You probably think your chili is the shit — and it could very well be. But even the best chili recipes leave room for some interpretation. A little moxie, instinct, risk. Chili is a fine balance of several senses in several dimensions. Yes, it’s a science, but not necessarily exact, so some experimenting with ingredients is allowed.
You probably have a signature or secret ingredient already, like pre-grilling your hot peppers to get a little char or adding a dash (or five) of Sriracha into the mix. Maybe it’s a specific cut, grind, or seasoning of meat. Or a dash of herbes de Provence stirred in with your child’s Harry Potter wand while the pot simmers on low.
Whatever voodoo that you do to make your chili a fan favorite, here are five uncommon chili ingredients that may not be on your radar but are absolutely worth your culinary experimentation. Try one, two, or all of them. Your friends and family will thank you for it.
Cinnamon was one of the first known spices, and one of the first sought out in 15th-century European explorations. Historical records suggest the explorers might actually have been following the smell from Cinnabon. Woody, musty, and earthy in flavor and aroma, cinnamon is a subtle but immediately recognizable taste that plays well with hearty ingredients. The finer the grind, the more quickly the cinnamon is perceived by the taste buds. Use liberally and the smell of your chili alone could bring your neighbors running.
The use of ground coffee as a dry-rub ingredient is extremely popular in grilling and smoking circles. It tenderizes the meat and adds a depth of flavor that balances the sweet of, say, brown sugar with rich, smoky, savory tones. Brewed dark-roast coffee plays the same role in chili. From enhancing whatever meat you’re using to balancing sugars in the tomatoes and other vegetables, the coffee makes the whole pot feel fuller bodied. Plus, with a really, really good dark or extra-dark roast, you don’t have to worry about caffeine jitters.
Beer and chili go together like pigs and shit, and make everyone just as happy. A vanilla porter, however, adds less of a typical beer “bite” and more of a dark, mellow sweetness that complements both the heat of any chili spice or peppers and the texture of the red or black beans that are a staple of many recipes. Remember, smell is a powerful partner of taste, and that bit of vanilla enhances both. However hot the bite starts, it’ll finish smooth.
While heat is a given in chili, heat for the sake of inflicting pain will have you eating your chili alone. Capsaicin, a phytonutrient in peppers, is responsible for that heat — and works well in riot control, too. Hot banana peppers measure about 3,500 to 4,000 Scoville units out of 1 million, which puts them in the medium-hot realm, similar to a jalapeño or pasilla. They are a pleasant, tangy addition to every bite rather than the jarring surprise you’re trying to avoid. They are also a great second pepper to add if your recipe already has another favorite in the mix.
Oranges are essentially summer you can hold in your hand — and the zest of the orange peel adds some of that sunshine to the chili season, without the pulp. In all seriousness, orange zest adds that unmistakable, sweet-orange flavor and aroma, but don’t be heavy handed. Where the other ingredients can be used in larger amounts, this is an ingredient that should be more of a hint than a statement.
Matt Smythe is a former staff writer for Free Range American. He hails from the Finger Lakes region of western New York. An Army veteran and lifelong outdoorsman, Matt suffers from an inability to sit still. If he’s not in the woods, on the water, or busy with some sort of renovation project, he’s likely elbows-deep in restoring his ’67 Bronco. His work has appeared in Gray’s Sporting Journal, the Fly Fish Journal, The Drake, Southern Culture on the Fly, Revive, Midcurrent, Trout, and a handful of other non-outdoors-related magazines and literary journals.
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