7 Ingredients to Transform Your Cooking

by Amy Machnak
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7 Ingredients to Transform Your Cooking

Coming up with new and interesting food every week can be challenging. We all know a spritz of lemon juice or some fresh herbs can liven things up, but what about when those tricks get predictable? These seven ingredients add a ton of flavor and excitement to dinner with almost zero effort and minimal calories. Even chicken breast and steamed veggies will never be boring again.


Adding just a touch of acid can perk up food in a more complex way. It cuts through fats, aids in balancing the overall flavor profile and adds a touch of sharpness to otherwise blah food. Sometimes you need something more refined than a squeeze of lemon. In those moments, reach for an artisan vinegar. Most vinegars start out as wine, so you can always find a varietal (red wine, champagne, sherry, etc.) that fits the bill. Others are made from fruits or are a wine vinegar infused with fruit flavor. There are also more specialty vinegars like the sweet and earthy flavor of saba, a regal cousin of aged balsamic, that’s incredible over grilled radicchio or drizzled over strawberries. Sprinkle the umami nuances of rice wine vinegar on an Asian vegetable salad or on grilled fish. Transform dinner by adding just a drop or two.


Citrus is a quick and easy way to add a bit of brightness. People often cut past the zest to get to the juice, but zest has its own benefits, including a more subtle, floral flavor profile. It’s also less acidic, so it will add that delicate grapefruit or lemon flavor without the worry of curdling any dairy it’s stirred into. Lastly, zest can add both flavor and a bit of chewy texture without adding moisture, making it perfect for steeping in sauces, grating into an herb breadcrumb topping, or folding into baked goods like muffins and cakes. However you choose to use it, a bit of zest is sure to brighten up whatever you’re cooking without going full pucker.



Spices have been an obvious flavor enhancer since Marco Polo slurped down his first curry. Today, there are more spices and spice blends than can fill a supermarket shelf. But if we had to pick one to have on hand, it would be garam masala. Literally translated as “warming spices,” garam masala is a blend of cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cardamom, nutmeg and peppercorns, with the exact quantity of each varying depending on who’s doing the mixing. It’s traditionally found in Indian, Pakistani and other South Asian foods. Toast a wee bit in a dry pan before sprinkling on steamed vegetables, use it liberally to coat chicken before it hits the grill or dust it over freshly popped popcorn for a snack with a surprising kick. You may need to try a few blends to find that one that suits you best, but there’s no other way to add a quick ‘oomph’ to dinner.


Most people have a least one bottle of pepper sauce in the fridge, but the options of bottled fire go way beyond vinegary Tabasco these days. Sriracha, the Southeast Asian condiment staple is another well-known option, but there are hot sauces from around the world to keep things interesting. Koreans love to stir gochujang, a fermented chili paste, into soups and stews. Harissa, a thick garlic chili paste from North Africa, is a natural with grilled meats. If you find yourself kicking around the toe of Italy, you’ll often see Calabrian chili paste served with pizzas and pastas. Luckily, you can score most of these at a well-stocked grocery store so keep one or two in the fridge for when you want to add some heat with authenticity.


All oils add fat for browning and enhance mouth-feel. But specialty nut oils also add a lot of flavor. Because they come from nuts, they’re a good source of monounsaturated fats. Walnut oil even supplies omega-3 fatty acids. The flavors can sometimes be diminished with heat so it’s a good idea to use them as a finishing oil, drizzled on warm breads, whisked with quality vinegars for salads, or brushed on fish and meats before grilling. It’s true they can be a tad pricey, but they’re so good it’s worth going a bit nuts.


Ask any chef to name one favorite, must-have ingredient and they’ll likely say salt. If you’re already a pro at proper seasoning, it might be nice to take it to the next level by adding a couple of finishing salts to your pantry. Different salts have different textures and mineral qualities that can add just that bite of flavor needed as an accent rather than an overall taste. Try large-flake salt for grilled vegetables, coarse gray salt for chocolates and sweet rolls and even flavored salts like lavender or rosemary salt for roasted meats. The crunch and flavor combo might be just what you need to add some surprise to the meal.



If you’re looking for another spice mix that isn’t packing heat, we also love za’atar, a Middle Eastern herb and spice blend of dried thyme, marjoram and oregano with toasted sesame seeds, salt and sometimes sumac. Every chef and family has their own version, which only adds to the fun of sampling them all. Whatever the blend you buy (or make yourself, if you’re so inclined), you’ll find that it’s great on grilled meats, yogurt or hummus and especially sprinkled on bread with olive oil.

About the Author

Amy Machnak

Amy is a James Beard award-winning food writer. A former staff writer at Sunset magazine, her work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Chow.com, Cooking Light, Tasting Table, Munchery.com and more. She’s contributed to seven cookbooks with Sunset and William’s Sonoma, and written one of her own. When she’s not writing or cooking, you can find her in a sweaty yoga class, drinking wine she can’t afford or on social media mentally correcting people’s punctuation.


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