Here’s How You Can Make Pretty Much Any Dish Taste Even Better

Sometimes all it takes is that one "secret" ingredient to take your favorite recipe to the next level. A professional chef shares some of her stand-by additions.

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Herbs, condiments and spices on stone background
Shutterstock / Evgeny Karandaev

If I’m being totally honest, I’m not very good at keeping “secret” ingredients to myself. They work so well, I want everyone to know about them! That’s great news for you if you’re looking to amp up your cooking game. Read on to find out how adding a few tiny things can make a huge difference to your favorite recipes.

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Cheese Sauce

Add a pinch of spicy mustard (or, mustard powder) while you’re prepping up your cheese sauce. You won’t be able to taste the mustard, but that slight bit of spice will help carry the flavor of whichever cheese you used.
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Meaty Stews

You probably add cinnamon to sweet dishes without thinking about it, but consider adding a pinch to a few savory dishes, too. It adds a level of depth to meaty stews (especially those tomato-based ones).

Try this trick on all our favorite chili recipes.

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Braised Greens

Before you serve your favorite braised kale, collards or chard, add a splash of vinegar to the mix. That acidity brightens everything up, distracting your taste buds from the green’s naturally bitter flavors.
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This is a good trick if you don’t have time to make soup ahead of time (because, we all know soup tastes better the next day!). Add a splash of Worcestershire and a splash of vinegar just before serving. These additions will round out the flavors and add a much-needed “umami” flavor to the soup.

What’s umami, you ask? We break it down here.

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Tomato Sauce

You don’t have to simmer tomato sauce all day long – just add a pinch of brown sugar at the end. The sweetness will balance out the acidic tomatoes and make everything finish nice and clean. You can also finish your tomato sauce by swirling in a pat of butter to make it taste creamier.

Here’s how to make the best-ever homemade tomato sauce, just the way you like it.

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Parmesan-Baked Mashed Potatoes

Here’s a family favorite for Christmas Day dinner. Whether I’m serving a main course of ham or turkey, everyone wants a big scoop of Parmesan mashed potatoes alongside.—Rosemary Janz, Concord, North Carolina
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Lemon-Garlic Cream Fettuccine

I've been making this lemony pasta for the family for years. It's both simple and indulgent enough to make it a go-to recipe. —Anne Miller, Glenfield, New York
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Penne pasta cooking boiling in water
Shutterstock / Kanyapak Lim


Always salt your pasta water “like the sea.” Okay you don’t want it so salty you could float in it, but you’ll want the water to taste slightly saltier than you’d prefer. It will flavor the pasta as it cooks and you’ll easily taste the difference in the end. Read on to learn exactly how much salt belongs in that boiling water.

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Homemade Mayo and Salad Dressings

If you’re making your own aioli, mayo, or salad dressings, add a pinch of cayenne at the end. It won’t be enough to make things taste spicy, but you’ll be surprised at how the pepper really brings out other flavors.
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Chocolate Chip Cookies

Consider finishing your favorite chocolate chip cookies with a sprinkle of flaky sea salt. It will transform your cookies into a restaurant-quality treat. Besides, who doesn’t love a sweet-and-salty combination!
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Okay, technically this isn’t a recipe ingredient, but you won’t be sorry when you take the time to toast your quinoa. This tiny step adds a nice nuttiness to the grain without very much extra effort.

Lindsay D. Mattison
Lindsay has been writing for digital publications for seven years and has 10 years of experience working as a professional chef. She became a full-time food writer at Taste of Home in 2023, although she’s been a regular contributor since 2017. Throughout her career, Lindsay has been a freelance writer and recipe developer for multiple publications, including Wide Open Media, Tasting Table, Mashed and SkinnyMs. Lindsay is an accomplished product tester and spent six years as a freelance product tester at Reviewed (part of the USA Today network). She has tested everything from cooking gadgets to knives, cookware sets, meat thermometers, pizza ovens and more than 60 grills (including charcoal, gas, kamado, smoker and pellet grills). Lindsay still cooks professionally for pop-up events, especially if it provides an opportunity to highlight local, seasonal ingredients. As a writer, Lindsay loves sharing her skills and experience with home cooks. She aspires to motivate others to gain confidence in the kitchen. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her cooking with fresh produce from the farmers market or planning a trip to discover the best new restaurants.