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Wierd ingredients, secret ingredients, unknown ingredients?

I am a culinary student and this semester I am taking a class on product identification. One of our large assignments is to write a paper about ten ingredients that we are not familiar with, how they would be used, what they are like, where you can buy them, etc. I have been doing research on lots of cool ingredients... but I would like to know what real foodies use in their recipes. It's always more informative and more interesting to find out from people who know what they're talking about. What's the most unusual ingredient you use in your cooking? What's your favorite secret ingredient?

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  1. I don't do a whole lot of cooking, but I add paprika to a surprising amount of things with good results.

    And oh, the ways I DON'T use peanut butter...

    1. 1. Legally and sustainably harvested dried African game meat for beans and lentils.
      2. Bit of Kenyan m'chuzi mix in braises
      3. Pinch of different chile powders in sweet dishes; pinch of chocolate, cinnamon, or coffee in savory (pinch = very, very little).
      4. Splash of fish sauce in many savory dishes.
      5. Beer in batters

      4 Replies
      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

        "African game meat" please tell me you're not talking chimps and gorillas here, Sam!

        1. re: pikawicca

          That would be bush meat, not game.

          1. re: Humbucker

            Yes, generally kudu, maybe impala, perhaps some wildebeeste--grassland grazers that can over-populate their habitats in eastern Africa. Not hominids in west and central Africa. Bush meat is a global problem. Legal and sustainable harvest of east African plains meat is part of modern solutions to habitat and animal management.

        2. re: Sam Fujisaka

          Ditto # 4 !!! Fish sauce is a better way to salt soups, stews and chili. It adds a richness that can rarely be identified.

          I add a dab of peanut butter to Guacamole

        3. probably not new to anybody at all, but one of my favorite ingredients is Bragg's Amino Acids. use it in salad dressings, stews/braises, stirfries, soups, grills, etc.

          I also use seasoned rice wine vinegar in dressings, salads, grain salads, pasta salads.

          Espresso or coffee in both sweet and savory dishes.

          1. maple syrup
            cinnemon in savory dishes

            1. 1) Fish sauce or fermented shrimp
              2) Chipotle and ancho chili in sweets
              3) Nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin with meat
              4) Sriracha, sambal, aleppo pepper and different chilies
              5) Vinegar braising (instead of wine)
              6) Bacon grease

              1. Sichuan Peppercorns
                Fermented Black Beans
                Preserved Mustard Tuber
                Chinkiang Black Vinegar

                1. Dulse flakes in place of seafood/ fish sauce. Marmite for gravy. Beet juice for red color (even in desserts). Rose water and cardamom in mild-flavored desserts. Star anise and/or mace with winter squashes. Sometimes I use apple cider in addition to or in place of vegetable stock/water. Avocado oil in place of butter in baked goods.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: opehlia payne

                    Does the avocado oil change the flavor much? What does it do to the texture? I am a Baking & Pastry major so I am especially intrigued. Do you get it at a regular super market?

                    1. re: flourpower

                      The avocado oil doesn't change the flavor much as long as you're using it in something that has a pretty deep flavor- otherwise, for lighter-flavored things, I use canola oil.

                      Texture-wise, it adds a bit more fat so it doesn't emulsify in quite the same way and the end product may end up less flaky- a cake could wind up with a texture similar to a brownie. If your recipe calls for melted butter, you can safely sub 1:1. I've also successfully substituted at 1:1 when baking cookies. Otherwise, you'll want to reduce the amount of oil as compared to the butter you would have used.

                      Very light olive oil works, too, because it contains emulsifiers that help produce that cake-y texture. Just don't use the rich, green stuff you use for cooking; the flavor would be too intense.

                      I'm not sure which supermarkets carry avocado oil. I get mine at Whole Foods.

                  2. A little bit of olive tapenade in tomato based braises, in lieu of tomato paste- gives a better bit of depth and roundness to the final dish.

                    Also I use tamarind/date chutney as a base for my barbecue sauce- sweet, sour and rich.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: TongoRad

                      Oh I love tamarind! I will have to try that. Thanks!

                      1. re: flourpower

                        tamarind tea mixed with Jack Daniel's was one of my fave high school indulgences (well there were others)

                      1. Preserved lemons -- easy to make, just google it -- for mayonaisse based sauces, any sauces really, all stews, soups, sometimes salad dressing. With salty, citrus and sweet, brings together all the flavors.

                        Dried sumac -- tart and colorful, to sprinkle on hummus and other dips.

                        Orange and tangerine oils, pure. A couple of drops go a long way.

                        Pure coconut extract, a drop or two in cookies or ice cream for that haunting "something."

                        Roasted almond, hazelnut, walnut and peanut oils. Must be roasted. Interesting substitutes for butter, olive oil, and sesame oil in baked goods and dressings.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: pitterpatter

                          pp: use that sumac sparingly...

                          I'm not saying don't use it, but others reading should be aware. occasional use is fine. but it does contain a toxin that can build over time (but only if you use one heck of a lot).

                          can't imagine some dishes without it.

                        2. Smoked habanero powder is a favorite for many dishes. Not enough to really burn, but enough to balance flavors and perk things up some.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: ccbweb

                            My that sounds tasty! Do you buy that or make it yourself? I've never seen it as an ingredient.

                            1. re: BeaN

                              Happily, I buy it. You can get it here, it seems:

                              This is the main site for Dave's Gourmet (their navigation from within the store is somewhat lacking, so I'm editing to post this link, too):

                              I haven't purchased it online before, but now I'll give it a shot the next time I need a new jar. It's really a great ingredient. I should clarify that it's really pretty hot - when I wrote "not enough to really burn" I was referencing the amount I tend to use in dishes. One of the things I like is how little I have to use to have an effect on the finished dish, but how much power it has such that I can really use it as a key flavoring if we want something that's very smoky and spicy.

                              1. re: ccbweb

                                i love that stuff.the chile today hot tamale company is located in nj.they have a nice variety of those powders among other things.

                                1. re: davmar77

                                  I agree, I've been quite happy with the half dozen or so products from them that I've tried.

                          2. Fish sauce or anchovies - adds something that the diner can't name but will miss if it's absent (umami).

                            A bit of red miso adds a lot of flavor.

                            Duck fat. When we cook a duck I pour the rendered fat into an ice cube tray and freeze it. That's treasure in the freezer!

                            1. I don't think it's weird, but I do use balsamic vinegar in places you wouldn't think (a quick pasta sauce) but my all time fav secret ingredient is Kikkoman.
                              My other not-so-closely guarded one is one I buy at Costco- it's Johnny's Great Ceasar Garlic Seasoning. I use it on lots of things that may benefit from but don't actually need fresh garlic and I hate powdered-yet for some reason love this stuff. It's just garlic powder, grated cheese and flecks of green stuff but it makes us happy on salads, hot buttered bread, in stir fry, hot buttery popcorn, chicken wings, grilled veggies (I use it with fresh garlic too- and always watch it with xtra salt)

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: Boccone Dolce


                                Is that the garlic spread? I use the Johnny's au jus as a secret ingredient in soups, stews, gravies and also just as au jus! I also use stale black coffee in many things. Gives beef dishes an extra layer of heartiness.

                                1. re: danhole

                                  Yep-at Costco it's a clear bottle with a green top. Very cheap and I sprinkle it all over the place. I have never used it to make garlic bread!Haven't seen any other Johnny's product where I live- they list the au jus on the web site... I may need to place an order!

                                  1. re: Boccone Dolce

                                    Just a FYI - I use the Johnny's au jus concentrate, not the powder. That is the only kind I have found in the grocery store. I may need to order that Great Caesar to give it a try! Thanks for the tip.

                              2. Fish sauce, paprika, saffron, HillBilly Holy Trinity: Bell pepper, tomato, sweet onion

                                1. Not necessarily weird, but my secret ingredient is usually nutmeg. It works wonderfully in sweet or savory dishes, and not much is needed.

                                  1. White pepper. Can't see it mixed in (even with mashed potatoes)...and it adds a slight nutmeg taste along with a touch of heat.

                                    Noticing that a lot of people ahead of me have mentioned nutmeg...hmmm

                                    1. I use a granulated mushroom "powder" from Taiwan that is touted as a healthy sub for MSG. I use it sparingly in soups and sauces and whenever something is just flat. Dare I even mention the Maggi chicken bouillon powder- salt, MSG, sugar- but in a despirate situation it comes through....not exactly unknown, but often "not discussed".

                                      1. anchovy dashida
                                        red pickled ginger
                                        chinese five spice powder

                                        1. I like to use niter kebbeh, a spiced clarified butter of Ethiopian origin, when I sautee vegetables. The taste of the spices is there, but just below the level of perception unless you have a well trained palete. When making a tomato sauce, I stir in a simple syrup of red wine vinegar and sugar off heat at the end. It intensifies the red color, gives the sauce a bit of a sheen and introduces a sweet and sour aspect to the flavors.

                                          1. Piri piri sauce. It's a portuguese chili sauce which is very popular in West Africa. I just picked up a version made by Roland Foods which was made with had lemon and fig vinegar. Very interesting stuff. I liked it, but it was unlike anything I had ever tasted.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: madgreek

                                              And in Mozambique in southeastern Africa.

                                            2. A pinch of sugar in savory, spicy-hot or tomato-based dishes rounds out the flavors.

                                              1. Tea masala in baked goods - its the stuff you buy in indian grocery stores when you want to make chai the proper way (with the little red box of black tea pellets and milk)

                                                a bit added to brownies, chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies in with the other spices gives it that 'something.'

                                                Also - dutch cocoa powder to chili deepens flavor.

                                                1. These won't be unusual for this site's gentle readers and posters, but here's a few of mine:

                                                  Shiso (AKA: Ubo, perilla, beefsteak leaf). I grow it at home and it's so prolific I give most of it away.
                                                  Hon-Mirin (The traditional mirin, like from Mitoku, is much better than the usual)
                                                  Fish sauce
                                                  Colorful finishing salts
                                                  Bonito flakes
                                                  A variety of vinegars (hato-mugi, sweet brown rice, coconut, etc. plus the usuals.)
                                                  Dried shitakes, which is not unusual, but also the soaking water.
                                                  Cultured butters, like President.
                                                  Penzey's Chespeake Bay seasoning, which I like even better than Old Bay.
                                                  Just discovered charnushka seeds, AKA nigella, and made a pretty good Russian Rye bread if I do say so myself.

                                                  BTW, FWIW I used to be a chef...

                                                  1. It's not an unusual ingredient and for all I know the way I use it is common, but I'm the only one I know who roasts potatoes with crushed fennel seeds.

                                                    1. dried juniper berries - usually for fresh game meats like venison.

                                                      1. - Knorr's gemuse extrakt (a Swiss souvenir for myself)
                                                        - MSG
                                                        - alcohol (particularly when it's not expected or called for)
                                                        - mascarpone cheese instead of cream or half & half

                                                        1. Roasted garlic paste,
                                                          Cinnamon or chinese five spice in savory dishes (seems to go particularly well with anything that has horseradish, among other things),
                                                          A tablespoon or two of veal demi in sauces or soups,
                                                          Coleman's dry mustard powder,
                                                          Cayenne pepper on meats or fish (just a light sprinkle to "warm up" the flavors, not enough to bring real heat),
                                                          and sometimes a drop or two of KB (Kitchen Bouquet) where veal stock wouldn't be appropriate to add a little depth (please don't tell anybody about that one).

                                                          1. Here in northern italy our secret ingredients can vary but very often we use fresh bay leaves which are really really abundant. And far more useful then as an additive to chicken soup. I recently tasted a bay leave digestive liquor that was unbelievably delicious poured in a little glass over an ice cube. It's phenomenal for digestion, and extremely refreshing. I tried it at a friend's house, I'd never tasted it before (and neither had any of my italian friends). My friend's neighbor said it was a family recipe that they make every year in october or november (if I remember correctly) when the leaves are at the correct sweetness. It totally blew me away. Bay leaves are also great with beans, garbanzos, and yummiest of all stuck between pieces of meat on skewers and barbequed italian style, BBQ sauceless with olive oil and salt brushed on with a rosemary branch.

                                                            Another thing that's not so weird but it's so, so, so useful... Salamoia Bolognese. There are many different recipes, especially between Modena and Bologna but the one I use is normally this: Finely mince sage leaves, rosemary leaves, and lemon zest ( all very very very finely) and a bit of basil (but this is normally omitted in the more classic versions) and grind in a morter with coarse sea salt. I normally chop up a whole bunch of herbs and then gradually add them in until I get the right potency. This salt blend can be used on everything: fish, potatoes, eggs (my favorite), the sky's the limit.