We all love cooking shows and wonder about the secrets behind them. One of our favorites has to be the Food Network show Chopped. Each episode tasks chefs with creating an appetizer, entree, or dessert with the four ingredients in a “mystery basket.” And more often than not, those ingredients are pretty strange. As Chopped host Ted Allen notes in an interview with The Daily Meal, “The game is designed to trip you up.” And no part of the show better exemplifies that goal than the mystery basket — and all of the weird ingredients it holds.
Food Republic reports according to Allen, Food Network staff plans the baskets for an entire season at a time. “That’s three baskets a day, times four ingredients, times 39 episodes; and all the baskets have a riddle inside them. It’s hard work. And finding things we haven’t already used is harder and harder.”
Curious about the weirdest ingredients that have appeared on Chopped? We’ve collected 25 of the strangest, grossest, and most unusual mystery basket ingredients.
1. Dried fermented scallops
Allen told The Daily Meal the show had just filmed an episode that featured dried fermented scallops. “A lot of people didn’t know what to do with them,” he explained. “It’s a great ingredient for umami, but a strong flavor, so you don’t want to use a lot of it.”
Umami, for those who need a refresher, refers to one of the five basic tastes. The others are sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness.
2. Chicken feet
Another ingredient Allen characterizes as “tough” to cook with? A batch of chicken feet. Chicken feet are traditionally eaten in many countries, including China, Indonesia, Thailand, Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Ukraine, Russia, Romania, and even Italy. The edible tissue on chicken feet consists of skin and tendons, not muscle. So they have a gelatinous texture that poses a pretty big challenge to Chopped contestants.
3. Whole chicken in a can
Allen told The Daily Meal of another strange ingredient that’s appeared on Chopped, “My favorite weird ingredient is whole chicken in a can. It’s actually really great. It makes me happy in a satisfied, but horrified way.”
The idea of a chicken in a can is pretty gross. But even worse? Watching Chopped contestants take the slimy chicken out of the can. Plus, Serious Eats reports even though the ingredients are just chicken, water, and salt, a canned chicken “doesn’t taste very good.”
As Food Republic reports, Allen admits during his first year on the show, he “wished that there was never anything in the basket that was gross or processed. I still don’t want to see eyeballs, which we’ve done.”
Allen says Chopped judge Geoffrey Zakarian once “objected to the idea of tasting an eyeball, and so would I.” He added, “So, whenever people say, ‘Why don’t you get to taste the food?’ I always say, ‘How bad do you think I want to taste eyeballs, chicken feet and Rocky Mountain oysters?'”
Chopped judge Alex Guarnaschelli writes for People, “I have definitely cringed in my seat many a time when the baskets are opened to reveal that dreaded ingredient that no one knows how to use. I am sometimes so relieved to be sitting in that judges seat instead of sweating it out at the stove.” She names durian — a famously foul-smelling Asian fruit — as one of the worst ingredients that’s been featured on the show.
And Allen says it’s another ingredient Zakarian really didn’t want to try. “Zakarian really didn’t want to take a bite of that durian. The producers kind of made him take one, and I thought he might get sick.”
According to Guarnaschelli, the mystery basket doesn’t always contain ingredients that are challenging in a bad way. The Chopped judge identified a few baskets she’d like to experiment with, including one that included a rack of venison, dulse, gooseberry preserves, and fruit ring cereal.
Even venison, gooseberry preserves, and fruit ring cereal don’t sound that strange when compared to dulse, a red alga that grows on the northern coasts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Bon Appétit reports this seaweed “tastes like bacon,” especially if you pan-fry it.
Screener reports scrapple numbers among the grossest ingredients used on Chopped. This eyebrow-raising ingredient takes the form of a congealed loaf of pork scraps and trimmings, combined with cornmeal, flour, and seasoning.
A website called What Is Scrapple reports scrapple appeared on the show during a viewer’s choice episode. As you might guess, that means viewers chose the mystery basket ingredients — much to the chagrin of the chefs competing on the episode.
8. Caul fat
Another incredibly gross ingredient Chopped contestants have had to incorporate into their dishes? Caul fat, the membrane that surrounds the internal organs of cows, sheep, and pigs. The Spruce reports caul fat also goes by the name “fat netting.” (That somehow makes it sound even less appetizing.) It has a stringy texture, which makes it difficult to render.
9. Coagulated pig’s blood
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Vice’s Munchies investigated the question of whether congealed pig’s blood really counts as a superfood. The publication determined though blood does contain a wealth of nutrients, congealed pig’s blood doesn’t exactly qualify as a superfood.
Allen names pig’s blood as an ingredient that might gross out Chopped viewers. But he notes it’s actually “totally ordinary in other countries, and I think that’s part of the excitement. We all like [an] ingredient that’s going to, you know, make a 12-year-old boy go, ‘Eeew.'”
10. Buddha’s hand
The Food Network itself has admitted the ingredients in the Chopped mystery basket “just keep getting weirder and weirder.” The first ingredient on the list? Buddha’s hand, a strange-looking fruit that tastes a little bit like other citrus fruits.
According to the Smithsonian magazine, the fruit “looks like the Edward Scissorhands of the citrus family.” In fact, it bears resemblance to “a lumpy lemon with fingers and smells like heaven.” It has little to no flesh, so Chopped contestants tasked with cooking with this ingredient typically need to work with the rind.
11. Green tea leaves
They aren’t nearly as gross as some other Chopped ingredients. But green tea leaves still pose a challenge to chefs when they appear on the show. However, the Food Network characterizes them as an “incredibly versatile ingredient.” They have a “bright perfumed flavor with some fruity undertones,” which makes them a great addition to desserts or even soups.
Serious Eats reports there are numerous ways to cook with tea leaves. Smoothies, cookies, chicken noodle soup, oatmeal, ice cream, and cocktails all can benefit from the addition of tea leaves.
The geoduck (pronounced “gooey duck”) is a sand-burrowing saltwater clam known for its long neck, or siphon. The siphon has a savory, slightly salty flavor and is considered a delicacy in China, Korea, and Japan.
Eater reports this bivalve has “earned a reputation as one of the weirdest looking (it might make you blush) and most delicious mollusks to meet the American plate.” As the publication explains, “It’s far too big to retreat to its shell like other mollusks; instead, the massive neck promiscuously hangs outside in all its phallic glory.”
13. Fiddlehead ferns
You might not think fiddlehead ferns qualify as a “weird” ingredient if you’ve picked them up at the farmers market (or a high-end grocery). But many people have never tried this tightly coiled ostrich fern greens. And these greens definitely aren’t the easiest ingredient to have appeared on Chopped.
Food52 reports the flavor of fiddlehead ferns ranges “from asparagus to artichokes to green beans.” You can forage for your own fiddlehead greens in the spring. Or you can pick them up at the farmers market or specialty grocery the next time you want to pretend to be a Chopped contestant.
14. Squid ink
Sure, cooking with squid ink sounds pretty strange. After all, it’s the dark liquid cephalopods (in this case, squids) release to obscure a predator’s view. But Food Network reports this ingredient “has a salty, briny taste with very little fish flavor, so it’s useful for seasoning fresh pasta or rice dishes.”
Saveur recommends using this offbeat ingredient in rice, as cooks do in Spain and Italy. Or, if you really want to feel like a professional chef (or a Chopped contestant), you can use it in pasta with a salt cod confit.
15. Black garlic
Regular garlic probably wouldn’t pose much of a challenge to the competitors on Chopped. But black garlic? That’s a little trickier to work with. Although some people refer to black garlic as fermented garlic, it’s actually heated in a humid environment for about 40 days. That turns it black and gives it a sweet, more acidic taste.
Lucky Peach outlines the science behind the flavor of black garlic. But in short, the publication explains we should “file black garlic-making in our mental culinary toolbox of ‘cool slow processes that aren’t technically fermentation but which we can still use to transform ingredients.'”
16. Cold-smoked kippers
Another Chopped ingredient most home cooks have never laid eyes on? Cold-smoked kippers, or herring that have been split, salted, and smoked. Kipper — a fish The Telegraph notes has fallen out of fashion in Britain — is essentially raw when it’s cold-smoked. That means Chopped contestants who find this ingredient in their mystery basket need to heat it (or else make it into kipper ceviche).
17. Bitter melon
Chopped is a great show to watch if you want to learn about strange kinds of produce, such as the bitter melon. This small fruit has a bumpy exterior. And unlike the many kinds of fruits you probably have in your kitchen, it just gets more and more bitter as it ripens.
Saveur reports this “funny-looking, boldly flavored, and nutritious powerhouse” really “looks like a weaponized cucumber.” You can stir-fry the bitter melon. Or you can juice it. You can even blanch it in boiling water to make a salad.
18. Vegetable yeast spread
Not sure what actually goes into vegetable yeast spread? Its primary ingredient is leftover brewer’s yeast extract. And as for its taste? Food Network says you should “think of it as a very salty, very pungent peanut butter.” In fact, the network advises you can “try adding a small amount to a sauce to add thickness and depth of flavor, or mix it with mayo and spread on a sandwich.”
19. Rocky Mountain oysters
Let’s start with this caveat: Rocky Mountain oysters aren’t actually oysters. They’re bull, pig, or sheep testicles. And they’ve shown up several times on Chopped. As Food Republic reports, Allen notes testicles of various types have turned up a lot. “It’s really hard for us to keep a straight face,” Allen says. “We’re like 12-year-olds whenever balls are in the basket.”
20. Stinging nettles
Think even Chopped wouldn’t require chefs to cook with an ingredient they’d need to handle with gloves for their own safety? Think again. The show has featured stinging nettles, which has hollow hairs (or trichomes) on its leaves and stem. They sting when you touch them (hence the plant’s name). But the stinging trichomes don’t keep Chopped contestants — and other adventurous cooks — from blanching the plant and incorporating it into dishes, such as pesto.
Chopped has featured its fair share of ingredients many viewers hadn’t heard of before watching. And we’d bet natto numbers among them. This Japanese food consists of fermented soybeans with a strong flavor, pungent aroma, and sticky texture.
As Saveur explains, “A ubiquitous Japanese specialty that has yet to make its way into Americans’ diets (despite our obsessions with Japanese culture and fermented foods), natto is made using two simple ingredients: soybeans and the bacteria Bacillus subtilis, which cohabitate for about a week before turning into a sticky, slimy, pungent tangle of fermented beans.”
22. Lotus root
Another unusual ingredient featured on Chopped? Lotus root. It has a mild flavor and creamy texture. And according to Saveur, the roots are a popular food in the region of the lakes that border Srinagar, the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in northeast India.
As Serious Eats explains, the so-called root is actually the stem of the plant. It rises out of the water and “ends in the elegant flowers that are so revered in Buddhist and Hindu cultures.” According to the publication, “The plant is an endlessly forgiving ingredient with which to experiment, culinarily speaking.” So you could definitely get a worse ingredient in your Chopped mystery basket.
23. Reindeer pâté
Food Network reports reindeer pâté, which has appeared in the mystery basket on Chopped, is “texturally very similar to any other pâté, but it is more gamey in flavor.” If you need a reminder, pâté consists of ground meat and fat, mixed into a paste. Pâté, especially of the reindeer variety, sounds like a difficult ingredient to incorporate into a dish. But Food Network advises you can “serve it on buttery toasted bread, or blend it with butter for a rich, gamey steak sauce.”
24. Pickled pig lips
Pickled pig lips make a strong candidate for the grossest mystery ingredients used on Chopped. As the Food Network explains, “Usually stored in brine, pickled pig lips have mainly a salty, vinegary flavor. The texture, however, is spongy and chewy, so it can be tricky to use.”
Punch characterizes pickled pig lips as “Louisiana’s most polarizing bar snack.” And as the publication explains, “Pickled pig products are big business in a swath of the South that stretches from Cajun country up through the Mississippi Delta, where any roadside bar or gas station that doesn’t have a watery gallon tub of ruby-hued pork products is an anomaly worthy of suspicion.”
25. Cactus pears
Cactus pears make Food Network’s list of the ingredients that appear most often in the mystery basket on Chopped. The network explains, “Cactus pears certainly bear an intimidating name. But once peeled and seeded, they’re just a sweet fruit. Chopped chefs have used them in all three rounds.”
And as The Spruce reports, cactus fruits “are used in many Mexican main dishes, such as salads, eggs, and as a filling for other dishes.” They grow on the edges of the flat pads of a cactus. And in most cases, you shouldn’t touch the raw fruits with your bare hands (unless the store has already removed the glochids, or bristles).