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8 + Secret Ingredients for Chili 

Looking to take your chili to the next level? From coffee to fish sauce, elevate your next pot with one of these 8 secret ingredients for chili.

Chili is at the top of the list for classic American comfort food. The dish is hearty, rich, meaty (mostly), and undeniably fragrant with spice that keeps you coming back for more. Chili always delivers whether you eat it as is, with crackers, topped with cheddar cheese, diced onion, corn chips, or spooned over hot dogs. While the basic components of chili are well-known, 8 ingredients can take your chili from ordinary to extraordinary! Let’s delve into these 8 secret ingredients for chili to unveil the key elements that can take any recipe to the next level.

Secret Ingredients For Chili

Best Secret Ingredients For Chili


One secret ingredient for chili that might raise eyebrows is cocoa powder, but don’t worry; your chili won’t taste like chocolate. Instead, it adds richness, depth, and umami. The bitter earthiness of chocolate specifically targets the fresh, dried, or ground chilies in your recipe, making them taste more like themselves. Chilies have more to offer than just spice. Some are fruity, while others are smoky, yet these notes are often muted when combined with other ingredients. But chocolate enhances these flavors. Feel free to use finely chopped dark chocolate or unsweetened cocoa powder. Start with a teaspoon, taste, then add more if needed.

Soy Sauce

Soy sauce rounds out the top three on this list of 8 secret ingredients for chili because it’s an all-in-one recipe enhancer. For starters, soy sauce is a more purposeful way to salt your chili. In addition to seasoning the chili, it adds color, and the glutamate enhances the flavor of proteins. As long as minimal salt is added to your chili beforehand, use this secret ingredient a tablespoon at a time, then taste to check the salt level before adding more. For those who choose to go the low-sodium route, select low-sodium soy sauce.

Coffee (or Espresso)

This secret ingredient works particularly well in pots of chili that include peppers such as chile Morita and meco chipotles, as well as spices like cumin. The reason? Well, Morita chilies have subtle smoky notes and hints of chocolate that pair perfectly with coffee. In contrast, chipotle meco chilies are profoundly rich and smoky, which works great with coffee. As for cumin, coffee plays up the earthiness of the spice. For the best result, stick with 8 ounces of coffee or 4 ounces of espresso. This is enough to accentuate the other ingredients in your pot of chili, won’t overpower, and most importantly, won’t taste like coffee. It is a secret ingredient, after all.


While beer is a popular beverage choice, it is also a secret ingredient for chili. It adds layers of flavor that stock, broth, or tomato sauce cannot compete with. Beer imparts a rich, malty flavor and tenderizes the meat in chili con carne. For the best result, use a beer that complements the type of chili you plan to make. Choose a light beer for chicken or vegetarian chili and a darker beer (Guinness, Russian Imperial Stout or a porter) for beef or pork-based recipes.

Maple Syrup

Can you add sugar to your chili for sweetness? Sure, but it is so one-note. However, if you’re looking for sweetness and multidimensional flavor, maple syrup is the secret ingredient you’ve been searching for. The natural sweetener brings a subtle caramel-like flavor to the dish, which may be accompanied by other notes like chocolate, nuts, or vanilla, depending on the brand and type of maple syrup used, further enhancing the flavor complexity. Another huge benefit of this secret ingredient for chili is its impact on the tomatoes used in most chili recipes. Tomatoes, especially canned tomatoes, tend to be acidic, but maple syrup’s sweetness balances the acidity so it doesn’t overwhelm. Start with a tablespoon, then adjust if needed.


Those dried dates sitting in your kitchen can transform your next pot of chili. They have a rich, caramel-like sweetness unlike any other food, and although sweet, they meld flawlessly with savory dishes. Dates made the list of 8 secret ingredients for chili because, besides having a lot to offer in terms of flavor, they work cohesively with various ingredients, including most herbs and spices. To use, chop a few up and add them to the pot so they break down as the chili simmers, or make a date paste and stir in a few spoonfuls. For homemade date paste, soak 6 ounces of dried dates in 2 cups of hot water, drain but reserve ¾ cup of the soaking liquid, then blend/process the rehydrated dates, adding the reserved liquid as needed, until the paste is smooth. For the best result, use Medjool dates instead of noor dates.

Fish Sauce

Though typically associated with Asian cuisine, fish sauce is a great way to set your chili apart. The pungent condiment made from fermented fish has a magical way of making dishes taste meatier. Rather than imitating the flavor of meat, the unique umami flavor enhances meaty flavors (even from beans) and complex ones, placing them at the forefront to make them a highlight of each spoonful. Just a small splash of fish sauce can transform the flavor profile, so start conservatively (specifically half a teaspoon at a time), as the fish sauce can quickly overpower the chili.

Sichuan Peppercorns

Sichuan peppercorns will set your chili apart and blow any competition out of the water. Unlike black peppercorns, Sichuan peppercorns aren’t spicy. Instead, they start bitter, and then a citrusy aftertaste appears, followed by Sichuan’s signature tingling, numbing sensation that lingers in and around the mouth. Not to mention, they add a rich, very enticing aroma. To use, lightly toast the peppercorns in a dry skillet, grind them, then add them to the chili with your other spices. Start with 1 teaspoon and add more if desired. For the best result, use high-quality Sichuan peppercorns. Indications of quality include a vibrant red hue, plump berries, and a rich aroma.

More Secret Chili Ingredients to Try:

  • Combination of chili powders: Use different types of chili powders for a more complex flavor. The secret to our ever popular beanless chili recipe is the combination of three chili powder: Chipotle chili powder, ancho chili powder and chili powder.
  • Canned chipotle in adobo sauce: Add chipotle peppers in a chili recipe that calls for chili sauce for a delicious smoky flavor. Chop up about a half a can of peppers for chili recipe that calls for 8 servings. Use a full can if you prefer to bring more heat. Chipotle peppers pair well with another secret ingredient, chocolate!
  • Lime juice or lime zest: A couple of teaspoons of fresh lime juice or lime zest added at the very end will add some acidity to any chili and really make it stand out.

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Monique McArthur
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