Many chefs today consider getting onto a television cooking competition as a mark of excellence in their career and a real chance to make a name for themselves.
But what if you finally made it on one and you found out that one of the ingredients that you had to cook with was bull testicles? Or a fruit that’s so smelly that it’s grounded airplanes and delayed flights?
If you’re a contestant on Food Network’s “Chopped,” odds are good that you’ll see at least one wild ingredient in your secret basket that you’ve never worked with before, maybe that you’ve never even heard of to this point in your career. One of the hallmarks of the show seems to be throwing contestants for a loop and freaking them out with off-the-grid ingredients that they don’t know how to prepare.
As much as it can wreak havoc on a chef’s plans for a meal, those of us at home who don’t have culinary degrees love seeing these ingredients show up inside the baskets. We can’t wait to see what a trained chef who is used to the best cut of grass-fed beef will do with canned meat, or how they incorporate weird candy into an entrée round. It keeps us coming back for more.
Here are 22 of the craziest ingredients we’ve seen on “Chopped.” They drove professional chefs on the show insane. What would you do with them?
22 Pickled Pig Lips
In an effort to make sure that no part of the pig was wasted, pickled pig lips were born. The lips were cut into manageable pieces and brined in vinegar and red dye. You can eat them right out of the jar, but it’s not the way most people choose to do it. They’re not cooked but are still safe to eat because of the brine. The traditional way to eat them in the south is by crushing up a bag of spicy potato chips and throwing in a piece of the pig lips. It gets coated by the potato chips and turns into a crunchy treat.
The name sounds cool, but you might hesitate to use it when you realize that “Natto” is fermented soybeans, you might think twice about trying to incorporate it into your cooking. It’s popular in Japanese culture, often served at breakfast because the fermentation process gives it some health benefits. But in order to get the benefits, you have to learn to stand the taste. The smell is similar to ammonia, and it’s difficult to get past in order to eat it. If you can tolerate the smell, the taste is more palatable but tends to be bitter with a sticky gooey texture. Now that you know what it is, you can understand why “Chopped” chefs just want to shut the lid when they see Natto in the basket.
20 Gummy Eggs
The challenge with this ingredient is less about taste (you know it’s going to be crazy sweet because it’s a gummy) and more about how to use it in a meal. Gummy eggs are made with sugar, gelatin, and fruit concentrate among other things. While the look is remarkably close to a real egg, albeit a very small real egg, the taste is sweet and the texture is much like any other gummy candy – thick, chewy, and totally unnatural. While chefs might be able to fit it easily into a dessert, incorporating it into an appetizer or entrée would be a real challenge.
Let’s start with the pronunciation. Avoid the “o” sound - it’s pronounced “gooey-duck.” Now that you can say it, what in the world is it? Geoduck is a huge clam found on the western coast of the United States. It’s got a small shell that isn’t even large enough to cover its body, which can grow to be over three feet long. Females can lay upwards of five billion eggs (although many don’t survive) and some have lived up to 165 years. Once you’re over the appearance, you’ll have sticker shock at the store register because geoduck can cost up to $150/pound. Sure, you’re thinking, but how does it taste? It’s sweet and slightly crunchy for a clam, with a really delicate flavor.
18 Goat Brains
The first thing chefs need to be assured of before cooking with brains is that they’re safe to eat. Some people even believe that people who eat brains will actually become smarter because of the unique nutrients found in animal brains. Brains typically have a lot of fat and they’re held together by a very thin outer membrane. You’ll most often see them fried, which creates a crunchy outer texture with a smooth, almost creamy texture to the meat inside, similar to firm tofu or scrambled eggs. It doesn’t have a strong taste, but does have the distinct flavor of animal meat. One more thing to consider is that they are very high in cholesterol, so watch out if your levels are already high.
17 Century Eggs
Although they’re known in China as century eggs, these eggs are actually only aged for several months in a mixture of salt, quicklime, and occasionally tea leaves. When they’re ready to eat, they’re blackish-brown in color with egg whites (more like egg blacks) that are somewhat translucent. The whole thing has the texture of an overripe avocado. If that description doesn’t totally turn you off, the smell of them of them just might – unless you like a strong ammonia scent to accompany your food. You can eat these eggs on their own or put them into soups or oatmeal. The taste takes some getting used to, but if people in China are right, eating these bring good fortune so they might be worth the try.
It’s dark brown in color and made from yeast extract, vegetable extracts, and various spices. It’s usually spread on toast. Marmite was created in the early 1900s after a German chemist discovered that the yeasty byproduct left after brewing beer could be transformed into something edible. However, through the years, people have been really divided on the taste. On the official website for the product, the company that makes it acknowledges that you either love it or you hate it. If you fall on the “love it” side, popular uses for Marmite include putting it on eggs, pairing it with cheese, or using it in smoothies.
15 Coagulated Pig's Blood
While there could be some debate over whether or not blood is a food rather than a drink, this was an actual basket ingredient so we’re using it. But we wouldn’t want to cook with it. Coagulated pig’s blood is made by pouring blood from a pig into a container and letting it sit for about ten minutes. That’s it. No additional ingredients required. Once it’s congealed, you can cut it up into cubes to eat, which you can do with no further preparation – if you can stomach raw congealed blood. If you’d prefer to cook it, let it steep in some hot water for about 30 minutes, which will create a soft, slightly chewy food that is often added to congee or soup.
14 Whole Chicken in a Can
What lands this ingredient so high up on the list isn’t taste. It’s chicken. It’s called chicken and it tastes like chicken, although one without much flavor. Instead, it’s the visual of it. It the idea that an entire chicken can fit in a can and slide out in a gelatinous clump. One person commented that it’s “like watching a can give birth to a chicken.” Um, yuck. Once you get it out of the can (and get over that process), you’ll see that it is, in fact, an entire cooked chicken. It’s gooey from being in the can, but you could technically eat it just as it is. Most chefs take on the challenge of trying to get rid of the good and additional flavor to it by pairing it with other ingredients.
13 Stinging Nettles
The natural instinct of most people is to stay away altogether from a plant that can physically hurt you. However, if you play by that rule when it comes to the stinging nettle, you’ll miss experiencing a healthy culinary treat. The plant grows all across North America but can be found in larger quantities in the Pacific Northwest. When you prepare them, use work gloves while you clean and chop them. Most chefs then boil them to completely get rid of the sharp stingers and soften up the leaves. Once you do, you’re left with a plant that tastes like spinach but has even more nutrients. You can eat it on its own or throw it into soups, stews, or even smoothies.
12 Rocky Mountain Oysters
If you’ve watched a few seasons of “Chopped,” you’ve likely seen these bad boys pop up more than once. They’re one of the more often used crazy ingredients on the show, but that doesn’t make them any less intimidating. The reality is that these are bull's... well you know. And mentally getting past the fact that that’s what you’re holding can be half the battle to cooking it right. Once you get your head in the game, you’ll need to remove the thin layer of outer film before cooking. Otherwise, your Rocky Mountain Oyster will be too tough to cut. They are often fried, and the end result is a rich if slightly neutral taste. Many ranch hands find these tasty testes to be a real treat. It may take city dwellers a little more time to get used to them.
Of all the ingredients on this list, this is likely the one that you’ve heard of, but that doesn’t make it any less challenging to work with. Haggis is minced heart, liver, and lungs of a sheep, mixed with oatmeal onions and spices and seasonings, and stuffed inside the stomach lining of the sheep before the whole thing is cooked like a sausage. Yummy, right? Haggis is usually associated with Scotland, but it actually originated in England. While it can be hard to think about eating such rarely used parts of the animal, it was actually a good way to make sure that no parts of an animal went to waste.
10 Prickly Pear Cactus
Not every kind of cactus is edible, but the prickly pear cactus is. Its appearance is distinctive because its “leaves” are flatter and rounder than a typical cactus and the flowers it produces are beautiful and bright and come out at the top of them. You can eat the leaves of the cactus or the fruit that comes out after the flowers are done blooming. Both the fruit and the meat of the leaves, once they have been scraped off their spiny outside, can be used to make jelly. The leaves can also be eaten raw or fried to give texture to a dish.
9 Sea Cucumber
It might be named for a long and smooth cucumber, but with its prickly skin it looks more like the briny cousin the pickle. They live on the bottom of the ocean floor, eating all of the dead things and excrement that falls in their path. But don’t turn your nose up at them for their diet. They’re actually helping to keep the underwater ecosystem clean and running smoothly. And if you can get past its questionable looks and its even more questionable diet to actually taste the sea cucumber, you’ll find it has a loose, gelatinous texture but not much flavor. It’s often sold dried so it would need to be rehydrated before cooking it, and you’ll most likely see it in China's cuisine.
8 Shad Roe Sack
Let’s break down this name to see what we’re dealing with here. Shad is a boney fish that’s relatively small, averaging between three and five pounds. Roe is the eggs it produces and obviously a sack is what holds the eggs. What makes the shad unique is that its value is not in its fleshy meat like most fish, but in the eggs it produces. It starts out as a bright red color that turns a grayish-brown when it’s cooked. Different preparation methods include sauteeing and boiling. Be careful when you cook it as the eggs can sometimes burst when you’re slicing it, and the high fat content can spurt all over. However, when it’s prepared properly, shad roe is buttery and smooth with a subtle taste that tends to take the flavor of whatever it is cooked with.
7 Stinky Tofu
This is a crazy popular snack food in many Asian countries, but those of us in western cultures are less familiar with it and shy away from anything with “stinky” in the name. This ingredient is tofu (which is coagulated soy milk) that has been fermented in a brine of vegetables, meat, fish, and fermented milk. You don’t have to brine it long for those strong flavors to set in, but done right, the tofu should be allowed to absorb the flavor in the brine for weeks or even months. The longer it is brined, the worse it smells but the better it tastes. The smell has been compared to rotting garbage, but the taste is smooth and subtle and remarkably good once you get past the odor. It’s most often served fried as a fried treat.
Ah, durian. It’s hard to imagine a smell so powerful and awful that it has caused flights to be delayed while the odor from a durian brought onboard the plane dissipates. But that’s really how strong the odor from this fruit is. It’s actually been compared to “damp feet festering on a soggy boat for hours.” If you can get past the smell, the look of durian is unique and interesting. It’s about the size of a cantaloupe and has a spiny, golden-brown outer shell that’s oval in shape. Once it’s cut open, the inside flesh is bright yellow and soft, and actually tastes sweet. But if you can’t get over the smell, and many can’t, you won’t get to the treasure inside.
5 Dried Fermented Scallops
Unlike other items on our list that try to disguise what they are by hiding behind fancy names, this is an ingredient that, should you pull it out of the “Chopped” basket, you’ll know exactly what it is. They are scallops that have been fermented and then dried out for longer storage. It’s a popular ingredient in Cantonese cuisine and gives a boost of umami flavor to whatever dish it’s in (umami is one of the five basic tastes of the tongue, most often associated with savory flavors). In order to cook with the scallops, you’ll need to rehydrate them in water. They have a really strong flavor from the fermentation process so using too many will overpower your food.
4 Rose Syrup
Rose syrup is a sweet liquid that tastes – well, like roses. It’s made with either the petals of the hip of the rose (the hip is the bulb part between the stem and the actual flower). If you’re using the petals, make a regular simple syrup and steep rose petals in it for about ten minutes. If you’re using the hip, simmer it in water, then crush it into the liquid and strain the pieces of the flower. Use that water and make the simple syrup with it. Food coloring is usually added just to give the finished product a pinkish rosy hue. Once you have it made, how do you use it? It’s a powerful flavor so use it sparingly, but it can add a great taste to cookies, cakes, custards, and more.
Dulse is seaweed that grows on the northern coasts of both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. Its deep, rich purple color sets it apart from regular seaweed. It can be difficult to find fresh dulse in stores, but you can usually find the dried or flake variety. Some say that dulse has an almost bacon-like flavor so if you do find the fresh version, consider giving it a quick pan fry to create a mock bacon. Dulse is salty and sometimes used as a salt substitute. Because it can present similar to bacon in taste, the flake version is a good topping for salads or eggs.
2 Reindeer Pate
This smooth pate is made from reindeer meat, spices, and cognac. One brand proudly advertises that the reindeer meat is from a cousin of Rudolph’s. That may not be a selling point considering most people don’t want to have a personal relationship with the meat they eat, but it certainly catches your eye. Pate is usually served on warm toast, and reindeer pate is no different. This is not something that your local supermarket, even the specialty ones, will likely carry as it’s such a specialized product, but you might be able to order it online around Christmas for obvious reasons.
1 Mashed Potato Candy
Never has a food product been more correctly named. This is literally candy made primarily out of mashed potatoes. You start by preparing mashed potatoes and add a few more ingredients to them, including powdered sugar, to create a dough. Chill it and roll it out, spread peanut butter on top of it and roll it back up jellyroll style. Chill the roll and after an hour, slice it into one-inch pinwheels. Voila – mashed potato candy. How you cook with the finished product and make it a tasty part of a completed dish? That’s up to you.