4 “Secret” Ingredients for More Delicious Dishes

By Linsey Knerl on 17 February 2009 (Updated 26 May 2010) 20 comments

Stocking a pantry can involve using a template list for keeping what you need on hand. Flour, sugar, and butter — we’re all aware of their purpose. It's possible that you may want to deviate from your standard checklist of shopping items, however. Check out these four uniquely affordable ingredients that can covertly jazz up your dishes for mere pennies!

Cola

We don’t drink soda at our house, and when I do indulge, I prefer the diet variety. I can’t deny, however, that my favorite childhood food memory involves my mom slow-cooking a pork roast in a pot of cola for hours. (There’s no way to describe how delicious the flavor is.) To get a handful of practical recipes for using this recession-proof product, visit All You Magazine’s collection of dishes. (It includes Cola Cake, Cola Baked Beans, and a Cola-Glazed Ham!)

Applesauce

It’s yummy as an afterschool snack, but how many adults actually incorporate it into their diet? With a simple switch-out of all the oil in a cake recipe with applesauce, you can add flavor and moisture, while cutting some of the fat. (This wonderful tutorial from The Nest tells you exactly how to do it — and when it’s best to leave the recipe as is.)

If you happen to hit a big applesauce sale (or have access to bulk cans designed for institutional purposes), you can also use applesauce in pancakes, muffins, and sauces. If you plan on using the applesauce for eating alone, you can also try your hand at DIY applesauce with this super-easy crock pot method.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Dried Potato Flakes

I’ve already listed several ways to use this very affordable ingredient. If you have access to the large bulk-bags offered by warehouse stores and co-ops, you can use them in several dishes a week! Common uses include:

  • give cream soups their “creamy” characteristics (without all the fat of real cream)
  • thickener for gravies
  • added to crumbs for frying and making meatballs and meatloaves
  • in potato breads (the bread machine loaves these!)

Beer

Even if you don’t like the taste of beer for drinking, there is an entire world of cooking and baking that includes the ingredient (and it is pretty fabulous!). In addition to soups, batters, and marinades, even the cheapest version can give a unique flavor to breads and appetizers. (I’m going to try out this Stuffed Squash Blossom recipe as soon as summer hits — I’m a huge fan of cooking blossoms.) For many high-quality dishes for beer, I recommend Beer100.com’s recipe page.

There are many more amazing substitutions and creative additions that can be made to your everyday cooking (and they don’t have to be cost a lot). For additional reading, I suggest:

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Guest's picture

Lindsey, I never thought of using the 4 items as ingredients before. I think I'm going to have to give the pancakes a try.

-Nate

Guest's picture

Great alternative ideas!

Guest's picture
gayle

Great post! I've heard about the different uses for potato flakes, but the cola has got me intrigued! It probably makes a nice glaze once it boils down.

There is a product by Tastefully Simple (tastefullysimple.com) - and no, I am not a product rep, I just like their products - called Beer Bread. All you do is dump one beer into their powdered mix. Stir and bake. You can add butter on top for a nice crust. It's delicious!! You can also use soda or other carbonated liquids, but the beer actually makes it taste good - not like beer at all. In the winter, I tried one of those "winter brew" kinds of beer. Very nice flavor.

People who like to bake could probably figure out their own recipe, but that's not me so I'll stick to the mix!

Myscha Theriault's picture

We've done the beer bread thing before, but I've always wanted to try more recipes for cheddar beer soups as a gourmet cheapie dinner option. We just opened a number 10 can of apple sauce. I've got a bunch of ice cube trays freezing, and a quart canning jar filled for on the fly baking. Thanks for the links, and also for the additional potato flakes ideas. Cool post, as usual.

Guest's picture
Kathryn

When I started reading this post, I was actually thinking to myself, "I hope she mentions beer. I hope she mentions beer."

I'm a big fan of beer in cooking. Mainly because my husband used to do some homebrewing, and he's still got a few dusty cases out in the garage of batches that did not quite work out on the drinkability scale, but can make a fine addition to a crock pot pork roast or beer-batter fish fry, for example.

Here's a great beer cheese soup that I've done several times:

http://www.recipezaar.com/Smoked-Sausage-Beer-Cheese-Soup-36672
The last time I made this one, I also added one of my personal secret ingredients: a can of diced tomatoes, an onion, and a stick of celery, frappe'd to oblivion in the blender. I add this combo to soups and stews and so on whenever possible, because both my kids won't eat onions if they see them (sacrilege!) and the younger is not keen on any vegetables whatsoever.

I've got three other secret ingredients that can kick up the flavor a notch in a lot of savory recipes: a pinch of sugar, a bit of vinegar, or or couple tablespoons of barbecue sauce (which is essentially a spicy version of the first two). Especially if you are cutting back on fat, in small amounts these ingredients act as flavor enhancers that perk up whatever other seasonings you're using.

Guest's picture
Amy

Cool ideas... I'm wondering if I could make an alfredo sauce with the potato flakes & water instead of the heavy cream. Won't help much w/ the cheese and butter though hehe.

Guest's picture
Dianna

i've found that applesauce substitution works best when it's a chocolate thing -- i make brownies using applesauce instead of oil and i truly can't tell the difference. but i tried the applesauce substitution for oatmeal cookies and they came out ... weird.

still ate 'em, though. :-)

Myscha Theriault's picture

Regarding the applesauce thing with non chocolate items, I've noticed cutting down on the amount a tad reduces the unnecessary moisture. The other thing that works, although not everyone has a source for this is homemade crabapple sauce. My friend has access to a tree near her house that produces loads of them. Talk about organic. But the main point is that this applesauce is much denser than the stuff you can buy, and it takes away that "too moist" issue that can often take place with the substitution.

Guest's picture
Guest

my grandmother's "secret indegredient" in her honey cake was coffee. i never knew about it until decades later when my sister told me.

Guest's picture
A

This will really come in handy--thanks!

Guest's picture
Kathryn

Right from the very beginning of this article, I was hoping that one of your secret ingredients would be beer!

Here are a couple of favorites that make use of the wonderful combo of beer and sausage:

http://www.recipezaar.com/Smoked-Sausage-Beer-Cheese-Soup-36672
http://www.bigoven.com/76022-Crockpot-Sausage-and-Cabbage-recipe.html
(this is a nice "stew-y" winter recipe--the caraway really takes it to a different place that your typical beef stew. I use one of my own "secret ingredients" here to replace the chicken broth in this one--a sort of homemade V-8 that involves chunking up an onion, a celery stick, and a can of diced or stewed tomatoes, and blending the bejeezus out of it. I add this to everything I can, since I've got kids who don't like to see onions in their food and I must have onions to survive.

The other trio of ingredients I sometimes add to homemade soups and stews to kick up the flavor a notch is a tablespoon or two of vinegar, or sugar, or barbecue sauce (basically a combo of the first two, plus spices). In the right amount, they don't draw attention to themselves but help enhance and carry the other flavors of the dish.

Guest's picture
beth

One of the best things I've found when using colas to cook is to hunt down the not-so-cheap sugar-based ones instead of the HFCS mass market brands. A ham cooked in Dublin Dr. Pepper or Jones cola makes *the best* glaze!

I'll definitely have to remember the potato flakes thing. I hate dumping too much flour or cornstarch in to thin gravy and I'll bet that would fix it fast.

Guest's picture

The potato flake trick is a favorite one of mine!

Plain nonfat yogurt is one of my secret staples-- like applesauce, it can be substituted for some of the butter or oil in recipes. Plus, it's a great base for dips!

Guest's picture
Gayle

It's been awhile, but has anyone tried that supposed Weight Watchers trick of making cake with soda? I tried it once... it had a bit of a cola aftertaste, and came out a little fudgy like a brownie. But not too bad. Supposedly zero calories if you use diet soda.

You use one box of chocolate cake mix and one can of cola. Or a vanilla cake with a lemon-lime soda.

Mix and bake as per directions. Do not add any eggs, oil or other ingredients.

Linsey Knerl's picture

My cousin makes it often, and I find it tasty!  The recipe at All You is similar (leave out the frosting for a more sensible dessert.)  I wouldn't have known it was made with soda if she hadn't told me!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Salt

If its a meat product, it can probably benefit from a marinade that contains sugar in a good quantity, and acid. (Which is why the coca cola works out, though they use disgusting high fructose corn syrup in coke now). I generally prefer to get my acid from a combo of vinegar, lemon, and lime juices. For a more gourmet taste - slightly dilute it with the other secret ingredients - wine and or / soy sauce.

Other interesting sources of acid: Orange juice. Orange juice is a fantastic acid for things like grilled chicken, in particular when the chicken is marinaded in something spicy (say habanero peppers), again, be sure to add sugar and your other spices. The sugar is important as it acts as a meat tenderizer.

One of my other favorites to add is mustard. This can be any type of mustard, though I prefer dijon. Honey in a small amount can add to dishes which are very spicy, and has a subtle different taste than sugar in them. Honey isn't cheap though.

Using a better quality of salt can also help. I don't use a lot of salt, but when I do, I prefer kosher salt. It has a very clean taste.

Coffee can be used to give chicken and turkey a slightly smoked taste, and adds a very nice dark color. You can baste with it, or apply it in a rub that sits for an hour before you put it in the oven.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Kudos on these tips.  I know that there is a reason for why these ingredients work so well... and the background on why is super-handy!  Thanks!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Keesha

If you're just starting to use applesauce in recipes, try replacing half the fat with it the first time. If you're happy with the way that turns out, gradually increase the ratio of applesauce to fat each time you make it. I find that my family eats most recipes better if they still have a small amount of oil/butter. I also agree with Myscha that if you can get a homemade applesauce it seems to work better. I wonder if simmering or slow-cooking a commercial variety until it thickens might yield better results? Might be worth trying...

Guest's picture

Will have to try the Cola some time. My friend bakes chicken in a mixture of Sprite and canned mushroom soup and it comes out great.

Torley Wong's picture

I was staggering around the kitchen the other day looking for something to eat in the early hours, and came across a mostly-depleted pot of mashed potatoes. Not knowing the wiser, I reached my hands into the pot and began to eat them. It was surprisingly good and not exactly the "potato flakes" you mention here, but they were definitely flaky and filling!