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Let’s just put it out there on the table, or in this case, in the pot: some cooks add chocolate to their chili. A pot of chili is more of a common concept than universal recipe across the South, with each cook adding secret touches and pinches to the mix, yet stirring in chocolate is a novelty to many of us, and we might not be sold on the idea. Not yet, at least.

Our hesitation and puzzlement might come from our association of chocolate with candy and desserts, but cacao beans – the plant source of chocolate – aren’t sweet, so our chili won’t taste sweet if we stick with some form of unsweetened chocolate, such as rich and flavorful cocoa powder.

Blending chocolate and chiles in savory dishes has delicious precedent both a little south and a little north of the U.S. South. In Mexico, for example, unsweetened chocolate is mixed with pulverized dried chiles, aromatic spices, seeds, and nuts to make a dark mole sauce – a quintessential chile sauce with origins in pre-Hispanic times – that is often served with meats. The practice of mixing chocolate and chile dates back to the Aztecs. Head north to Cincinnati and we find that recipes for their iconic chili include a little cocoa powder or grated unsweetened baking chocolate, and some cinnamon, too.

WATCH: Make Sheet Pan Nachos With Your Chili Tonight

So what does unsweetened chocolate do for a pot of chili? It adds richness, deeper flavor, and umami. The chocolate makes the ground chiles and other spices perk up and taste more like themselves. It’s akin to adding a splash of vanilla extract to a chocolate cake or spice cake to accentuate the chocolate and spice, although in this case, the chocolate is coaxing flavor from the other ingredients.

Adding a touch of unsweetened cocoa to a pot of chili is a quick, easy way to boost the flavor of one of our favorite comfort foods. The trick is to add only enough cocoa to make the chili taste better, not so much that it overwhelms the other ingredients or turns the chili into chocolate soup. Check out our recipe for Chocolate Chili here.

Another trick for making great chili is to make sure your spices are fresh and fragrant so that they are doing their job in the recipe. Give your spices a quick sniff test. If they no longer have bold, pungent aroma, they no longer have full flavor and need to be replaced.