“No one can ever identify the taste, but they always love it.”
Recipes are great guides, but there are often unwritten ingredients that take food to a whole new level. So I rounded up a bunch of “secret flavor weapons” from the Community and from the subreddit r/cooking. Here are the ingredients that readers swear by when it comes to upgrading their home cooking.
“In my family mashed potato recipe, we use mayonnaise. A dollop makes the potatoes super creamy (and I promise you can’t taste the mayo).”
“I add something sharp and briny like pickle juice to tuna or chicken salad. It gives it just the right amount of tartness.
“I use a little almond extract in all my baked goods (especially French toast) and a little espresso powder in anything chocolate. It’s the perfect nutty or bitter complement to the sweetness.”
“Fish sauce can go in almost anything savory. That stuff is pure magic. If you’re making vegetables, meat, chilis, or even a sauce, a dash or two gives you more of that salty, meaty, savory flavor.”
“I add mashed anchovies or anchovy paste to pretty much all salad dressings, pasta sauces, and gravies. it really adds that extra salty, umami flavor. No one can ever identify the taste and they always love it!” “
“I buy Costco cashew clusters (or any candied nut clusters) and use the crumbs at the bottom of the bag as part of my dough when baking homemade cookies. People always go crazy for them.”
“I put cinnamon into basically every Mexican-inspired dish I make. Tacos, enchiladas, beans. I even sprinkle it in quesadillas sometimes. It works really well with all the other spices you usually end up using in those dishes like chile powder and cumin.”
“Pro tip: Put a bit of mayonnaise in chocolate cake. Once you realize that mayo is mostly eggs and oil, it’s not so hard to believe why it tastes so good.”
“I put mustard in mac ‘n’ cheese. Unless you use a huge amount, it isn’t noticeable. It just adds a little bit of zest and depth of flavor. Many recipes for baked mac and cheese suggest adding a little Dijon mustard, but I’ve used whole grain and it’s still been delicious.”
“If I’m making a dish that could benefit from a smoky, bacon-y flavor (think: roasted Brussels sprouts, pan seared sea scallops, potatoes, or corn chowder) but I either don’t have or want to use bacon, I always use smoked paprika.”
“I always have miso paste in my fridge and I put it in anything that it will dissolve in — like pasta sauces, stews, gravies, marinades, and more. I love the extra punch of umami it brings to any dish.”
“Nutritional yeast. I know that it sounds like a health food, but I use it strictly for the taste. This stuff has a wonderful cheesy, nutty flavor. In my house, it has its supreme place next to salt and pepper. I use it on anything from pasta to roast cauliflower.”
“I always add chicken stock cubes like Better Than Boullion to water when I’m boiling it for pasta (or other grains like quinoa, rice, etc). It doubles the tastiness of the pasta and sauce, giving it that much-needed umami flavor.”
“I keep Parmesan rinds in my freezer and use them to make stock, sauces, and stews. I just throw it in after everything else to simmer. It makes a remarkable difference, especially in tomato sauces.”
“Whenever I’m baking using boxed cake mix, I use softened butter in place of vegetable oil. It gives the cake a softer, more moist texture.”
“Whenever I bake something with chocolate, like brownies, I always add a little bit of coffee. It makes all the difference and actually brings out the rich, fudgy chocolate flavor even more.”
“Tajin seasoning is my secret weapon. It’s a spice mixture of dried chiles and dehydrated lime juice. It goes well in most any Mexican-inspired recipes, but it’s unexpectedly delicious on fruit like pineapple or mango. Oh, and I highly recommend trying it on grilled corn on the cob.”
“I use chicken or beef-flavored ramen seasoning packets to make my gravy for mashed potatoes. It packs so much flavor.”
“I add cinnamon and/or nutmeg to savory dishes like stews, meat lasagna, Bolognese sauce, and more. I just use a dash (which is not enough for the flavors of the spices to be perceptible), but it imparts an amazing depth of flavor.”
“I add lard to my pie crust. All my pie crust, whether it’s for a savory dish (like a quiche or galette or a sweet dessert. That extra bit of fat makes it all the more delicious.”
“I use vinegar as a secret ingredient in soups and stews. If something is too salty, a splash of vinegar will make it taste balanced. If you over-salted and think you’ve ruined your whole meal, take a deep breath and reach for the vinegar.”
“I add lemon zest to garlic butter. It’s amazing on anything from chicken to pasta, but specifically for garlic bread it’s an absolute game-changer. Even if you use just a little bit you can taste a major difference.”
“I add a good shake of paprika to my egg salad whenever i make it. It tastes like deviled eggs on a sandwich, and it’s beyond delicious.”
“I add a spoonful of cottage cheese to my eggs before scrambling them. I know it sounds strange, but you can’t even taste it. The cottage cheese just makes the eggs perfectly fluffy.”
“Instead of milk, I use full fat vanilla or plain yogurt in my bathing mixture for French toast. It turns out perfectly every time.”
“Whenever I make chili I always add dark cocoa powder, cinnamon, and coffee. It makes a huge difference in flavor.”
“Add a splash of orange juice to pumpkin or banana bread. The acidity really adds some brightness against the spices. I use this same ingredient hack when making carrot cake and zucchini bread, too.”
“Rice vinegar. If a recipe calls for soy sauce, I also always add rice vinegar to complement it — even if it’s not called for in the ingredient list. It adds the perfect amount of acidity and I swear, it takes dishes like fried rice to the next level.”
“I mix melted butter and soy sauce together and use it as a sauce. It’s one of my favorite flavor combinations. It’s excellent in just about anything savory, but my favorite use is for sautéed mushrooms.”
“Soy sauce. I add it to pretty much anything savory like tomato sauce for pasta, chili con carne, even mushroom risotto.”
“Try using fish sauce in homemade Caesar salad. I had the best Caesar salad at a friend’s house, and she revealed her secret is using fish sauce instead of anchovies. I was floored and jealous I didn’t think of it first, but now I’ve adopted this flavor hack as my own.”
“Toss cooked noodles into toasted sesame oil after they’ve drained. All you need is a tiny bit, but it takes them to another level.”
“I love cooking with toasted sesame seeds. If you’re making soup, stew, or broth, try sautéing a handful of sesame seeds and running them through the food processor with a bit of your cooking base. It adds a deep, rich, and nutty flavor.”
“I swap in coconut milk for anything that could normally be boiled in water. I’m talking lentils, rice, quinoa, farro, etc. It makes the grains taste so much richer.”
“Sumac is my go-to ingredient, and I add it to tons of dishes right before serving. It’s ever-so-slightly sour, savory, and herbaceous, and it really helps brighten dishes. It adds a similar element to food as does a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
“Kaffir lime leaves. It imparts big, powerful lime flavor without having to keep fresh limes on hand all the time. Try adding it to curry or really any recipe that calls for coconut milk.”
“Mushroom powder is my go-to. It’s so underrated. I actually don’t love mushrooms in general, but porchini powder adds the perfect understated oomph to whatever savory dish you’re cooking.
So, what your secret ingredient or go-to flavor booster that you love using in your home cooking? Tell us in the comments!