11 Nearly-Forgotten Ingredients Grandma Always Cooked With

Ever wonder what ingredients your Gram used to make her dishes extra special? You might find the answer here...

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Granddaughter with grandma cooking together; Shutterstock ID 632275259; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): TOH
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No matter how long it’s been since Grandma’s cooked for you, we bet you’ll never forget that “little something” in every dish she made. (You’ll find most of her secret recipes right here!) In addition to a pinch of love, she may have used a mystery ingredient or two. Here, we break down the old-fashioned items she probably kept in her pantry.

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Lard on dark rustic background; Shutterstock ID 566564704


Many of us have seen the “green-and-white box full of white stuff” sitting on the kitchen counter or in Grandma’s pantry. Chances are, your grandmother was (and still might be) using lard. Why, you ask? It’s shelf-stable, richer than butter and used to make the flakiest pastries around—think biscuits and pie dough. You can also use it for frying or in vegetable side dishes like these collard greens.

Don’t miss the best-kept secrets to perfect homemade pie crust.

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vintage milk cans on old wooden table; Shutterstock ID 181187597
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Sweet Milk

If you have a collection of recipes from Grandma, chances are you may have seen “sweet milk” in an ingredient line. Back in the day, this referred to cows that had just been milked and the sweet taste their milk had. Alternately, once the milk “turned,” or curdled, it was called “sour milk,” or what we know today as buttermilk.

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Dripping black treacle or molasses from beaker. Molasses is the final product from the sugarcane extraction process of sugar factory industrial. Background with copy and text space. - Selective focus.; Shutterstock ID 1005612643; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): TOH
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Molasses is a byproduct of the process of making cane sugar. You may see both light and dark molasses at the grocery store, but most of us are familiar with dark molasses for its color and thick texture. If you’ve made gingerbread cookies with your grandma during the holidays, I bet she was using this (it gives gingerbread cookies their signature rich, brown color).

Cool fact: Molasses is added to granulated sugar to produce brown sugar!

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Background texture of several dried currants.; Shutterstock ID 251317531; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): TOH
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While currants are not a popular ingredient nowadays (we tend to use raisins instead), some grandmothers are fond of the dried grape. Similar to raisins, currants are good for snacking and add flavor to baked goods and jams, jellies and preserves. They also work well in Irish soda bread.

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Whole nutmeg


This oval-shaped dried spice, found in the spice aisle (whole or ground), can be used in both savory and sweet dishes. My grandmother preferred whole nutmeg and would grate it into the dish. You’ll know its familiar taste and aroma if you’ve had eggnog during the holidays or jerk chicken during a summer barbecue.

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corn syrup
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Corn Syrup

If Grandma made pecan pie or candies, chances are this was part of her recipe. It comes in both light and dark variations and stores indefinitely in the pantry or refrigerator.

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Small bottle of McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract with baked cake in background. Horizontal with copy space.
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Vanilla Extract

Called “flavoring” by my grandma, vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in an alcohol-water solution to extract the flavor. (You can make it at home!) Today it’s available in many different forms—pure vanilla extract, imitation vanilla, vanilla paste, etc. Mostly used in baking, all varieties essentially add flavor (as Grandma says) to your dish.

Cool fact: Those speckles in vanilla ice cream come from the vanilla bean pod used to make extract.

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flour in wooden bowl on kitchen table; Shutterstock ID 127973471
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Cake Flour

Who knew such a thing exists? After all, all-purpose flour is “all-purpose”so we shouldn’t need any other kind, right? I believe, though, that cake flour is the secret to why Grandma’s cakes are always so delicious. Cake flour has a finer texture and is used in baking to yield cakes that are tender and fluffy. It also works in waffles or pancakes.

Cool fact: Many Southerners use cake flour in biscuits and mile-high layer cakes.

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evaporated milk
Warren Price Photography/Shutterstock

Evaporated Milk

This is canned milk in which most of the water has been “evaporated” from the product during processing. My grandmother calls it “Pet milk,” after the brand name. Shelf-stable and inexpensive, evaporated milk has a caramelized flavor. It’s versatile, and on a whim can be combined with water and used as a substitute for milk in cooking, or slightly frozen and whipped as a substitute for fresh whipped cream. If you’re unsure how to use it, we offer a couple dozen reasons (aka recipes) for keeping it in your cupboard.

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Sweetened condensed milk tin. Making butter cream filling. Making torte with buttercream filling and grated chocolate topping. Series.; Shutterstock ID 385193497

Sweetened Condensed Milk

This is evaporated milk (same process) but sweetened with sugar. It’s canned, too, and has a sticky texture and sweet taste. It’s shelf-stable and is typically used in baked goods, desserts and coffee beverages. Try it out in these super-sweet recipes!

Rashanda Cobbins
Rashanda is a former food editor for Taste of Home. While studying for her bachelor’s degree in culinary arts, Rashanda interned in Southern Living’s test kitchen and later spent nearly a decade developing recipes and food content at ConAgra Brands. In her spare time, she loves scoping out local farmers markets and having picnics in the park.