14 Ways To Add More Flavor To Canned Chili

Convenience foods are great for a quick lunch, meals on the go, and easy family dinners. Canned chili might get a bad rap. But, it's rich, filling, and a hearty option with plenty of varieties to choose from. No matter which side of the beans or no beans debate you fall upon, you likely have a brand you love. While these ideal pantry staples have improved over time, even the best canned chilis could often use a flavor boost. Simply adding an ingredient or two can quickly raise the bar, giving it a personalized signature twist. 

A simple can of chili in the pantry is a great starting point that can be easily upgraded with a few additions you already have in your kitchen. Enjoy a filling bowl with a few of your favorite enhancements or try the jazzed-up version over baked potatoes, poured across nachos, or slathered on top of a hot dog. From amping up the taste to elevating the dish with a luxurious texture, here are fourteen ways to add more flavor to canned chili.

1. Meat (or mushrooms)

What is chili? With so many varieties, chili seems more an expression of a cook's creativity and personality than any specific recipe. At its core, traditional chili consists of ground protein, chili peppers, and maybe beans typically stewed in a tomato base. However, many cooks have expanded far beyond the classic beef version to include a wide range of proteins, both animal and plant-based, as well as a dazzling variety of seasonings and spices.

A quick and easy way to elevate canned chili is to give it a major flavor boost by adding your own protein. Give it a satisfying kick with some chorizo or bring a rich, smokiness with brisket or bacon. If your canned chili is too watery, round it out with an extra helping of ground beef, turkey, or pork. Don't forget to season and cook your meat fully before incorporating it. You could also bulk up a can of vegetarian chili with chopped mushrooms to boost both the flavor and texture of the dish.

2. Fresh herbs and vegetables

Canned foods are notorious for having a flat or slightly metallic taste. Adding fresh herbs or vegetables can lend depth, flavor, and texture to your chili while masking that tinny tang. Stretch out your chili by mixing in some cooked, chopped carrots or sweet potatoes while also giving it a nutritious boost of extra veggies. A small batch of caramelized onions can lend richness and depth of flavor to your chili as well. Sauteéd corn and bell peppers are other great options to bring some crunchy sweetness to contrast with the richness and spice.

You can also chop up some fresh herbs to add after heating the chili. This elevates the dish and makes it look and feel more homemade and gives it a custom burst of flavor and fragrance. Finishing the dish with a sprinkle of chopped cilantro or chives brings an aromatic freshness to the plate. Or, sprinkle on a few oregano leaves for an herby twist. 

3. Chiles

Liven up canned chili with an extra layer of depth and spice by incorporating more chile peppers. Fresh peppers sliced or diced bring a bold pop of heat while roasted chiles offer a complex smokiness along with their spice. Different types of chiles carry their own unique flavor profiles and levels of heat. You can incorporate dried chile powders or try roasting your own to blend into a puree. Hatch, ancho, and chipotle chiles are all excellent choices that offer unique layers of flavor.

Do chiles add too much heat for your palette? You can mellow the bite of bold peppers with the sweet tanginess of pepper jelly. A staple of the South, this sweet and spicy preserve is often used on sandwiches, as a marinade, or in a spicy dip. A couple of spoonfuls of pepper jelly brings a bit of Southern charm to that bowl of canned chili with a touch of sweetness to help tamper the strong punch.

4. Toasted spices

Canned chili might pale in comparison to the homemade version when it comes to flavor. An easy way to remedy a one-note flavor profile is by mixing in a blend of toasted spices. Opt for a low-sodium version of chili as your base so you can control the saltiness. Then, elevate the mixture with your favorite combination of spices such as cumin, paprika, and cayenne. While simply adding an extra dash of spices can boost flavor, toasting your spices will take them to the next level.

This is a technique used in many cuisines to build intensity and depth of flavor, especially in dishes like sauces, stews, and curries. As spices are exposed to heat, they release their oils which intensifies their flavor and aroma. It is best to toast spices whole if possible, then grind them into a powder using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. Use a heavy-bottomed pan such as cast iron over medium-low heat with the spices evenly distributed across the pan. Toast them for a few minutes, stirring often and watching carefully to avoid burning. The deep, roasted flavors and aromas are sure to give your chili a massive flavor boost.

5. Cocoa powder

It might seem a bit odd since chocolate is most often associated with dessert, but cocoa pairs exceptionally well with the robust, savory flavors of chili. A dash of unsweetened baking chocolate, cocoa powder, or even dark chocolate brings richness along with a subtle sweetness. Similar to a mole sauce, the chocolate notes bring out the flavorful layers of chili. Once you have given it a try, this surprising ingredient might change the way you make chili for good. 

Start by incorporating a small amount at first, beginning with about a teaspoon or so, then continue adding to taste. If you use cocoa powder, make sure to whisk it in as you heat the chili to avoid clumps. If using solid chocolate, stir it into the hot chili until it melts completely. Either way, this unique ingredient should lend a level of elegance and complexity to the humble can of chili.

6. Smoked paprika

Spices are your best friend when it comes to making your canned foods more flavorful. Paprika, especially smoked paprika, is the perfect spice to boost the flavor of canned chili. The spice features an alluring mixture of dried peppers along with its rich red hue. A popular spice used around the world, the colorful powder varies in intensity of both flavor and heat. Different types of paprika are used for unique purposes, such as the mildly sweet paprika commonly found on grocery store shelves and the many varieties of Hungarian paprika that range from delicate to pungent. 

Smoked paprika is made from slow-roasted peppers that have been ground into powder, imparting a strong, smoky note to the spice. The rich flavor is a common ingredient in barbecue dishes and hearty foods such as baked beans. The smoky notes enhance other flavors that are present in chili such as roasted peppers, grilled meats, and cooked tomatoes.

7. Booze

French and Italian chefs are no strangers to using wine while cooking luxurious stews and sauces, so why not try boosting your canned chili with a bit of booze? In addition to carrying a refined, complex flavor, alcohol can enhance the aromas of the dish. The malty notes of beer can be especially complementary to the savory elements of chili. The sugars from the beer lend balance and complexity to the chili, but be sure to let it simmer long enough for the alcohol to cook out. Leaving too much in the dish can result in an overpowering and unpleasant taste. 

Various alcohol can make your chili taste even better by adding a variety of flavors and making it seem like it's been simmering away for hours. Red wine, hard cider, and dark, malty beers are all worth a try. Just add a splash or two and let the liquid simmer, giving the flavors time to infuse.

8. Pickle brine

From vinegar to lemon juice, acid plays an essential role in cooking. Finding the balance between fat, salt, acid, and heat elevates savory dishes. This works well for complex dishes like chili as each element complements and contrasts with the others. Acid minimizes bitter flavors in food which can be unpleasant while highlighting others, bringing the nuances of a dish into sharper focus.

There are many ways to add a touch of acid to your canned chili and give it a massive boost of flavor. Pickle brine brings a bright, acidic punch along with some subtle earthy and herbaceous notes such as dill. You could also level up the heat with the brine from a jar of pickled jalapeños or even kimchi. A splash of white, balsamic, or apple cider vinegar will produce a similar effect. You might even finish your canned chili with a squeeze of lime for a vibrant, citrusy lift. 

9. Soy sauce

Savory dishes can feel incomplete without an element of umami. The elusive fifth taste can be difficult to describe but brings an intangible, satisfying quality to the food. Tomato paste, seaweed, mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese all share this unique asset. But perhaps the best way to give canned chili a bold umami boost is with a dash of soy sauce or its gluten-free counterpart, tamari.

While salty and umami flavors go hand in hand, they are not quite the same. Umami is a deep, complex flavor that balances and enhances a dish and is often present in salty foods. Be sure to choose a low-sodium chili when adding sauces such as soy sauce. You can also use lower-sodium soy sauce if you're watching your salt intake. This boost is especially useful for vegetarian chili as it delivers a satisfying richness and depth that can sometimes be lacking without meat.

10. Masa harina

No one likes watery chili. Whether homemade or from a can, chili should be a rich, hearty dish that sticks to your spoon and your ribs. Masa Harina is a time-honored secret for creating thick, satisfying chili. Also known as corn flour, this ancient ingredient is made by grinding corn into a fine powder. You might recognize this staple for its prominent role in preparing classic dishes such as tamales or atole.

Masa Harina also happens to be perfect for thickening canned chili while adding a subtle sweetness and mild corn flavor. Affordable and accessible, this traditional ingredient can often be found in the international aisle of most major grocery stores or as a staple in Latin marketplaces. If you really want to give your meal a homemade presentation, you can even use the leftover corn flour to whip up some fresh tortilla chips to enjoy alongside your dish. 

11. Pumpkin puree

Fall is the season of cozy sweaters, tailgates, pumpkins, and of course, warm hearty chili. Pairing the signature seasonal squash with the quintessential cool weather dish results in a delicious masterpiece. When mixed with chili, pumpkin puree adds complexity with its earthy sweetness while also lending the dish more texture and body. The addition of pumpkin also gives your canned chili a nutrient boost. The bright orange ingredient is low in calories yet packed with essential vitamins and minerals, especially Vitamin A which plays an important role in vision and supporting the immune system.

Common spices used in chili such as cumin, cinnamon, and smoky chipotles complement the sweetness of the pumpkin. If using canned pumpkin puree to enhance your dish, be sure to pick up the plain version rather than pumpkin pie filling. You could also cook and blend other types of winter squash to achieve a similar result with slightly different flavor profiles such as butternut, acorn, or honeynut squash.

12. Peanut butter

With a unique range of benefits, peanut butter is a magic ingredient for elevating canned chili. The creamy nut butter is packed with flavor and richness as well as protein and other nutrients. The sweetness of the peanut butter can help balance bold, too-spicy chili. Plus, its rich, fattiness gives the dish a decadent, creamy texture. The nutty spread helps thicken up loose, watery chili without taking too much time to simmer and possibly overcook the other ingredients.

Packed with about 4 grams of protein per tablespoon, peanut butter is a great way to boost both flavor and protein content. This is a great hack for increasing the amount of protein in vegetarian chili along with adding other legumes such as beans. Plus, you likely already have a jar in your pantry. So adding a few dollops of peanut butter is one of the best ways to easily elevate canned chili.

13. Milk

Oops! You bought a chili that's just way too spicy. What should you do? Try adding a splash of milk to temper the heat from strong chilies. Dairy contains capsaicin-neutralizing compounds that help mellow out the heat from spicy peppers. A cooling scoop of sour cream, creme fraiche, yogurt, cream cheese, or even cottage cheese can help calm the fiery flavors. These also add a creamy element to your canned chili. Dairy products like these, including butter, can also minimize bitterness in the dish while giving it a more well-rounded flavor. 

If your chili is too thick or has been simmering too long, the liquid from a splash of milk can help loosen and thin out the chili. It can also give the mixture a luxurious, creamy texture. If you are adding a dairy element such as milk or cream, you should do so toward the end of cooking.

14. Toppings

Perhaps the quickest, easiest, and most fun way to give your canned chili a flavor boost is to get creative with toppings. Even a dish straight from the can could be transformed into a masterpiece of flavor and texture with a well-selected variety of toppings. While there are dozens of options to elevate your chili, aim for diversity in temperature, texture, and flavor in each spoonful as you assemble your garnishes.

Classic options might include a pile of shredded cheddar cheese, chopped onions, and cilantro. You can also add a few tortilla chips and a squeeze of lime, or a dollop of sour cream and fresh slices of avocado. Tangy pickled onions or jalapeños can bring a refreshing zing to the richness and heaviness of the dish. Or, think outside the box with greek yogurt, ranch dressing, or sweet notes like mango. Your toppings should include elements that are cool, crunchy, tangy, and soft for a satisfyingly complex dish.