The Ingredient Swap To Give Chili A Unique Flavor Boost

If you've heard of adding oatmeal, chocolate, or beer to chili, you may think you've heard it all when it comes to secret ingredients. But there's one commonly found beverage that takes the cake: soda. We're not talking about baking soda, which is used in chili to thicken it and counter acidity from tomatoes – we're talking about sugary, fizzy cans of Coke, Dr. Pepper, and other classic soft drinks.

Why swap out the other liquids in your recipe in lieu of soda? It adds warmth, depth of flavor, acidity, and even a little sweetness, although you likely wouldn't be able to recognize that the sweetness you're tasting came from soda. If you're used to a spicy bowl of chili, soda can also help balance those elements out for a more complex flavor combination. Coke can even help tenderize meat, which it has been doing in Southern marinades and sauces for ages.

How to swap soda into your chili

Let's get this out of the way first: Chili is no place for a diet soda. You technically can use it, but the artificial sweeteners bring much less flavor than a can of the full-sugar stuff. Coke and Dr. Pepper are the most-used sodas in chili recipes, although you could use Pepsi for a similar taste and Cherry Coke would also pair well with the rest of the ingredients. Since soda makes the meat more tender, it is a perfect swap in chilis with steak, brisket, or short ribs.

It's also extremely easy to incorporate. Just pour a can or two into your pot instead of other liquid ingredients like vegetable juices or stocks after you've cooked your meat and other ingredients like spices, tomatoes, and beans. Some of the flavor may cook down while the pot simmers, so if you'd like, you can add in a little more soda right before the chili is done. 

It's a good idea to taste your pot before serving to make sure you have the right balance of flavors — if you added too much sweet soda, you can counter it with some extra spices, lemon juice, or arugula. But once you get your ratio just right, you may never go back to soda-less chili.