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THE secret ingredient?

This is mostly for you restaurant pros out there. Is it fat? liberal usage of oil, butter and lard? Fess up now! I've seen what those jokers on the food network call a "tablespoon." It's not supposed to me enough to cover the table.

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  1. In the places I worked (back in the early 90's) it was butter and salt.

    One place was a steak house, and the steaks were cooked in cast iron frying pans -- you'd salt and pepper the steak thickly on each side then throw about half a stick of butter(or margarine if the owner was on a cost control binge) into the frying pan and as soon as it started changing color (a few seconds - those pans stayed *hot*), in went the steak. A couple of minutes a side for rare, and then out of the pan and into the oven for a bit if they wanted well done.

    They were good tasting steaks, but even butter lover that I am, the amount of it we used scared me sometimes.

    1. I agree completely. 1. Salt - most people don't salt enough or salt too much. 2 - GOOD butter - unsalted. Why use salted butter when you're adding salt to the food already. 3 - GOOD olive oil. It really does uplift certain foods. In fact, the best "secret ingredient" is to try to use the best quality ingredients you can afford to use.
      And, as a pastry chef, I'll add the following - when I do something chocolate, I will add a little bit of coffee. Not enough to flavor the food, but just enough to enhance the chocolate flavor.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Sugar Jones

        Agreed-- adding enough salt before you start cooking, and then as you cook, is key. Salt in your vegetable water. Salt on your meat. Salt in your sautes. And using enough of the right fat. I find that the key to my chocolate successes (strictly amateur) is adding a bit more salt than the recipe calls for.

      2. Lots of good butter mounted into a sauce is key. With things like pasta and risotto a very liberal amount of butter and EVOO make the dish and of course seasoning. But not just salt. A pinch of fresh chopped herbs (thyme, rosemary, and parsley) added to a dish at the end will help to really bring it all together.
        With the sweets especially chocolate a small amount of salt brings out the flavor of the sweet very nicely.

        1. Cream. The secret to restaurant-tasting food is heavy cream, I'm convinced. Try it in a sauce. You'll see.

          1 Reply
          1. re: scoobyhed

            "modern american food" is rarely finished with cream. at least that's true of the james beard award-winning chefs for whom i've worked. :) butter? yup. and loads of it.

          2. The secret is....wine.

            If they drink enough wine, no one gives a darn what they're eating. If you drink enough wine, you won't give a darn what you're serving.

            (apologies for my irreverence, it's Sunday morning and we had a nice bottle last night)

            1. When I worked in the restaurant, the chef uses duck fat to cook or sear the meats.

              1. I'd concur with Anthony Bourdain, who suggested that the secret ingredients is shallots (instead of regular onions)

                1. The secret is to increase acidity.
                  So lemon (or any kind of citrus) comes to mind first. Do the test. Prepare a sauce and taste it. Then add a little lemon juice and taste again.
                  Vinegar or wine will do to. Or any lemony spice or herb. Preserved citrus is probably the best. Notice that trend in restaurants especially with meyer lemon?
                  Next you can increase something that is hard to describe but is close to umami (the fifth taste). It only works for certain dishes but ingredients which contain umami will boost flavor: anchovy, mushroom, parmesan, miso, soy sauce, bacon...
                  These days I tend to replace some salt with soy sauce. It really works.
                  Also a little kick goes a long way. So some form of chile at the beginning adds a subtle touch.
                  Finally whenever I add salt I tend to add a little sugar too. Maybe it's just me but it's like when baking, don't forget the salt so when cooking don't forget the sugar.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: ngardet

                    My mom used to put a little soy sauce into her lasagna!

                    1. re: ngardet

                      good point, constrasting salt/sugar

                    2. A bit of demiglace binds the flavors together.

                      1. Even though I'm the OP, I discovered a new one this afternoon while sauteing some broccoli raab. heat. Screaming high heat. I now know wok hay.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: amkirkland

                          I've always heard chef's saying the reason restaurants produce much better tasting food are salt, butter and high heat. Essentially saying home cooks are too timid/nervous to use enough of those three things.

                          1. re: ESNY

                            well, I don't feel like adding a lot of butter to my diet right now, nor to my diet rite, now, but heat sure is fun.

                        2. salt, acid, fat and high heat.

                          salt lifts up everything else.

                          acid perks up the palate, making you salivate and "want more."

                          fat carries all the other flavors.

                          cooking on high heat brings out the natural fats and sugars in whatever you are cooking, intensifying and enhancing it. home stoves don't have the same power as do those in restaurants, yet most home cooks are still afraid of high heat.

                          my non-restaurant friends are always alarmed by my smoking hot cast iron skillets when i'm cooking for them!

                          1. This is one that I just thought of that may apply to some but maybe not to otheres.
                            Gas Ranges!
                            Cooking on an electric stove is like cooking everything at a simmer.
                            At least for me.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: bolivianita

                              I had a copper and stainless pan in the 700s yesterday. Hot enough to flame oil.

                            2. Completely agree with the butter, salt, and the best ingredients you can afford, but a true insider tip is bullion concentrates - prefer demi-glace consistency or liquid over the powder stuff, but that will do in a pinch. Go easy on the salt when you use these, but a spoonful will add a restaurant taste to almost anything.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: LHT

                                LHT -

                                There's actually one great powdered demi, from Formaggio Kitchen (800) 212-3224. The NY Times went nuts over it several years back, and I love it. It's not listed on their web site, http://formaggio-kitchen.com/index.php but you can order it by calling them.

                              2. No chef worth his salt would use powdered demi.