13 “Secret Ingredients” Your Southern Grandmother Swore By

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From shortcuts to seasonings, these nostalgic ingredients will bring you back to grandma's house.

<p>Getty Images/Debrocke/ClassicStock</p>

Getty Images/Debrocke/ClassicStock

For many growing up, a Southern grandmother’s kitchen is a special place of sweet memories made and many, many things eaten, whether during a big holiday meal of classic casseroles or cozy breakfast of homemade biscuits. Amongst the tattered recipe cards of nostalgic dishes that you might remember your grandmother making—and making better than anyone else, in any grandchild’s opinion—there are some ingredients that just take you back to grandma’s house, due to being delightfully old-school and perhaps even a bit elusive. From shortcuts to seasonings, these “secret ingredients” are behind many favorite Southern recipes that, try as we might, we can never master quite as well.

Though some are forgotten or not necessarily seen as much in grocery stores now, Southerners will recognize these vintage food products that might be the sneaky trick to perfecting Southern cuisine. Here are 13 “secret ingredients” your grandmother probably swore by.

Related: Old-School Recipes That Will Make A Comeback In 2024

Durkee Famous Sauce

This elusive condiment has been the secret to my grandmother's deviled eggs—and likely many others—for decades. Invented in 1857 by E.R. Durkee, this creamy yet tangy blend of mayonnaise and mustard still has devoted fans in certain parts of the South. Nowadays it's actually quite hard to find in just any grocery store, which my mother constantly laments about during the holiday season. It is also the perfect finishing touch on Southern spreads like egg salad.

Related: I Grew Up Watching My Grandmother Sneak Durkees Into the Deviled Eggs—And I'll Always Do the Same

Pickapeppa Sauce



Mildly spicy and sweet yet sour, Pickapeppa Sauce has been a Southern pantry mainstay since its arrival in the U.S. through the port of New Orleans in 1982. Created in 1921 by Norman Nash in the village of Shooters Hill in Jamaica, this condiment is dark in color and versatile in flavor—though all marks lead to high praises. Many Southerners pour Pickapeppa over a block of cream cheese to serve with crackers as an appetizer. Some people pour it straight from the bottle onto their meals as they would ketchup, barbecue sauce, or steak sauce.

Related: Why Pickapeppa Sauce Is An Essential Condiment In The South

Steen's Syrup

Photo: Jennifer Davick
Photo: Jennifer Davick

Steen's has been producing pure cane syrup goodness since 1910 in Louisiana. Now operated by its fourth generation, Steen's Syrup can be sighted by its iconic yellow label that brings back memories for older generations of Southerners. For those who were raised to use cane syrup on their grandmother's biscuits, it has nostalgia that goes beyond the taste. Cane syrup is made from sugarcane juice, which is simmered until it forms a thick, dark syrup that resembles molasses in both appearance and taste. Since mass-produced pancake syrups have taken over the market, the heirloom syrup has been increasingly forgotten amongst younger generations.


<p>Getty Images/Science Photo Library</p>

Getty Images/Science Photo Library

If you've ever peaked at (or used!) your Southern grandmother's recipe cards, this ingredient should make a common appearance, particularly in desserts. "Oleo" is another word for margarine (or oleomargarine), the once-popular butter or oil substitute that would leave countless leftover plastic tubs for your grandmother to use as storage containers later. Easy to spread and ideal for adding moistness to any recipe, oleo might not be nearly as popular anymore, but it sure brings back nostalgia.

Cavender's Greek Seasoning



We’re always impressed when we see Cavender’s in someone’s pantry, because it shows that they're cooking up a storm in the kitchen. It shows that the person knows the difference between what certain seasoning blends offer, and you can go beyond seasoned salt and Cajun blends. This family-run Greek seasoning blend, which hails from Arkansas, is totally underrated, and old-school Southern cooks know it. It incorporates less spice and more herbs, like oregano and parsley, to create a super versatile blend that can be used in almost any dish, from meats to casseroles to one-pot meals.

Martha White Corn Meal Mix



When it comes to cornbread, Southerners are particular—just try bringing up the "sugar or no sugar?" debate. Choosing a cornmeal mix is no laughing matter, and Southern cooks have been trusting Martha White brand with their cornbread since its Nashville founding in the 1890s, particularly the buttermilk mix with Hot Rize. Odds are, your grandmother always had it on hand as her secret to the best skillet cornbread.

Sweet Salad Cubes



Not relish, not even chow chow, but sweet salad cubes are the trick to your family's just-right recipe for potato salad. They're made with a larger cut than relish, giving them a crunchier texture. We've tried homemade cut pickles, relish, and other substitutes. Nothing beats sweet salad cubes, and the jar alone instantly brings up memories.


<p>Getty Images/Bloomberg/Contributor</p>

Getty Images/Bloomberg/Contributor

However you choose to use it—most likely in a game-day cheese dip or cozy chili—Ro-Tel embodies the best of uncomplicated Southern entertaining: it's unpretentious, easy to add to many dishes, and, most importantly, packed with flavor in one convenient can. It might be five years' old, but there is likely one hanging around in every Southern pantry.

Tony Chachere’s

Tony Chachere Creole Foods
Tony Chachere Creole Foods

The creator of this seasoning blend, chef Tony Chachere, was once referred to as the "master" of fine Cajun cuisine, and in his first-ever cookbook published in 1972, the recipe that would later become his Original Creole Seasoning was a clear standout amongst home cooks. Tony Chachere's (pronounced "SA-shur-ees") is the perfect blend of vibrant seasonings used in Cajun cooking, but many Southerners will use it for just about anything—and with a heavy hand. We like to think that it is the seasoning blend that not everyone knows about, but real-deal Southern cooks do.

Pepper Sauce



Southerners never stray far from their beloved bottles of hot sauce, and that includes pepper sauce, which is peppers submerged in vinegar until the liquid takes on a tangy heat. It has been a time-honored secret weapon to help out a helping of under-seasoned collards or to add vinegary verve to fried chicken. Many grandmothers make their own and stash it in a vintage glass bottle, but store-bought is also a must-have in any Southern household.

Le Sueur Peas



As we know, old-school Southern cooks never shied away from using canned vegetables and fruit in lieu of the fresh stuff, especially in between seasons. However, when it comes to peas, if you didn't have fresh, Le Sueur was the only way to go—and still is. The brand has been dishing out pantry-staple cans for over 100 years.

Boxed Cake Mix



Southern bakers have always been crafty with the ingredients they have on hand and the time they have to use them. Even for the most from-scratch Southern bakers, there are times when everyone has to turn to a box of cake mix. Often, not a soul even knew your granny had a little help from Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines. It can be snuck into anything including retro dump cakes, easy cookies, perfect fudge, and upside-down cakes.

Related: 35 Box Cake Mix Recipes That Taste Homemade

Marshmallow Fluff

<p>Getty Images/Boston Globe/Contributor</p>

Getty Images/Boston Globe/Contributor

A specific brand of marshmallow crème, Marshmallow Fluff is another of those vintage shortcut ingredients that are included in more of your family's "homemade" dessert recipes than you would think. In fact, it's not uncommon for your favorite nostalgic fudge to be from the recipe on the back of the jar, or for it to be the perfectly fluffy icing on traditional bunny cakes every Easter.

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