One of the greatest things about cooking is that no matter how advanced you are, there are always things to experiment with and to learn in the kitchen. There are so many creative ways to use different ingredients to upgrade and enhance your favorite recipes. So I browsed through the subreddit r/cooking and pulled together a list of seemingly simple (yet totally) smart cooking "cheat codes" that people swear by for success in the kitchen.
1. "A tiny amount of tarragon in french fries (frozen or homemade) is my secret upgrade. You don't want to use so much tarragon that you get flecks of green on every fry, but sprinkle just enough to get the aroma. People usually have a hard time figuring out why my fries taste so good."
2. "Dry roux. A couple years ago I stumbled upon something called dry roux, which is basically what you make by baking flour in the oven and stirring regularly until it’s a light brown color. It can replace the 45-minute process of making a dark roux for gumbo. I’ve found myself using it constantly. For example, the other night I made brown gravy, and it wasn’t quite thick enough so I added a tablespoon of the dry roux, and it thickened perfectly. Plus it added a deep nutty flavor that a blonde roux doesn’t have. I use it in soups, stews, and really anything that you need to thicken."
3. "Nutmeg in mac 'n' cheese, or really whenever you're making a white sauce. A dash of nutmeg immediately elevates it. I can't believe I used to make mac 'n' cheese without it."
4. "Cumin. It's my go-to secret ingredient in so many recipes. Need to elevate chicken and noodles? Add cumin. Want to add depth to that taco seasoning? Cumin. I still use my fair share of salt, pepper, onion and garlic powder, too, but cumin is the added savory element that makes people ask, 'Yum, what's in this?' It's an all-purpose spice of savory cooking."
5. "I love cooking with sun-dried tomatoes, the ones packed with olive oil and Italian spices. I save the olive oil once the sun-dried tomatoes are gone and use it for my homemade Italian recipes. For example, ground beef fried in this leftover tomato oil is amazing."
6. "Capers. I always put capers in recipes that can benefit from a little extra salt like tuna salad. They take the place of kosher salt, add so much flavor, and make it so yummy."
7. "Rice vinegar. If a recipe calls for soy sauce, I pretty much always add rice vinegar (even if it's not explicitly called for). It adds the perfect amount of acidity, and I swear, it takes dishes like fried rice to the next level."
8. "Instant mashed potatoes. I recently bought them for the first time. I added chopped bacon, extra seasoning, and butter, and it was so delicious. I would have thought it was made from scratch if someone else served it to me. I cannot believe how powdered potatoes could turn into something so good. As a lazy cook, I am already ready to buy 10 more packs! These $1 instant mashed potatoes are so much better than some I’ve eaten at restaurants."
9. "Fish sauce goes into just about anything saucy or soupy I make. People assume it packs an overpowering fishiness, but whenever I cook with fish sauce, it usually ends with people saying, 'Wow, this is the best chicken soup I've had.'
10. "MSG — particularly when used to make roasted chicken. I find that when I coat the skin of my chicken with a mix of salt and MSG, it creates a great golden color and helps achieve a ridiculously crispy texture."
11. "Za'atar seasoning. It really goes with anything savory. I like it with eggs, but I’ve seen it go in chimichurri recipes, on fried chicken, in tomato sauce for shakshuka, as a seasoning for fish, or paired with bread dipping."
12. "Balsamic vinegar. It's my go-to for any dish that feels like it 'needs something.' I even add a little drizzle to my desserts, especially if I feel that they taste too sweet. A little balsamic really cuts the sweetness and adds some depth."
13. "Chopped chipotle peppers in adobo. Specifically whenever I'm making something with ground meat (like tacos), I make sure to mix in some of these peppers. It gives it a smoky heat that takes it to another level."
14. "Heavy cream. I’m probably preaching to the choir, but sometimes I forget just how darn tasty heavy cream makes anything taste. For lunch, I was warming up some leftover veggie soup. It was good as is, but added a little splash of heavy cream while it was reheating on the stove. It quickly became on of the best soups I had in a while. This stuff is magical!"
15. "Store-bought onion soup mix. Once upon a time I turned my nose up at the idea of this cooking 'cheat.' But I've realized that a pot roast made with a packet of onion soup mix is terrific. You could spend an hour caramelizing onions, but some days you just need to take the easy route. It'll taste just as good, if not better."
16. "A little creamy peanut butter thickens many sauces (similar to how you might use a roux). It adds a complex toasted umami component to the flavor. Just don't overdo it."
17. "Miso paste. There's so much you can do with it. I whip it with butter and spread it on vegetables, especially sugar snap peas, haricots verts, corn on the cob, and roasted eggplant. Or you can add it to things like ragu and slow-cooked tomato sauce. Finally, I love using miso in salad dressing. It pairs with tons of different flavors like ginger, citrus, sesame oil, honey, or Sriracha. Even ranch can be transformed into a grown-up dressing with the help of some miso."
18. "I love using the leftover juice from a jar of pepperoncini peppers. I keep it in a squeeze bottle next to the stove, and I deglaze the pan with it, whisk it into scrambled eggs, or add it to my onions and peppers. It's magic."
19. "I keep caramelized onions in the freezer and add it to everything."
20. "Sumac for me. Get yourself a huge bag for like $15 and thank me later. It's lemony, salty, sweet, smoky, and earthy. I sprinkle it on toast, curry, chicken, steak, tacos, deviled eggs, or just about anything."
21. "Buttermilk. It's an underrated ingredient you can use in marinades and dressings or in just about any baked goods (breads, cakes, etc). It just adds that extra zippiness."
22. "Smoked paprika. When I want to add smoky flavor to a dish, I add it. It adds the perfect amount of smoke and spice in a way that's much more well rounded than you'd get from using liquid smoke. Liquid smoke has its applications, but it is really easy to overdo it. I can add a ton of smoked paprika to a dish, and it’s always good."
23. "Mayonnaise in baked goods. Don't be afraid to use sour cream or mayonnaise in your cake recipes. It makes them moist and helps balance the sweetness."
24. "Puréed carrots in tomato sauce. I just went to war with a group of friends who had never heard of carrots in spaghetti sauce. My family has been doing it for generations. It cuts the acid and slightly sweetens the sauce. My great-grandpa would stick a whole carrot in the sauce for cooking and then remove it for serving, but I just chop carrots up finely and add it with the onion."
25. "Sodium citrate (which is present in sliced American cheese). It turns any shredded cheese into a sauce of whatever consistency you need in five minutes. You don't have to mess with roux. Sodium citrate gives you velvety goodness."
26. "The best cooking hack I've ever learned is to add chicken stock cubes (like Better Than Bouillon) to chopped potatoes boiling in water. It will elevate the final potato dish in ways you can’t imagine."
27. "Bay leaves. Like salt, you don't want bay leaf to be the dominant flavor in anything — but the flavor makes an enormous difference in stews and pasta sauces."
28. "Toasted sesame seed oil. It adds a light nuttiness and saltiness to any dish."
29. "Anchovy fillets in oil. It adds a great, savory-meets-salty boost to almost everything. They absolutely disappear in most foods, so you don't have to worry about the texture."
What's your favorite cooking "cheat code" that provides a flavor boost or quick upgrade to whatever you're making? Tell us in the comments!
Note: Responses have been edited for length and/or clarity.