These not-so-secret ingredients will transform your home cooking in seconds.

By Maki Yazawa
July 31, 2020
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Remember when you'd dine at a restaurant and leave wondering how on earth their food always seems to taste a million times better than what you make at home? Aside from fancy knife skills and the ability to easily flip an egg in a pan, chefs rely on a selection of ingredients to enhance flavors and add umami that will leave you craving more. Here are 12 common ingredients that will transform your ordinary pantry into a chef’s paradise

Let’s get the obvious choice out of the way first: chefs simply cannot live without their favorite salt and pepper as key ingredients for the majority of their cooking. However, not all salts and peppers are created equal and differences in method of harvesting or where they come from affects flavor, texture, and purpose. Most chefs will agree that a coarse sea salt or kosher salt (like Diamond Crystal), a quality finishing salt (like Maldon salt), and freshly-ground black pepper (like Tellicherry) are all you’ll ever really need. Translation: there's no need to spend tons of money on overpriced “fancy” salt and pepper.

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This secret ingredient has the power to make a good dish even better with its umami-boosting effects. Whether you’re using canned anchovy fillets or anchovy paste, the briny, saltiness of this ingredient helps fortify flavors without overpowering the main components of the dish. If the thought of using this tiny type of fish in your cooking makes you feel a bit intimidated, you’ll be surprised (and perhaps relieved) to find out that once cooked, they essentially melt away and oftentimes go undetected in your completed meal. You can also thank anchovies for the crave-worthy flavor of one of your favorite go-to salads: Caesar salad.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is another key source of umami due to its natural glutamates, an amino acid found in protein-containing foods like cheese, milk, mushrooms, meat, and fish. Though pricey, you won’t regret splurging on high-quality, authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano made in Italy. Aside from its great taste, Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano consists of only three simple ingredients: milk, salt, and rennet (a natural enzyme). This cheese will turn your good bowl of pasta into a great one and you can even use the leftover rinds to flavor broth, soups, or your classic tomato sauce. 

RELATED: Here’s the Difference Between Asiago, Romano, and Parmesan Cheese

Grown in the volcanic soil at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, these iconic plum tomatoes are best known for their sweet flavor and low acidity, making them ideal for creating perfectly balanced sauces. This fruity tomato also has fewer seeds, is easy to peel, and is meatier than most comparable tomatoes. You’ll definitely want to stock up on these delicious and reliable canned tomatoes for the next time you’re hosting pizza night.

Ghee is highly clarified butter that is made by melting butter and then separating the liquid fats from the milk solids. Because of the lack of water, ghee has a higher smoking point than regular butter, making it perfect for cooking at higher temperatures without burning. Best of all, you can make ghee at home by simmering butter and removing the milk solids that separate as the water evaporates, leaving behind a clear-golden oil perfect for dipping lobster, frying eggs, or searing steak.  

RELATED: What Is Ghee? Plus, How to Cook With It 

Perhaps the most versatile ingredient, this superfood is a must-have kitchen staple you should keep in your fridge at all times. The not-so-humble egg can be cooked in just about every way imaginable (fried, poached, scrambled, and so on), can be used to stabilize a homemade mayo, make royal icing from scratch, and act as an emulsifier for your baking needs. Most recipes call for eggs, so chances are they won’t ever go to waste.

Though on their own they may appear to be a boring leaf with minimal flavor, they have a surprising ability to infuse broths with a subtle (yet highly pleasant) minty and peppery taste when cooked. Elevate your stocks, soups, and sauces with a couple of dried bay leaves that will impart a stronger aromatic flavor the longer your dish simmers. Just be sure to remove the leaves after cooking, as they do not disintegrate or soften with heat and would be unpleasant to consume.

An important component of a well-balanced dish is the addition of acid. A small amount of lemon brightens and freshens dishes by balancing flavors and cutting fats. Don’t waste the rinds and use the zest to give baked goods the necessary boost of flavor it may need.

As mentioned, acid adds lift to your dishes. You won’t regret having a well-stocked pantry with a variety of vinegars that will help elevate your cooking game instantly. Depending on the dish you are making, you may want to reach for a more neutral acid, like apple cider vinegar, to add a fruity kick to your dressing. You can also use a sweeter one, like rice wine vinegar, for an Asian-style stir-fry.

A good quality olive oil is an essential staple that will heavily affect the taste of your dish. Chefs are adamant about using a flavorful olive oil that will serve as a strong foundation for a recipe without leaving an overpowering aftertaste. Despite being exceptionally versatile, olive oil has a relatively low smoke point and can burn or turn bitter if overcooked. Thus, you will also want to stock your pantry with a neutral flavored oil such as canola for grilling or cooking methods that require higher temperatures.

Just about everyone is obsessed with ketchup, but did you know chefs actually use it for more than just topping french fries? Tomato ketchup is a great source of umami due to its sweet, salty, and acidic ingredients. Most commonly it is used for flavoring meat sauces, BBQ sauces, and other sweet-and-tangy recipes like Thousand Island dressing.

It is no coincidence as to why the best desserts often have chocolate. Chocolate is rich in umami and is the perfect base for building desserts due to its bitter, sour, and rich taste. That being said, chocolate is not only great for dessert. Use your favorite ingredient to make authentic Mexican mole sauce or mix it into your chili for added depth in flavor. Don’t worry, we won’t judge you if you sneak in a little chocolate snack break while you cook!