Many things go into a successful dish – the techniques chosen for the preparation, the execution of the preparation, the quality of the ingredients and the ingredients themselves. However, there are some ingredients that can not only raise a rather good dish to the level of the sublime, they can sometime even rescue an only so-so meal and make it something special.
This is a very subjective list – crafted from my own rather warped experience and tastes, but I would love to hear what other ingredients people use that they regard the same way. Okay, here we go:
Top Eleven “Magical” Ingredients:
Why eleven? I wanted to do only ten, but couldn’t choose one of the following to cut, so we have eleven. I apologize to all the OCD folks out there.
11. Smoked paprika
Think paprika is something to just sprinkle on your Deviled Eggs? A major spice primarily known (and grown) in Hungary and Spain, smoked varieties are usually inspired most strongly by the Spanish variety Pimentón de la Vera – dried via smoking over oak. While some paprika can be on the spicy side, all of the smoked varieties I’ve sampled are usually from the sweeter bell-type peppers. Generally, paprika from the non-spicy peppers is often used merely for color, but the smoked variety is something else entirely.
For its ability to really bring a smooth smokey flavor to dishes, especially those with beef or pork, smoked paprika is a commonly deployed ingredient in my spice arsenal. As with green peppers, it plays well with any number of flavors and the smokiness is a subtle note that brings much depth.
10. Baby spinach
Growing up, when it came to raw leafy greens, I pretty much ate iceberg lettuce and nothing else. My family had a salad at pretty much 4 out of every 5 meals, and it was almost always iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and green olives. However, when I was in my teens (during the mid-80s), other varieties started to appear in restaurants with more frequency and then on grocery store shelves. Baby greens of all types – tender, sometimes bitter but with a pleasant astringency were amazing after eating the watery blandness of iceberg so long. But one always stood above the others to me – baby spinach.
Now, I was an odd child (no change since then obviously) who loved cooked spinach (w/ butter, tarragon vinegar, and a dash of salt – Yum!) Anyway, once I tasted raw baby spinach, I started adding it to all sorts of things as a replacement for regular lettuce. My BLT would become a BST and was more delicious for the substitution – something that held true on every sandwich I ever tried it on. Instead of lettuce on my tacos, I had baby spinach. Instead of a garden salad with iceberg lettuce, I’d have a spinach salad w/ roma tomatoes, toasted walnuts, bacon and blue cheese dressed with balsamic vinegar. In case you were wondering, that’s what heaven tastes like.
9. Billington’s Natural Dark Brown Molasses Sugar
The only brand-specific ingredient on this list. This is a muscovado cane brown sugar from Mauritius – unrefined and rich, complex with wonderful toffee notes. This can be used anywhere you’d use normal brown sugar, and I also use only this (and no white sugar) in my chocolate chip cookies and gingerbread. It’s also great added to bbq sauces and rubs. I know you’re skeptical that any brand or type of brown sugar could be that much different from any other, but this one truly is exceptional.
I used to be able to purchase it from my local supermarket, but they stopped carrying it, so I now go to trusty Amazon to find it.
8. Quality balsamic vinegar (both regular and white)
I’ve long been one to make my own salad dressings (one of the many skills which initially impressed my wife), and that’s when I first started experimenting with different types of vinegar. Apple cider, tarragon, rice wine, etc. — all of them can be handy widgets to keep on hand to tweak a recipe, but my favorite is balsamic vinegar.
So what does it do besides salads? Well, personally, my favorite usage is a splash of olive oil, balsamic and worcestershire sauce mixed together and lightly brushed on steaks and burgers – the sugars in the balsamic richly caramelize and blend with the umami of the steak and worcestershire. Also I suggest adding a bit to any tomato-based sauce, and even as a dessert with ripe strawberries.
Don’t buy the cheap stuff. However, you likely can’t even afford the really good stuff ($150 to $400 a bottle), which is in fact a completely different product than what you usually can buy at the store or even is available at most restaurants. (explanation). So what to do? Well, as with most ingredients, sample as much as you can and buy what you like. Personally I like to have two types on hand – one for the more “bulk” uses like the aforementioned steaks, and something a little more upscale for something like a dessert or where the balsamic is really highlighted as an ingredient – my favorite application would be to lightly dress an Insalata Caprese.
For the “nice” one, look for something like Lucini Gran Riserva Balsamico. For everyday, I recommend either Monari Federzoni Balsamic Vinegar of Modena or Colavita Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.
One of the five “mother sauces” of classic French cuisine, this is something that would entice me to eat shoe leather. An emulsion of egg yolks and butter seasoned with lemon juice (and in my case a pinch of both red and white pepper), it is the difference between Eggs Benedict being transcendent and being something like an Egg McMuffin.If that black, smoking cinder in the movie Time Bandits was “pure evil,” well then hollandaise is its opposite.
In it’s traditional form, it’s the perfect sauce to enhance salmon, asparagus, broccoli, artichokes, and in my opinion pretty much anything else. And as a “mother sauce,” there are countless variations, including my favorite for steaks – Sauce Béarnaise. Indeed, once you master this sauce, the world will beat a path to your door and gifts will be placed at your feet.
…and that’s the trouble. It is notoriously difficult to master using the traditional technique of a double boiler, carefully controlling the heat to melt the butter and not curdling the egg yolks, all the while whisking and whisking and whisking to bring the emulsion together. Variations on this technique all try to make it easier and inevitably fail. Luckily, along came Julia Child who, like Moses, showed us the promised land – a technique that eschews the snooty, classic French technique for a blender and microwave — and in my opinion turns out a superior product. If you google “julia child blender hollandaise” you will inevitably find many copies of it – I particularly liked this one as it tied in mentions to Julia’s book My Life in France. Only difference in my version is I heat the butter in the microwave instead of a saucepan and instead of black pepper (which has to be a typo), I use the combination of red (cayenne) and white pepper.
6. Salt (in all its various forms)
As I stated at the note at the end of this article, when I was a kid I wasn’t able to smell things very well, so I tended to focus on sweet or salty flavors. My love of salty things has never gone away, but I have learned to be a little more selective about it. I’ve also come to appreciate the different ways salt can play a part in a dish.
At any moment, I probably have between 6 and 8 types of salt in house for cooking. If I could, I’d have even more. And on that note, let me chime in on something: “sea salt” is not in any way healthier than regular iodized table salt. Especially in the quantities you’re consuming in most dishes, it’s chemically identical, except of course for the lack of iodine – so in a way, it’s less healthy for you. The same is true for all those fancy colored salts you see.
So if its all the same, why do I have so many? Well, here’s what I’ve got currently on-hand and what I use it for:
- Iodized table salt – table use
- Kosher salt – use whenever I can in cooking (and sometimes in baking) or when large texture crystals are desired
- Sea salt – almost never use it, though it works well on the edge of a Bloody Mary with fresh ground black pepper.
- smoked sea salt – this is an all natural product where the salt is actually smoked. Provides a smoky undertone to many dishes, and since it is also a large crystal form, it’s great for display purposes or where you’re looking for the texture.
- Red Hawaiian sea salt – used as much for display purposes as anything. Quite tasty to have a few grains sprinkled on a dish of vanilla ice cream drizzled with tupelo honey.
- Popcorn salt – actually rarely use on popcorn, but great for homemade chips and anywhere you want salty taste but very little texture.
While too much salt can be unhealthy, I find that by using the right salt for a dish, I will often use less overall. I also like to use it in unexpected places – like the sprinkling on ice cream drizzled with honey I mentioned above, or most especially anything with chocolate. That thing that salt does to make it a flavor amplifier? Well, with chocolate, the effect is more pronounced and will make your tastebuds stand up at attention. Try it — trust me.
5. Whole Wheat Pastry Flour (aka graham flour)
As brown sugar is also on this list, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I like to bake as well as cook. Indeed, it was my first love in the kitchen, from the very first time I made cornbread and then chocolate chip cookies at about the age of 4 or 5. I took this pile of . . . stuff, and by the time I was done, it was something solid and delicious. It seemed like magic, and in many ways, it still does. Generally, bakers are a different class of people than cooks – I think in large part because a lot of the techniques in baking are very different from those in cooking, and the main ingredients are more nuanced but less varied.
Whole wheat pastry flour is one of those nuanced ingredients. It is a whole wheat flour, but is like no whole wheat flour you’ve ever tried. First, like any pastry flour, it’s lower in protein, which means that it’s not going to give you a crusty bread no matter how much you knead it, but it will give you soft, tender cookies and flaky pie crusts, as well as the world’s best waffles. One of the other things that makes it stand out, is that in traditional whole wheat flour, the three parts of the wheat kernel (bran, germ, and endosperm) are all ground together at the same time, but with whole wheat pastry flour, they’re all ground separately (at different levels of coarseness) and then combined again. This results in a much different flour that in my experience also keeps longer than traditional whole wheat flours (which can go rancid with too much time/heat/etc because of the oil content of the wheat germ.)
I use this for pretty much any soft cookie, muffins, cakes, pancakes, waffles, pastry crusts, biscuits, etc., usually in conjunction with some all-purpose unbleached white flour, but at different ratios than you’d usually use when using both. You can even go 100% whole wheat pastry flour without it tasting like regular 100% whole wheat flour products (i.e. like shag carpeting). One thing to note: “white whole wheat flour” is not the same as “whole wheat pastry flour” – the former has almost twice as much gluten (aka protein) as the latter, and will give you much different results.
4. Thickcut or “country” center cut applewood smoked bacon
All bacon is good. This is an axiom. However, it is also axiomatic that some types of bacon are better than others. My personal favorite is a thick-cut bacon smoked over applewood available at my local Costco. You bite into this stuff, and it sinks a hook into your brain that never goes away. It IS everything bacon should be. Perfect to cook ahead of time for a BST (see baby spinach above), bacon crumbles for mac and cheese, or I suppose one could just grab a cooked strip out of the fridge at midnight and eat it there in the kitchen where you’re standing in your underwear. I, needless to say, have never done this. Also, all Cretans are liars.
Unfortunately, this is not the best type of bacon to use for one of my favorite dishes — the charcoal-grilled, bacon-wrapped, and dry-aged filet mignon that if you’ve eaten at my house I’ve likely fed you. Thickcut bacon doesn’t work well when wrapped around a filet – just ends up floppy and undercooked. Instead use a peppered regular thickness (but still center cut) bacon for that, but for everything else use the thickcut applewood bacon. After eating it, you’ll realize you were just faking it with every other bacongasm you’ve had before now.
More pork products! Which is rather funny, since I have not historically been the biggest fan of pork – or so I thought. I mean I liked bacon of course from the beginning, but disliked all the rest of it. I have since discovered pork tenderloin (and big surprise, specifically grilled pork tenderloin), smoked country hams, lechón, and prosciutto. Basically all I don’t like now is pork chops, that watery stuff that gets sold as “ham” so many places, and pigs feet. I’m not budging on those three.
The first time I had prosciutto was at a local Italian restaurant where it was served wrapped around wedges of cantaloupe and honeydew. Some sort of italian dry ham wrapped around slices of melon? What the hell? And then I tasted it . . .
More subtle than bacon, velvety in texture, and excellent on just about everything. Other than the aforementioned treatment with melons (which I still absolutely love), another fave is to take asparagus (steamed or grilled), toss it with some lemon juice and olive oil and then sprinkle freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and top with strips of prosciutto. This is one of those ingredients where you just want to keep experimenting with it, and it offers such rewards when you do!
2. Lump charcoal
This may seem somewhat of an odd choice to list as an ingredient, but I absolutely believe that if you are cooking on a grill, it should be over charcoal, not gas, and that charcoal should be lump charcoal and never, ever under any circumstances briquettes. Personally I use this brand, but if it is honest-to-goodness lump charcoal, the brand shouldn’t matter.
First, regarding gas vs. charcoal — gas is convenient and easy, and like most things like that, it doesn’t work very well. Too much moisture in the gas combustion, and so you never get the same sear as you do over charcoal. And if you’re not going for a good sear, why the hell are you cooking it on the grill? Secondly, regarding briquettes: if you love the taste and smell of petrochemicals, by all means keep using briquettes. Also, keep using them if you hate the environment, like your food covered in soot, and like waiting forever for something to cook.
Lump charcoal is basically just the leftover matrix of carbon and impurities resulting from burning whole pieces of wood in an oxygen-deficient environment. No wax, no wood pulp, no petrochemicals that make your grilled fish taste like it was raised in a lake of gasoline. And it burns clean, hot, and even. It does burn more quickly than briquettes, but I solve this by starting two charcoal chimneys full of the stuff and by having a big-ass grill. Also, since it doesn’t have all those chemicals that off-gas into your food, you can even start a charcoal chimney to add later and not have to worry about it altering the flavor of food. As you can see from how many times I’ve mentioned grilling in the text above, this is a subject I take fairly seriously.
My mother: “Whatever it is, butter makes it better.” My mother is a very wise woman. I don’t believe there is another single ingredient that can have such a broad impact across the entire kitchen. And I’m not speaking of margarine or any other sort of half-assed substitute. That stuff will kill you. And yes, so will butter if you have too much of it, which is why butter is the Spiderman of the kitchen – with great power, comes great responsibility. Luckily, you don’t have to drench things in butter for its presence to be felt. A little can indeed go a long way, and also pay attention to the type of butter. Your usual supermarket salted butter is fine for most cooking applications, but for many baking applications, you’re want to go with unsalted butter. However, for me this does not include my chocolate chip cookies, where I act the rebel and use salted butter. Why? Because it’s chocolate! And as we discussed under “Salt”, chocolate and salt like to make out. If you’re worried about the sodium that goes along with salted butter, you can go with unsalted, but it won’t be as good. I don’t say this to be mean, but to act as a segue into this: cooking (as with life) is often about compromise.
Conclusion: Ingredients matter because good food matters
There are some ingredients in this list that the American Heart Association isn’t too happy about. And you know what? I don’t care. No, not because I’ve gone all Ted Nugent on you, but rather because these ingredients make me (and most people who eat them) happy, plain and simple. They make food be something more than just fuel for the machine of our bodies; with them food becomes a source of inspiration for our souls.
Growing up, skinny as a rail and apathetic towards food, all food was simply fuel for the machine and I resented having to deal with it. I only took joy in candy and snacks, never regular food. Not the best environment to learn good eating (or cooking!) habits! As I got older and put some health issues behind me, all that has changed. And as a result, my attitude towards food has changed as well and I’ve become more observant about how others deal with food.
For most of us, our entire American food culture is built around that concept of “fuel for the machine” – we want it cheap, we want it fast, and we want it to satisfy us while we stuff it in our faces while we’re eating in our cars in the parking lot. No “real” food could do that – only processed, engineered food has the ability to make us think we’re enjoying it in those types of circumstances. It’s got “bad” fats, sodium, corn syrup, and no nutrients – and that’s sometimes just the salad!
I don’t have all the answers, but what I do know is that by enjoying the ingredients above and trying to work with them in a healthy way, I enjoy my food more, and when I enjoy my food, I eat better, I feel better, and as a parent I think I can say I teach my kids about food better. Working with “real” food means you have to be an adult – you don’t get to have bacon at every meal, you can’t use too much butter too often – this requires judgment and self-control in addition to cooking skills. Eating processed stuff means you’ve given up control over what goes into your body, how it’s prepared, and often times you can’t even find out what’s in it.
So pick your favorite ingredients and cook with them. Experiment with them. Even if they’re not “healthy” for you ( assuming they aren’t actually dangerous for you, e.g. allergies, health conditions, etc), if they’re something that requires you to cook something, then they’re better for you than anything processed.
Take joy in your ingredients and you’ll take joy in your food. Take joy in your food and you’ll notice what and how you’re eating and you’ll eat better. Eat better and you’ll feel better. Food is not merely calories – the choosing of ingredients, the preparation, the eating – these are things that exercise our brain and feed our soul. As I said at the beginning, I would love to hear in the comments what your favorite ingredients are!
And I don’t want to hear a single one of you say “I can’t cook!” – perhaps as long as 400,000 years ago, homo erectus may have been cooking and certainly by 100,000 years ago, Neanderthals were known to have cooked. And they had to make their own fire and catch and kill their own food. No homo sapien alive should ever complain about not knowing how to cook.
Oh, and if you’re wondering why I care so much about food, read on:
Why I’m a foodie
I’ve only been a foodie for the last 10 years or so, and I come by it in a very roundabout way. Growing up, I didn’t eat. Well, of course I ate – but due to health issues, I never had much of an appetite and I simply couldn’t smell/taste many foods properly. So I was often so thin that when I turned sideways, I pulled a Kate Moss and disappeared. Given certain gravity conditions and time spent on The Rack, I might be able to claim 5′ 6″ and when I met my wife at the age of 22, I weighed all of 116lbs.
But then after, and I think due in some way to, meeting my wife, my health began to improve (being happy is a miracle drug) and I set about adding quite a few more pounds to my frame. Quite. A. Few.
However, in all of this I made a huge discovery. I now loved food. I really can’t overstate was a revelation this was. My whole life I had been an extremely picky eater — and because of the aforementioned inhibited sense of taste & smell, most of my likes involved strongly sweet or salty flavors. After all, when you can’t smell properly, food is bland and those flavors are really all that’s left that’s pleasurable. Most of my dislikes, of which there were many, involved either the texture of the food (mushrooms, pickles, shrimp) or an overwhelmingly heavy mouthfeel (mayo, gravy, sour cream).
But that had all changed! In addition to my improved health, I was now living in my own place, with my own kitchen, doing my own shopping and my own cooking. So not only could I taste stuff now, but I could learn to cook things just the way I liked them. This made a huge difference in how I appreciated food. I mean, both my parents and especially my mom, were actually especially good cooks, but they had much different tastes than I did. [NOTE TO PARENTS: You MUST teach both your sons and daughters to cook. Yes, it actually makes it more difficult to make meals with their “help” early on, but this is a life skill no one has an excuse not to learn. If your parents didn’t teach you properly, take classes — with your kids if you want, but seriously — if you expect your kids to grow up as healthy, functional adults, teach them to cook!]
And my wife Kathy was an appreciative audience! She’d grown up the second oldest of six kids and cooking was a chore which she was more than happy to let me do as often as I was willing to try. There were some spectacular failures early on. One – a Thai-style chicken dish with a peanut sauce is occasionally referenced as quite probably the most disgusting thing I’ve ever made. But oh, the successes! Especially anything that can be cooked over a bed of charcoal or wood, I pretty much rock.
Over the years, in addition to becoming a much more adventuresome eater, I’ve become a much more accomplished home cook. And in thinking about this the other day, I realized that some ingredients are magical. And that’s what lead me to this post.