It's that time of the year, y'all—when the air becomes crisp, the nights grow long, and people crave hearty, warm soups and stews. And of all the season's offerings, my hands-down favorite has to be chili: It's versatile, meaty, and above all else, it's damn easy to make. (Thank you, Lord, for the slow cooker. Amen.)
Chili has more variations than you can shake a stick at... and probably even more than that, to be honest—shaking a stick is exhausting. Other than variations to its ubiquitous ingredients (tomatoes, beans, meat, and chili powder), any of the other traditional chili ingredients can be switched around, added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided at will. This makes for some really insane chili recipes that tally up 20-30 ingredients—with each minute addition supposedly adding just another piece to the overall perfection.
But how realistic is it to raid the spice section at your local grocery store and drop some hard-earned cash on one 'ultimate' chili recipe? It's not like you're trying to win an international chili cook-off or anything. Your stomach just wants chili, dammit! And yet, the thought of bland, uninteresting chili makes your mouth sad.
These conflicting emotions drove me to conduct a little hands- and mouth-on research. My goal: To find out which singular special ingredient can up your chili game the most. From the expected additions to absolutely bizarre ones, which add-in reigns supreme?
I decided to use an extremely basic chili recipe as my starter—and I'm using canned ingredients, because I wanted to keep true to the lazy-cook's ideal of a real low-key chili with maximum flavor.
- 1 lb. ground beef
- 1 cup diced onion
- 1 Tbsp. minced garlic
- 2 cups beef broth
- 1 diced green bell pepper
- 1 15-oz. can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
- 3 oz. tomato paste
- 8 oz. tomato sauce
- 1 Tbsp. chili powder
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- salt and pepper, to taste
(Well, technically ground cumin isn't part of a basic chili recipe, but in my opinion, chili without cumin is like a day without sunshine.)
- Brown the ground beef, then drain most of the fat.
- Place the ground beef in a slow cooker, then add the onion, garlic, bell pepper, pinto beans, tomato paste, tomato sauce, spices, and beef broth.
- Cook on the Low setting of the slow cooker for 8 hours.
So far, so basic... and not in that PSL-loving, Ugg-boots-wearing way, of course.
Now comes the fun part—the taste tests!
The winning secret ingredient needed to have the most impact above the others. However, I wasn't sure what kind of flavor needed to be emphasized the most in order to make it the best. So I scoured the internet for some of the most popular (as well as some of the weirdest) secret ingredients, and this is what I ended up testing:
- unsweetened cocoa
- espresso powder
- peanut butter
- balsamic vinegar
- fish sauce
- soy sauce
- Flamin' Hot Cheetos
Some of these are "known" secret ingredients, such as peanut butter (via Serious Eats) or beer (via Food Network or Bon Appétit, just to name a few). Some of the crazier ideas, such as Flamin' Hot Cheetos, were inspired by the addition of corn flour (via Ree Drummond of Food Network) into chili to thicken its consistency. And my own personal experience with both soy and fish sauce (and their uncanny ability to amplify the meatiness of a dish) inspired me to tack them onto the list as well.
Since my stomach (and my wallet, natch) has its limits, I chose to make one pot of chili, then conducted my tests with individual, small amounts separated from the master batch. Each smaller sample was then subjected to a quick re-heat in the microwave to simulate being "cooked" with the added ingredient. And in between each ingredient tasting, I cleansed my palate with saltine crackers and water.
Lest you think this was a fun endeavor, let me stop you right there—I thought I was going to explode when all was said and done. (Is it possible to have a chili hangover? I'm serious, guys.) But that's all part and parcel of being a chili martyr. RIP, my taste buds.
- Molasses: Never in my life have I thought to myself, "You know what this chili needs? Sweetness. And while molasses is much less sweet compared to, say, white granulated sugar, the sweetness of it was so off-putting to me that I was completely turned off.
- Peanut butter: I've seen this on so many lists and assumed that it would have to be a contender... but wow, was I wrong. Nutty mouthfeel plus a slight sweetness? Yeah, no thanks.
- Hot Cheetos (not pictured): Okay, so I'm sure no one is surprised that this was bad. But it wasn't so much bad as it was bland. I think that chili is such a hearty stew that the flavor of the Cheetos just gets lost. I'm sure that adding more would amplify the flavor, but since it takes a lot of work to pulverize the Cheetos in the first place, it didn't seem worth it.
- Balsamic vinegar: We've talked about how vinegar is a great salt substitute before, and I knew this one was going to be decent. But I think that—and this is just me—chili should be blunt with flavor and not sharp. This vinegar adds a sharpness and a lightness to the flavor that just seemed out of place with the concept of chili itself.
- Unsweetened cocoa: This one surprised me—I was so sure I would like it the most because I'm such a big fan of molé sauce. But compared to my favorite additions, this one fell a little flat.
- Beer: I honestly think this would have been higher-up if I had used a better beer... but beer doesn't grow on trees, unfortunately, and Coors is all I had in the fridge. I like throwing beer into my chili personally, but I use a darker beer. If you'd like to try beer, I'd advise you do the same.
- Whiskey: I liked the complexity that whiskey added to the mix, it's definitely one of those "I can't put my finger on it, but this tastes more interesting than usual" kind of ingredients.
- Soy sauce: Unconventional, but a super-easy way to inject umami into any meat-based stew. This is my go-to ingredient for anything from spaghetti sauce to chicken paprikash! But I still ended up liking other ingredients more.
- Espresso powder: This is the epitome of a secret ingredient that you just can't put your finger on. Espresso powder adds richness and complexity to a lot of different foods, from steak rubs to chocolate cake, so it's no surprise it did well in our chili challenge. In this case, espresso powder creates a slight bitterness that highlights the smokiness and spiciness of the chili. Again, you don't need very much: I suggest adding ½ tsp. at a time to taste.
- Fish sauce: Am I crazy? Possibly. But if soy sauce injects umami into a dish, fish sauce punches you in the face with umami. And for those of you that like a real hearty, meaty chili, fish sauce is an incredibly potent addition to your pot. You don't need very much of it to make a statement—and I would advise you use very little to avoid overpowering your stew.
While I ranked fish sauce higher, these two additions achieve such different flavors for chili that I recommend using one or the other, depending on what you prefer to emphasize in your own dish. (Or maybe... combine the two?! Yeah, my stomach isn't ready for that after all this testing, but one day!)
The next time you're making your usual bomb batch of chili, stop and add one of these secret ingredients to your pot. I guarantee that anyone who tries it will have an impossible time trying to pin down what you added to your stew to make it taste so damn good.
Got a favorite secret ingredient that you use or think would beat the pants off of the weird ingredients I used for this experiment? Let us know in the comments.
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