12 Secret Ingredients You Should Be Using In Your Canned Chili

When it comes to classic comfort foods, nothing compares to chili. It's warm and satisfying, savory, spicy — even hearty yet indulgent. Yes, it fills you up. But it also feels like a delicious treat. With a great chili, your bowl has hints of tang and smoke, plus bright, herbaceous freshness, umami-laden savoriness, and even a deep, charred earthiness. What more could you want in a soup that's also a meal?

Making your own chili is relatively straightforward. All you need is some good-quality meat, a variety of beans, fresh or canned tomatoes, and spices. From there, you can be as creative as you want. There are many different varieties of chili to know, make, and share. Once your chili is prepared and simmering, it's also the perfect vehicle for all sorts of toppings — beyond just cheese and sour cream.

Still, as simple as chili is to make, there are times when whipping up a batch from scratch just isn't possible. Work deadlines. Kids' sporting events. Outdoor chores to tackle. When life gets in the way of making a big pot of homemade chili, opening a can or two of the premade stuff is the next best alternative. It's still tasty. And best of all, it's easy to adapt. Throw in a bit of this or a dash of that, and you can turn canned chili into a masterpiece that rivals any chili you might make on your own. Here's some inspiration to help get you started.

1. Make your chili richer with cocoa powder

When it comes to secret ingredients we should all be using in canned chili, one of the absolute best — and one of the least expected — is cocoa powder. Typically a key ingredient in decadent baked goods like fudge, cakes, and cookies, cocoa powder is ideal for adding a rich, deep bitterness and complexity to chili. It's a wonderful addition to the homemade stuff, but it's just as impactful when stirred into canned chili, as well.

Simply empty your chili into the pot and then stir in 1 teaspoon of pure, unsweetened cocoa powder to start. Mix well, and give the chili a taste. Remember that you aren't making a dessert here, so the chili shouldn't taste sweet. Instead, you should notice a bold, bitter, yet pleasant richness in the sauce. Think of something a bit like a traditional Mexican mole, where the flavor of chocolate is a subtle undertone — beneath the tomatoes and meat — yet also perfectly complementing the spices and acids in the dish.

To highlight that subtle cocoa flavor even more, top your chili off with a splash of fresh lime or your favorite chopped herbs, like cilantro or chives. And if the chili with cocoa suddenly seems too bitter, don't worry. Just add a tiny amount of honey, maple syrup, or brown sugar to round out the dish's already abundant flavor.

2. Ramp up the heat with extra peppers

Chili is all about a blend of good spices. But that's also one place the canned stuff tends to skimp on, and where you can do better. All it takes is a little culinary TLC. There are a number of quick and easy ways to add mild, moderate, or even scorching heat to canned chili. The first is simply by mixing in some fried spices from your cupboard. Chili powder, ground cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes, and smoked paprika are fantastic stealth weapons for adding some fire and heat to a can of store-bought chili.

But for something more surprising, how about using peppers from another can? You can pop open canned green peppers or canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce and add either to your chili as it warms on the stove. Just dice the peppers to whatever size you want and stir them in. Fresh peppers are another marvelous way to add layer after layer of complex flavor and freshness to canned chili. Jalapeños are a given, but if you want even more heat, try Serrano peppers, instead. You can also experiment with diced, fresh Thai bird's eye chilies (small but mighty when it comes to heat), Anaheim peppers (milder and slightly sweet), and Poblanos, which will add depth and rich flavor but not as much spicy intensity. Remember: Seeds equal heat, so include them or remove them based on your personal tolerance.

3. Create an umami bomb with Worcestershire sauce

While the story of how Worcestershire sauce was created may be one of the most bizarre in culinary history, there's one thing we all know for certain: If you want to add the rich, savory flavor of umami to your food, Worcestershire is the way to go. With its unique, one-of-a-kind blend of ingredients (such as anchovies, garlic, onions, vinegar, molasses, tamarind, and spices), Worcestershire sauce is ideal for amplifying meaty flavors and bringing a richer, bolder, brothy essence to canned chili. To work it in, just add 1 to 2 teaspoons of the sauce to your pot as your chili simmers and begins to warm.

In addition to highlighting the flavor of the meat in your chili, Worcestershire sauce also brings a fabulous tang to the dish that cuts through the fat in the soup, brightening and balancing its flavor. Worcestershire sauce also provides a touch of sweetness and a hint of caramelization — elements that bring a sense of home-cooked, made-from-scratch goodness to even chili that comes from a can.

Don't have any Worcestershire sauce on hand? You can get similar salty, fermented, umami-rich flavors from some other common sauces as well. Soy sauce, tamari, fish sauce, and even miso paste are all fantastic alternatives with similar flavor profiles. For that intense smokey flavor of caramelization, you can also add a few drops of liquid smoke to your canned chili. It's one must-have flavor booster.

4. Make canned chili more robust with instant coffee

Similar to Worcestershire sauce, coffee is another excellent — and somewhat surprising — way we can all take canned chili to a whole new flavor level. Those beautiful beans that help to wake us up in the morning also do a number on chili, enriching its flavor and providing boldness, earthiness, and even a hint of pleasant bitterness, all in a single shot.

But adding the flavor of coffee to canned chili isn't as simple as just tossing some grounds into your pot. Don't do that, in fact. The grounds will be gritty and chalky and can ruin the taste and texture of your dish. Instead, stir in a teaspoon of instant coffee granules and let them dissolve in your chili as it simmers. Or, simply pour some freshly brewed coffee directly into your stock pot and stir it into the chili as it warms.

Think about the roast level of the coffee you use, just as if you were adding different spices to your soup. Darker roasts tend to be a better option for beef and tomato-based chilis since they have a more robust flavor. However, if you're reheating a can of more lightly flavored white bean or chicken chili, a light roast is better to avoid overpowering the dish. Flavored chocolate or holiday roasts can also be a great option, adding the richness of coffee plus even more flavor to your canned chili, all with a single pour.

5. Bring warmth to the dish with cinnamon

Bland dishes are never truly satisfying. Lack of spice and imbalances in flavor are both common mistakes many people make with homemade chili. And even when your chili comes from a can, it can be easy to fall into the same trap. You might add peppers or acidic ingredients like vinegar or citrus juice to your chili to try to round out its taste. But don't stop there. One of the reasons chili is so satisfying and so delicious — regardless of the time of day or weather outside — is that it has so many different levels of flavor. There's earthiness and acid and spice, but chili should also be cozy and warming and even a touch sweet.

One perfect way to bring in some of these potentially absent flavors and boost the flavor profile of any canned chili is with a dash of cinnamon. More than just a baking staple, cinnamon plays a role in all sorts of savory entrees from around the world, including Moroccan tagines, Greek moussaka, and even Indian curries. It should also be a staple in any chili recipe, including chili that may have started in a can.

As your chili warms and simmers, sprinkle in a touch of ground cinnamon and give the dish a taste. You may not even notice it's there, but when your tomatoes, beans, and beef taste noticeably bolder and richer, you'll know it's working its magic.

6. Use molasses for a touch of sweetness

Like cinnamon, molasses is another wonderful secret ingredient we can all use to transform mundane canned chili into a superstar entree. We know there's a good chance you don't currently have a cache of molasses stocked up in your pantry. That's okay. It's not an ingredient many people think to keep on hand. But that's a mistake — and one that's easily rectified. Next time you're out shopping, pick up a jar. It'll only cost you a few bucks, and it can be used in so many different ways.

Molasses is excellent for baking, giving cakes and cookies a deep caramel or toffee-like flavor. But it's just as valuable for savory foods. You can use it as part of a marinade, sauce, or glaze for all sorts of cooked meats. It pairs beautifully with spices like ginger, mustard, paprika, and cumin. It's also an all-natural, more flavorful alternative to sugar. Plus, it has a long shelf life and can be stored at room temperature for extended periods, so you don't have to worry about spoiling.

To add molasses to chili, drizzle about a teaspoon of the dark, gooey liquid into your warm chili and mix well. Go easy — a little goes a long way. Taste your chili once the two are combined, and then, if you want even more sweetness, add a touch more.

7. Channel homemade chili with added sautéed veggies

Along with its sometimes minimal, one-note spiciness, one of the biggest potential drawbacks of canned chili is that everything in the can looks the same and has the same general texture. To counteract this, one of the best secret ingredients you can muster up to make your chili more memorable and inviting is your choice of any of your favorite freshly sautéed veggies.

Whatever you select to add to your chili doesn't have to be fancy — it can be stuff you already have in the fridge or pantry or even leftovers from a dish you cooked up the other day. Just grab whatever fresh produce you have on hand — fresh corn, diced celery, bell peppers, garden greens, even thinly sliced carrots — and toss it all in a skillet with a bit of oil to cook until tender. Do this as your canned chili is starting to warm up and come to a simmer on the stove. Then, just before serving, stir your perfectly cooked veggies into the pot of chili and let everything mingle for a couple of additional minutes so all those wonderful flavors can come together.

Your final chili will have texture and crunch. It will also have color and a variety of ingredients in different shapes and sizes. In short, it will look like chili you fussed with and perfected for hours, instead of something you made quickly with the help of a can.

8. Build nutty flavor with a spoonful of peanut butter

Peanut butter in canned chili? If this sounds like a culinary disaster in the making to you, guess again. Peanut butter is nutty. It's creamy. It has a touch of sweetness, saltiness, earthiness, and even savory umami. In short, it's got all the flavor elements we look for in chili, and can help to make a hearty bowl of the soup even more satisfying and delicious.

Now, even if you're just reheating canned chili, you have to use some restraint. If you stir a few heaping tablespoons of Skippy or Jif into your warming soup, it might taste a little funky. Instead, start with 1 to 2 teaspoons. You want just a hint of peanut flavor in your chili — it shouldn't taste like a peanut butter cookie. Natural, unsweetened brands of peanut butter are a better option than those with a lot of added sugars. Also, stick to creamy brands vs those with crunchy peanut chunks, which might give your chili an unusual texture.

When used with care, a touch of peanut butter can help to thicken your chili. It can help to bring out the sweetness of other ingredients like bell peppers and tomatoes in the dish. And it will make your meat and spices that much more savory and robust. It's a win-win from this unexpected chili champ.

9. Try balsamic vinegar for a tangy bite

Balsamic vinegar is good for more than just salads. This popular and widely loved fermented Italian condiment comes from freshly crushed grapes that are carefully aged to flavorful perfection. As a sauce, it's gooey and tangy — and balsamic vinegar brings those wonderful qualities to any food, including chili that starts from a can.

Drizzle 1 to 2 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar into any pot of chili as it simmers on the stove. You'll instantly be rewarded with a fragrant, slightly fruity aroma and your chili will gain a pronounced, slightly sweet tartness and tang. In short, it's a delicious addition.

If you don't have balsamic vinegar in your kitchen, red wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, and balsamic glaze are all ideal substitutes. Each is just acidic enough to help cut through the fat in canned or homemade chili and make the tomatoes and spices even more flavorful and bold.

10. Pour some full-bodied flavor into chili with red wine

For an even bolder, more decadent chili, you can also swap balsamic vinegar for a favorite red wine. From a classic merlot to a cabernet sauvignon, bold, full-bodied red wines are yet another amazing secret ingredient we can all use to turn canned chili into something spectacular. Depending on the type of wine and its age, you may detect notes of fruits, spices, earthiness, and oak in your chili after splashing some of this wonderful elixir into your pot. Red wine also deepens umami savoriness in chili and can help it thicken slightly, giving the soup a rich and luxurious mouthfeel. The chili simply tastes higher quality once you pour in that wine.

When cooking homemade chili, it's great to add wine at the start, deglazing the pan and capturing as much flavor along the way. With canned chili, you need to get that flavor in quicker. You can add around ½ of red wine to your chili as it warms. Or reduce the wine first to a separate pot. Simmer 1 cup over medium heat until it reduces by half, and then add that reduced wine to your chili just before serving. Super easy. Super delicious.

11. Get creative with gourmet jams and jellies

We'll be the first to admit that raspberry jelly probably won't make canned chili sing. But if you're looking for surprising ingredients that can make your chili more indulgent and satisfying, don't rule out all jams, jellies, and preserves. There's a treasure trove of flavorful options hiding in those tiny, decorative canning jars — you just need to pick the right ones. And, as with other secret mix-ins like peanut butter and balsamic vinegar, you can't use too much. Start with 1 to 2 teaspoons, stir well, and then only add more if you really want that extra punch of flavor.

As for the jam and jellies that pair well with chili, the list goes on and on. How about stirring in some bacon jam or onion preserves to give your chili a slightly sweeter, smokier flavor? You could use hot pepper jelly to add zestiness, spice, and tang, all in a single step. A bit of fig jam will give chili subtle earthiness, along with the delicate sweetness you only get from figs.

For a more seasonal touch of flavor and spice, apple butter and pear butter are marvelous additions to canned chili. Pineapple preserves and orange marmalade can give your chili a tropical sweetness that's perfect for summer. And for a jolt of tart flavor in your chili, a bit of cranberry jelly — like this jarringly beautiful ruby red jam — is yet another mouthwatering option.

12. Buy vegetarian chili and add your own meat!

If you want to amp up canned chili and add an unexpected ingredient to your dish, we've got one more idea for you: Buy vegetarian canned chili and then add your own choice of meat to the pot. Think of this as the ultimate time-saver. The canned soup provides your beans, sauce, and spices, all pre-made as a base. And then, you still get to add your choice of meat. It's an ideal strategy for being able to customize your chili, and it also eliminates the problem many people have with soup from a can (i.e. not liking the way that "canned meat" tastes).

When adding your preferred choice of meat to canned chili, the sky's the limit. You can go with ground beef, shredded roast, or diced, seared chunks of your favorite cut of steak. But you can also use ground chicken or turkey for a lighter dish, or ground pork for something a bit more flavorful and unique. Beyond that, you can also "meat-ify" your chili with chunks of cooked sausage, bratwurst, or kielbasa. Or, for a dish kids (and many adults) will love, you could use chunks of hot dogs as the meat in your chili. Or, go all out, pizza style, and make a "Meat Lover's" chili that includes ground beef, chunks of steak, and even crumbled bacon. Talk about a satisfying comfort food.