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There’s no greater compliment to a home cook than when the person on the tasting end suddenly and desperately needs to know what the “secret ingredient” is. Because secret ingredients can run the gamut, I decided to ask Kitchn’s team of talented home cooks to reveal theirs — the often nostalgic somethin’ somethins’ they turn to to make their food taste delicious. (And before you accuse us of being corny, “love” did not make this list of secret ingredients.)
As it turns out, this little exercise had me viewing my colleagues in a whole new light. With each description of their secret ingredient, most stemming from our earliest family food memories, I peeled back a few layers and got to know the Kitchn team even better than I did to start with. It’s a fun little getting-to-know-you game that I didn’t know I needed to play. (It also gave me a whole new grocery list of items I need to try STAT.)
I strongly suggest you try it with your friends too! Here are our picks.
1. Campbell’s Condensed Beef Consommé
“My mom used to make these French dip sandwiches with store-bought roast beef and French rolls. The secret ingredient was Campbell’s Condensed Beef Consommé. I swear this stuff tastes like the au jus at fancier places.” — Christine Gallary, Food Editor-at-Large
2. McCormick Fajita Seasoning Mix
“I mostly grew up on Hamburger Helper, tuna noodle casserole, and the like. I always joke that this is why I became a cook, though, and one of the things I was really proud to learn as a 12-year-old was skillet fajitas — so I do have a love of McCormick Faijta Seasoning packets still.” — Meghan Splawn, Food Editor
“Bagoong is fermented shrimp paste that I like to add to a bunch of different dishes to boost umami. This Filipino condiment is salty, stinky, and funky in all the best ways. When I lived in the Philippines as a young child, one of the most popular snacks I ate was green sour mango bagoong, which is sweet-tart with a salty finish. I also use it when making Gising-Gising and would not hesitate from using it as an anchovy substitute, as they have a similar flavor profile.” — Amelia Rampe, Studio Food Editor
4. Grandma’s Robust Molasses
“My grandma used to use robust molasses (or sorghum!) in her signature soft ginger cookies. I always have a jar in my cabinet for making those. I also drizzle it on saltine crackers that I spread with butter.” — Nina Elder, Food Director
“We always had a tub of Marshmallow Fluff in the pantry for making Fluffernutter sandwiches (peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff on squishy slices of white bread) when I was a kid. Now, it’s a special treat that I make for my kids when we’re on vacations. I also love to use this spreadable marshmallow in my favorite S’mores Bars recipe.” — Patty Catalano, Contributor
6. Manischewitz Matzo Meal
“My Bubbie made the best matzo balls … sometimes. (They were either rock-hard, the way we liked them, or soft floaters — and each batch was wildly unpredictable.) Her son (my late father) would use matzo meal in meatballs, meatloaf, and burgers. It works just as well as breadcrumbs — although the Freedman family might tell you it’s even better.” — Lisa Freedman, Lifestyle Director
“I realize the first ingredient listed is maltodextrin (while basil is #10!), but hear me out. Whenever my mom would whip up spaghetti with this instant pesto mix, my siblings and I would simply devour it. That’s not to say I’ve never tried the real thing. (Homemade pesto made from backyard-grown basil is the highlight of my NJ summers!) It’s just that this stuff fills a different void. Nowadays I always have a pouch on hand for a quick hit of nostalgia. It’s also great sprinkled over roasted potatoes or frozen french fries! Not to mention the easiest way to dress up a can of cannellini beans.” — Lauren Masur, Lifestyle Editor
8. Pasta’s Daily Spicy Hot Tomato Oil
“My family wasn’t big on cooking, so I really started to cook for myself and developed a culinary identity in college. One thing my dad did make a lot of was pasta, and he always always used jarred sauce. When I got to college (in Syracuse, NY), one of my go-to places to eat out was Pastabilities. But what’s even better is that they sell their tomato sauce in stores! It’s my go-to tomato sauce to this day (even more than Rao’s, which was absolutely too expensive for my dad’s taste back then).” — Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm, Lifestyle Editor
9. Good Seasons Italian Dressing Mix
“I first learned how to make ‘homemade’ dressing by pouring oil, vinegar, and Good Seasons Italian Dressing Mix into a bottle and giving it a good shake. While I’ve since taken up making homemade dressing entirely from scratch (because it’s pretty much just as easy), I always keep a packet or two on hand for when I crave the kind of pizza joint-type salad that only this dressing mix delivers. It also makes for a pretty great chicken marinade and a dressing for a simple pasta salad.” — Sheela Prakash, Senior Contributing Food Editor
“A yellow box of Bisquick is a permanent staple in my parents’ pantry. When I was growing up, my friends would always look forward to my dad’s waffles the morning after a sleepover. To this day they ask for the Elkus Family Waffles if they stop by (no matter what time of day). Little do they know the secret is just using Bisquick!” — Grace Elkus, Deputy Food Director
11. Diced Canned Tomatoes
“I have my mom to thank for my habit of blanketing the bottom shelf of my pantry with a row of canned tomatoes. She never outwardly sung the praises of the incredible versatility that lies inside a 14-ounce can, and she never declared them the key to all the dinners she made from them either. But she didn’t have to tell me; her actions made this lesson clear.” — Kelli Foster, Food Editor
“My family had a thing for sour when I was growing up (my mom was known for eating lemons like apples). The most prized ingredient in our house was a bottle of white wine vinegar — anything that need a little something, always got a splash from the bottle. The thing we used it for the most, though, was quick pickles. For school lunch, we’d thinly slice cucumbers before bathing them in white wine vinegar and salt. Some people traded Gushers at the lunch table, while others tried bargaining for Uncrustables. But my brothers and I? Everyone wanted our pickles. They were were (and still are) that good — and it’s all because of the vinegar.” — Ariel Knutson, Features Director
What’s your secret family ingredient?