6 Secret Ingredients You Need in Your Kitchen

The Clever Cookstr shares six secret ingredients that can liven up familiar recipes and give standard dishes more mileage in the kitchen.

Kara Rota
4-minute read
Episode #7

When I think about secret ingredients, what I’m looking for are foods that I can use in quick, easy, and unexpected ways to put a spin on something I already cook comfortably and often. This week on the Clever Cookstr, I'll share my six favorite supermarket staples to transform your weeknight dinners.;

1) Miso

MisoYou probably know miso as the fermented soybean concoction from the miso soup that’s common in Japanese restaurants, but I use it at home in different ways. Miso is purchased as a thick paste with a highly concentrated flavor, lots of umami. It’s high in protein and rich in vitamins and minerals, and comes in varieties including white and red. White miso has a lighter, sweeter and more delicate flavor than red miso.

I use miso as a secret ingredient in a glaze that’s perfect for baked, broiled, or pan-seared salmon. This is so easy: mix equal parts white miso and honey, then apply the mixture in an even layer to your salmon filets. Try serving roasted sweet potatoes on the side -- they complement the salmon perfectly.

I also love blending miso into salad dressings and sauces. Miso goes especially well with tahini, mustard, lemon juice and other herbs, and you get a creamy texture without using any dairy. If you’re using miso for a sauce – it’s great in sauces for noodle dishes or proteins – mix it with just enough hot water first to thin it out before adding it to the sauce. Otherwise, it’ll be lumpy and hard to break up. A great trick, which I learned from my mom, is to spin a tablespoon of miso in the blender with a few tablespoons of hot water. Then you can add that to any sauce you’re making to create the perfect consistency.


2) Anchovies


If you’re an anchovy fan, you’re used to seeing them in Caesar dressing or eating them on pizza. But even if you think their briny, intensely salty character is overwhelming, they can actually be used in much subtler ways. I like to add them to sauces ­– when they’re cooked in slowly, they sort of melt and add a depth to the flavor that doesn’t come off as fishy at all in the finished product. In the past, I’ve added them to a marinara sauce served with chicken parm, and when I served it, nobody could figure out why it was so good. You can buy anchovy paste from the supermarket to use in your dishes, but I find that chopping them finely and mashing them a bit with the flat side of your knife does the trick.


3) Cinnamon

CinnamonSpecifically, cinnamon used in savory dishes is one of my favorite secret ingredients. We normally associate that warm spiciness with sweet dishes, apples, and pumpkin pie, but, like unsweetened chocolate, cinnamon is more versatile than you might think. Try cinnamon with lamb and pork, both proteins that also match well with fruit. You can do a lamb tagine with prunes or apricots and cinnamon. And I love adding cinnamon to chili, along with unsweetened cocoa powder. You end up with a warmth that doesn’t rely on just the spicy heat.


4) Fresh Mint


Try using mint the way you’d use fresh basil: in Italian pasta dishes and marinara sauce. The first time I tried adding fresh mint to a Spaghetti Bolognese recipe, I was hooked. Mint makes excellent pesto, too, which you can use for pasta or on chicken or fish. Mint is also a perfect addition to summertime salads and toppings for crostini: it goes well with ingredients like radishes, feta, and watercress. Especially in the summertime, mint adds the perfect hint of freshness to your favorite meals.


5) Bonji

This one might be new to you. Bonji is actually not generic, but produced by Momofuku Culinary Lab. Bonji is similar to soy sauce in that it’s a liquid seasoning, but it’s made from fermented grains like farro instead of soy beans. While it’s concentrated, it's also less salty than soy sauce. The word bonji means “essence,” and that might be the best way to describe it. For me, It has a really addictive quality – I love using it on all kinds of green vegetables, and it’s excellent in noodle dishes and with proteins like chicken. Because it has such depth of flavor, I find I don’t need to cook it into a dish – it can be added at the end of cooking, as a fresh seasoning.


6) Full-Fat Greek Yogurt

Greek YogurtOur last secret ingredient is nothing new, but I’m such a fan that I have to give it a shoutout anyway. I’m not a big fan of sour cream, but I do love probiotics, so I use Greek yogurt in pretty much everything. With tacos, nachos, in blended soups like black bean ­– anywhere you’d think of using sour cream, crème fraiche, cream cheese – think about using Greek yogurt instead. When used in cake batters, Greek yogurt creates a moist texture and allows you to cut down on the amount of butter you’re using.

So there you have it: My top six favorite secret ingredients of the moment, no longer secret. Thanks for joining us, and tune in next time on the Clever Cookstr for more tips & tricks from the kitchens of the world’s best cooks.

Miso, Anchovies, Cinnamon, Mint, and Greek Yogurt images courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Kara Rota

Kara Rota headed children’s programming at Chicago’s Green City Market and studied food politics at Sarah Lawrence College. Kara has been a featured speaker at numerous venues including Food Book Fair, the Roger Smith Food Conference, and the Brooklyn Food Conference. She has written about food for Irish America Magazine, West Side Rag, Recipe Relay, and Food + Tech Connect, and is the former Director of Editorial & Partnerships at Cookstr.com.