April 26, 2024 | Samantha Henman

The Surprising “Secret” Ingredients Home Chefs Reach For


Our Lips Are Sealed

Every good home chef has a few tricks up their sleeve when it comes to cooking. And that includes some seriously surprising “secret” ingredients that they add to their signature dishes. We’ve scoured the internet for the best ones—and even some of our own team of culinary experts have let their owns secrets slip in this list of surprising add-on ingredients that’ll elevate any dish.

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Smoothies

Whipping up a smoothie is pretty much a no-brainer activity in the kitchen. Some fruit, maybe some greens, some liquid, and maybe some yogurt if you’re feeling fancy—but there are a few kitchen staples that home chefs swear by when it comes to your morning smoothie. The first is any flavoring you’d use when making a dessert—think fresh ginger, herbs like mint, or vanilla extract.

The second—and most important/surprising? A pinch of salt. It’ll enhance all the sweet flavors in your smoothie the same way it does to cookies in baking.

Home smoothie with mint.Antoni Shkraba, Pexels

Guacamole

Who doesn’t love serving up a giant bowl of fresh guacamole when having a party? One Martha Stewart approved tip is to go for garlic powder instead of fresh garlic—but the secret ingredient that consistently wows crowds? A dollop of mayo will make your guac extra creamy and boost the flavors.

Woman with jar of delicious mayonnaise at white wooden table, closeupNew Africa, Shutterstock

Meat Sauce

To avoid drawing the ire of the Italians, we won’t mess with Bolognese sauce. But, if you happen to be making a basic meat sauce with canned tomatoes, tomato paste, or any variation, you might expect us to suggest adding sugar to cut the acidity. But our “secret” here might surprise you—on top of the sugar, add a healthy glug of soy sauce to cut the sweetness and deepen the color and flavor of your meat sauce.

Photo of a Hand Pouring Soy Sauce into a BowlDasha, Pexels

Rice Krispie Squares

If you’re already a convert to the Smitten Kitchen method of making Rice Krispie treats, please scroll ahead—but if not, we’re about to change your life. Try browning your butter before adding your marshmallows, vanilla, and Rice Krispies. It’ll deepen the flavor and add toasty caramel notes. And don’t forget a pinch of salt!

Rosemary Rice Krispy Treats - 2011.Cathy Chaplin, Flickr

Pulled Pork Tacos

If you’re slow-roasting or braising pork shoulder to make pulled pork tacos, you might reach for cumin and chipotles while preparing the liquid for the pot. Consider adding some brewed coffee or a teaspoon of cocoa to make a richly-flavored sauce. The bitterness helps cut the richness of the meat.

Spoon filled with cocoa on rusty backgroundRadu Sebastian, Shutterstock

Gravy

Speaking of pan sauces—many home chefs swear by adding a pinch of instant espresso to their gravy as it cooks down and thickens. It adds richness and depth.

Chef preparing a serving of delicious spicy rich gravy sauce.stockcreations, Shutterstock

Macaroni And Cheese

Controversial opinion: A béchamel-based macaroni and cheese can be delicious, but it doesn’t make for great leftovers. If you’re team “no roux” and make a sauce out of milk, butter, and cheese, try adding a tablespoon…or half a can…or a full can…of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup. It’ll help the sauce emulsify and stop the cheese from separating. Yes, it comes out a bit more “rosé” than a by-the-book mac, but it’s delicious nonetheless.

Condensed Tomato Soup CanAnastasiya Badun, Pexels

Chowder

When it comes time to thicken a creamy chowder, many home chefs will reach for cream or a roux. But one amazing suggestion for a secret ingredient is to use instant mashed potatoes instead. It makes total sense, if you think about how good potatoes are in chowder. Just start with a little—you want a thick soup, not an accidental lobster mash.

Image of instant mashed potato.Nutria3000, Shutterstock

Stews

There’s nothing like a big bowl of rich, hearty stew on a cold winter’s day…or even a brisk spring day! To lighten up the flavor of your favorite rich stew, add anywhere between a teaspoon or a tablespoon of vinegar—and you can match your vinegar choice to the stew itself! Try balsamic or red wine vinegar for a beef stew, rice vinegar in a curry, or white vinegar in any stew with cabbage.

Female chef pouring vinegar in a pot with water.Suteren Studio, Shutterstock

Chile

Chile con carne is one of the best low-effort, high-reward dishes out there, and there are a number of things you can sneak in there to deepen the flavor. One unexpected suggestion from a home chef is to add molasses for a hint of sweetness.

Mexican food chile con carne dish on a wooden backdrop.Elena.Katkova, Shutterstock

French Fries

Another home chef swears by adding the tiniest bit of chopped tarragon to his homemade French fries. He says it doesn’t even need to be enough so that there’s green flecks on every fry—the aroma that’s released when the fresh tarragon hits the hot fries will add a little extra *something* to every bite.

Chef chopping tarragon on wooden board.JRP Studio, Shutterstock

Tzatziki

There’s nothing like a dollop of homemade tzatziki on souvlaki and other grilled meats. One way to add a lemony flavor without watering it down? A healthy pinch of sumac, which is inexpensive and had a citrusy flavor. Just make sure you prepare your tzatziki a few hours in advance, to give the garlic and sumac time to infuse the yogurt.

Homemade Tzatziki on a plate.bionicgrrrl, Flickr

Brownies

Whether they’re from scratch or from a box, you can zhuzh up your brownies by adding brewed coffee or instant espresso powder to deepen the chocolate flavor. If you’re feeling really adventurous, try a pinch of cayenne powder.

Close-Up Photo of Clear Glass CoffeeMarta Dzedyshko, Pexels

Chicken Salad

There are many ways to add an extra little “something” to chicken salad—one of our favorites is curry powder in the mayo. But one home chef had a suggestion that even we found surprising…and intriguing. They suggested adding a drop or two of liquid smoke to chicken salad.

Fall Grilled Chicken SaladIsabelle Boucher, Flickr

Chocolate Chip Cookies

There might be as many recipes for chocolate chip cookies as there are people on Earth—and everyone has their favorite. One popular variation comes from Milk Bar chef Christina Tosi, who adds—surprise, surprise--milk powder to hers, along with some extra butter to offset drying out the batter.

Person Holding a Strainer with FlourMikhail Nilov, Pexels

Fruit Salad

If you’re looking to liven up a homemade fruit salad, whether you’re eating it plain or spooning it over pound cake or ice cream, try a crack or two of fresh ground black pepper. It’ll add a little something extra that might leave your guests puzzled—but buyer beware: Kids will likely NOT be fans.

Indian Fruit SaladRavi Talwar, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Potato Salad

To add an extra hit of flavor to a mayo-based potato salad, try celery seed. It’s the type of addition that stuns guests—they can tell that there’s a secret ingredient, but they can’t quite put their finger on what it is.

Celery seed in the spoon.Pxhere

Macaroni Salad

Speaking of picnic hits, nothing goes quite as fast as a creamy macaroni salad when there a crowd. To liven it up a little take a cue from the New York Times and add some brine from a jar of capers along with some lemon zest and juice. People WILL ask you for the recipe afterward.

People eating macaroni salad outside.Julia M Cameron, Pexels

Fettucine Alfredo

When making this creamy Italian-American favorite, try adding the smallest pinch of nutmeg—fresh, if possible. This is a “secret” ingredient that also works in another rich, cheesy favorite, macaroni and cheese.

Nutmeg fruit on a plate.Peter Nijenhuis, Flickr

Pan-Fried Meats And Seafood

It’s a no-brainer to coat pork in mustard before cooking it—but why let other proteins in on the fun? Season your chicken, fish, or shrimp with salt and then add a Dijon or grainy mustard. Let it sit for a few minutes before frying. The heat mellows the bite, and the mustard helps create a nice crust.

Raw meat with mustard before cooking.Benreis, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Chocolate Cake

As in brownies, many people will use coffee to deepen the flavor of their chocolate cakes. But another fun switch which gives warmth is to substitute bourbon for any vanilla in the recipe. It has the same toasty vanilla flavor, but with added depth from the charred oak barrels its aged in.

A Person Putting Chocolate Icing on a Chocolate CakeKarolina Grabowska, Pexels

Tomato Soup

This one may come as no surprise to anyone who loves Indian food, but one home chef recommended a unique way to add a little extra “something” to tomato soup—curry powder. It’s apparently a “once you try it, you’ll never go back” cooking hack.

Woman hand serving tomato rasam curry hot spicy soupSanthosh Varghese, Shutterstock

Coffee

This is an old diner trick—or perhaps, an old wives tale—but it’s intriguing nonetheless. Add the tiniest bit of salt to coffee grounds to cut the bitterness and enhance the fruity or caramel flavors of your coffee.

Person Putting a Scoop of Ground Coffee on a Metal CupMikhail Nilov, Pexels

Carrot Cake

When baking your next carrot cake, sub maple syrup extract for vanilla extract to give your finished product a more rounded flavor. This substitution also works for yellow cakes and anywhere you’d want a caramel-tinged flavor.

Assorted Ingredients and vanilla extract.Rachel Loughman, Pexels

Banana Bread

Speaking of adding depth of flavor to classic baked goods, try adding a tiny bit of white miso paste to your next batch of banana bread instead of salt. The tiny, imperceptible hit of umami plays against the warm flavor of baked bananas really well.

Traditional seasoning of Japanese White MISOjazz3311, Shutterstock

Burgers

One home chef swears by a dusting of onion powder on both sides of his burger patty before grilling or frying. Considering how the sweetness of onion enhances the flavor of beef—but also how its moisture can inhibit browning—it makes total sense.

Woman adding spices in pan with meat.Katerina Holmes, Pexels

Quiche

When preparing a savory quiche—the perfect lunch, in our opinion—add a layer of mustard on the bottom crust before pouring in the egg mixture. It creates a beautiful contrast to the richness of the baked eggs.

Man cooking with bowl with mustard.KarepaStock, Shutterstock

Mashed Potatoes

There are so many different “secret” ingredients that home chefs use to mix things up when they make mashed potatoes—and they all sound delicious. One recommended subbing half sour cream and half chicken stock for the milk in your favorite mash recipe. Another suggested stirring in a puck of Boursin for creaminess and flavor.

Woman preparing tasty mashed potatoes on wooden background, closeupPixel-Shot, Shutterstock

Pancakes

Less of a secret ingredient and more of a different approach to a staple ingredient, home chefs recommend separating your eggs when making pancakes. First, you add the yolks and mix to combine. Then, you whip the whites until peaks form and fold them in the batter for a tall yet light and fluffy stack.

Person Cracking an Egg on a Glass BowlLos Muertos Crew, Pexels

Tomato Sauce

Many people recommend using sugar in tomato sauce to help cut the acidity—but if you, like me, already find tomatoes a touch too sweet, try baking soda. It’ll have the same effect, minus the added sweetness.

A Person Putting Tomato SauceGreta Hoffman, Pexels

Caramelized Onions

Everyone has their own method for caramelizing onions—salt vs no salt, sugar vs no sugar, etc. One way to amp up the flavor of caramelized onions is to add splash of dry vermouth to the pan. It adds the same kind of flavor hit that wine does when its cooked down.

Caramelized onion halves with balsamic vinegar in a panAS Foodstudio, Shutterstock

Leftover Pizza

Does water count as a secret ingredient? It sounds wild, but running water over your leftover pizza and then baking it in a toaster oven is one of the best ways to reheat it—keeping it crispy where you want it to be, and moist where you want it to be. This technique also works for stale baguette.

Reheating Pizza leftovers in toaster oven.sharyn morrow, Flickr

Angel Food Cake

It’s hard to mess with perfection—but we’re willing to try. Classic angel food cake uses vanilla for flavoring. Our suggestion? Don’t sub it—keep it in—but also add a little rose water for an ever-so-delicate addition to the fluffy, light dessert.

Hand Holding a Spatula with Freshly Mixed Angel Food Cake BatterCandice Bell, Shutterstock

Scrambled Eggs

Like chocolate chip cookies, there are as many variations to scrambled eggs as there are humans walking the Earth. But one suggestion for a secret ingredient just keeps coming up when it comes to scrambled eggs: cornstarch. Home chefs say it produces an extra-fluffy scramble.

Eggs in Corn StarchDidriks, Flickr

French Toast

If you’re a fan of flavored coffee creamers, this one’s for you. Use your favorite one—oatmeal cookie-flavored oat creamer, I’m looking at you—in place of milk in your favorite French toast recipe.

Grocery store shelf with cartons of Silk brand Dairy Free Oat creamers.Sheila Fitzgerald, Shutterstock

Roux

If you frequently make recipes using roux as a base, you could probably put one together in your sleep. But did you know that butter doesn’t have to be the only fat you use? You can put one together with whatever fat you have on hand—for example, bacon drippings.

This is the medium roux, or maybe a tad past.Andrew Huff, Flickr

Egg Salad

Love deviled eggs but feel weird about the fact that they make it so easy to polish off a dozen eggs in one sitting? Add a dash of paprika to your egg salad for sandwiches, and bring the joy of that classic deviled egg flavor to your lunchbox.

Egg Salad in the plate.Lynn Gardner, Flickr

Roast Turkey

One of the most annoying things about roasting a chicken or turkey is that it’s hard to get that picture-perfect brown, crispy skin on the outside without overcooking the inside. That’s why former Bon Appetit chef Christina Chaey uses Kikkoman soy sauce on her roast turkey. It not only seasons the meat, but also aids the browning process.

Recipe for TERIYAKI CHICKEN.inazakira, Flickr

Pumpkin Bread

To offset the warmth of the spices used in pumpkin bread, considering adding a tablespoon or two or orange juice in place of any of the liquids in your recipe. This can also work to elevate the flavor of banana bread, carrot cake, and zucchini bread as well.

Tablespoon with orange juiceForbes Johnston, Flickr


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