Chili can be a surprisingly contentious subject; so many cooks insist there’s a “right” way to make it, and every other way is dead wrong. Even those who stay out of the fight likely have their own personal idea of perfection. Most probably have one or two secret ingredients they deem essential to the dish. Some aren’t too surprising—chocolate, liquid smoke—while others might raise eyebrows (fish sauce, bourbon).
This cool weather classic is certainly eminently tweakable and open to experimentation, which is why you can easily end up with an ingredients list running to the dozens of items, with a pinch of this here, a soupçon of that there. But that’s okay, as long as you remember to write down all the things you’re adding so you can replicate the results next time.
Whether you believe beans and/or tomatoes in chili are anathema or a must-have, and whether you like all the meat or none at all, you’ll want to build layers of savory complexity in the pot. These additional flavor agents help do just that. Still, don’t forget to toast your spices, make homemade chili paste if you have the time, thoroughly brown your meat, simmer low and slow, and take care of all those other basics while you’re at it. These secret ingredients are flavor boosters, after all, so they should be added to an already-solid foundation.
Booze (Beer, Wine, or Liquor)
Beer chili is a whole genre, and adding a bottle of your favorite brew is a wise move, but other kinds of alcohol can add their own little something something. A smaller amount of red wine imparts richness, depth, and body to beefy chili (like a larger amount does to boeuf bourguignon), and a shot or two of liquor like bourbon—even vodka or tequila—toward the end lifts the other flavors without obviously announcing its own presence. Still, as you were warned in college, you’re best off choosing one booze and sticking to it rather than mixing them.
If you want to add a smoky dimension to your chili, this is a no-brainer, although if you’re opposed to the oft-maligned ingredient, a few teaspoons of chipotles in adobo makes a nice substitute, as does smoked paprika. You could also use bacon, but most commercial brands are actually treated with liquid smoke to give them that characteristic tang—so you may as well reach for the bottle in the first place.
Brine or Vinegar
A few tablespoons of brine from a jar of pickled jalapeños (or any sort of pickles, really), stirred in at the end as a finishing touch, adds a bright acidity that perks everything up. Plain white vinegar can work the same magic trick—even balsamic or apple cider vinegar, if you want a suggestion of sweetness too.
Not just for stir fries, a few dashes of soy sauce enhances the umami savor of your chili, and is good for adding some meaty depth to veggie chilis too. Liquid aminos can do the same.
This serves the same purpose as soy, really: emphasizing meaty umami notes and bringing a little piquant salt. Added judiciously, it doesn’t taste at all like fish once stirred into the pot. Some people even use a couple anchovies as a briny, umami-rich component that melts away into the other ingredients.
Coffee or Espresso Powder
A moderate amount of bitter, roasty espresso, strong-brewed black coffee, or instant coffee granules will beef up the deep, complex flavors of chili, and work well alone or in concert with a little chocolate.
Added in the form of cocoa powder or unsweetened baking chocolate, this secret ingredient adds another subtle bass note, but you can also try dark chocolate that contains some sugar for a twin touch of sweetness, or even sandy Mexican chocolate (with dark sugar and cinnamon already added) to complement the spicy, acidic, and umami flavors.
Cinnamon is a fairly common addition to chili, but you can also use small amount of nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and other sweet spices to make it more aromatic. Even a bit of star anise can enhance the beefy, spicy flavor of chili without being too licorice-forward (add too much, though, and it may taste more like pho).
Some people swear by peanut butter to add a little fatty oomph to leaner veggie chilis, but it also shows up in meaty versions, from turkey to beef (and, hey, peanut butter burgers are a thing). Using a natural peanut butter will give you that creamy richness and nutty nuance without too much added salt and sugar.
Dark, slightly smoky, and a little sweet in a caramelized way, molasses is another method of adding a certain je ne sais quoi to your chili. Use unsulphured molasses, dark if you like a stronger flavor, but stay away from the blackstrap variety, which is much more bitter.
Marmite or Vegemite
Divisive though they may be, European imports Marmite and Vegemite are both complex, strong, salty flavor bombs that boost the baseline tastes of your chili. You don’t need to go out of your way to buy either one, but if you happen to have a jar in your pantry, why not scoop a smidge into the pot?
Combining More Than One
While some degree of moderation is probably prudent, you can absolutely deploy several of the above secret weapons in a single batch of chili. I always do, and certified food genius J. Kenji López-Alt uses a whole bunch at once for his favorite chili, so be bold, add extras in small doses to start (like, one teaspoon at a time), and taste often. And don’t let anyone bully you into thinking your chili is bad because it’s not authentic! Even if you go with more idiosyncratic additions, like yellow mustard, pineapple, Coca-Cola, apple butter, and grape jam, what’s important is that you like eating it.
So try one of the secret-ingredient chili recipes below to get you started, and experiment as you see fit.
A little liquid hickory smoke, Worcestershire sauce, and a bottle of hoppy IPA add their charms to this ground beef and bean chili—which comes together in the slow cooker, always a bonus. Get the recipe.
A quick and easy chicken chili with bell peppers and black-eyed peas gets a lift from pickled jalapeño brine. It doesn’t make it too spicy, but if you want more heat, chop some of the peppers themselves for garnishing your bowl. Get the Chicken and Black-Eyed Pea Chili with Jalapeño Brine recipe.
Cincinnati chili is a great regional style, traditionally served over spaghetti (and beans if you want ’em), although you can skip the noodles if you prefer. It’s generally saucier and more finely textured than other chilis, and usually includes unsweetened chocolate or cocoa powder and warm spices like cinnamon (so add a stick to the simmering pot if you want to have that flavor along with the called-for cloves here). This version melts in three ounces of dark chocolate right at the end for extra richness, with a shot of sherry vinegar to brighten it up a bit. Get the recipe.
Meatless chili can still be, well, meaty, as this hearty veggie version proves. With complexity and depth from chocolate stout, actual bittersweet chocolate, espresso powder, and molasses, it’s delicious even if you can’t find the vegan chipotle sausage called for. A squirt of lime provides the final spark of acid. Get the recipe.
If you like a chunky chili, this one is chock-full of tender hunks of beef, augmented with homemade chili powder and dried beans rather than canned. There’s also some molasses, cocoa powder, and mild lager in the mix (you could swap in a darker porter or stout for sure). A small amount of cornmeal adds even more body to the chili and is another good secret weapon to keep in mind. Get the recipe.
Another meat-free recipe, this pumpkin and butternut squash chili is smoky from chipotle, silky with pumpkin puree, and elevated with a hefty half cup of bourbon—but since it’s added earlier on, most of it cooks off, while still lending great flavor that’s perfect for fall. Get the recipe.
This turkey chili not only includes tequila, lime, and a touch of honey, but starts with a panade (which sounds fancy, but is just white bread soaked in milk), mixed into the meat to keep the lean turkey moist during the long cooking time—another nifty trick worth incorporating into your chili even if you don’t do alcohol. Get the recipe.
Our final veggie chili relies on a bit of peanut butter to add richness, cocoa powder to deepen the flavor, and a squeeze of lime to make everything pop. You can try adding peanut butter to beef chili too if the notion appeals. Get the recipe.
Related Video: How to Make Texas-Style Chili with Brisket and Masa Harina