12 Secret Ingredients Celebrity Chefs Use In Their Chili

At first glance, chili dishes might seem simple –- hearty combinations of meat, sometimes beans, and chili peppers simmering together practically unsupervised until done. But this seemingly straightforward facade belies an enchanting world of sleights of hand, mystery ingredients, and bursts of unexpected flavor. Indeed, a lot of magic starts happening from the very moment you first put the ingredients in the pot. The slow-cooking process allows the flavors to meld and develop, creating a rich and thick texture that clings to every bite. Whether it's a classic Texas-style chili with beef, a smoky and spicy bowl of chili con carne from Mexico, or a vegetarian bean chili brimming with health, each spoonful will only reveal a fraction of the mystery. The key to making a successful chili thus lies in mastering these tricks and achieving an artful balance of ingredients and spices.

And there is no one way to make a good chili. Each region, neighborhood, and family may have its own unique variation of the recipe, adding twists and turns and secret ingredients that elevate a chili in new and exciting ways. Some chilis come with no beans. Others are made in classic Cincinnati style, with chocolate. So let's take a look at some of these secret ingredients, particularly those espoused by our favorite celebrity chefs.

Nigella Lawson - Elevate with dark chocolate

If you've ever seen any of Nigella Lawson's shows, you may have noticed that she loves to cook with chocolate. Between Irish chocolate cakes, sweet and salty bacon brownies, and everything else, she seems to have a firm handle on the ingredient. One particularly striking use of it is in her chili recipe, where Lawson suggests using a small amount of chocolate, which is known to add depth of flavor to savory sauces such as Mexican moles.

Because this piece of advice didn't come attached to any particular recipe, we can only assume that it'll work wonders in any type of chili you choose to create. For example, you could keep things easy and make this fabulous slow cooker chili recipe, where all you have to do is brown your meat, add all the ingredients to your slow cooker, and then sit back and relax for up to eight hours. Alternatively, you could whip up a cheap meal with this 5-ingredient (now 6-ingredient) chili and simply add a bit of chocolate to the ground beef, diced yellow onion, chili powder, diced tomatoes, and drained beans. Whichever recipe you go for, know that a bit of dark chocolate never hurt anyone. Except, maybe, dogs.

Ina Garten - Swap cilantro for basil

Ina Garten's culinary repertoire is vast. She has been known to use a wide array of ingredients from all parts of the globe, including worldly teriyaki sauce or luxury items like caviar. But one thing Ina Garten absolutely will not eat is cilantro. Many of you may identify with that. After all, cilantro is a divisive ingredient. While some love its bright, almost citrusy flavors, others think it just tastes like soap. Ina Garten falls in the latter category, which is why she will do anything to avoid including it in her dishes.

One such strategy is to swap the cilantro that garnishes many chili dishes with a few chopped basil leaves. This is good common sense. Both basil and cilantro have a refreshing flavor profile, so they perform similar duties in chili, which is to bring a small but effective countermeasure to the richness of the dish. And if you, too, hate cilantro, you can swap in basil for a number of other recipes as well. For example, you can try adding it to Garten's guacamole recipe with a dab of Tabasco sauce, or you can mix it into her roasted shrimp salad. While cilantro typically goes well with fish and guacamole, you don't have to abide by the rules if you don't like the ingredient.

Guy Fieri - Just add beer

We all love a good, cold beer, on a hot day, but what about a hot beer on a cool day? That's what you get to experience when you add beer to your Texas chili, as Guy Fieri does. This meal is especially expedient if you're making it for a Super Bowl party or a 4th of July gathering because it includes lots of meat and lots of beer, so you're really killing two birds with one stone while enjoying a delicious meal.

As with any chili, you're going to have to get ready to rumble, as the recipe requires quite a few ingredients, attention to detail, and a massive apron to protect yourself from flying sauces. Start by preparing your dried chilies before blending them into a paste. Then saute the garlic, onions, red peppers, and fresh chilies in olive oil before adding your seasoned ground beef and cubed chuck. At this point you get to start cooking with gas, literally and figuratively: sprinkle in the cumin, dried oregano, cayenne pepper, and cinnamon before adding the sauteed vegetables, beef broth, and blended chilies. Only then is it finally time to pour in the beer, which you must do along with some paprika and masa harina. As you work, don't forget to season your food with salt and pepper to taste. And if that's not enough beer for you, you can always sprinkle some beer cheddar cheese sauce on the chili just before serving.

Bobby Flay - Pour in pure maple syrup

You may know about the trick of adding a bit of sugar to a homemade tomato sauce in order to balance out the acidity, but did you know that this hack works with the tomato in chili, too? Well, it does, but it also goes one step beyond. Because there are so many ingredients in chili that are constantly swirling and twirling together, the addition of something sweet can bring out the taste in many other ingredients in addition to the tomato sauce, thereby adding another layer of flavor.

And don't be afraid to try different types of sweeteners. Cane sugar, in all its forms, is certainly a safe bet to try on your chili, but Bobby Flay, a known Southwestern food aficionado, recommends using 2 tablespoons of maple syrup and stirring them in at the end of the recipe. Just be sure to use pure maple syrup that actually comes from maple trees. This is a relatively healthy, natural sweetener, while its imitation syrups, such as pancake syrups, are made with scary ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, cellulose gum, and artificial coloring. If there's any maple in these at all, it's only in the form of flavoring.

Martha Stewart - Drain the canned beans first

Beans are an essential component in many types of chili recipes, whether it be the dried or canned variety. With the latter being generally easier to work with, as it doesn't require pre-soaking or other advanced preparation, it's no secret that most people prefer to use it. But that doesn't mean this ingredient is fool-proof. According to Martha Stewart, in fact, you can't take these little guys for granted, and it's always best to drain canned beans for chili.

At first glance, this may seem like an unnecessary step. But there are several reasons why it's worth the few extra minutes it takes to get it done. First of all, the extra liquid in the cans is not usually called for in a recipe, which means there's a risk it might thin out your chili, making it somewhat bland. Second of all, as Martha Stewart points out, the added starch and salt contained in that liquid could mess with your balance of seasoning. For example, you might have put in the right amount of salt, just to find that the salt from your canned beans tips the seasoning over the edge. To that end, you might even want to rinse your beans before use, just in case.

Emeril Lagasse - Use turkey instead

A good beef chili is a sight for sore eyes, but that doesn't mean that you can't change it up a bit –- or a lot. And by that, we mean swapping out the main ingredient, which is typically ground beef, and using ground turkey instead. This is especially ideal if you're looking for a lighter version of this exceedingly hearty dish, either because it's too hot outside and you can barely face the thought of eating, or because you just need a bit of a break from beef's hefty texture and flavor.

Either way, Emeril Lagasse's best cooking tips include something for his turkey chili recipe. But don't be fooled. Just because his recipe includes turkey instead of beef doesn't mean it's simpler than any other chili recipe. You're still going to need a plethora of spices and vegetables, and you're still going to need to be at the stove for quite some time. Once there, cook the turkey, chili powder, cumin, salt, and cayenne pepper along with the onions, bell peppers, and celery before adding canned diced tomatoes, cilantro, jalapenos, and garlic. Before setting your stock pot to simmer for about 45 minutes and walking away, add canned and drained white and black beans, along with some chicken stock. Enjoy this chili with sour cream or any of your favorite chili toppings.

Katie Lee Biegel - Sprinkle in some cocoa powder

We've already seen how dark chocolate can elevate a chili and give it more depth of flavor. Well, cocoa powder can work just as well, and without the need for any extra stirring or melting action. You can just sprinkle your cocoa powder into your chili along with the rest of your spices.

In particular, this is a key ingredient in Katie Lee Biegel's chili. You've heard of Texas chili, of course, but you haven't tried true West Virginia-style chili until you've sampled this recipe. And one of the best parts of it is that it's easy to make, despite the long list of ingredients it calls for. In fact, all you have to do is set your stock pot on the stove and dump in the tomato sauce, tomato paste, onions, chili powder, sugar, kosher salt, cinnamon, cumin, garlic salt, allspice, pepper, cayenne pepper, cloves, bay leaves, water, and of course the famous cocoa powder. Flip your ground beef into the pan straight from the package, without evening browning it first, and you're practically done. You just need to simmer the brew for about two and a half hours and the flavors will take care of themselves.

Geoffrey Zakarian - Pile on the onions

By the looks of it, Geoffrey Zakarian has a very unusual method for making chili. In an Instagram post from last year, he appears to have laid out a whole bunch of roughly chopped onions, and possibly some yellow bell peppers, on a baking tray before piling on the spices. In the same post, he then goes on to explain that the beef needs to be thoroughly browned as this "builds the proper flavor structure for the chili." That part is clear enough, but what about the onions?

Zakarian's Instagram recipe explains that the onions should be added to the browned beef, once it has been deglazed with beer, but it says nothing about how the onions should be prepared. From the Instagram post, we can only assume that they are either roasted in the oven, or Zakarian simply used a tray to lay out the onions and give them enough space to properly receive the seasoning and spices. Either hypothesis is likely to yield a tasty result. But if you feel like this guesswork is playing with fate a bit too much, you can always fall back on his somewhat vague instructions from the Instagram post, or you can try the game time chili recipe he posted on his website. This one is made with Turkey, but it also calls for two large onions, so if you love this ingredient, you know you can safely stick with Geoffrey Zakarian.

Alex Guarnaschelli - Skip the beans in the Texas chili

You may think of beans as being practically synonymous with chili. Almost every type of chili contains them in spades. But in fact, Texas chili, when made correctly, purely, and authentically, does not contain a single bean. Alex Guarnaschelli knows this because she knows a heck of a lot about cooking, so she took to Twitter to kindly and helpfully let retired NFL player and chef Eddie Jackson know that beans should not be included in Texas chili under any circumstances.

Now that we, too, know the proper way of making Texas chili, we can safely follow this delicious recipe without suffering the nagging feeling that we've forgotten something important. This meal, like all chilis, starts with a large saucepan. Use it to heat up your lard with onions, garlic, various colorful bell peppers, and fresh diced tomato before adding the ground beef. Next, come the spices: Here you'll need ancho chile powder, cumin, oregano, paprika, and salt. Lastly, pour in the chicken stock and continue to cook. If you find that your chili is too watery, you can add some masa flour paste as a thickener. This recipe is so good, hearty, and filling that you'll never even notice the absence of beans, especially if you garnish it with tortilla chips and shredded Monterey Jack cheese.

Peggy Murray - Don't skip the beef bullion

There is this warm and inviting feeling in some foods that only beef bullion can truly summon. That seems to be the philosophy of Peggy Murray, the sister of actor Bill Murray and of well-known chef Andy Murray, who featured her chili recipe, among others, in his 2022 cookbook, "Eat, Drink, and Be Murray: a Feast of Family Fun and Favorites." Although many chili recipes call for chicken stock in some form, she and her family swear by the beef bullion for that added depth of flavor.

The rest of the ingredients for this recipe include the usual. You'll find ground chuck, kidney beans, green chilis, tomato paste, chili powder, cumin, and oregano. But it's the beef bullion that truly stands out, which is why it's important to avoid substitutes at all costs. It can't be beef broth, chicken bullion, or any other iterations of the thing, as Andy Murray found out the hard way. So learn from the mistakes of others, and stick to the Murray family recipe.

Guy Fieri - substitute dried beans for canned beans

Canned beans are a quick and easy way to add texture and depth to any chili (except for Texas chili, of course). And as we've seen, if you just drain and rinse those canned beans, everything will be alright. But Guy Fieri suggests taking it one step further by using bona fide dried beans, especially for his Dragon's Breath chili.

We like this idea because it's cheaper and tastier. Not only that, but as Guy Fieri explains in this YouTube video, "If you wanna talk about texture in chili, and really getting that extra out of it, dried beans is always the way to go." So now that we know this trick, it's time to put it into action, but you can't just grab a bag of beans and toss them in your chili. Dried beans take a very long time to rehydrate and cook. First of all, sift through your bag of beans for any rocks, pebbles, or pod pieces that may have inadvertently slipped in. Next, you'll have to soak the beans in cool water overnight, making sure the liquid is covering them by at least 2 inches. After that, you're ready to start cooking your formerly dried beans in whichever way you prefer, including in your chili.

Giada De Laurentiis - Make it with ground chicken

Giada De Laurentiis has a talent for preparing dishes packed with flavor without compromising on the healthy component. They tend to have a lot of lean proteins and vegetables, and her chicken chili is no exception. So instead of artery-clogging beef, however delicious it may be, she opts for chicken, while the Swiss chard inclusion easily helps us reach our vegetable quota for the day.

To prepare this hearty yet light and flavorful chili, cook the onion, garlic, ground chicken, salt, cumin, fennel seeds, oregano, and chili powder in some good quality extra virgin olive oil. Chili may be a product of the Americas, but there's no reason why you can't put an Italian spin on it if that's your preference. Thicken this mixture with some flour before pouring in the beans, Swiss chard, corn kernels, and chicken stock. Top with red pepper flakes for that perfect bite chili is known for, and don't forget the grated Parmesan cheese to drive home the Italian bent of this special chili recipe.