Spices on plate

The best secret ingredients to transform your cooking

Be honest: does your cooking sometimes need a little extra help? If so, it's time you added the secret ingredient...

We’ve picked products we think you’ll love and may earn commission from links on this page. This page was updated in May 2020.


Culinary crisis: you lovingly create a dish, the basic flavour is good, but somehow you know it won’t elicit the desired affirmations of your cooking prowess. There’s something missing. It’s time to reach for that secret store-cupboard weapon that’ll transform it from good to great.

A hint of mushroomy earthiness can do just this. Mushroom ketchup (British Corner Chop, £3.15) (a liquid stock containing mushroom, roasted barley and spices) adds x-factor to stews, risottos and soups. Alternatively, a handful of dried porcini mushrooms, soaked and added, liquid and all, turns a dish like this Creamy chicken and pumpkin into something “amazing” (member: LiziJ) and “absolutely gorgeous” (member: Carol). If you’re on an oriental tip, try mushroom soy sauce (simply soy with mushroom extract). It also adds a dark, treacly colour that looks oh-so appetising.

If you’re not a fan of the fungi, Marmite or yeast extract is equally gratifying. Our Chickpea, tomato & spinach curry asks for just a teaspoon and what a success! It’s already 5-star rated and having tried it myself (twice) I cannot only vouch for it for it but have started adding the brown stuff to all manner of dishes. Pop a little into gravy for depth and colour.

Working in the food industry we often get given new products to try. After a while you start to get a bit jaded but when a tube of Taste No 5 Umami Paste (Waitrose, £3.15) dropped into my lap, promising a panacea to all my culinary woes, how could I resist? Umami or ‘savoriness’ is one of the five basic tastes (along with salty, sweet, bitter and sour) and this paste, which contains tomato puree, anchovy paste, black olives, porcini mushrooms and parmesan cheese among other wonderful flavours, claims to work in ‘any savoury dish’. So I tried it in a rather average vegetable soup. Verdict: yumami! And I’m not the only one who thinks so.


Do you have any secret ingredients that you always have on hand? Come on, spill the umami-soaked beans…