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Secret Ingredients

Certain foods we tend to think we make better than anybody else. Sometimes we attribute the superiority of our dish to a secret ingredient. One of mine is parmesan cheese in my potato salad. Anybody else willing to share what lifts their speciality above the rest?

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  1. I put fines herbes in my Velveeta Shells and Cheese. :-D

    1. Salt. I often feel that people do not salt enough during the cooking process. I attribute a lot of the flavor of my food to the fact that I use salt effectively to carry flavors.

      8 Replies
      1. re: Andiereid

        Andiereid, Pick up a bottle of Italian truffle salt. You'll be a lost soul in no time.

        1. re: Walters

          Really? Ooo! Will have to give that a go! Thanks for the tip! Sources?

          1. re: Andiereid

            while you are at it, get the saffron salt too.

            1. re: mimolette

              I just saw saffron salt for sale for the first time. The grains were quite large. It was pretty, jewel-like, but I wasn't sure how I'd use it. How do you use yours?

              1. re: Glencora

                I sprinkle it on shrimp, lobster, monkfish and other seafood mostly. It is good with eggs too. Sometimes I mix it with a little orange flavor olive oil, macadamia nut oil, or butter to dip the bread with. you can use it in gnocchi or ravioli dishes too.

        2. re: Andiereid

          How do you feel about letting people salt their own food to taste? Or do you think that adding salt during cooking, rather than at the table, makes a big difference? After all, you can always add it, but you can't remove it once its in there. I worry about over-salting, especially for guests who are on low-salt diets. I personally am very sensitive to over-salted foods - it's the only reason I've ever sent food back in a restaurant (except to be heated) - so I tend to under-salt things habitually.

          1. re: TomOHaver

            Salting during cooking makes an ENORMOUS difference, especially when things get cooked in water. For blanched vegetables or pasta, dissolving 1 tablespoon of salt in 1 gallon of water brings out the flavors of things better than sprinkling salt on top of the finished dish.

            1. re: JK Grence the Cosmic Jester

              Interesting. I never really realized that. Guess I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place if I'm trying to prepare low-salt dishes to please myself and other salt-sensitive people, while still pleasing my salt-loving guests.

        3. I'm going to posit a theory that many secret ingredients add umami.

          1 Reply
          1. re: amkirkland

            I'm in agreement. A dash of soy in "non-asian" foods, simmering a parm rind in soup, a coupla anchovies hidden in a dish (my Hub would sooner open a vein than eat an anchovie - I'm expert at hiding them!). All of these umami flavors add the depth and savor that make us say mmmmm. BUT! you don't taste the ingredients *as themselves*.

            I'm curious to hear more about your theory of secret=umami.

          2. Inspired by the spicy Ground Nut Stew at Rosalind's, I have added peanut butter to my chili (usually Carrol Shelby's but any decent mix will do) for years. I have fed it to swarms of people, and it always gets compliments.

            1. Around our house "the secret ingredient" is code for butter or cream. Not much of a secret, but they do have a magical effect.

              1 Reply
              1. re: bill_in_dunn

                In our house, it is olive oil--same general idea. Though in Spain, this is hardly a secret...

              2. It sounds a bit weird, but just a bit of unsweetened apple sauce in mashed potatoes can be lovely- it gives a really fresh, not readily identifiable flavor. We also add roasted corn to everything from hummus to chili.

                And yeah, salt rules. I got some truffle salt from Santa and can't wait to try it.

                1. Lemon zest or juice. Really brings out a brightness that wasn't there before. Especially in salad dressings or anything that requires vinegar. But a subtle hand must be used.

                  1. White pepper. I use it more than black or any other color. Especially in mashed potatoes and vegetables. I have three grinders next to the stove. One for black, one for quad color, and one for white (Sarawak).

                    1. Preserved lemon. Discovered it a few months ago. Can't stop thinking about it.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: concordjeff

                        I'm two weeks into the making of a jar of preserved lemons for a Moroccan chicken/lemon/olive dish scheduled for the first week in Jan. I won't need all of them - any suggestions for what else they can be a "secret ingredient" in?

                        1. re: cayjohan

                          I used preserved lemon in a lamb stew recently. Also Moroccan influenced. Found it here:

                          when I was searching for what to do with preserved lemon. Easy to make, and delicious.

                      2. Mine is- Concentrated Crushed Tomatoes.

                        (Declared as per ingredients label, nothing else added.)

                        However, it is hard to find and is different than the regular crushed tomatoes which may be nothing more than a mix of tomato paste, water, and salt.

                        I use it mostly as a base for my Chili, salsa, and tomato sauces of which I can spice, season, and adjust the thickness or consistency accordingly. It is a must for my home made Pizza.

                        If anyone is asking why do I go through all that trouble (?), is that I enjoy the end results far much better than other processed (or over processed) tomato products. Tomato paste to me seems to have a burnt taste to it, so it is unacceptable for my tomato "base" needs.

                        1. Minced fresh lime leaves added to any Asian dish, Indian dish but also just thrown into a tossed salad. Adds a depth and a flavour that jumps out at you. Always have fresh ones in the fridge.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Deborah

                            [Ruth runs out to her lime tree and plucks some leaves]You mean regular old lime leaves, not Kaffir lime or some other special variety?

                            My housemate says she puts red pepper flakes in everything; I tend to reach for the curry. I agree that salt is important, especially a small amount in an otherwise sweet food. I recently discovered that minced shallots will vastly improve my salad (my other "secret" for salad is that I've started mixing some iceberg lettuce in with the spring-mix-type greens, which gives the salad more body and crunch).

                          2. Cayenne pepper or Tabasco sauce, depending on the dish. Not enough to make it taste spicy, just enough to slap the taste buds to attention. By the same token, I'll add a good dollop of Chinese hot-chile oil to the olive oil I'm using to marinate pork, chicken, fish or potatoes prior to roasting or grilling them.

                            I've just recently begun to use saffron and Spanish smoked paprika, especially in Mediterranean-accented casserole dishes. I was sort of forced into it when my pa-in-law gave me a big box of saffron last Christmas, and while it lasts pretty well if sealed and protected it won't last forever. And that paprika is just wonderful, too.

                            1. One *small* squeeze of ketchup, to mellow out an overly tart tomato sauce or to give a bit of color to a stir fry... Also, a teaspoon of Panko (japanese breadcrumb shards) adds a bit of texture to the browned bits in a rustic pan gravy...

                              1. I've been using homemade stock when making soups and stews - SO much better than plain water or anything commercially prepared. Sometimes I will boil it down so it is super concentrated, when I won't dilute the dish I am putting it into.

                                A few splashes of wine in a soup or sauce make all the difference between good and sublime.

                                Using Plugra or other premium butter steps things up a notch.

                                I make a tomato cream sauce that is wickedly good - because of the tablespoon of brandy nipped in at the finish.

                                I use extra vanilla extract when baking or making desserts on the stovetop - double the amount usually. Of course there is always scraping the inside of a vanilla bean for the most flavor!

                                Buttermilk is a great secret ingredient, in baking. Marinading chicken in buttermilk before frying yields excellent results.

                                But, you know, the real secret ingredient is love.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Seldomsated

                                  Buttermilk is a great "secret ingredient" for mashed potatoes or mashed parsnips, as well. It's the only liquid I use. An added bonus is that less butter is needed, for those who are watching fat intake. It gives the potatoes that subtle tang that sour cream on a baked potato would have.

                                2. The smallest pinch of cinnamon in my tomato sauce.

                                  Anchovies in my stuffed mushrooms.

                                  1. Ruth it is Kaffir lime leaves....but if I had a lime tree in my backyard I would try mincing the leaves!!

                                    1. Bits of canned pineapple and juice in the cole slaw.
                                      And amen to the cayenne or hot sauce. I get in trouble if I put too much in. It has to stay a secret.

                                      1. cinnamon in recipes that use chocolate. i think it inhances the chocolate flavor.

                                        1. Pinenuts and parmesan reggiano. Not in everything, obviously.

                                          Cinnamon often saves the day in other dishes.

                                          1. - Plugra or other European butter in butter-heavy recipes - butter cookies, shortbreads, poundcake
                                            - Sherry and nutmeg in homemade mac and cheese (real butter and whole milk too, but those aren't secret!)
                                            - Not an ingredient, but double sifting the flour in poundcake - too many people don't do this. Too bad, as the change in texture is unreal. Fights have broken out over the last piece of poundcake.

                                            1. a cup of very strong coffee in my banana bread.

                                              a small dollop of yogurt in soft scrambled eggs.

                                              salt and acid -- usually lemon zest or juice. i think most home cooks woefully underseason their food.

                                              also not an ingredient, but cooking on highest heat. depending on the dish, of course, but something that needs searing needs super high heat, and a smoking hot pan. i love cast iron skillets for this.

                                              1. A big pinch (teaspoon) of espresso or coffee in anything chocolate to punctuate the flavor.

                                                1. Anything that's chocolate gets a shot of cold coffee. Not enough to flavor it, just to heighten the chocolate flavor.
                                                  Also Plugra Plugra Plugra..i don't think that can be said enough.
                                                  Unsalted butter in EVERYTHING.

                                                  2 Replies
                                                  1. re: Sugar Jones

                                                    This is pretty interesting, I'll have to try it. Does it work in fudge? Is the shot in addition to or in place of existing liquids e.g. water, milk, etc.?

                                                    1. re: cafesimile

                                                      I never tried it in fudge. I was actually thinking about my cookies and cakes.I guess it's worth a try. I might actually try a coffee flavored liquor in fudge instead.

                                                  2. A small amount of chocolate is a must for my chili (Cincinnati-style).

                                                    1 Reply
                                                    1. re: sillyrabbit

                                                      A small amount of chili powder in hot chocolate.

                                                    2. Thai fish sauce. If my hubby only KNEW what i put it in....hehehehehe

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: recordkitten

                                                        FALLING DOWN LAUGHING over this reply.
                                                        I add garlic to just about everything except pastry recipes and to sweet recipes, a dash of regular black pepper.

                                                      2. for all the cinnamon/chocolate/coffee conspirators -- try that combo in your next batch of chili or any latin beef or chicken filling (tacos, burritos, enchiladas, empenadas)

                                                        it's a bit of a mexican mole experience - rich and delicious!

                                                        1. My wife introduced me to putting Worchestershire sauce in Kraft Mac & Cheese. Our guilty weekend in front of the TV pleasure.

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: jpolk

                                                            try Frank's Red hot on Kraft mac and cheese - heaven...