Metatalktails: "I'd tell you, but then I'd have to dill* you" edition February 29, 2020 10:11 AM   Subscribe

For today's Metatalktail Hour topic, we want to know what's the secret in your secret sauce? Do you have a special dish with a top-secret ingredient that puts it over the top? Tell, tell, tell!

I'm making spaghetti sauce at the moment, and reading about people's secret ingredients: juniper berries, fish sauce, espresso, honey, oysters, brandy, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, wine, vodka, anchovies, grape jelly, chili sauce, nutmeg, balsamic vinegar, anisette — so many delicious secrets! What's your classified condiment or secret formula for that one recipe ... you know the one.

Or just tell us what is happening in your life, what you've discovered recently, what you are excited about, how you are feeling, or what you've been up to ... we'd love to share that, too!

posted by taz (staff) to MetaFilter-Related at 10:11 AM (77 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

Does mayonnaise count as a secret?
posted by mittens at 10:23 AM on February 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

My secret sauce is A-1, sour cream, and McCormick’s Montreal Steak seasoning. It’s pretty good.

One of the projects on my to-do list is to make a burger-style secret sauce/Cane’s sauce, but with Catalina dressing as the base. The reason it’s still on my list is because I can’t decide on the white component. My finalists are mayo, Miracle Whip, sour cream, Greek yogurt, horseradish, blue cheese dressing, and ranch. The first two seem too boring; the next four seem a little too clash-y, and I’m just not a big fan of ranch. I think ranch is probably going to be the answer, though.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:24 AM on February 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

I've never been able to stand anchovies straight, but dissolving them in olive oil before making some kinds of sauce is indeed an excellent choice.

You have to be restrained about it, but miso is good in grilled cheese sandwiches.
posted by praemunire at 10:27 AM on February 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

My grandmother's beloved and delicious chicken stock recipe is something I don't share as often as I would otherwise because it has an ingredient that makes people go "ick": ketchup. It adds a rich tomato-y-ness to the stock, I swear.

Recipe, for those of you willing to brave what sounds weird:
1 whole chicken
1 bunch celery, washed and leaves and roots chopped off
1 bag baby carrots (regular carrots are fine too, I'm just lazy)
1 potato, quartered
1 onion, quartered
1 tbsp salt
1 cup ketchup (approximately; ymmv - my mom uses less ketchup than I do when she makes it)

Put chicken in large stock pot, fill pot with water. Bring to a boil, skimming off the icky frothy stuff that comes to the top. Once it's boiling, stir in ketchup (stir well to dissolve it) and salt, and add vegetables. Simmer for 4 hours. Turn off burner and let sit for at least another hour before straining out the vegetables, bones, and chicken meat (the meat makes a great chicken salad, or you can shred it and add it back to the stock).

Recommended serving style, because it's good enough that it doesn't need anything more: bring a serving of stock to a boil; add small pasta (I like ditalini or eggbows). Cook until pasta is done. Eat soup.

Now I'm lamenting that I haven't made grandma's soup in AGES, but I have two cats who would dive into the boiling soup to steal the still-boiling chicken carcass, so for safety's sake, I'm soupless. Those cats are very lucky they're cute as hell.
posted by Hold your seahorses at 10:35 AM on February 29, 2020 [10 favorites]

A little shake of salt, less than a pinch, in the coffee grounds before starting the coffee machine. The flavor pops. And if you want even more flavor, add a pinch of cinnamon.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:39 AM on February 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

a little cocoa powder in the marinara
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:43 AM on February 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think adding tequila to jambalaya (about 1 oz per serving) adds a nice tangy flavor. However, I've never put tequila in jambalaya without also putting tequila in me, so maybe I only *think* it tastes good.
posted by Tehhund at 10:52 AM on February 29, 2020 [10 favorites]

Does mayonnaise count as a secret?

I was reading something from the NYT yesterday that talked about making chicken by marinating it in a spoonful each of everything in your fridge's condiment shelf before baking in the oven. Whatever's there, everything goes in. I need to try that one day when I feel adventurous. Also, with mayonnaise, I hear a lot of people saying to spread mayo on outside of the bread before grilling when making grilled cheese sandwiches.
posted by taz (staff) at 11:09 AM on February 29, 2020 [6 favorites]

A bit of instant coffee in fudge sauce or any rich chocolate dessert. Takes the flavor to a whole new level...
posted by bookmammal at 11:13 AM on February 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Hahahhahaha no sorry it's garlic. I mean MORE garlic.
posted by Coaticass at 11:19 AM on February 29, 2020 [14 favorites]

I was reading something from the NYT yesterday that talked about making chicken by marinating it in a spoonful each of everything in your fridge's condiment shelf before baking in the oven.

I'm an adventurous eater and cook but this honestly sounds like a horrible idea. In some fridges this might end up with an abominable concoction of like 10 kinds of chilis or hot sauces, a bunch of different kinds of mustard, any number of pickles or relishes and chutneys, several kinds of soup bases all topped off with chocolate syrup or something.

There's going to be a bunch of condiments that are inadvisable to mix like cream sauces or mayo that might break and go really weird in the presence of acids causing unwanted cooking chemistry going on in your marinade that can also do things like pre-cook or digest your chicken with acids or enzymes, like a foul chicken ceviche or even turning raw chicken into a gross uncooked pate.

Granted some people have some really tame refrigerators and condiment collections and they might just end up with a mayo-mustard-ketchup-relish fry sauce or maybe a volcano sauce if they had some hot sauce or salsa, which, *shrug*.
posted by loquacious at 11:20 AM on February 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

I tried the mayo-grilled-cheese thing, and found it greasier and less tasty than butter. To each their own.

A bit of instant coffee in fudge sauce or any rich chocolate dessert.

I found a great Nigella Lawson recipe for brownies that actually uses instant espresso powder, and it's hands-down the best, most intensely-chocolaty tasting brownies I've ever made.

My "secret" to chili is to take out a complex set of ingredients I'd been adding to boost the flavor, and replace them with a mix of the dried peppers from the "Latin" aisle of the grocery store (or a local bodega, if you're lucky enough to have one nearby). A powder made from those (plus some cumin, oregano, and a pinch each of cinnamon and cacao powder) packs TEN TIMES the flavor of the store-bought chili powder. Every time I make chili now (using my much simpler recipe) I'm amazed at how good it tastes.

But...The real secret ingredient is the friends we made along the way.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:26 AM on February 29, 2020 [9 favorites]

foul chicken ceviche

Sockpuppet name up for grabs!
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:27 AM on February 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

A powder made from those (plus some cumin, oregano, and a pinch each of cinnamon and cacao powder) packs TEN TIMES the flavor of the store-bought chili powder. Every time I make chili now I'm amazed at how good it tastes.

I just made chili using dried chiles, but cooked them in broth, then pureed them, then cooked the meat in that.
posted by LionIndex at 11:32 AM on February 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

foul chicken ceviche

Sockpuppet name up for grabs!
and raw chicken gross uncooked pate! Mmm! I had to go look up what I read, and it turns out I misrepresented the writer. They don't actually say "marinate": [talking about their first kitchen, and cooking every day for a year] ... "When I ran out of inspiration, Refrigerator Chicken was a faithful friend. To make it, you take all the condiments in the door of the fridge (mustard, soy sauce, peach jam, hot sauce, etc.), mix together a spoonful of each and coat chicken pieces with the result. Roast and serve with rice or potatoes and anything green."

(I bet they left some stuff out, but the story's better without that bit.)
posted by taz (staff) at 11:38 AM on February 29, 2020

Hahahhahaha no sorry it's garlic. I mean MORE garlic.

My people.

In a tomato-based pasta sauce consisting of the usual suspects of canned whole tomatoes, tomato paste, italian sausage, onion, oregano, some wine (white or red) and lots and lots and lots of garlic (adding in the garlic after the tomatoes and liquids have already gone in to preserve the brightness of the garlic) I like to add a couple of eggplants that have been fully roasted (whole) in the oven (flesh only, scraped out the the skins once they cooled enough to be handled).

I put the eggplant in once the sauce has been simmering for a bit and the roasted flesh just melts into it, and after a good long simmer, it's fully integrated. It makes it extra-rich.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:57 PM on February 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

Usually butter. And some Zehnder's chicken seasoning.I also add a splash of acid (lemon juice or vinegar) at the very end to soups or gravies.

To my salads, I just add whatever fresh herbs I have on hand. Frequently mint, but basil, Rosemary, thyme also make regular appearances (in varying combinations). Especially now that I have one of those indoor "garden" things and it's a lot easier to trim a few springs off.

It's not a secret or an ingredient, but most of the dishes I make that other people like involve my Kitchen Aid stand mixer: fresh pasta, cast iron pizza, pierogi, etc. It's not so much that the mixing stand makes the dish, but it made it easy enough for me to make those dishes often enough that I could dial them in. My husband had so maybe test dishes. Poor thing.
posted by ghost phoneme at 1:06 PM on February 29, 2020

I use mayo as the base for marinades. It's emulsified oil! It sticks (I do cut it with a little water or other liquid, but not a ton) and holds your seasoning on, and it browns. I eat a lot of chicken breasts, which are best when cooked a la minute (in the air fryer, for me), so I mix up marinade at the beginning of the week - no acids, because it makes the chicken gummy after a day, so just lots of dry seasonings and sometimes a blop of tahini or spoon of curry paste, very light hand on the salt. Family pack of chicken breasts get lightly pounded out so thickness is consistent, it all goes into a container in the marinade, and I take out what I want and add salt and some lemon or pickle juice right before it goes in the air fryer. 385 for 16-20 minutes depending on size works in my air fryer.

I also use a bit of mayo mixed into my egg binder for meatballs, because I make and freeze them in giant batches and the mayo seems to boost moisture retention and browning when cooking from frozen.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:12 PM on February 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

In most savory sauces, I'll add a little bit of fish sauce (or Worcestershire sauce if I'm out of fish sauce). It adds a nice bit of umami without being fishy.
posted by Weeping_angel at 1:18 PM on February 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

Not for everything, but increasingly so...sumac. Just enough acid to balance other things out. Simple protein or veg? Salt, pepper, sumac. Yogurt? Salt, sumac, nigella.
posted by cobaltnine at 1:32 PM on February 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

Speaking of garlic, to a typical(ish) aioli recipe...

1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp vinegar (or lemon juice)
1/2 to 1 C extra virgin olive oil
8-10 do it, you know you want to!! cloves garlic, minced

...I add a few drops of Liquid Smoke - just enough for a barely-discernable subtle smoky taste, to add a bit of depth and complement the zing of all that garlic. Mmmmm, garlic...

As with ghost phoneme above, a piece of equipment that simplifies the process of making aioli for me is a stick/immersion blender. I add everything but the oil to a tall container, blend until the garlic is well-pulverized, then keep the blender running as I slowly add in the oil.

Really, the hardest part is sticking the smooth creamy result in the fridge overnight to meld without just chowing down on the stuff right then and there.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:32 PM on February 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Straight Paul Newman's Light Balsamic Vinaigrette.

Unless it's the other one, which has a little yellow mustard.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:35 PM on February 29, 2020

When making a creamy mushroom sauce, a little bit of Worcestershire sauce is astonishingly awesome.
posted by Pallas Athena at 1:51 PM on February 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

I make peanut butter chocolate chip cookies with a bit of nutmeg and cinnamon (not much, just barely enough to notice it) and it's really good. :9
posted by Aleyn at 2:52 PM on February 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Toss a cardamon pod into your coffee beans before you grind them up. Unbelievable.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:06 PM on February 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

The cardamom reminded me of another one! Put a little cinnamon in your hot cocoa. (A little cayenne is also tasty.)
posted by Weeping_angel at 3:47 PM on February 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

If I'm making a tomato-based pasta sauce from scratch and not using tomato paste or canned sauce then I find adding 1/3 to 1/2 can of cambells tomato soup concentrate really brings it all together if I don't have time to let the sauce simmer for hours.
posted by some loser at 4:18 PM on February 29, 2020

I add a sweet potato to my chicken soup along with the other vegetables. Makes it a richer color and a sweeter savory taste.
posted by Mchelly at 4:27 PM on February 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Sauces are where I’m a Viking. For fries/tater tots, whatever, usually mayo, cider vinegar, black pepper, and a pleasant, but not overwhelming hot sauce. A friend gave me a bottle of hatch chili based sauce, and that was perfect. A little oregano is nice, too.

From a place I used to work, a solid spicy ranch dip (we used it for hush puppies), but given the difference between sour cream in Japan and the states (not sure of elsewhere, but sour cream in Japan is very thick), you probably could leave out the mayo, or lessen it quite a bit:

360g sour cream/mayo mix (2 parts or more sour cream to 1 part mayo)
6g granulated garlic
6g chili powder (for mild, use ancho, spicy, go with chipotle or hotter)
4g salt
1g dried parsley
1g dried dill
10ml lemon juice

You could throw some black pepper in there, too.

For any white sauce/bechamel, I put the spices in with the butter, like white pepper or whatever. Blending a whole head of roasted garlic makes your cream sauce pasta better.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:51 PM on February 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

When I'm making tomato soup, a snake of orange peel, extracted by a potato peeler, gives it a lovely undertone.

Lime juice and capsicum/pepper can be a counter intuitive combination that works quite well. Eg, fry off the peppers in a hot fry pan, add some garlic ginger and chilli then quickly add in some lime juice and then some light stock. Makes a killer sauce for firm fleshed fish.

Chinese cookery, stir fries and dumplings, for example. Often has ginger in it that can be undetectable in the final product but its absence will be felt.
posted by smoke at 4:55 PM on February 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

Secret sauce. To a sofrito that will become the base of a pasta sauce, add two or three cloves, a small star anise and nutmeg, or cinnamon. Either grind these or put them in something you can fish out later because those flavours are too unexpected in a spag bol for instance to be pleasurable as a big hard lump. They give a really nice depth/umami as long as you don't get a splintery mouthful of harsh and pungent fibre.
posted by glasseyes at 5:21 PM on February 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

At family holiday get-togethers my dad would always bring his famous apple pie. After he died I wanted to continue his tradition and share his pie at any Thanksgiving or Christmas get-together I went to.

I called my mom to get the recipe and she recited it off the top of her head, but she said: "you must get the Pillsbury pie crusts from the refrigerator section."

OK, fine. I went to the grocery store to pick up all the ingredients. When I got to the refrigerator section I found the box of pie crusts and added them to my cart.

While I was standing in line waiting to pay I compared the Pillsbury apple pie recipe from the crust box with "daddy's famous apple pie" recipe and they were identical.
posted by bendy at 6:37 PM on February 29, 2020 [11 favorites]

Tandoori Masala and Berbere blend from Frontier Co-Op. Making eggs? Put Berbere blend in it. Making vegetables? Put Berbere blend in it. Making curry? Put Berbere blend in it. If it's a little bland, if it needs to be jeujed up a bit, put Berbere blend or Tandoori Masala in it.

I was sick this week, and the first day I felt well enough to eat, I wanted nothing but chicken noodle soup. I'm vegetarian, so I don't do chicken noodle, but I made a soup with a basic onion-celery-carrot base, egg noodles, then turmeric because of a friend who swears by turmeric for colds, a GIANT glop of garlic, Better than Bouillon, lemon juice, chickpeas for protein, Tandoori Masala and some other additions from my spice cabinet. It was better than any chicken noodle soup I've ever made, with or without chicken, and I don't entirely disbelieve in its medicinal properties. I credit the giant glop of garlic.
posted by Jeanne at 7:01 PM on February 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

This is one of those "you have to try it to believe it" recipes for tuna fish.

Add some mayo (preferably olive oil-based) to a can of tuna fish but go easy on it. Then add a combination of finely chopped up onion and dill pickle, then salt & pepper to taste.

Then the secret ingredient: a few pinches of cinnamon.

So tasty you can eat it by itself. It's the only way I can eat tunafish anymore actually, but like I said, you have to try it to believe it.
posted by jeremias at 7:21 PM on February 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Chicken soup is delicious, but can be a bit bland. Add some browned chorizo and some sauteed kale. Both sausage and kale are Universal Soup Ingredients that enliven a broad range of soups. I add red wine to tomato sauce and beef stew, white wine to poultry gravy or risotto. Browning beef for pot roast in fragrant olive oil is excellent. None of these is very secret. I love gravy, and add a little Better Than Bouillon, stock, Marmite, so I can make the pan drippings into a lot of gravy. Maybe a little sherry if I have any.

I'm making meatloaf tomorrow; I usually add worcestershire sauce and/or steak sauce but I'm open to suggestions. Or I might make shepherd's pie. It's a carefree life, I tell ya.

Just back from potluck dinner and group viewing of Raise Hell: The Life & Times Of Molly Ivins, an then a lively discussion of politics with smart funny family of choice. I miss Ivins' voice and presence and incredible insight fiercely, and I am deeply grateful to have these particular friends.
posted by theora55 at 7:34 PM on February 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

This looks like a valuable reference thread.

I don't think it counts as a secret, but pepper jelly or sweet chili sauce on sandwiches - pretty much all sandwiches - has earned me more compliments than all the fancy, complicated things I've ever cooked. On eggy breakfast sandwiches, it's the most notable. (I also tend to throw either Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, or bitters into nearly any non-creme sauce I make. I'm not entirely convinced it makes a difference.)

My mom's secret (which a quick google search suggests was not at all a secret) was putting grape jelly in meatball sauce. I've never actually done it, 'cause I've never cooked meatballs. But, I can believe it works.

Marinating a Chicken with equal parts of everything in my fridge would be unlikely to turn out well. Though, I'd be game to try it, as a game, with appropriate company. (I'm guessing it'll mostly taste like hot sauce and mustard.) Maybe we can add a "stuff that isn't more than 5 years old" rule?
posted by eotvos at 8:14 PM on February 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Wine or whisky. Not in the food; that would be a waste. But if you drink it while you are cooking, the meal will taste 100% more delicious.
posted by lollusc at 8:15 PM on February 29, 2020 [6 favorites]

But if you drink it while you are cooking, the meal will taste 100% more delicious.

This trick also works with some early-onset psychedelics, although you have to eat fairly quickly before things turn ... Nyarlathotep'ish.
posted by aramaic at 8:41 PM on February 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Balsamic vinegar is amazing. Especially if you are converting a meat recipe into something vegetarian, like bolognese or ragout or something, adding balsamic a bit before it's done adds and enhances all the umami flavours and makes it taste meaty somehow. It is also good with the meat versions.

Since developing an explosive intolerance for garlic and onion, reading this thread makes me sad about all the things I can't have anymore, and also gives me a renewed wariness around eating things other people prepare since garlic and onion are just such staples in everything. At the same time, since much of what I know how to cook and have cooked for years relies on garlic and onion, I don't really cook much anymore. Would love to hear about other flavour enhancers - not chilli (which I don't like much) or coriander/cilantro, which ew.
posted by Athanassiel at 8:43 PM on February 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Divulged to my Bunco group by the hostess who was taught this by her Guadalajaran mother-in-law: need refried beans in a hurry? Saute crumbled tube soyrizo* and minced or grated onion until warm/soft and then heat canned beans in that.

*MIL specifically said soyrizo gets you all the flavor without making the beans too greasy, which I have confirmed, plus "chorizo is nasty", which I have also confirmed. I have used the soyrizo method on homemade beans, too, and there really is something about the seasoning in the commercial product that's difficult to replicate at home.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:53 PM on February 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

converting a meat recipe into something vegetarian

I've recently started looking into this, because (a) I have friends I often eat with who are vegetarian so I'm trying to up my game beyond simply "make x but without meat", and (b) I could stand to eat less meat myself. I'm no expert by any means, but I have so far learned that mushroom powder/dried mushrooms, nutritional yeast, kombu, miso, soy sauce, and/or tomato paste (introduced with the sauteed sofrito/mirepoix and cooked down until it's rust/brick colored) can be used in various combinations to produce non-meat-based umami. I'm sure there are additional techniques, but I'm finding it a good starting point for experimenting further.

In fact, tomorrow I'm going to try making a vegetable soup that will include some of the above ingredients and will also feature smoked butternut squash...wish me luck.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:17 PM on February 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Athanassiel: hing (asafoetida) will be your new best friend. Smells like cow farts when raw, but cooks into a glorious mild onion flavour. Not an allium, so you should be okay.

Secrets? Butter in the porridge, molasses in the chili
posted by scruss at 9:26 PM on February 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Most of mine are secret flavor combinations (raw beet/lime juice, ginger/rosemary, apple/green chiles, bitter citrus like grapefruit or blood orange/salt and smoke, dino kale/sherry vinegar, cherry/jalapeño, etc.). I always throw a handful of cacao powder into chili and a handful of nutritional yeast into soup stock. Onions caramelized slowly with lemon juice improve everything and it’s hard for people to place them. And my typical salad has like thirty different flowers and herbs and greens in it, which pleases and confuses people.
posted by centrifugal at 9:34 PM on February 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

I hear a lot of people saying to spread mayo on outside of the bread before grilling when making grilled cheese sandwiches

Only way I make grilled cheese now.

I revealed the secret previously but replace half the water in bannock with flat 7-Up to take it to the next level.
posted by Mitheral at 9:42 PM on February 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Butter in the porridge, molasses in the chili

Chicken's in the bread pan picking out dough
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:48 PM on February 29, 2020 [11 favorites]

Zehnder's chicken seasoning

Oh yes. Prolly one of the best. Cumin in Chili but don't cook it in the meat. Kern's sausage in Frankenmuth, were the Zehnders comes from, has the best Landjäger in the country. These are great for toothpick snacks.
Eggs Benedict. Just make the sauce fresh restaurants that don't. And no green on top unless specified and I'll only put crisp smokey bacon as a sub for the Philistines.

Always great nutmeg for French toast.

posted by clavdivs at 10:05 PM on February 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

raw beet/lime juice, ginger/rosemary, apple/green chiles, bitter citrus like grapefruit or blood orange/salt and smoke, dino kale/sherry vinegar, cherry/jalapeño

Ooh, most of those would make excellent tasty glazes for BBQ ribs!
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:13 PM on February 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

I was too tired to respond last night. Sigh. But reading all the additional posts this morning, I am going to be in a cooking frenzy!

I am going to ride the balsamic vinegar train too. I made up/stole a recipe for chicken soup long ago. We all had horrible colds, no one was eating and misery abounded. I had a chicken and proceeded to toss in every thing that seemed helpful into the boiling pot..onions, GARLIC, veggies. This was for the broth stage. The alliums went into the pot with skins on. Simmered for a couple hours, and started tasting. Lightly salted, and yum. I scooped out the chicken, falling apart, to cool. Put the nearly dissolved veggies in a food mill and added the puree to the strained broth. Tasted. Good but hmmm, needed something. Dug around in the cupboard. Have a bottle of balsamic vinegar that was hanging around for salads. Smelled it, and voila'! Splashed a glug into the pot, stirred and that touch of acid richness was the trick. I actually put the picked clean bones in another pot with some of the broth, added another tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and simmered it another hour. Skip to next day, added fresh chopped carrots, celery, ...cut up chicken. We ate it simple and it was wonderful! As everyone started feeling better, I added noodles. I think it saved our lives.
posted by LaBellaStella at 4:11 AM on March 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

A little sprinkle of salt on hot chocolate is amazing. I saw it once on, ahem, Modern Family, and had to give it a go.
posted by arcticwoman at 8:18 AM on March 1, 2020

Wine or whisky. Not in the food; that would be a waste. But if you drink it while you are cooking, the meal will taste 100% more delicious.

Not a secret ingredient, but this is how I used to get my aunt to relax and help me cook when I was living with her, and it's great if you're cooking with someone who is anxious or has trouble with some level of OCD that is triggered by making a mess in the kitchen: "hey, let's have a drink while we get started!" and then I would get started while she had the drink, and by the time she'd gotten a little into it and it was starting to kick in, I was having fun and she could relax and have fun with me.

For secret ingredients, most of my tricks center around that I have multiple food allergies - they're workarounds, like coconut aminos for soy sauce, chickpea miso for things that want miso, and I found a vegan seaweed-based mayo for, uh, mayo.

For spice tricks, I usually add cardamom and ginger to anything that wants cinnamon, and to throw some cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves in with black tea while it's steeping. For curry, I often add a little thyme, especially for Caribbean-style curries. Asafoetida is great for folks who can't have onions or garlic, as noted above.
posted by bile and syntax at 9:18 AM on March 1, 2020

a little cocoa powder in the marinara

I know I'm not the only one who does this, but enough of my acquaintances have been surprised when I've mentioned it: cocoa powder is an excellent ingredient in chili as well. Except I usually put in more than a little.
posted by egregious theorem at 10:51 AM on March 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

I forgot about asafoetida. When I was starting to have problems a friend of mine suggested that, so next time I was in an Indian grocery I found a jar and innocently cracked the lid for a sniff, then promptly wished I could turn my nose inside out and scrub it with bleach. That not being an option, I found some wrapped jasmine soap and inhaled it repeatedly until the horror had abated somewhat. I'm aware the taste of it changes when cooked, but I would have to have it in the house. Shudder. I am bordering on being a super-smeller and have to wrap smelly things (ones I like, but don't want to smell all the time) and put them in air-tight containers in order to stop smelling them from two rooms away. No thanks, would rather eat soylent forever.
posted by Athanassiel at 12:18 PM on March 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

In a pot of oatmeal porridge intended for two, I use a couple of tablespoons of pepitas, sunflower seeds, and pecans toasted in a cast-iron frying pan, then semi-crushed in a mortar. I make up a pint or so of this mixture every couple of weeks and keep it in the fridge -- and seconding scruss, I like a slice of butter in porridge.
posted by Agave at 6:11 PM on March 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

I forgot about asafoetida

It's not easy to forget. I used to triple-wrap mine: the container, in a ziplock, inside a small mason jar, inside a larger mason jar. Even then you'd occasionally pick up a barnyard note.
posted by scruss at 8:06 PM on March 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

For a long time I have made a habit of adding a couple of tablespoons of barbecue sauce to soups and stews if I'm worried they might be a little on the meh side; it's got a good acid+sweet+complex spice profile going on that will add a little depth without being front and center. And more recently, I have been adding about a quarter cup of pureed kimchi to things like spaghetti sauce for a an umami kick.
posted by drlith at 8:23 PM on March 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

Break up hamburger into a layer of worms, sprinkle with curry powder, toss to coat evenly, make patties. Too much and the drippy juice turns greenish.

A sprinkle of ponzu on a plain-ass-fastfood burger makes it much better.

Wasabi makes almost anything sandwich like just a bit better. Mix it in with the mayo to get an even spread because you only need a little dab.

You can freeze a thin layer of vinegar (balsamic) in a shallow loaf pan and then scrape it with a fork to make little icy vinegar bits that you can sprinkle over things like fries or sandwiches to get even coverage. Tangy crystals!
posted by zengargoyle at 11:13 PM on March 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Regarding my previous comment about vegetable soup: It came out amazing, to the point that some of the attending otherwise-staunch meat eaters actually preferred it to the (truly awesome, if I do say so myself) smoked-turkey-based one I also made! I couldn't have asked for higher praise. #MissionAccomplished
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:34 PM on March 1, 2020

The mayonnaise on grilled cheese thing is definitely a personal taste. I've only tried it once, but the result was throwing most of our sandwiches in the garbage. Cheers to those who like it, but it's definitely in the "bone marrow on toast" category of culinary experiences that some people love and other people only eat when struggling to be polite. (Maybe that applies to everything.)
posted by eotvos at 8:38 AM on March 2, 2020

I found the mayo grilled cheese thing to be barely different from normal grilled cheese, but it's the unsettling conceptual hurdle of cooked mayonnaise that will keep me from trying it again.

IMO people who enthuse about this method just aren't using enough butter, which is to say, what would seem at first glance to be a dramatically unwise amount of butter.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:56 AM on March 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

Roughly similar to cocoa powder, I've been having great success putting a spoon of instant coffee into roast-like things' sauces.
posted by PMdixon at 2:28 PM on March 2, 2020

Anything that needs a bit of umami gets a dollop of Worcestershire sauce and/or Tabasco.

To take the edge off tomato sauce people mostly use sugar but I've used "malt extract" (I'm guessing it's mostly maltose syrup after googling for a translation) ever since a bottle was present in the kitchen cupboard while I was making pizza. It's now the official "secret ingredient" in our household.
posted by Harald74 at 4:34 AM on March 3, 2020

I prefer using cinnamon or nutmeg in tomato sauce for a subtler subduing/rounding effect.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:32 AM on March 3, 2020

Dried porcini mushroom and balsamic. In loads of stuff like bolognaise, beef shank, etc.

Lemon zest is also a wonderful add in for many dishes.
posted by snofoam at 10:50 AM on March 3, 2020

Also, duck fat. But that’s as a replacement for some other fat, not as an additional ingredient.
posted by snofoam at 10:52 AM on March 3, 2020

Tomato-based homemade pasta sauce. We all know the 24 ounce can of high quality whole peeled tomatoes you crush with your hands. Also you have already lightly sautéed ALL THE GARLIC. (If Carnivore properly seasoned with S&P is already in the pan with ALL THE GARLIC).

Here is my secret. Forget everything you have heard about Basil (delicious but not here). Freshly ground Fennel Seed, Sage and a smoosh of Butter. You’re welcome. Elbow-bumps to all.
posted by pipoquinha at 11:43 AM on March 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

My stars snofaoam I forgot the mushrooms In Pasta Sauce. Way to go on the reminder.
posted by pipoquinha at 11:48 AM on March 3, 2020

I don't put ketchup in my chicken stock, but I do find that stewing a tomato or two in the stock seems to clarify it nicely. And it adds a touch of sweetness and acidity that brings the flavor up a notch.
posted by sjswitzer at 12:23 PM on March 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Morita chiles. What a glorious thing.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:56 PM on March 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Sweet Miso Paste. My gamechanger was adding it to black beans. If I'm making beans from scratch or from a can, I always saute up onions, garlic, chilies and add cooked black beans to this and boil down the liquid a bit. Then I add some miso paste right at the end. I add minimum 1 tablespoon and go from there.
posted by vivzan at 2:43 PM on March 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Morita chiles. What a glorious thing.

Chipotle meca even more so, if you can find them.

Morita are red (ripened) jalapenos lightly smoked; meca are green (unripe) jalapenos smoked longer, until they end up looking like wrinkled cigar butts. Sooo good!
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:05 PM on March 3, 2020

People look at me funny when I suggest this, but:

--mince some strawberries, they don't have to be amazing quality
--combine with balsamic vinegar and black pepper.

It is a very delicious relish that goes well with toast and smoked cheese. Balsamic + black pepper is also really good in homemade strawberry jam.

Also, you can swap plain yogurt for sour cream in baked macaroni and cheese or onion soup dip and it cuts the fat by a third and tastes pretty much exactly the same. Making your own white sauce with sautéed mushrooms as a replacement for canned soup is also amazing, if you haven't tried it, and so much more pleasant because it's so much less salty.
posted by blnkfrnk at 2:05 PM on March 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

Red Boat fish sauce. I roasted some broccoli after specifically being told by my partner that they didn't want any, so could let my own conscious loose, put a bunch of that stuff on them and it was glorious! Later they came by to tell me that those were the best broccoli they'd had, what was the secret, and telling them it was fish sauce (something they ofter avoid or try and limit the amount of) and watching the jaw drop was great.
posted by Carillon at 3:22 PM on March 4, 2020

Two possibilities to add umami to whatever you’re makin’, if animal products aren’t off the menu for any of a million reasons:
A little tin of anchovies, or, if that’s gonna make it too fishy,
Pan-fry some chicken livers (or sautee in butter or coconut oil or whatever) and cut ‘em up. Chicken livers in a red pasta sauce that you aren’t adding sausage or beef to for whatever reason can be just marvelous. Probably also really good in chili.

Also, I put ground coriander seed and/or allspice in just about anything to add a touch of “background noise”.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 9:48 AM on March 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

I hear a lot of people saying to spread mayo on outside of [you know what] when making grilled cheese sandwiches

FTFY, if you know what I mean.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:40 PM on March 5, 2020

But otherwise, porcini mushroom powder for instant umami in almost any savoury dish.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:42 PM on March 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

Or Vegemite.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:42 PM on March 5, 2020

Soy sauce is also a good umami booster. (Also a salt booster of course, so maybe reduce other added salt in the recipe if you're doing that.) A shot or two of soy sauce added to a beef stroganoff recipe makes it transcendent.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:52 AM on March 6, 2020

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