Recipes that use coffee as a secret ingredient

Coffee — it's not just for breakfast anymore. Yes, the magical bean that Americans can't seem to get enough of is popping up in some unexpected places. From breakfast to dessert and everywhere in between, coffee's complex and distinctive qualities are perking up more than just your morning routine. Think you know all the ways you can use coffee in the kitchen? Here's how you can sneak coffee into everything you eat.

Chili

The secret ingredient in my chili has always been chocolate. I picked it up from a Michael Chiarello recipe that I first prepared years ago. I've made the recipe my own over the years by adding chunks of pork shoulder and tweaking the combo of beans and spices, but the addition of melted bittersweet chocolate is what always sends it over the top. So it makes sense to me that coffee is an ingredient that appears in so many chili recipes. At Serious Eats, the "best ever chili" starts with braised shorts ribs that are given the bitterly savory boost of instant espresso powder, followed by an umami-filled blast of Marmite, soy sauce, and anchovies. For a somewhat simpler recipe, try this one from the New York Times that incorporates my favorite ingredient, chocolate, with ½ cup of strongly brewed coffee.

Brownies

We already know that coffee and chocolate are a glorious pairing, lending rich and complex tones to both savory and sweet dishes. So it should come as no surprise that a recipe for brownies will become all the more rich and decadent with the addition of coffee. Ina Garten's "outrageous" brownies call for the simple addition of instant coffee granules. Chef Billy Parisi gives his brownies a double punch of coffee with espresso grounds and leftover coffee straight from the pot. Ree Drummond's mocha brownies don't exactly keep the coffee a secret, with their delicious butter-filled mocha icing, but you'll appreciate them anyway.

Stew

The beauty of using coffee in a stew lies in the rich bitterness of coffee, which can bring out the sweetness of slow-cooked meats. In this Irish beef stew from The Chunky Chef, pure coffee extract enhances the flavors of the boneless beef chuck, which is slow cooked with another (perhaps not-so-surprising) Irish stew ingredient: Guinness beer. Coffee can also work brilliantly in a lamb stew, like this lamb and espresso stew that features lamb shoulder, black-eyed peas, and instant espresso. Even vegetarian stew recipes are perked up with the addition of coffee, like this hearty vegetable stew from Love Food that incorporates strong-brewed coffee before being topped with homemade cheddar dumplings.

Mole sauce

Coffee's ability to stand in for or complement chocolate in a recipe makes it a sure-fire winner for inclusion in a mole. Mole is a slow-cooked Mexican sauce whose ingredients and flavors vary widely depending on its specific regional origin. One of the most popular moles, mole poblano, which hails from Puebla, is the one most Americans likely think of when they imagine a mole sauce. The rich, savory brown sauce is made with spices and chocolate and is typically served over slow-cooked turkey. At The Latin Kitchen, mole poblano is modernized into a coffee and chocolate mole sauce, then served over burger patties of turkey and sausage. And Epicurious highlights a recipe from Gourmet that tops fried eggs and avocado with a quick-cooking coffee and chipotle mole.

Muffins

Muffins are an even better grab-and-go breakfast option when your requisite morning cuppa Joe is already baked right in. If you're intrigued by a healthy, gluten-free option for getting some caffeine into your baked goods, check out the maple espresso baked oatmeal muffins over at Food 52. Paula Deen adds strong-brewed coffee to her banana coffee muffins. And if you adore everything pumpkin spice, check out this recipe for pumpkin spice coffee muffins that uses instant coffee granules and plenty of chocolate chips.

Braised meats

If coffee lends itself to slow-cooked dishes like a stew or a chili, it stands to reason that it would be a fantastic braising liquid for larger cuts of meat. Coffee's depth paired with an eight- to ten-hour cooking process brings out the complex flavors in Taste of Home's coffee-braised pulled pork, prepared in the slow cooker with brewed coffee, chicken stock, aromatics, coriander, and cinnamon. At the New York Times, beef short ribs are cooked until they're fall-off-the-bone tender in a combo of red wine and coffee, and flavored with onions, garlic, and chilies. David Lebovitz braises my favorite cut of lamb, lamb shanks, with coffee, crushed tomatoes, and ancho chili.

Soup

Kathleen at Gonna Want Seconds swears that her smoky black bean soup recipe, which she adapted from Eating Well, doesn't have any perceptible coffee flavor, even though it uses two full cups of brewed coffee! She tops her hearty soup with crushed crackers, sour cream, and chopped cilantro. Jerry James Stone uses a dark, French blend coffee to sub for the classic beef stock in his vegetarian French onion soup, which lends it a smoky, charcoal-like flavor. He finishes the soup with the requisite cheese-drenched baguette croutons.

And would you believe there is actually a dish called coffee soup? This Depression-era mixture of staples like coffee, sugar, and bread is apparently still a hit with the Amish, who enjoy some in the above video. The coffee in the soup may not be too much of a secret, but you may want to keep it a secret that you eat it.

Smoothies

If you're anything like me, when you envision a smoothie, you're picturing a fruity or green slushie. Good thing the folks at Prevention showed us that a smoothie is actually the ideal vehicle to combine your morning caffeine fix with your healthy start to the day. Get ready to try out eight inventive smoothies that incorporate coffee. I'm rather partial to the sound of the coconut coffee whip. It uses canned coconut milk, banana, cold coffee, and pea protein powder for an energizing full meal in a cup. And the coffee definitely isn't a secret ingredient in this one, but who could pass up the sound of a caramel macchiato frappe? It's a three-ingredient blend of milk, coffee ice cubes, and dates.

Barbecue sauce

It turns out that coffee shows up as a surprise ingredient in a whole host of barbecue sauces, both homemade and jarred. The Savory Spice company offers a Black Dust coffee and spice bottled sauce, and King's Hawaiian has a sauce that features the flavors of Hawaiian Kona coffee. If you prefer to make your own, try out this one from Food Republic. It's packed with extra-strong coffee and bourbon whiskey, along with guajillo chili powder. Or maybe you will find this one as intriguing as I do — Serious Eats has a coffee ginger barbecue sauce made with espresso, freshly grated ginger, chocolate, and paprika.

Burgers and steaks

I love to give my burgers and steaks a good dry rub before letting them hit a hot grill, and one of my favorites this past year has been a java salt rub I bought from Whole Foods. I just rub it all over the meat 30 minutes or so before grilling and it gives the meat a beautiful steakhouse-like char, with a deep woodsy flavor that nobody would suspect is coffee. Bon Appetit also shares a complex coffee rub recipe from the famed Mesa Grill that combines smoked paprika, ginger, chilies, and ground coffee beans. The mixture is rubbed onto New York strip steaks, which are left to chill for three to six hours before they're brought to room temperature and seared in a hot skillet, then transferred to the oven.