Other than love, of course, what makes it delicious?
May 10, 2009 1:18 PM   Subscribe

What single ingredient can make my cooking more exciting or interesting?

I'm a pretty competent cook, like to experiment in the kitchen, and am always looking for new flavors.

In the past year, there have been two additions to my kitchen that have quickly become staple flavors that I find myself adding to lots and lots of dishes: smoked Spanish paprika (thanks to Mark Bittman) and calamansi-infused vinegar.

I'm looking for other ingredients that, for an outlay of a relatively small amount of money, can be transformational in turning an otherwise ordinary but good dish of fresh ingredients into something exceptional.

What are your favorite secret ingredients like this? And what do you use them for?

Bonus points for anything that is particularly well-suited to the plethora of fresh vegetables we're about to start getting as our first CSA membership starts up. Thank you!
posted by dr. boludo to Food & Drink (85 answers total) 113 users marked this as a favorite
Infused vinegars (make your own). I tend to steer clear of infused oils, but if you're making them fresh they can be spectacular.

Really good curry powder--again, make your own.


Good knives, kept razor-sharp.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:24 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Saffron. Not inexpensive, but a little goes a very long way.
posted by charmcityblues at 1:26 PM on May 10, 2009

Recao will transform your beans and marinades from meh to yeah.
posted by milarepa at 1:30 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Truffle oil.
Goes incredibly well with salads. Also toss home made fries with kosher salt and some truffle oil. OMG NOM!
posted by special-k at 1:32 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Lemon zest
posted by cda at 1:34 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

cumin in your tomato sauce based foods
posted by merocet at 1:43 PM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

posted by nitsuj at 1:49 PM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Balsamic vinegar used in slower cooking (roasts, casseroles etc) is a fantastic way of deepening and intensifying the flavours of a dish without itself noticeably adding a separate note to the taste.

Really good quality sea salt, rather than table salt.

Fresh herbs wherever possible. Dried herbs are generally ok - I use them when I need to and the end result is good, but you can almost always taste when fresh have been used.

Sun-dried tomatoes are awesome when added to anything 'meaty'.

A whisper of cinnamon can add a roundness to many dishes.

Mouth starting to water so much I am in danger of drooling, so will stop there :)
posted by mooders at 1:50 PM on May 10, 2009

Fresh flat-leaf parsley.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:51 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Salt would my first response, but I'm guessing you're already hip to that.

After that, probably lemons.
posted by 6and12 at 1:53 PM on May 10, 2009

Mustard powder changed my life.
posted by thisjax at 1:54 PM on May 10, 2009

Sherry vinegar.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 1:54 PM on May 10, 2009

Seconding sea salt. The difference between good sea salt and run of the mill salt is unbelieveable. It transforms food.
posted by fire&wings at 1:58 PM on May 10, 2009

Grow a few herbs in your window. Thyme, oregano, Italian parsley, dill, rosemary. Just amazing, the difference.

Also, on the cheaper side, a teaspoon of boullion powder can have a huge effect on a lot of dishes and sauces.
posted by argybarg at 1:58 PM on May 10, 2009

Fresh ground coriander, where you roast and grind the seeds yourself.
posted by waterandrock at 1:58 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

A little ramekin of kosher salt and a pepper mill. Use what you think you need, then toss in a bit more. I find most home cooks don't season their food nearly enough as they should, because of various old wives' tales.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:00 PM on May 10, 2009

Apart from keeping the already mentioned fresh lemons and parsley on hand, I am also extremely reliant upon nutmeg and garlic chili paste. Though usually not at the same time.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 2:00 PM on May 10, 2009

Chipotle in adobo sauce, for all beans and meats.
posted by Houstonian at 2:03 PM on May 10, 2009

Whenever I ask someone, "what's in this? It's delicious!" the answer is invariably cumin.
posted by decathecting at 2:09 PM on May 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

Seconding shallots, balsamic vinegar, and sherry vinegar.

On the herb front, I specifically use tarragon a lot.
posted by scody at 2:13 PM on May 10, 2009

I have spoken before on Ask.Me about the deliciousness that is fish sauce, and I'll do it again!

Fish sauce makes things taste really good. It smells absolutely horrible, but it's delicious. And, at least in Asian markets, it's incredibly cheap.
posted by Ms. Saint at 2:16 PM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

A pinch of cinnamon in savory dishes (stews, beans, chili, soups, dirty rice) to give it a richer flavor. And A LOT OF CINNAMON in desserts. People always look at me like I'm crazy when I'm adding the cinnamon, no, pouring the cinnamon on, but then appreciate the extra flavor. It's good for you too, antioxidants and all.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 2:16 PM on May 10, 2009

Good butter also makes everything taste so good.
posted by milarepa at 2:16 PM on May 10, 2009

I'd be hard pressed to cook without tamari.
A great source for umami.
Most of my cooking is vegetarian due to my slightly vegetarian wife :-) so I depend heavily on alternative sources for richness.
Seconding balsamico btw, no kitchen should be without it.
Also, what helped me transform from a so-so cook to (allegedly) an accomplished one was getting the sweet-sour-fatty-bitter-salt-umami balance down. Thinking dishes in these six basic components made the difference for me. YMMW.
Happy cooking!
posted by Thug at 2:25 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

And the secret ingredient is......shallots! Also French butter, sherry vinegar in vinaigrettes, powdered porcini mushrooms in anything "earthy."

Also, at the risk of being beaten about the head and shoulders, MSG in small quantities (look for the Accent brand) adds umami.
posted by CunningLinguist at 2:28 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Try a tiny pinch of curry powder in hot chocolate.

Try a small pinch of cinnamon in your spicy homemade chili.

Experiment with wheat flour (or a wheat blend) instead of white--it's tastier and healthier.

Line homemade pizza with fresh basil leaves.

Nthing sea salt. Leave that iodized crap for McDonalds.
posted by applemeat at 2:29 PM on May 10, 2009

Fresh basil. Pinch off a few leaves when needed. Grows in a window and makes everything better.

As a bonus, also try "hot" basil for Thai or Vietnamese fun.
posted by rokusan at 2:32 PM on May 10, 2009

Fish sauce makes things taste really good. It smells absolutely horrible, but it's delicious.

Agree--It's good stuff. But if you break the bottle in your kitchen you're going to have to move.
posted by applemeat at 2:33 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you have leftover chicken parts and some vegetables, you can home-make a chicken stock. You can stop there if you want, because adding home-made chicken stock to dishes adds a lot of flavor, including to rice, pasta, etc. Really anything you add liquid to.

But, you can take it one step further and continue to reduce the stock down until it's a syrupy consistency. I think there's a technical cooking name for the final product, but it eludes me. Anyway, it will take a day to do this, but it stores well in the fridge if kept sealed. Adding a dollop of this to meals - any meal you can think of really - adds AMAZING flavor, but it's not clearly evident to diners why it is so amazing.
posted by sickinthehead at 2:39 PM on May 10, 2009

Rendered fat: chicken fat, duck fat, goose fat, beef dripping, bacon grease. You want rich peasant food, it's a necessity.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:44 PM on May 10, 2009

N'thing fish sauce (nam pla), balsamic vinegar, lemons (especially the grated rind), lots of garlic and ginger, and using rich stock in place of water.

That's for delicious flavor. Now if it's excitement you're after, serving cilantro to the wrong people could result in a regular donnybrook in your kitchen.
posted by Quietgal at 2:50 PM on May 10, 2009

I love using fresh basil thrown in about anything, in a stirfry it's great. Just use it towards the end of your cooking to where the leaves just start to wilt. Fresh in some salads will give a different taste as well. Really fresh basil can work with just about anything.
posted by mi6op at 3:00 PM on May 10, 2009

But, you can take it one step further and continue to reduce the stock down until it's a syrupy consistency. I think there's a technical cooking name for the final product, but it eludes me.

posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 3:03 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Second the cinnamon in savory dishes. Also, try juniper berries with meat dishes.
posted by ubersturm at 3:04 PM on May 10, 2009

My first thought was garlic. And then more garlic!
posted by toastchee at 3:14 PM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Chili powder, in everything.
posted by RussHy at 3:16 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

ground sumac berries
posted by zerokey at 3:22 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I remember reading (watching?) an interview with a chef who said that they main thing that makes restaurant food seem mysteriously better than home cooking (ie "this is better and i can't figure out why") was the use of shallots in everything. Also, lots and lots of melted butter and salt. But because i don't hate being healthy, i only really adopted the shallot advice. And its good!

Also: Worcestershire sauce! I add it to almost everything savory, and it makes everything better. EVERYTHING.
posted by Kololo at 3:26 PM on May 10, 2009

I also came to say garlic.
posted by dpx.mfx at 3:28 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing fresh herbs, especially the so-versatile flat leaf parlsey. I like to add some near the beginning of the dish and then some near the end. Don't be afraid to use a lot!

Also: leeks instead of onions, shiitake mushrooms (or fancier, if your wallet can afford it) instead of button, a good sherry vinegar instead of regular white vinegar.

An aside: I've started using more fresh jalapenos in my cooking, even when not cooking Mexican or South American food. Mario Batali and Marcella Hazan both use jalapenos for spiciness in Italian food -- crushed red peppers are great, but I like the grassy taste of a good jalapeno.
posted by rossination at 3:35 PM on May 10, 2009

herbs de provence. Simple, yummy, good with almost anything.
posted by sundri at 3:38 PM on May 10, 2009

Nthing fish sauce and fresh herbs. Good quality spices - especially if you buy them whole, then toast and grind fresh - are amazing. I don't do that often, but it makes a big difference for things like Indian curries. Garlic and shallots have been mentioned - fresh ginger is awesome, and totally different from dried.

Using enough salt is crucial.

Good quality soy sauce - avoid anything that's made of hydrolyzed soy protein. Soy sauce should be brewed from soy and wheat. I like Pearl River Bridge light soy sauce is my favorite Chinese soy sauce (it's not light like low sodium, that just describes the type of soy sauce). Kikkoman, regular or tamari, is my favorite Japanese soy sauce.

I also love oyster sauce - Dragonfly is a good brand. I make a lots of easy stir frys with soy sauce and oyster sauce - it's a really good flavor combination on greens with a bitter edge. Adding any of onion/shallot/ginger/garlic is good too, but more work.

Muir glen fire roasted canned tomatoes - sub for regular canned tomatoes in almost anything, totally amazing.
posted by insectosaurus at 3:47 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

MSG, serisouly, turns good meals into meals you remember.
posted by Cosine at 3:47 PM on May 10, 2009

Another vote for cumin!

and also...sesame oil! I finally bought a bottle and now I know what my Asian dishes have been missing all this time. Wonderful flavor.
posted by emd3737 at 3:52 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Forgot to add - I absolutely love the Bengali spice mix panchphoran. It's a mixture of fenugreek, nigella, mustard(black or brown), fennel, and cumin. All spices are whole. I keep some pre-mixed, and almost all vegetables are fabulous with that as a base. Heat oil, add panchphoran, [optional - add onions, brown], add vegetable. So good!
posted by insectosaurus at 3:53 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I, too, love cumin, shallots, fresh flat leaf parsley and some of the other great suggestions here. Splurging on some high quality parmegiano-reggiano and adding a few freshly ground and/or shaved tablespoons to veggie dishes (in addition to pasta, as expected) usually works well for me. I also like sriracha on just about everything.
posted by katie at 4:19 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

GROUND CAYENNE! Soups, cottage cheese, eggs, chicken...you'll wonder how you ever went without it.

For what it's worth, using potassium instead of salt tastes the same and is a million times better for you.
posted by aquafortis at 4:25 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sriracha A thai hot sauce, that's hot! But has a more ketchup like consistency and more body then most hot sauces. Its a chef's friend.
posted by bitdamaged at 4:27 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

CunningLinguist: MSG in small quantities

Some scientists I know got funding from the MSG industry to study its effects. What they discovered was that very small amounts did the whole job, and most chefs were adding way too much. That study was never published, and the 55 gallon drums keep rolling.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:35 PM on May 10, 2009

Garlic for all!
posted by futureisunwritten at 4:46 PM on May 10, 2009


Also, fresh cilantro goes into almost everything.
posted by jenkinsEar at 4:52 PM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Fennel, olive oil.

Seconding sundried tomatoes, garlic, roasted red peppers and chicken stock.
posted by Taurid at 5:05 PM on May 10, 2009

Fresh ginger was the first ingredient that turned my cooking around. Love it. Also:

- Cilantro
- Smoked paprika
- Shallots

I'm also told that anchovy paste is another game-changing ingredient in meaty dishes, but I've never tried it.
posted by jmevius at 5:08 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Fresh grated ginger and/or ghee. It will really knock your Indian up a notch.

It sounds obvious and funny but wine. Cheap wine is great.
posted by smoke at 5:12 PM on May 10, 2009

Throw a few cardamom pods into your grinder with the coffee beans in the morning, or use them anywhere cinnamon is advised above.
posted by iiniisfree at 5:20 PM on May 10, 2009

I'd heard of brining turkey before, but my life was forever altered when I discovered one can brine almost any meat. Takes a bit of prep work but it can really add something totally new to your dishes.
posted by kjars at 5:30 PM on May 10, 2009

Anchovies packed in water. One filet, minced, can add a layer of complexity to sauces and dressings that nobody would identify as fish. (As long as you don't use too much.)
posted by lore at 5:35 PM on May 10, 2009

Ordinary whole black pepper, but ground in a mortar and pestle rather than the usual pepper grinder.

You get much better control over exactly how much pepper you're putting in because you can count the individual seeds into the mortar. At first you tend to use more pepper than you would have otherwise because the mortar and pestle is so much more effective at grinding pepper than a standard grinder is, and quite a lot of things taste really surprisingly good with too much pepper. Including fresh veg with a bit of olive oil.

The mortar and pestle can also give you a nice mix of coarse and fine grindings if you stop before it's all pounded into dust, and this exposes a wider range of pepper flavours. If you add a bit more of such a mixed-size grind than you would usually use, and do that rather earlier in the cooking process than usual for a stew or sauce, you can really bring out that whole spectrum of peppery yumminess.

Having experienced the difference a mortar and pestle can make with pepper, you can then try it out with various other spices. Of all the spices I've tried, though, black pepper is the one for which the mortar and pestle makes the most notable difference.
posted by flabdablet at 5:39 PM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Fennel seed or aniseed.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:41 PM on May 10, 2009

Thirding shallots.

Also, duck fat.
posted by desuetude at 5:49 PM on May 10, 2009

Fuck Yeah Cilantro
posted by John of Michigan at 6:18 PM on May 10, 2009

You know the main difference between sea salt and table salt? People convince themselves that sea salt is somehow healthier, so they use enough of it.

Aside from the other things mentioned here (shallots, cumin, and fire roasted tomatoes stood out to me, all three being favorites) you might want to try argan oil if you can find it. It's got a wonderful light nutty flavor that I can't really describe. I guess it is a little like sesame, but so much more subtle, and not bitter at all. It's great in salads or bread. Also awesome drizzled over roasted eggplant or hummus just before serving.
posted by Nothing at 6:27 PM on May 10, 2009

Wow! What a list. Thanks to all -- so many great suggestions here that it's not really realistic to pick a best one. Many of you would be right at home in my kitchen already. I'll be tracking down zatar, argan oil, panchphoran and recao/culantro for new experiences. Keep 'em coming!
posted by dr. boludo at 6:36 PM on May 10, 2009

You know what's ludicrously delicious and easy to make? Harissa. (That's one recipe; you can find hundreds, with slight variations, not unlike curry powders.) It will change the way you think about condiments.
posted by Dr. Wu at 6:39 PM on May 10, 2009

CARDAMON, once mentioned, is the flavor everyone asks about in my cooking. I buy the seeds already out of the pods, then grind them with a pestle (in a morter, of course! Or is it the other way around...?!) Unique, rich savory taste that I use in everything from cabbage salads to chicken to soups. Fact is, can't think of anything I wouldn't put cardamon on! Ice cream? Sure! With grated chocolate.....yummm....

Seconding GINGER also. Buy fresh root, freeze it in a plastic freezer bag, and add to dishes by grating the frozen roots as you are moved. Return to freezer. This way you always have 'fresh' and it doesn't spoil. Like cardamon, it adds that je ne sais quoi, that piece de resistance to everything! On ice cream? Obviously! With chocolate, again. (Very healthy, too!)

posted by sparrowdance at 6:52 PM on May 10, 2009

Miso, for adding umami to sauces and just being a generally good flavor enhancer. There are many different varieties available as well.

Tabasco (or other hot sauces), at your preferred level of spiciness, for making most foods more interesting and possibly providing some health benefits.
posted by armage at 6:54 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Cumin...I just love the way it smells and it is fantastic with meats and all sorts of other things.
posted by mmascolino at 7:43 PM on May 10, 2009

chili oil and/or sesame oil.
The chili oil adds a nice bite without ditracting from any other flavors you've got going on, and the sesame oil is just really good.

homemade dark chocolate truffles with a couple of drops of chili oil in the ganache and a sprinkling of sea salt on top are pure heaven.

Oh, and armage is right- definitely miso.
posted by dogmom at 8:01 PM on May 10, 2009

Man...almost everything I could think have has already been thrown out there:

fish sauce
lemon zest
homemade chicken stock
good vinegar

The only thing left is my old standby: heat

Fire good!
posted by madmethods at 8:06 PM on May 10, 2009

Balsamic glaze.
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 8:52 PM on May 10, 2009

Kaffir lime leaves. Make thai curries taste like they are supposed to.
posted by kjs4 at 8:54 PM on May 10, 2009

Caramelized onions. I'll be honest: they're a damn pain in the ass to make. But they're *wonderful*.

Slice onions as thin as you can--if you have a mandoline, now is the time to bust it out. In a pan, heat equal parts clarified butter and olive oil. Add the onions. Really pile them in--they'll cook down to nothing. Sprinkle them lightly with salt. With the heat on medium low (more towards the low end, probably), cook the onions, stirring once in a while, for about an hour.

I realize that many people will look at me in horror here and go "but they'll BURN!" and I'd like to assure you that properly tended (which is to say, if you don't wander off for a half an hour) they won't burn. They'll almost melt, though, and turn into a sweet, savory, almost jam-like substance. Once they've cooled, make a log of them on cling film, roll it up, and then roll it up again in tinfoil. Pop it in the freezer, and cut off discs to add to pastas, soups, roasts, whatever. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that caramelized onions have transformed my cooking. They're my preferred sandwich condiment. I eat them on bread. They top burgers, chicken breasts, and wedges of brie. They are wonderful.

(Note on cooking them: if you do wander off at some point and you come back to find that they've gotten quite dark, add about a third of a cup of water and stir it in well. I have no idea why this works, but it does make minor burns basically wash away.)
posted by MeghanC at 9:37 PM on May 10, 2009 [16 favorites]

Good soy sauce--kind of obvious for asian dishes, but it does great things to non-Asian dishes as well, as a source of umami. I was making beef stroganoff a while back, and on a whim added a few tablespoons of soy sauce, and you would not believe how incredible it was. Beef stroganoff is already pretty high on the umami scale between the beef and the mushrooms, but the soy sauce turned it up to eleven.

I'm a big fan of the Better than Bouillon bases; they're thick pastes which you add 1 tsp. of per cup of boiling water to make a stock. I usually have five or six varieties of these on hand. Much better than powdered or cubed bouillon. Not quite as good as homemade stock, but almost, and much more convenient. I pretty much never make rice in plain water; I use one of these, picking one to complement whatever I'm serving the rice with.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:03 AM on May 11, 2009

Veal stock
posted by AceRock at 7:22 AM on May 11, 2009

A small variety of interesting finishing salts. Alderwood smoked sea salt has been my secret pinch ingredient in many a dish.
posted by kaseijin at 7:37 AM on May 11, 2009

Allspice! You can add a tiny, tiny bit of it to (almost) anything and it will just bring out the flavours. I just discovered the stuff a year ago and now use it as a "secret ingredient" very often. (Do not buy the ground product though - it tastes rotten, IMHO - buy the whole berries and grind them in a pepper grinder. Mmmh!).
posted by The Toad at 8:31 AM on May 11, 2009

Truffle Oil, real lime juice, high quality sea salt, High quality peppercorns, duck fat, seriously good soy sauce (no kikoman, please), saffron, homemade curry, and tumeric!
posted by Freen at 10:20 AM on May 11, 2009

Ras el hanout. I use the recipe here and add some crushed up rose petals.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:39 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

For gravies, sauces, and soups: Angostura Bitters.

If you drink your coffee black: 3-4 drops of Tabasco. Oh yeah.
posted by bricoleur at 4:12 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Montreal steak spice

good on everything - especially when you don't have a lot of time to cook
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 6:16 PM on May 11, 2009

Dried chilies
Chicken fat (stir into soups)
Lemon juice (for soups especially)
Fresh herbs and Lemon juice
Lemon zest
Smoked pepper corns
Pinch of cinnamon / allspice
Bitters for salads
posted by xammerboy at 10:52 PM on May 11, 2009

Seconding the use of fresh ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice, with an encouragement to use them fearlessly in savory dishes.

Conversely, try using a sprinkle of good salt to underscore the flavor of fresh fruit. Strawberries and melons take particularly well to this method.
posted by Iridic at 9:24 AM on May 12, 2009

I use lemon zest far too much... but it's sooo gooooood! Recommended for:
- Anything with chicken - soups, baked, roasted, sandwiches
- Tomato based pasta dishes
- Tuna sandwiches
- Anything with mayo
- Fishcakes

Sriracha sauce as well for me, but I got so addicted during college I had to back off because it's easy to get carried away and forget what actual food tastes like.
posted by like_neon at 3:49 AM on May 13, 2009

My local Whole Foods competitor carries a high-oil Vietnamese cinnamon that blows the pants off the McCormick stuff.

The caramelized onion suggestion was gold. I make an incredible breakfast dish with only bacon, caramelized onions, scrambled eggs and croissant or baguette, and pre-cooking and freezing the caramelized onions never occurred to me. Brilliant.
posted by skechada at 2:14 PM on May 14, 2009

There are very few dishes that are not improved by fresh lime or lemon (zest or juice). Also, home-made vegetable stock is very good if you have the time and patience.
posted by Orchestra at 6:08 AM on May 16, 2009

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