10 Flavor-Boosting Add-ins for Incredible Chili

published Nov 2, 2012
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

I’ve talked before about how soup is my go-to dinner party food in the fall and winter, but I recently read a piece on mean chili: spicy, exciting, innovative chili with unexpected flavors. It got me thinking that it may just be time to switch up my usual routine and get on the chili bandwagon. Here are 10 flavor boosters to get you really excited about chili.

I think that chili can be one of those foods where people are so fiercely opinionated about what makes a good chili and what constitutes a really bad chili that many folks don’t even try. It’s a shame, really, when you consider how it can be quite simple at its core, but the debate about whether a true chili should have beans or not is one that catches me up each time I think to try a new recipe.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

That being said, when you’re ready to add a little heat or depth of flavor to your next pot of chili, here are a few add-ins I’ve discovered.

10 Chili Flavor Boosters

  • Cocoa: Unsweetened cocoa, often found in rich mole sauces, is an easy choice. It’s a quick addition that will deepen the flavor if used judiciously. Start by adding one to two tablespoons, and then taste and adjust from there.
  • Espresso: Much like cocoa, espresso brings a rich, earthy depth of flavor to what could be an otherwise ho-hum chili. Use them both together and simmer the chili for longer than you may be inclined and you’ll be left with unforgettable, dark yet mellow flavors.
  • Peppers: For many people, chili isn’t chili without some heat. To add some, experiment with dried ancho peppers or chipotle peppers (often sold in adobo). If you’d like to add flavor without much heat, anaheim peppers are wonderful.
  • Anchovies: At first an odd choice, simmering your chili with a few anchovies adds a very subtle saltiness that wakes up beans and tomatoes and brightens the flavor of the chili on the whole.
  • Paneer: The Washington Post featured a recipe for a Paneer and Butternut Squash Kashmiri Chili that sounds excellent, and I love the idea of a very mild, firm cheese that wouldn’t compete with any of the more dominant flavors of the chili. I can’t wait to try this one.
  • Spices: While cumin, chile powder, and cayenne pepper tend to be common additions to many chili recipes, there’s a broad world of flavor out there to experiment with. Try a little fenugreek, turmeric, garam masala, or sumac to layer in more complex flavors. Smoky paprika is my own personal favorite.
  • Squash, pumpkin, or sweet potato: Traditionalists would scoff, but soft chunks of slightly sweet butternut squash or sweet potato are delicious in a smoky chili. We have a recipe that proves it!
  • Beer: Pouring in a few glugs of beer to a slow-cooking chili can be a nice way to add a warm maltiness without ultimately adding much liquid (much of the beer will cook off/cook down).
  • Balsamic vinegar: Looking for a sweet edginess to pair with some of those spicy chiles? Look no further than a tablespoon or so of this classic vinegar.
  • Fresh herbs: Chopped cilantro is a common topping for chili, but I love chopped Italian parsley as well. The flavor is mild, it adds instant color, and is a great way to wake up days-old leftover chili with a little something fresh.

What do you add to chili to give it a little more pizzazz?