Beyond Salt and Pepper

No matter how many cookbooks you read or how much Top Chef you absorb from the television, your home cooking won’t match your favorite restaurant’s. One reason: Professionals use a lot of fat and salt, which tease more flavor out of ingredients. There are other ingredients you can use, however, to boost flavor.

1. Worcestershire sauce

Worcestershire sauce is a common ingredient in American kitchens, but you’ll see from the label that it contains somewhat exotic ingredients, including tamarind, cloves, chiles, and anchovies. It’s hot, sour, salty, and sweet —and the anchovies make it rich in umami, a.k.a. the fifth flavor sensation, variously described as savory, meaty, or full. Add it to creamy salad dressings, vinaigrettes, mayonnaise, marinades, tomato sauce, burgers, dips, cocktails. A little goes a long way.

2. Dijon mustard

This versatile condiment would likely top most chefs’ lists of indispensable kitchen ingredients. It’s spicy, tangy, and creamy; it acts as an emulsifier in vinaigrettes; and it thickens and enriches sauces. Whether you’re using classic, country style, or whole grain, practically every savory dish can benefit from a teaspoon or two of Dijon (even mashed potatoes). We use it in this recipe for Herbed Beets with Fennel.

3. Paprika

This seasoning is available everywhere, but in America it only seems to show up sprinkled over deviled eggs. We should learn from the Spanish and Hungarians, who make (and use) most of the world’s paprika. It adds complexity to everything from artichokes to avocados to roasted parsnips to Smoked Chile Mussels. There are many different styles available, from hot to smoked. We are particularly fond of this bittersweet version.

4. Garlic chile paste (or red pepper flakes)

This paste gives a sweet heat to dishes —neither too spicy nor overly sweet. If you don’t have garlic chili paste (or don’t want to buy it), then at least keep some dried red pepper flakes on hand. Try mixing it into sautéed kale or roasted Brussels sprouts, or using it as a quick rub for chicken or in Medjool Date Chutney.

5. Acidity

The acidity found in vinegar, citrus fruits, and wine enlivens the flavors in a dish. You can taste the brightness in this Red Onion Marmalade with Bay Leaves. Squeeze a little lemon juice into a fruit coulis; add vinegar to a pot of starchy beans; or put some wine in a cream soup.

6. Celery seed

These tiny seeds have a slightly bitter, warming flavor, and an aroma that’s reminiscent of fresh celery. They add a pleasant crunch and depth when sprinkled into salad dressings and sandwich spreads, marinades for beef and chicken, and bloody Marys.

7. Ginger

One of our favorite rhizomes, ginger lends a subtle pepperiness and aromatic sweetness —and not to just Asian dishes. Use it sautéed or in a marinade. It pairs exceptionally well with beets, pork, and sweet potatoes, and it’s a nice surprise in this Fresh Ginger Cake. Make this Ginger Syrup, and keep it on hand to make anything from iced tea to a last-minute fruit salad.

8. Tarragon

This subtle and complex herb never gets the attention it deserves. It’s peppery and anise flavored, a great stand-in anywhere you would normally use mint or basil. Try it on anything from roasted asparagus to sautéed eggplant, on pasta with a light vermouth cream sauce, or even on rabbit. For something really simple, use it in combination with the ginger syrup mentioned above, and mix it together with some berries for a quick dessert or as an elegant sundae topping.

9. Honey or maple syrup

Sweetness balances salt; it rounds out the sharp edges of aromatic spices; and it tames the tartness and astringency of lemons, vinegar, and bitter greens. We like to use honey and maple syrup rather than sugar, as in Watercress and Grilled Pineapple Salad with Avocado and Sour Orange Dressing because they have a more complex flavor —and they’re already liquid.

10. Alcohol (aside from wine)

Alcohol is not just for drinking! Many recipes call for wine to add depth to a dish. But try vermouth or shao xing the next time you’re whipping up a sauce. In our kitchen, we keep Poire Williams brandy on hand, and we use it almost anywhere we would normally use white wine; try it when deglazing the pan the next time you sauté some pork loin or rabbit, or in desserts for a twist on bananas Foster or a simple caramel sauce.