You just finished a delicious dinner at a friend’s house and you feel in love with a dish somebody made. You just gotta eat it again. You politely ask for the recipe which they’re happy to share with you and you can’t wait to cook it at home. The day comes. You follow the recipe EXACTLY but it tastes just a lil off. You can’t quite put your finger on it and even triple check the recipe but still… something’s missing. Whatever took the dish from average to exceptional is gone. Most people might chalk this up to some shortcoming in the kitchen; some fault of theirs as a cook. But most likely you’ve fallen victim to one of the oldest tricks in the book: the secret ingredient.
When you cook for yourself one of the most amazing things that happens is you sharpen your palate with time and practice. Basically, you hafta learn how to truly taste things, pick out flavors, identify what’s lacking, so you can make the best tasting food for you. We’ll get into techniques for improving your palate in a future newsletter but once you’ve got that down, you notice how often the food you eat has secret ingredients. Your aunt gives you her recipe for her famous braised greens and even though you know you tasted some motherfuckin nutmeg in there, it’s not written anywhere on the recipe she gave you. People do this all the time, particularly to family. They might have worked hard to develop a signature dish and they don’t want to share it but can’t say that without seeming like a total asshole. Sneaky but understandable. That’s why grandma’s cookies can’t be replicated; she never wanted them to be. She wanted to go out as Cookie Queen™️ of the family and she was willing to fib to make it happen. It’s an iconic move.
Other times, like when we do it, it’s because we tend to add a couple of the same things to dishes when they need just a little bit of something and we don’t think of it as a real part of the recipe. So this week we thought we’d compile a list of some of our favorite secret ingredients that you can use in your kitchen to improve the taste of your favorite savory meals. But remember this is just between us and the thousands of other subscribers here in The Broiler Room. So shhhh
Citric Acid- We love adding this to food in three main ways: lemon juice, lime juice, and straight up crystallized citric acid AKA sour salt. If you’re tasting a dish and it isn’t *quite* there, reach for an acid before you reach for salt. This is one of the biggest differences between home cooked meals and restaurant dishes: acid. Fresh lemon and lime juice are great and super easy to drizzle over dishes that are tasting flat. Vinegars are fabulous too. But our real favorite is crystalized citric acid. You can buy this in bulk online or in the vitamin section of some stores and it’s very affordable. Seriously, it's cheap as shit and since you only use a little at a time, it’ll last you awhile. Usually used in food for its qualities as a preservative, a sprinkle of citric acid in a pot of rice before it’s cooked or after adds a certain something that people can’t quite put their finger on. Toss it along with some salt on potatoes before you roast them. Add it to your favorite sauces and use it with some salt to rim your margaritas. We use it on almost everything and we fucking swear, you will too.
Nutritional Yeast- Yes, everyone knows nooch adds a great cheesy taste to food but just a tablespoon or two adds a great umami quality to dishes without a distracting cheesy taste. If something needs a more depth of flavor, try a little nooch. We love this for soups when they need something extra at the end to make ’em taste more complex. It’ll disappear into the broth and no one will know why your dish is so damn tasty. You can find nooch near the spices or in the bulk bins at most well-stocked grocery stores. But if you’ve been cooking along with us for awhile, you should already have that shit in your pantry.
Bragg Liquid Aminos- Like its cousin soy sauce, this brown salty liquid brings more than just sodium to the table. While we love tamari and soy sauce, we find that Braggs can disappear a little better into the background of your food and elevate the dish without being immediately identifiable. This makes it a great secret ingredient. A splash or two will add a depth and umami to your food making it extra craveable with hardly any effort. Add it to food that is still being cooked since a little heat really makes it do its job even better. We use it in sauces, soups, and sautéed veggies that need a little love. But remember, it does contain sodium so don’t go fuckin crazy. You’ll find this near the soy sauce or vinegars at the grocery store.
Ground Sumac- If you’re following along in our Salad Bootcamp, you already know our love of ground sumac. But this dried berry deserves a place in your secret ingredient drawer. A little lemony, a little smokey, and with a bright red color, a sprinkle of this in some of your dishes just takes them to a whole other level. We love sumac sprinkled on hummus, tossed on some veggies on a crudité platter, in a pasta salad, sprinkled over veggies or burgers right off the grill. People won’t know what the fuck you did and you get the bonus of adding a little extra color to your food too. You can find it near the spices or at a grocer with a focus on middle eastern foods.
Ume Plum Vinegar- This is absolutely the hardest thing to find on this list by far but if you see this shit BUY IT. BUY LOTS OF IT. It’s not expensive and a little goes a long way but even in Los Angeles we’ve had to give up and buy it online. It’s the salty brine left over from pickling umeboshi AKA Japanese green plums. It’s fully addictive. It tastes more like a salty liquid than any type of vinegar you’ve ever had. It disappears into whatever you add it to elevating every flavor and will make people wonder why the fuck your food always tastes better than theirs. Yeah, it's salty but it also brings a buttload (technical term) of umami to the table. Sprinkle a little over roasted veggies as they come out of the oven, add it to soup, over salad, in sauce, mac and cheese, literally everywhere. A light sprinkle of this mixed into your saddest, laziest dinner will suddenly make it fucking delicious. We never put it in our recipes because it can be hard to find but trust us, it ends up in so much of our food. This is the ultimate secret ingredient.
If you love cooking secrets, you gotta join our paid supporters only club here in The Broiler Room. Not only do you get a top secret recipe each week that are only for members but we’re rolling out some new perks in the coming weeks like discussion threads where we can talk food and y’all can ask us whatever questions are burning in your minds. It’s only $5 a month which is $2 cheaper than a fucking gallon of gas rn. THAT’S VALUE BABYYY.
Thanks again for supporting us. We appreciate the hell out of all of you. If you like what you’re reading, tell a friend. We’ve got room at the table for everybody who wants to eat like they give a fuck.
Michelle and Matt
Now that I've acquired the ume plum vinegar, maybe could y'all share a recipe that uses it? Even just a footnote: "If you've followed instructions and have a bottle of ume plum vinegar in your kitchen, this is a great place to use it." A little specific direction might encourage me to actually open the bottle! Thanks, and thanks for doing what you do!
That leaving out the secret ingredient thing just pisses me the F off. “It’s an iconic move.” It’s a shitty move. I look at it as a power play by the exceedingly selfish one who does it and they can go suck rotten eggs for eternity when they finally leave this mortal coil.
That’s why I write stuff down. If I hit on a really good thing, I take notes. I weigh stuff. I take more notes. I re-write recipes.
But above all – WRITE IT DOWN. Mom’s cole slaw and baked beans are gone forever because she didn’t write it down. Her potato salad, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti sauce, turkey soup, bean soup. I wish I had those recipes. It makes me both sad and mad. Sad because they’re just … gone. Sad because they can’t be duplicated and I can’t ever have them again. Mad because she didn’t write them down and mad at myself because back then I didn’t care enough to bother. Maybe I liked them so well because she made them and it’s just melancholic nostalgia and a little grief adding to the memories.
But I still wish I had those recipes.
This list of secret ingredients? Already I know I’ll have to order everything online except the Bragg’s. We live in a rural area (Amish country) and there’s stuff I just can’t get here. And I don’t really want to drive 30 miles or more to try and find it. Then get mad because I can’t.
Like when your first book came out. Smoked paprika? Never heard of it. Never saw it before. Had to order online. NOW the one (of two) grocery stores here carries it. We’re very lucky to have two grocery stores. Next closest ones are over twenty miles away.
The Lasagna Stew? I had everything but trumpet noodles and fennel seeds. The first store did not have any. I’d resigned myself to ordering fennel seed online, but bought Mafalda noodles. I took a chance and drove over to the second store. They had fennel seeds. No trumpet noodles. I looked at that as a Valentine’s Day miracle.
So I’m glad you wrote down your secret ingredients and how you use them. I’ve got the Bragg’s and the nooch. Guess I’ll try the other stuff.