Test Kitchen Tips
11 Secret Ingredients That Will Make You a Better Cook
Elevate your cooking in an instant with help from these secret ingredients.
Photo: Shutterstock / Faiz Zaki
A splash of vinegar
Instantly brighten up a dish by adding a splash of vinegar—the acid will help liven up flavors in everything from flank steak to strawberries to coleslaw. To get the most from your bottle, familiarize yourself with the different varieties: cider vinegar is more mild, with faint notes of apple, while rice vinegar is sweet and delicate. For something a little bolder but still understated, go for balsamic; red and white wine vinegar will be your full-bodied and strong options.
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Chinese five spice powder
Sometimes, all a dish needs in order to go from good to excellent is some spices. Chinese five covers all five fundamental tastes with a mix of cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise, and Szechuan pepper, although some recipes will include ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, or licorice. Add it to meat dishes, season potato wedges like these summertime staples or sprinkle over oatmeal.
Shutterstock / Alexander Prokopenko
There is little this sesame seed paste can’t do. Rub it on meats or vegetables like cauliflower or pumpkin—before cooking to add a light, nutty flavor. Mix it with olive oil or your favorite dressing for a creamy, dairy-free sauce for that will elevate salads as you know them. Chocolate and tahini is a decadent fusion: swirl it into brownies or use it to replace peanut butter in desserts.
Most often found in Middle Eastern cuisine, this tangy, flavorful syrup can be stirred into iced teas or cocktails, or drizzled into dips like hummus and baba ghanoush to add a burst of acidity and sweetness. Make it the star of the show by using it to glaze or marinade meats—it will add more complex flavors without making your dish taste too fruity.
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Delicious in soups, miso has a variety of applications and nutritional benefits. Thin it with some water and then toss it with vegetables or meats before cooking for a salty, sweet, and savory dish. The paste can also be added as a thickener to stews and gravies, or mixed with melted butter and used to coat fish fillets before roasting.
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Salt may be a kitchen staple, but your cooking game deserves more love than the plain table variety. Flaky sea salt can be used to top cookies or brownies to make them taste straight from the bakery, added as a finishing touch to meat (like these maple-glazed pork chops), or sprinkled onto salads for additional seasoning and crunch. There are many varieties, so familiarizing yourself with the different options is a great way to upgrade your recipes.
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The world of curry pastes—you’ll often find Thai and Indian with a panoply of different options—is a varied one, meaning there’s an option for all palettes and recipes. Mix with rice and your meat of choice for a quick and flavorful upgrade on the traditional weeknight dinner. It can also be used as a marinade for fish for an aromatic dish.
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Like miso, fish sauce is brimming with umami, a savory taste often found in Thai and Vietnamese foods. Add it to condiments like ketchup to deliver depth and flavor, or use it when marinating your favorite meat or seafood—you can simmer the finished marinade and use it as a sauce for your entree after it’s done cooking. Hosting brunch? Replace Worcestershire with fish sauce while you’re mixing up Bloody Marys.
While canned beans may not sound glamorous, they’re a secret weapon in our pantry. They can be added to pastas, soups, and salads—try roasting them when making the latter—for some additional substance, or enjoyed on their own right. Simple saute a can with olive oil, garlic, and lemon for a flavorful appetizer, or combine it with your favorite meat and steamed rice for a hearty, healthy dinner.
These little guys are more than a simple garnish. Scallions can be added to everything from a stir-fry to an omelet to a baked potato to garlic bread. To really zest up a salad, char the scallions and then add to your dressing of choice (a simple one with vinegar, mustard, and mayonnaise works well.)
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The light, air breadcrumbs are great to have on hand to thicken up sauces and soups, or add some variety to your meal rotation without searching for new recipes. You can toss them on nearly any pasta, or coat your favorite meat, veggie, or fish with them before cooking for a delicious crunch and deeper flavor.