12 Chili Toppings Way More Adventurous Than Shredded Cheese

Chili is the foundation of traditional Tex-Mex cooking — and one of the most perfect, timeless foods ever created. You can eat chili by the bowlful in winter and enjoy its hearty, comforting nature. Or snack on it in the spring and summer, either alone or ladled on top of nachos or a tasty hot dog for an insanely satisfying warm weather treat. On a cool fall day, what's more warming than a big 'ol bowl of traditional American chili?

Made with a mixture of ground beef, beans, tomatoes, and spices like chili powder, cumin, paprika, cayenne, garlic, and onion, chili is also one of the most unique and versatile foods out there. It can be spicy and pack some heat, but it's also earthy and savory — sometimes even a little sweet! It's great on its own of course, but that ever changing flavor profile also makes it ideal for a variety of toppings, all of which shine when added. Throw on some cheese? Divine! Add a scoop of sour cream? Amazing! Chuck on some diced green onion, tortilla chips, fresh lime, or warm cornbread? All taste exceptional. Chili truly is a perfect food — and one that's also the ideal vehicle for any number of flavor-packed toppings.

So if you really want to punch up your next bowl of chili, don't just reach for the classic cheddar and sour cream you always top it with. Let your imagination soar — grab one of these unexpected, adventurous, and palate-startling toppings instead!

Swap plain sour cream for ranch dressing

Sour cream is one of the most classic and beloved toppings anyone can add to a bowl of chili. It's slightly tart, creamy, and its flavor pairs perfectly with the subtle fiery heat you get with traditional chili. But if you want to send your taste buds for a loop — or you just want to experience something different with your next bowl of chili — try replacing that sour cream with an equal amount of ranch dressing. 

It doesn't matter whether you use bottled dressing or make your own, that ranch flavored creamy sauce is an ideal match for chili. It's got garlic powder, onion, dill, parsley, chives, black pepper, and buttermilk, all of which further enhance the tangy, refreshing spices that make chili so tasty. Ranch dressing also provides a unique contrast to the dish's heat while also bringing additional depth and complexity to every spoonful of chili you eat. Easy, creamy, and delicious.

Add some zest with fresh cilantro

It's not uncommon to see fresh chopped herbs on top of a hearty, rich, deep red bowl of freshly made chili. But usually those herbs are things like parsley, basil, oregano, or thyme. All four are great options. They have a basis in Italian cooking so they partner perfectly with the tart, rich tomatoes that give chili its acidic bite. But if you really want to celebrate a good bowl of chili and take it back to its classic Tex-Mex origins, consider swapping those green herbs for their less popular but way more flavorful cousin, cilantro!

Because of its vibrant, distinct flavor, cilantro is perfect for adding a citrusy, slightly pungent taste to homemade chili. It's also a great partner to the cumin and paprika in chili, providing a bright, fresh flavor profile that compliments their more subtle earthy zing. And perhaps best of all, the scent of cilantro adds a subtle floral note to chili's already robust natural aroma, making every bowl of chili it touches smell even more fragrant and appealing.

Toss on some avocados

There are many reasons to love avocados. They're loaded with healthy fats, fiber, vitamins (such as vitamin K, vitamin C, vitamin E, and B vitamins), and minerals (such as potassium and magnesium). They're packed with antioxidants. And with a creamy texture and mild versatile flavor, they can be used in everything from salads and sandwiches to wraps, smoothies, dips — and even as a great fresh topping for a vat of chili.

To add an avocado to your next bowl of the red stuff, first make sure you grab a fruit that's fresh and in season. Then check its ripeness. A ripe avocado will yield slightly to gentle pressure but shouldn't be too soft or mushy. Next, simply halve the fruit, remove the pit, and scoop out the flesh. As a topping, you can add avocado to chili in two ways. Either dice the avocado and spread it on top of the chili or mash your avocado with a fork and stir it into your chili before you dig in. Whichever way you go, those added chunks of avocado in your chili are sure to make every mouthful sing!

Get salty by adding sliced black olives to your chili

Part of the true joy of chili is the savory, hearty flavor it imparts. That's why salty foods like cheese or tortilla chips make such a great topping for a bowl of chili. And that's also why sliced black olives are an ideal, super adventurous alternative topping to use in their place!

The rich briny flavor of black olives provides a delicious contrast to the robust flavors of cumin, paprika, and chili powder. Black olives also add a bit of tang to chili as well as great texture and crunch. And because of their rich black hue, these showstoppers also add to the visual appeal of any bowl of chili.

For the best chili topping olives, select pitted, pre-sliced canned black olives. Whole black olives will taste great too, if you don't mind going through the work of removing all those pits. Or, to add a slightly more vibrant and bitter taste to your chili, you could also add sliced green salad olives or even pimento-stuffed Spanish olives which provide some enhanced mild sweetness — thanks to that hint of tiny red pepper embedded inside each olive. Winning choices all around!

Make your chili even more heavenly with a hit of crumbled bacon

Bacon makes everything better. And that includes chili! The smoky and savory flavors of bacon perfectly complement the spicy and hearty nature of chili. The combination adds incredible depth and richness to the dish that you just can't get with more traditional chili toppings like grated cheese or sour cream. And lucky for all of us bacon lovers, there are a number of ways you can add to the goodness of bacon to your next bowl of chili.

Crispy bacon bits are one adventurous place to start. Just cook your bacon until crispy, then crumble it into small bits. Sprinkle the bacon bits on top of the chili just before serving for added texture and flavor. For a sweet variation, candy your bacon before adding it to your chili. Simply coat your bacon strips with a mixture of brown sugar, chili powder, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Then bake the bacon until it becomes crispy and caramelized. Chop or crumble the candied bacon and use it as a sweet and savory topping for the chili. 

Finally, you can also consider adding bacon lardons to your chili. Lardons are small thick slices of bacon. Fry them until crunchy and then add as a topping to taste. You can also stir them directly into your chili — a process which allows the bacon fat to infuse the chili with its rich salty, smoky flavor. Yum!

Pile on some sliced, roasted red peppers

With its robust blend of beans, beef, tomatoes, and spice, chili is known for packing a variety of flavor profiles. It's spicy, savory, earthy, and tangy. But it isn't always smokey — especially if you don't include smoked paprika, chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, or smoked meats in your recipe. You can add those ingredients, of course, to ramp up that delicious smokey chili quality. Or, for an even easier way to get some smoke into your bowl, just top your next bowl of chili with a generous helping of roasted red peppers!

Roasted red peppers are a fantastic topping for chili because they add a beautiful trifecta of sweetness, smokiness, and melt-in-your-mouth tenderness that adds flavor and texture to every bite. You can get great tasting roasted red peppers in a couple ways. The easy route is to buy some pepper pre-roasted, either from the deli section in your local market or buy them by the jar.

Or, you can roast your own – it's easier than you might think. Place the whole red ripe peppers directly over an open flame — either on top of your gas stovetop or on a hot grill. You can also cook them in your broiler. Either way, keep the peppers exposed to that extreme heat until the skin blackens and blisters. Then let them chill, remove the outer skin, dice and add to your chili as needed!

Fire things up with a few sliced radishes

Raw, sliced radish might sound like an unusual topping for a bowl of chili. But consider this: Radishes are one of the traditional topping for a chili like dish called tortilla soup. This traditional Mexican soup is made with a flavorful broth of tomatoes, onions, and garlic plus spices such as cumin and chili powder. It's then topped with crispy tortilla strips and avocado, cheese, sour cream, and radishes. In other words, it's essentially chili without the beef or chicken and beans. 

Radishes are a popular topping for tortilla soup because they provide a refreshing contrast to its heat. The mild, slightly peppery taste perfectly complements the overall flavor profile of the soup. And they add a pleasant crunch as well, making it even tastier.

Since radishes work so well in tortilla soup, it makes sense that they also make a great addition to chili, adding the same great crunch and refreshing peppery bite to every bowl. If you've never tried the combination before, start slow. Thinly dice up a single radish and add it to the top of your chili. Then try a bite. If you like, add even more radishes to taste. 

And for those chili purists out there, it's worth noting that while radishes taste great with beef chili, they are especially tasty with chicken or turkey chili since the meat tends to be a bit blander and more chewy and can benefit from that extra crunch!

Add a smoky dash of Worcestershire sauce

Most of us have a jar of Worcestershire sauce tucked away in the back of the fridge somewhere. We may use it for the occasional burger or marinade. Perhaps we throw a dash into grandma's classic meatloaf recipe or use a bit to liven up a Bloody Mary during Sunday brunch. But did you know this fermented British sauce made from a blend of vinegar, molasses, anchovies, garlic, onions, tamarind, and spices was also an ideal topping for classic American chili?

That's right — Worcestershire sauce is an ideal way to add some fantastic new flavors to an otherwise standard bowl of chili. For starters, Worcestershire sauce was designed to boost the savory umami qualities of food. So adding it to chili is a perfect way to make your chili flavor meatier, smokier, and even more robust. The blend of tanginess, sweetness, and spiciness of the sauce can also add dimension and intrigue to your chili, significantly elevating its taste. And because Worcestershire sauce contains vinegar, adding a dash to your chili also brings acidity to the dish, brightening and further balancing out its overall flavor profile.

To use Worcestershire sauce as a topping for chili, start slow. A few dashes is typically all you need. Add it, stir it in, and taste. If you don't notice an immediate spike in the umami quality of the chili, then add a dash more as needed.

Top your chili with a fried egg

If the appearance of a bright and shiny fried egg in a bed or hearty red sauce looks familiar, that's because you get the same sort of look from a popular middle eastern dish known as shakshuka. Made from a rich tomato-based sauce that's seasoned with a variety of spices, including cumin, paprika, and sometimes chili peppers, it's basically another version of chili with any meat or beans. 

Adding a fried egg to shakshuka serves a number of benefits. It improves the richness and creaminess of the dish, ramps up the protein content (making it more satisfying and filling), and it just looks good — that vibrant yolk in a sea of deep red hues creates an incredibly striking and visually enticing dish. And fortunately for all of us chili aficionados out there, adding a fried or poached egg to a bowl of chili yields the exact same sorts of benefits. It makes the chili more filling, creamier, and even richer — and it just looks great! 

To successfully add an egg to your chili, you can crack the egg directly into your pot of simmering chili, much like they do with shakshuka. Or just fry or poach the egg on its own and then add it to the chili when cooked — either option works exceedingly well. So get cracking — your chili is waiting!

Mix in a spoon of peanut butter

Many people consider dark chocolate to be the secret hidden ingredient that makes their homemade chili so delicious. The rich, cocoa heavy flavor — which is also used in a number of traditional Mexican moles — enhances the earthiness and nuttiness of the other spices used to flavor most traditional chili recipes, making its mouthfeel even smoother and more unctuous or luxurious.

But here's an unexpected surprise. When it comes to adventurous toppings you can add to chili, a spoonful of peanut butter is one of the most decadent and amazing. That's right — chocolate's best friend peanut butter can also be used to enhance and bring out the flavor of chili!

Add a dollop of peanut butter to your chili and stir it in and you'll immediately be taken by the creaminess and nuttiness the peanut butter brings to the dish. But the real surprise you get from using peanut butter as a topping in chili is the way it helps to balance and enhance the flavor of the other spices in the dish. Peanut butter mellows the heat of chili and even brings out an unexpected hint of sweetness in the chili spice blend that you might not otherwise notice. For best results, start with a small spoonful of peanut butter, stir it into your bowl until melted, and taste. Add more if needed — aim for balance not sweetness!

Throw on some chopped pickles

When it comes to great, unexpected, adventurous toppings you can add to chili, one idea that might blow your mind is chopped or diced pickles. You may have already tried the pairing on some chili dog you wolfed down in the past. And it's an idea that works for both recipes. The acidic, tangy flavor of pickles is perfect for cutting through the richness of chili. Pickles can also provide a refreshing, zesty contrast to the earthy, savory heat of a good bowl of homemade chili. And they provide added crispness and crunch. Best of all, since pickles themselves are so versatile, there are many options you can pick from as a potential chili topping — meaning there's something out there for everyone!

Dill pickles, sweet pickles, spicy pickles — even pickled jalapeño and habanero peppers — can all be perfect chili toppers. Add them by the slice if you like your pickles on the larger side. Or dice the pickles or use a pre-made pickle relish and add it directly on top of your chili. More of a purist and like your chili without any added crunch? You can still work some great pickle taste into your dish. In this case, instead of the pickles themselves, consider adding a bit of pickle juice directly into your chili bowl and mixing well before you eat. Tart and super tasty!

Sweeten your chili with a slice of grilled pineapple

As we've seen, chili can take on a variety of flavor profiles. But the one thing it will never be is a dessert – thanks to all those earthy, savory spices. That said, there is a way to make your chili tarter, sweeter, and perhaps more refreshing than you've ever experienced. And that's by pairing it with some freshly grilled pineapple!

Either drop a whole grilled pineapple kebab on top of a bowl of chili, or dice up some of the freshly grilled tropical fruit and add it to the top of your next bowl of chili. Either way, you'll be amazed by the way the sweet, juicy nuggets of pineapple melt perfectly into that bowl of beef, beans, and tomatoes — almost as if they were meant to be there. The chili will taste juicier, tangier, more exotic — and thanks to that grilling, you'll also get an incredible added burst of caramelization that brings more smokiness and depth to every bite. It's an unexpected but immensely harmonious pairing you have to try to believe. So what are you waiting for? Get that grill fired up and a pot of chili on the stove!