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"It Immediately Elevates The Whole Thing": People Are Revealing The "Secret" Ingredients They Swear By In Their Own Kitchens, And I Can't Wait To Try Several

·8 min read

As someone who cooks for a living, let me tell you a little secret: When you're trying to up your cooking game, sometimes it's less about learning intricate, "fancy" cooking techniques and more about leaning into delicious, occasionally surprising ingredients instead. And folks, there are a lot of 'em out there.

Nickelodeon / Via giphy.com

To that end, I recently stumbled upon a Reddit thread where u/MikePGS asked home cooks to share their "secret ingredient," and I gotta say — I'm pretty darn excited to try a few of these, in particular. These are some of the best ones.

1."Tarragon. I use a tiny amount of it whenever I make fries, whether they're frozen or homemade. Not enough that you get flecks of green on every single fry — just enough to get the aroma. People always have a hard time figuring out why the fries taste so good."

a person cutting a tarragon plant
Albina Yalunina / Getty Images/iStockphoto

2."Adding some kind of sugar to savory dishes. Savory dishes always do better with a touch of sweetness as opposed to just pure salt. That doesn't mean you have to add it to every dish — plenty of vegetables and other foods have some natural sweetness to them. But I've found that many sauces taste kind of flat until you add a splash of honey, maple syrup, or sugar to them. Vinegar or acid-based sauces, especially!"

a person sprinkling sugar into a pot
Marcela Vieira / Getty Images/iStockphoto

3."Shallots. I know some people who have generally negative feelings toward onions for no good reason — not pertaining to dietary restrictions or allergies, just preferences. I use shallots when I cook for them, and if they see me chopping an 'onion-like' item and ask about it, I just say, 'Oh, those are shallots; I know you don't care for onions.'"

sliced shallots on a cutting board
Karisssa / Getty Images/iStockphoto

4."Instant mashed potatoes. I use it to thicken soups instead of using cream or a roux, and it's such a game-changer."

a ladle holding soup out of a pot with the words "thickened with instant mashed potatoes, not dairy"
Lauripatterson / Getty Images

5."Cardamom. For any dish that calls for the classic 'sweet' spices, which are generally the 'pumpkin pie' spices in American cooking, I'll always add cardamom. Rule of thumb: If it's got cinnamon and nutmeg, cardamom is almost always gonna be a great addition."

ground cardamom in a spoon being held above a pot
Mikhail Shulpin / Getty Images/iStockphoto

6."Cayenne pepper. I put the tiniest bit of cayenne in my banana bread. No one knows it's cayenne (and there's no real detectable spice), but it brings out all the other sweet flavors so nicely."

a hand holding a small bowl of cayenne above a pot
Annick Vanderschelden Photograph / Getty Images

7."Salt alternatives. What do I mean by that? If I need to season something, I use something salty and savory instead of just sprinkling in plain old salt. So, stuff like soy sauce, miso paste, Parmesan rinds, or my personal favorite: chicken bouillon powder."

miso being poured into a pot of noodles
Gmvozd / Getty Images

8."Cinnamon. I put cinnamon in savory meals with some tomato paste, especially where chicken or beef is involved. Specifically, I started adding in some tomato paste when I make meatloaf and burgers, so I also started adding a little cinnamon, and it really rounds out all the savory flavors. It's commonly used in savory dishes in many cuisines around the world, so it's no surprise it's delicious."

a hand holding cinnamon sticks
Rizly / Getty Images/iStockphoto

9."Pickle juice. If a dish asks for vinegar, try pickle juice instead. My favorite uses are in deviled eggs and all the 'salads,' too — tuna salad, potato salad, egg salad, and macaroni salad. It's really interesting (and delicious) in mashed potatoes too."

a jar of pickles
Natalya Shcherbatyuk / Getty Images/iStockphoto

10."Stock concentrates. Recently, I've been making a rice pilaf with a dollop of the chicken-flavored Better Than Bouillon concentrate and another spoonful of either mushroom or roasted garlic BTB. It comes out so good every single time."

a hand holding Better Than Bouillon Chili Base
Pressure Luck Cooking / Via youtube.com

11."Mustard. It's absolutely HUGE for sauces. Before I started using it, I really had no idea it could make such an impact. Dijon in particular is a godsend."

a jar of Dijon mustard with a spoon in it
Sergei Dolgov / Getty Images/iStockphoto

12."Masa harina. I use 2 or 3 tablespoons of it in a large pot of chili. It thickens it beautifully and gives it this subtle, corny flavor. (Now I want chili!)"

a closeup of food with an arrow and the words "use masa harina, not flour"
Certified Angus Beef Brand Test Kitchen / Via youtube.com

13."Anchovy paste. You can even make it yourself using a food processor — just anchovies, olive oil, and sea salt. I also wouldn't be mad about a little garlic, since that's how the Italians do it in theirs."

a can of anchovies
Jackf / Getty Images/iStockphoto

14."MSG and other various flavor enhancers. In the UK, they use Worcestershire sauce, and you could even use tomatoes (red MSG)."

Worcestershire sauce being poured into a pan
Sergio Amiti / Getty Images

15."Shaoxing wine. I put it in my Bulgogi-inspired pot roast, and it just makes the whole thing taste indescribably good."

a bottle of rice wine
East Meets Kitchen / Via youtube.com

16."Adding a bit of salt to any sweets or baked goods. If I make my chocolate chip cookie recipe and I forget to add the salt, the whole batch of dough will end up ruined if it's not added early in the mixing process."

cookie dough in a mixer
Photo By Cathy Scola / Getty Images

17."Ground sumac. It's better when you add it to a dish last instead of cooking it out for a while like you would with some other spices. Think of it as a fresh herb more than a spice. It's great in salad dressings, or even just sprinkled on a grilled pita over some store-bought hummus."

pita being dipped into hummus
Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

18."Mushroom powder. I put it in everything savory that has any sort of liquid base. It's essentially an umami bomb. You can buy the pre-ground powder at some stores, but I'll just buy dried shiitakes, blitz them into powder in my blender, and store it in mason jars until I'm ready to use it."

a jar of mushroom powder
The Homesteading Housewife / Via youtube.com

19."When baking boxed brownies, use coffee instead of water. The brownies come out so much richer."

a pan of brownie batter being mixed
Bartosz Luczak / Getty Images/iStockphoto

20."Butter. I talked to my chef one time and told him the shrimp scampi I make at home isn't nearly as good as his. He cut me off and said: 'Add more butter.' I didn't even tell him how much I was using in my recipe, but he just looked at me and said, 'If it wasn't a gross amount, it's not enough.'"

a thick slab of butter melting in a pan
Liudmila Chernetska / Getty Images/iStockphoto

21."Nutmeg. I started using nutmeg when I make a white sauce, and it immediately elevates the whole thing. That stuff is pure, powdered magic. I can't believe I used to make mac 'n' cheese without it!"

nutmeg
Kot63 / Getty Images/iStockphoto

22."Fish sauce. I add it to just about anything saucy or soupy I make. People always say, 'Wow, this is the best chicken soup I've ever had.'"

fish sauce being poured into a bowl
BeatTheBush Foods / Via youtube.com

23."Homemade lemon paste. Juice 12 lemons, get rid of the seeds, and then toss all the peels (pith and all) into a saucepan with the lemon juice. Cook until the peels are completely soft, then blend into a paste. It's so tasty and a little bit bitter, but I find that the bitterness always disappears into the dish, just leaving a bright, lemony flavor. I especially love it spooned over fried chicken!"

a person spooning lemon paste from a food processor
youtube.com / Via Jocelyn Graef

24."Peanut butter. Just a little bit of creamy peanut butter can help thicken up many different kinds of sauces like a roux traditionally would. It adds a complex, toasted umami component to the flavor. Just don't overdo it!"

peanut butter being spooned out of a jar
Sanny11 / Getty Images/iStockphoto

25."Bay leaves. Making beans? Add a bay leaf. Got a soup? Simmer with bay leaves. Spaghetti sauce? Dal? Rice? Cook 'em with a bay leaf."

jars of ingredients with an arrow pointing to bay leaves
With Love Of Photography / Getty Images

26."Pomegranate molasses. It's such a tasty and versatile ingredient! For starters, try adding some to a vinaigrette for a salad, or use it as the base for a marinade (or as a glaze for grilled meats)."

a bowl of pomegranate molasses
Mescioglu / Getty Images/iStockphoto

27."Mascarpone cheese. I use a little bit of it to thicken any 'brothy' soups I make, and it gives it the silkiest, most luxurious texture. It's delicious every time!"

a bowl of mascarpone cheese with a spoon
Yummy Food Recipes / Via youtube.com

28."Brown butter in desserts, or whenever you're baking. It doesn't make it savory — it just enhances the sweet flavors beautifully."

a pile of chocolate chip cookies with an arrow and words "made with brown butter"
Brillianata / Getty Images/iStockphoto

29."Vinegar-based hot sauces — especially when we're talking about adding it to rich, 'heavy' dishes. I use a vinegary hot sauce (like Frank's) whenever I make a batch of homemade mac 'n' cheese. The spice enhances the flavor without making it overly spicy, and the vinegar cuts through the richness of the cheese sauce."

hot sauce being poured on eggs
Pfb1 / Getty Images/iStockphoto

30."Ground allspice. I use it anytime I use black pepper, really — especially with meats, soups, and stews. It adds some aromatic, eathy warmth and just a touch of sweetness without being able to tell there's anything 'special' in it."

allspice in a bowl
Bhofack2 / Getty Images/iStockphoto

31."Cornstarch. It's not a flavor thing, obviously, but it has to do with texture. Dredge your proteins for a crisp crunch, add it to baked goods for super softness, and thicken your sauces really quickly — much easier than by making a roux — so they're glossy and cling to what you're serving with it."

cornstarch on a plate
Bgwalker / Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you have a "secret" ingredient you swear by when you cook, tell us about it in the comments below. 👇

Note: Comments have been edited for length and/or clarity.