The Unexpected Ingredient That Will Take Your Chili Up A Notch

For many, chili symbolizes that fall is really here. Cooler temperatures make you want to bundle up, stay home, and eat something warm and comforting. But chili doesn't have to just be for the autumn months. For example, how could we not pay homage to the classic and always-in-season chili dog? Whenever and however you like to enjoy your chili, you're no doubt looking for a way to make it as delicious as possible. Everyone has that "secret family recipe" that's probably just a simple, not-so-mysterious mystery like undercooking the onions a bit ... But you can do better.

What's great about chili is that it leaves a lot of room for you to put your creative spin on it. All-American beef chili, white chili, and anything in between can be made exactly to your liking. Whether you prefer spicy, with meat or without, or maybe with a hint of bacon, it's pretty hard to go wrong with this comfort food. But you're here because you're looking not just to get it right, but to take your chili game to the next level. You are preparing now for a big year of holiday parties, tailgates, and summer chili dogs by the pool, and there's a time for chili in every season. So how can you start experimenting to create a truly sublime pot of chili whenever you'd like?

Finding your secret ingredient

There are plenty of wacky suggestions on the internet for what you can add to your chili to make it the best. A number of tried and true ingredients, as well as some more surprising, experimental additions, will definitely elevate your chili — and you probably have them on hand. Food Network says things like beer, coffee, and even cocoa powder can make their way into your pot and you'll end up with a tasty result.

Those ingredients may or may not sound a little out of the ordinary to you. As you're wading through them all, understanding how flavors complement each other can give you some creative direction. For example, salt makes things taste sweeter. Seriously, according to Science, on a chemical level, salt helps you to register and sense sweet flavors even more effectively (something to consider if you're adding maple syrup or cocoa).

There are a number of other food relationships you can exploit in chili and other dishes, like using sweetness to balance acidity, and so on. But all you really care about is getting the best chili, right? The surest bet for accomplishing that is pretty unexpected, yet winds up making perfect sense to your tastebuds. If you're adventurous enough to put uncommon elements like beer in your chili and are willing to take a risk for a high reward, we present to you the secret ingredient you didn't know your chili needed: fish sauce.

Take your chili up a notch with fish sauce

No, your chili won't taste like fish — promise! Well, that is unless you add way more than you should. Fish sauce is actually really similar to soy sauce, says Healthline, and it does a great job of accentuating the meaty flavors in the chili, offering a nice, savory umami kick. That umami quality — here comes more food chemistry — is going to brighten up all the existing flavors in your chili, from the beans to the ground meat, says Bon Appétit. Fish sauce also contains a good helping of salt, which as Science tells us, can help even sweet flavors (like tomatoes or cocoa) shine in a new and nuanced way. If fish sauce really scares you, you can certainly opt for soy sauce, but if you're willing to be brave, it might surprise you how tasty the dish comes out.

You only need a small amount of fish sauce to get the job done. We're talking about one tablespoon for the whole pot of chili. While a little goes a long way, you'll also want to be extra sure that you give the fish sauce a chance to cook into the chili before tasting it. According to the Chicago Tribune, the fish sauce needs to simmer and cook off for close to 30 minutes in order to transform from fishy to perfectly umami. If you taste it too soon, you could end up with a less-than-pleasant experience, but rest assured that after the flavors settle in and get cooking, you'll be left with a hearty, meaty, and wonderfully robust bowl of chili.