes a smokey flavor. It's a great way to make recipes taste like they were smoked, even if you don't have a wood grill or smoker.

If you want to give your chili that smoked meat flavor, then this is an excellent ingredient to try in your next batch of chili. If you haven't cooked with liquid smoke before, we recommend using a light hand when adding it to your chili. Liquid smoke has a distinct and strong flavor that you may absolutely love. But it's best to test it as you go, just in case it's not to your taste.


Enhance your chili with coffee

Coffee is the secret ingredient that you can use to elevate a variety of recipes like chocolate cake, brownies, beef stew, and chili. Adding a little coffee to your homemade chili is the perfect way to highlight the amazing taste. The rich and bitter flavor of the coffee helps to enhance the spices and tangy tomato sauce in the recipe for a more rich flavor overall. Coffee naturally complements the spices in classic chili recipes and creates a bolder and more complex flavor overall, which is why many chefs recommend mixing coffee into your chili.


When adding coffee to your batch of chili, you can mix in either espresso powder or brewed coffee. A spoonful of instant espresso powder is a great way to incorporate rich coffee flavor without altering how much liquid is in your dish. However, if you have freshly brewed coffee or leftover coffee from the morning, you can add the brew to your chili mixture for a rich and robust batch of chili. Because espresso powder is more concentrated than brewed coffee, be careful not to add too much. You can add about a cup of brewed coffee since it won't be as strong once it's blended with the other ingredients. It's important to add enough coffee to highlight your chili flavors but not so much that you overpower them.


Turn up the flavor with diced peppers

Instead of adding extra ground spices or hot sauce, mixing in peppers is another way to add more heat to your chili recipe. Depending on what type of peppers you incorporate, you can add different levels of spice and other flavors. While hot peppers may be your first thought, you can also add sweet and tangy peppers for a more nuanced flavor. For example, bell peppers are quite mild, but they can add an earthy, lightly bitter, and sweet note to your chili. Green peppers are more grassy, while red peppers are more sweet.


There are plenty of other pepper options that will add more spice. Ancho or pasilla peppers will add an earthy, chocolatey note. Jalapeño peppers add a kick of heat but aren't as strong as cayenne peppers, tabasco peppers, or habanero peppers. So, you can make your selection based on your spice tolerance. There are so many different varieties of peppers that there's sure to be one for you. You can also adjust how much pepper you add based on taste.

When adding peppers, start by rinsing, dicing, and deseeding the peppers. To get the best flavor, add them to your chili after browning the beef along with onion and other vegetables, but before you pour in tomato sauce, beans, and other ingredients. Adding real peppers to your chili makes a bold, fresh, and delicious blend that you can easily customize.


Add depth of flavor with cocoa powder

Another secret ingredient you can use to enhance your chili is cocoa powder. This may sound odd at first, but just adding a small amount makes a big difference without giving the chili a chocolatey taste. The chili will remain warm, comforting, and lightly spicy, just with a more robust flavor. Anyone trying the chili will likely never guess that cocoa is the secret ingredient, but they're sure to taste the depth it creates.


This addition works by pairing the chili powder and other spices with chocolate. Cocoa and spices are a powerful flavor pairing used in treats like Mexican chocolate, and it can also work in savory recipes. The natural cocoa powder enhances the complex flavors of the spices to make them more prominent in your chili recipe. By adding cocoa powder, you can keep the spice mix fairly minimal but still achieve a bold and well-rounded flavor.

When adding cocoa, be sure to use unsweetened cocoa powder or unsweetened ground cacao powder. That way, you get the effects of the cocoa flavor without sweetening your pot of chili. Adding 1-2 teaspoons is the perfect amount to enrich the chili without actually making it taste chocolatey.


Warm up your chili with comforting cinnamon

There are plenty of spices that spring to mind when you think about making chili, the most obvious one being chili powder. Other spices like onion powder, garlic powder, cumin, and cayenne pepper are also common and delicious additions. These are all delicious ingredients that you should absolutely mix into your chili for an amazing spicy taste. But thinking a little outside the box and getting creative with your spice blend can make your chili even more delicious. Along with the standard chili seasoning, try adding ground cinnamon. A dash of warm and comforting cinnamon goes beautifully with the chili powder to make your spice blend fuller and more nuanced.


We often think of cinnamon as a spice for sweet treats and baked goods, but the smokey, lightly sweet, and warming taste of cinnamon is just as amazing in savory dinner recipes like chili. Along with the cinnamon, you can add other warm spices like nutmeg and allspice. Start by adding ½ teaspoon or just a pinch of the new spices. You can always add more later if you want a more prominent taste.

Achieve the perfect flavor with soy sauce

Creating your perfect batch of chili is all about experimenting with ingredients until you have a mouthwatering blend of flavors just right for you. Picking what ingredients you should add depends on what's important to you in a chili. Do you prefer your chili spicy, tangy, and slightly sweet, or are you more interested in a bold, savory, meaty taste? If you want your chili to have a delicious umami flavor, then soy sauce is the perfect ingredient addition for you to try.


Soy sauce isn't just for Asian dishes. It's an excellent source of umami flavor that you can add to so many recipes. You'll often find soy sauce in meat marinade and sauce recipes because it balances flavors, draws out the natural taste of the meat, and helps to tenderize. Adding soy sauce to your chili has all the same effects. It provides a combination of savory, tangy, and salty flavors for a delicious finishing touch to your chili.

Soy sauce is an especially great addition if you're making your chili with ground beef, brisket, or another type of beef. The savory, umami note of the soy sauce emboldens the meaty flavor of the recipe for a rich, mouthwatering beef chili.

Sweeten the chili with maple syrup

Maple syrup has a similar effect to adding brown sugar. Mixing a little bit of sweetness into your savory recipes is the perfect way to highlight all the flavors. Because the sweet maple syrup contrasts with the spices, it ultimately helps to make those flavors shine even more. The sugars also contrast with the acidity in the tomatoes to highlight their natural sweetness. Mixing maple syrup with the spicy, savory, and tangy ingredients offers a more well-balanced flavor profile overall. On top of its sweetness, maple syrup also has hints of caramel, toffee, and molasses flavors to make your chili especially comforting, warm, and rich.


If you're making a large batch of chili, you can add a good amount of maple syrup without worrying about it overwhelming the other flavors. Try mixing in 1⁄3 cup of maple syrup with your chili recipe for a rich, smokey, lightly sweet dish. Because the spices, beans, and vegetables are quite strong, the maple syrup will enrich them as it melts into the mixture.

Try beef bouillon for ultra-flavorful meat chili

You can amp up the flavor of beef chili by adding a cube of beef bouillon. Bouillon is a concentrated spice cube often used to turn water into broth. It has a very strong, usually meaty flavor that disperses throughout the recipe as it dissolves into the liquid. Beef bouillon is a delicious addition that you can use to enhance the savory, meaty flavor of your beef chili recipe. If you're making creamy chicken or turkey chili, then you can follow the same concept except using chicken or turkey bouillon.


If you don't have a lot of meat but still want your chili to have a strong meaty flavor, beef bouillon is an excellent way to amplify the meat flavor so that the chili tastes as good as ever. When adding a bouillon cube to any recipe, it's important to stir it in thoroughly and ensure the cube dissolves into the mixture so that you don't have one strong pocket of overwhelming flavor. If you prefer, you could add beef broth and achieve a similar flavor to beef bouillon. The beef broth will just add more liquid to your chili that you'll need to cook down before serving.