Chefs’ Secret Ingredients that Every Kitchen Needs

Top Chef alum Dale Talde
Top Chef alum Dale Talde

Chef Dale Talde, who competed in Top Chef Season 4, is a whiz at using Asian spices and condiments to coax maximum flavor out of his dishes in breakneck speed. "In many Asian countries it's too hot to use an oven, wok cooking is quick cooking," Talde told Yahoo! Shine. "'Low and slow' means an hour, versus seven hours in European cuisine."

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At his brand new Brooklyn restaurant, Talde, the chef uses savory pantry ingredients such as fish sauce and dried shrimp to attain deep flavors in his dishes, a technique home cooks can adopt for quick weeknight meals. "Chefs understand that salt is the basis of most flavor and you can't be afraid of it," says Talde. He explains that home cooks can give their food a salty richness by reaching for kitchen basics such as soy sauce, mustard, and Worcestershire sauce.

We asked Talde and other great chefs to share their magic ingredients with Yahoo! Shine. Here are their best-kept secrets; now we'll have to kill you.

Fish sauce. This Vietnamese condiment is made from fermented fish. Don't be scared: Talde calls the Asian cooking staple his "number one ingredient" right now. He recommends adding just two or three drops to a seafood risotto or other fish dish to enhance flavor. It can also be used in soups, dressings, sautés, and dipping sauces.

Dried shrimp. Adding a small amount of dried shrimp will give speedy entrees and broths a caramelized richness. Talde likes to use dried shrimp in gumbo and beef stir-fry. He says mixing salty fish flavors with meat is what makes "surf and turf" so delicious. If you don't have an access to an Asian market, you can purchase dried shrimp online.

Parmesan rind. Buy wedges of Parmesan cheese instead of pre-grated. Not only does it taste better when you grate it yourself, Talde says adding a chunk of Parmesan rind to any soup will give it a "whoa" flavor. Store inch-long pieces of rind in the freezer.

Tomato paste. Chef Quinn Hatfield of Hatfield's in Los Angeles, which was named one of Bon Appetit Magazine's 10 best new restaurants of 2010, says tomato paste is a pantry must. You can use it to make a quick tomato sauce or spread it on fish before grilling to add sweetness. Tomato paste gives dimension to other mild proteins such as grilled chicken breasts without many calories and no fat. Look for tubes, which are more convenient to use and store than small cans.

Greek yogurt. Chef Hatfield also recommends keeping a tub of Greek yogurt in the fridge. He suggests using it in place of mayo in pasta and potato salads. He also uses it to "finish marinades, vinaigrettes, and soups-pretty much across the board," he says. "It adds texture and a nice tang."

Sherry Vinegar. Chef Jesse Schenker of Recette in New York City recommends a splash of sherry vinegar to "brighten up" the flavor of savory dishes from soups to grains to vegetables. He also offers this tip: "More importantly, it can be used to correct a dish that is too salty or too sweet."

Balsamic Vinegar. Dan Silverman, chef at the Standard Grill in New York City, likes balsamic vinegar for its "sweet/sour acidic punch" which he says can liven up any meat sauce or braise. Its especially good with dried beans such as lentils. He thinks it makes the perfect vinaigrette, and he also reduces balsamic vinegar to a syrupy sauce for pork and poultry.

Apple Cider Vinegar. This tart but mellow vinegar is popular with award-winning southern chefs Harrison Keevil of Brookville Restaurant in Charlottesville, Virginia and James Boyce of Cotton Row in Huntsville, Alabama. Boyce adds a splash to creamy soups to cut the fat and add a layer of flavor. Keevil uses it to round out the bitterness of winter greens such as collards and cabbage.

Honey. Americans love sweet flavors and a small amount of sweetener can make almost any dish from vegetables to stews more appealing. Keevil adds a bit of honey or Virginia maple syrup to most of his savory dishes for complexity. Another Top Chef alum, Manuel Trevino, of Marble Lane in New York City, adds honey to soups, stews, and sauces to balance out acidic flavors.

Fennel Pollen. This spice sounds esoteric but Chef Laurent Tourondel of BLT American Brasserie assures Yahoo! Shine it is super versatile. He adds it to seasoning mixes for meat, poultry, and seafood, and sprinkles it on roasted vegetables, pizzas, and salads. Tourondel says, "Fennel pollen has delicious notes of licorice, honey, and curry and works well on just about any food." If you can't find fennel pollen at a gourmet market, you can purchase online. Its pricey but all you need is a tiny dusting.

Quatres épices. Another spice that's not commonly used in American kitchens but should be is a blend of nutmeg, white pepper, ginger, and ground cloves that's a staple in France and the Middle East. Philippe Bertineau, Executive Chef at Benoit in New York City, says, "This simple secret ingredient is a magical seasoning for meats. It gives them a kick and draws out their essential flavors in earthy stews, soups, and ragouts." You can purchase quatres épices, which literally means "four spices" online.

Salt. The simplest way to get maximum flavor from your food is to add enough salt. Chef Benjamin Lambert of Wit and Wisdom at the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore says, "Salt is an essential ingredient that the body needs. Adding salt by a ratio of just one percent of the weight of your other ingredients will bring out their natural flavors. Two percent is actually what most restaurants use." If you are concerned about your sodium intake for health reasons, Lambert suggests cutting back salt in your recipe but using a light sprinkle good quality, flakey sea salt, such as Maldon salt to finish the dish before serving.

What are your favorite "secret ingredients?" Please share in the comments below.

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