9 Secret Ingredients That Will Instantly Improve Your Cooking

9 Secret Ingredients That Will Instantly Improve Your Cooking

These bang-for-your-buck pantry staples will make every dish more interesting.

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msg bars
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We don’t mean to trash-talk your family recipes, but they could probably be better. As delicious as these heirloom recipes can be, there’s no denying that a little dash of this or a little splash of that can take virtually any dish to the next level. We’ve got a lot of tricks up our sleeves, so we’ve gathered all of our “secret” ingredients that will lend your cooking an edge—deeper flavor, improved texture—and keep everyone coming back for another helping.

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Lizano salsa

Lizano salsa

lizano salsa
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You don’t have to be a saucier to make your cooking sing. One of the fastest ways to improve a dish is with some of the best store-bought bottled condiments. Lizano Salsa is a Costa Rican sauce that we love for so many reasons. It’s sweet, tart, and salty, and a little bit of it in the liquid component of a dish like stew (or dashed into an accompanying sauce) will brighten everything up, lending a boost of complexity to enrich meat and veggie dishes alike. It’s an all-purpose sauce, so go ahead and dunk your chicken nuggets into it if you feel like it.

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Fish sauce

Fish sauce

fish sauce
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It’s a well-known fact that we love fish sauce as a cooking ingredient as well as for dipping. It has plenty of versatile and celebrated uses in the kitchen, and if you haven’t yet picked up a bottle, you should. Tasted straight, it has a fermented scent and flavor profile that’s unmistakably fishy, but when it’s splashed into sauce, mixed into meat, or added to marinades, it adds a deliciously savory background flavor that’s hard to describe. Fish sauce is a transformative ingredient, regardless of the cuisine—it’s not just for use in Asian cooking.

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Monosodium glutamate, aka MSG

Monosodium glutamate, aka MSG

msg in wooden spoon
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There’s a reason that MSG is often touted as a secret ingredient. Just a pinch or a sprinkle of monosodium glutamate will showcase umami flavors in any dish. It’s the je ne sais quoi that keeps you going back to a bag of Doritos, for example (look at the ingredients list if you don’t believe us). And for those who think it causes health issues, understand that its stigma comes from a debunked xenophobic trope about Asian food, one that’s best left far behind us. MSG is delicious and you need it in your pantry, full stop.

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Tamarind

Tamarind

tamarind in bowl
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Tamarind is a fruit that develops in a distinct pod and has a sweet and tart flavor with some caramel notes to it. That perfect intersection of sweet and sour makes it a defining ingredient in curries, chutneys, sauces, candies, cookies, and drinks. Look for tamarind sold in jars as a paste at the grocery store or, failing that, your local Asian supermarket.

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Soda

Soda

soda in glasses
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Soda, pop, whatever you call it—soft drinks actually have a role to play in your kitchen as a cooking ingredient. Lemon lime soda has a function in Korean cuisine to add an effervescent and sweet liveliness to noodles and quick kimchi dishes. We’ve added orange soda to our chicken, mixed fruit soda into our dump cakes, and fluffed up pancakes with 7-Up. You can use it in glazes and sauces for meat-based dishes like pulled pork and pot roast, too. Even if you’re not a soda drinker, it’s useful to have some cans around the house for culinary experimentation.

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Salad Supreme seasoning

Salad Supreme seasoning

pasta salad
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Pasta salad is a great side dish for any time of the year (winter be damned). Everyone has their favorite variations on pasta salad recipes, but we swear by one that uses a special seasoning blend: Salad Supreme. The seasoning mix, made by McCormick, is the secret ingredient that turns an otherwise standard configuration of noodles, meat, and cheese into a dish permeated through and through with peppery flavor. Salad Supreme makes the perfect pasta salad, but you can add it to vegetable salads as well, plus a wide range of chicken dishes.

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Mashed potato flakes

Mashed potato flakes

potato flakes in bowl
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Ever make a soup or a stew that wasn’t quite as thick as you wanted it? Jacques Pépin has the fix for you: mashed potato flakes. A watery broth isn’t ideal when you’re aiming for something more substantial, so Pépin’s solution is to sprinkle a bit of potato flake into your liquid until it reaches a thicker consistency without adding significant amounts of flavor to disrupt the balance of your dish. In this case, the secret ingredient isn’t a flavor bomb, it’s a stealthy textural agent.

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Wondra flour

Wondra flour

closeup of wondra
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Want a silky gravy without the fuss? Wondra is your new best friend. This low-protein superfine flour has been pre-cooked, which means you can use it to thicken gravies by sprinkling it right into your sauce’s liquid base. (Making a roux isn’t that difficult, but it does take a little patience.) This also eliminates any raw flour flavor that can be off-putting in a sauce. Deep-fried foods and baked goods can also benefit from Wondra, because it achieves the desired texture in less time than regular all-purpose flour can. Real chefs lean hard on Wondra, and you can too.

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Milk powder

Milk powder

milk powder
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One of our favorite understated and underrated baking ingredients is dry milk powder, which lends a background richness to your baked goods and makes for a memorable bite, without altering texture as liquid milk might. So, yes, it creates ultra-delectable cookies, but it’s also just plain useful to have around in case you run out of milk. Simply mix some powder with water, shake, and chill for about an hour before using. 

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