This Secret Ingredient Is What Gives Wendy's Chili Its Characteristic Flavor

At first glance, Wendy's may not stand out among other fast food chains in terms of menu offerings. Like a host of others, the Wendy's menu features classic American fast food staples like "fresh never frozen" burgers, fried chicken, and breakfast sandwiches, just to name a few. It does have its iconic 4-for-$4 menu, but this can be compared to other chains' value specials, and even the famous Wendy's Frosty isn't so different from a chocolate shake somewhere else. 

However, there's one item that sets Wendy's apart from other fast food competitors with similar menus: chili. An integral menu item since its inception, chili was one of only five menu items Wendy's offered during its early days. Wendy's chili is hearty, comforting, and has quite the impassioned support base on social media. According to Wendy's itself, in 2020, it served over 83 million helpings of chili across the United States. So what's the secret ingredient that keeps people coming back for seconds?

Sugar brings Wendy's chili to life

In addition to red kidney beans and pink kidney beans, Wendy's chili also employs onion, celery, green peppers, tomato, and, of course, ground beef. Though it's a relatively simple recipe, there's another common ingredient in the franchise's chili that you may not associate with a heaping bowl of the stuff: sugar. Alongside other seasonings like salt, dried chilis, and an assortment of spices, Wendy's adds sugar to its chili sauce seasoning, according to the website.

Although sugar and chili sounds like an uncommon pairing, the sweet stuff isn't just reserved for desserts. Cook's Illustrated says that sugar adds another layer of flavor to meat dishes, especially because it helps brown the protein for a caramelized finish. When it comes to chili, sugar confronts the naturally occurring acidity in tomatoes, giving it a more balanced taste — the same process that occurs when you add sugar to homemade tomato sauce.

Whenever you decide to make a copycat Wendy's chili recipe, then, draw some inspiration from the chain's sugar hack — and try adding butter for even an even richer flavor.

If you're having trouble getting it right, try adding butter

If you thought sugar was a strange addition to chili, you might be surprised to hear that butter can unite the many flavors found in Wendy's chili. Although they don't explicitly list butter as an ingredient, Wendy's website informs customers with food sensitivities that their chili includes milk. Since it doesn't come equipped with sour cream or cheese, adding butter could really bring the flavors together as laid out in this copycat recipe.  

According to MasterClass, butter is a natural emulsifier that keeps ingredients from separating. Butter ensures that common ingredients in chili like oil, tomato juice, and of course, sugar are equally balanced and blended and no ingredient separates from rest. Like sugar, butter also helps cut the acidic taste of tomatoes, onions, and peppers giving you a smooth, accessible flavor (per Taste of Home). Pepper Scale also adds that high-fat ingredients like butter can help ease the burn of spicy foods like chili. Not to mention that butter adds a smooth, creamy texture to just about anything, what's not to love?

Try sugar and butter substitutes for a DIY Wendy's chili

While sugar and butter together make for a well-balanced chili, these ingredients aren't always the best option for some chili aficionados. Whether you avoid dairy products, have health concerns that limit your intake of butter and sugar, or simply want to cut them out of your diet, there are ways to mimic the magic of butter and sugar in a homemade Wendy's chili.

When you're craving Wendy's chili but eating out isn't an option, bust out your largest stew pot and get to work on your best DIY archetype. Start by using our copycat Wendy's chili recipe then brown your beef or turkey, combine the necessary ingredients, and finally, simmer the stew for three hours for an irresistible chili. But when it's time to add butter and sugar to your chili, consider using these clever substitutes to maintain a well-balanced flavor profile that rivals Wendy's.

For butter replacements, vegans can use plant-based butter like Earth Balance's popular buttery spread or Country Crock's plant butter with avocado oil. News Medical says that protein-rich greek yogurt can also cut acidity like butter while simultaneously counteracting the spice of the chili. You can lower your sugar intake by replacing it with low-glycemic sweeteners like xylitol, monk fruit, or stevia (per Healthy Family Foods). For more common alternatives, try maple syrup or honey (per Healthline).

However you make it, remember a great chili is all about balance!