14 Chefs Reveal The Secret Ingredients They Use In Their Favorite Dishes

Secret ingredients are something of a contemporary legend. From Kentucky Fried Chicken's top-secret batter mix to Hershey's mysterious recipe for a creamy chocolate kiss, food companies are famous for keeping the best recipes under lock and key. Take the bitter liqueur Campari, for example, which was invented by Milanese bar owner Gaspare Campari in 1860. One bottle contains 68 ingredients, most of which have never been leaked to the public. And while it might seem difficult to keep these secret flavors under wraps, the company follows a strict rule to prevent its recipe from getting out: Only one person in the world is ever allowed to know the full recipe. 

Secret ingredients have the power to completely change a recipe. However, not all chefs keep their favorite flavor enhancers hidden from the world. Some are happy to share their wisdom on how to make recipes pop — even when the ingredients might be a little unusual. Here are 14 chef-approved secret ingredients to make your cooking extra special.

1. V8 vegetable juice

As a high-sodium mixture of tomatoes and other vegetables, V8 might not seem like a likely ingredient to use in high-end cooking (via Tufts University). Even so, at least one famous chef swears by this flavorful juice. Chef Bridget Lancaster, executive editorial director of PBS show "America's Test Kitchen," occasionally adds V8 to her cooking. As she revealed in an episode of NPR show "Fresh Air," she sometimes uses V8 as the secret ingredient for her minestrone soup. 

Remembering the first time she leaned on this secret ingredient, Lancaster said: "Somebody just mentioned, 'Why don't we try V8, like the commercial says?' And V8 was perfect. It gave just the right body to the minestrone, the right seasoning." Nonetheless, Lancaster warned against adding V8 to minestrone soup in large proportions. "[V8] was an eight-for-one instead of a two-for-one ingredient, because it has all of those flavors in one shot," she added. 

To put Lancaster's advice to good use, try this fantastic minestrone soup recipe. Rather than adding a can of tomatoes, throw in a portion of V8. However, remember that your secret ingredient shouldn't be overpowering, so start with less than you think you might want, and add in small quantities.

2. Tahini

Tahini is a nutty paste made from ground sesame seeds. According to MasterClass, tahini is a popular condiment for gyros and falafel, and it's one of the key ingredients in hummus and baba ganoush. However, it doesn't always have to be used in savory recipes. Chef Gajendra Singh Chauhan uses tahini in his dessert recipes. Apparently, the results are incredible. 

As Chauhan told Outlook India, "Chocolate and tahini fusion is decadent." In order to incorporate this fun secret ingredient into a dessert recipe, use tahini in place of other, nutty flavors. "We often swap peanut butter with tahini in desserts," the chef said.

You can make tahini at home, and then use it to whip up a batch of sesame cashew and tahini blondies, or some tahini ice cream. The ice cream is a play on halvah, which you can then use to make an ice cream float or milkshake that won't be too sickly sweet.

3. Sugar

Sugar might not seem like much of a secret ingredient. After all, it's the star flavor in most sweet treats, and is found in most foods. Nonetheless, Indian celebrity chef Ranveer Brar uses sugar to enhance the taste of chicken. 

In an Instagram video (via Curly Tails), Brar admitted that he uses sugar as a "secret ingredient" in a lot of his favorite chicken recipes. While the chef doesn't add huge amounts into his creations, he does sprinkle a pinch or two over his chicken while it's frying in a pan. A bit of sugar helps to caramelize the onions he cooks alongside the meat, and it also apparently improves the flavor of other condiments.

To give Brar's secret ingredient a go, try making this delicious butter chicken recipe. When cooking the chicken pieces, sprinkle a bit of sugar on top. Then when you cook your onions in the same pan, it will help to caramelize them, and make your dish even more delicious.

4. Soy sauce

Like sugar, soy sauce isn't exactly a "secret ingredient." On the contrary, it's a common ingredient used in many parts of the world. According to Statistica, soy sauce is so widely consumed that Japan produces upwards of 700 million liters of it per year.

You may find soy sauce more commonly used in Asian recipes, but this fabulous umami ingredient can enhance all sorts of dishes. One professional chef who utilizes this awesome condiment in her cooking is chef Christina Chaey, who once served as the senior food editor of Bon Appétit. In an interview with FoodSided, Chaey revealed that soy sauce is her secret ingredient for roast turkey. As she told the outlet, "[It] helps with the browning process ... The Kikkoman soy sauce has that kind of ... traditional, reddish brown color. It does a long way toward getting that beautiful color on the roast turkey." Give it a go by trying this roast turkey with sticky rice and hoisin gravy recipe.

5. Chicatanas

Not all secret ingredients are as common as sugar and soy sauce — like chicatanas. The chicatana is a Mexican flying ant with a smoky flavor, according to Specialty Produce. However, this delectable treat is not easy to find, as chicatanas are only collected once per year in the region of Oaxaca. The reason for this scarcity is that these specific ants only emerge from the soil annually, following the first spring rain. Nonetheless, they are a delicacy and personal favorite of Enrique Olvera, head chef at Mexico City's renowned restaurant Pujol.

For Olvera, the flavor of the chicatana is incomparable. In an interview with Condé Nast Traveller, Olvera recalled the first time he encountered these ants: "I saw a woman adding these big ants to the mortar in which she was mixing all the ingredients for the salsa. Their smoky, delicate taste blew my mind." Ever since, Olvera has been known to incorporate this flavorful treat in his recipes. One review of his restaurant on Tripadvisor revealed that Olvera uses the chicatanas to make chili powder, which he adds to corn. To emulate this great Mexican chef, try adding some chicatana powder to the top of this elotes callejeros recipe.

6. Tucupi

Just like chicatanas, tucupi is not always available in North American stores. However, if you find and properly prepare this amazing Amazonian ingredient, the results can be spectacular. According to Condé Nast Traveller, tucupi is a juice made from manioc flour. This flavorful ingredient is originally from northern Brazil, most specifically the state of Pará. In its raw form, the juice is "extremely poisonous" (per Brazilian website Receitarias). However, when cooked for several hours, the juice's acid content is eliminated and it then becomes safe to consume. Because of this, you should learn how to make tucupi from an expert.

One such tucupi expert is Brazilian celebrity chef, Alex Atala. For Atala, tucupi is a secret ingredient that has all but defined northern Brazilian culture. As he told Condé Nast Traveller, "The Amazonian culture revolves around one amazing ingredient: tucupi ... If miso is the taste of Japan, tucupi is the taste of Brazil." The reason Atala enjoys this ingredient so much is the potency of its flavor. "I was fascinated the first time I tasted this juice ... The yellow sauce is rich and tangy." Brazilians enjoy using this flavor as the secret ingredient in anything from roast duck to baked salmon.

7. Milk powder

It's no secret Milk Bar (formerly known as Momofuku Milk Bar) has become something of an institution in the United States. The bakery is known for its iconic treats like the viral Compost Cookie or the mouthwatering Milk Bar Pie, and according to Indigo Digital, it serves more than three million cookies per year.

Milk Bar chef Christina Tosi isn't afraid to talk openly about what goes into her favorite recipes. In an interview with InStyle, Tosi said: "When I'm speaking more about the sweet side of the kitchen, it's milk powder ... It adds this really great richness, depth of flavor, and texture to baked goods." 

To put Tosi's suggestion into action, try this chocolate chip cookie recipe. When mixing the dry ingredients together, add a ¼ of a cup of milk powder to the mix. Then, when you're adding the wet ingredients to the dough, throw in an extra tablespoon of butter. These extra touches will give your cookies a creamier taste and smoother texture. 

8. Caramelized onions

Milk powder isn't the only secret ingredient pastry chef Christina Tosi uses in her cooking. She also recommends incorporating caramelized onions into savory meals, as a way to sweeten them up. When she isn't busy making cookies at her iconic bakery, Milk Bar, Tosi also enjoys making homestyle food for lunch and dinner. As she told InStyle, "When I am cooking at home, my secret ingredient is onion. I love to caramelize onions. I love to char onions." According to the award-winning baker, her love of caramelized onions comes from her sweet tooth. "[Onions] bring this great sweetness. Of course, I like even my savory food to have a dimension of sweetness," Tosi confessed. 

To make caramelized onions, start out by slicing six yellow onions. Make your slices thick enough that they won't wither later in the cooking process. Next, cook your onions in oil in a frying pan for approximately eight minutes. Add a touch of broth, then bring the heat down so the pan is barely hot. Slowly cook your onions for 45 minutes until they have a golden color and a slightly sweet taste.

9. Plantains

Plantains have long been a staple of Caribbean and African cuisines. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, these large banana-like fruits are so versatile they can be boiled down to make something savory, cooked with coconut to create a dessert, or ground into flour. In practice, plantains are often served as a side dish. For example, in Cuban cuisine, fried sweet plantains often accompany a big plate of ropa vieja.

Thanks to its broad usage, the plantain might seem like an unlikely secret ingredient. However, London-based cooking sensation Adejoké Bakare has a totally different take on this starchy fruit. Unlike most culinary professionals, Bakare had the brilliant idea to use fermented plantains as the secret ingredient in ice cream. 

According to an interview with The Guardian, this unique recipe idea was inspired by Bakare's grandmother. "Fermented plantain is fried in palm oil, spiced with chili flakes, then put in a special basket and all the oil is squeezed out. [My grandmother] would sell it on the road and I helped her," the chef said. "I started to introduce it to the menu, but it was such a long process. So the next best thing was to make a fermented plantain ice cream with baobab and a lime granita." Apparently, the results were incredible. "People were really surprised by the stretchy texture of the plantain — very moreish," Bakare said.

10. Apple cider vinegar

As noted by Healthline, apple cider vinegar is great for anything from pest control to washing the kitchen counter, and even cleaning your hair. Over the years, it's become more and more popular, and there are loads of facts you should master about apple cider vinegar.

Beyond its use as a cleaner, apple cider vinegar can add rich and complex flavors to your cooking. According to chef Nathan Outlaw, this ingredient should be a kitchen staple. "Vinegar is probably as important as salt and pepper," Outlaw said in an interview with The Guardian. "It gives balance to everything." Unlike chefs who use white vinegar to pickle their vegetables, Outlaw uses apple cider vinegar. "We're in Cornwall and there's a local cider farm five miles from the restaurant, Haywood Farm. We use their apple cider vinegar for all our pickles."

To replicate Outlaw's apple cider vinegar pickles, follow this guide for how to pickle just about any vegetable, but use apple cider vinegar. For the best results, try to buy a fresh bottle from a local orchard.  

11. Agar-agar

Agar-agar is a gelatin that comes from seaweed, but that doesn't mean it can only be used in savory recipes (via BBC Good Food). For chef James Cochran, agar-agar is best used in sweet recipes and desserts. In an interview with The Guardian, the chef explained: "[Agar-agar] is completely flavorless and comes as a white powder ... Because it has no taste, you can make super clean flavors. It's great with desserts." 

While the idea to add a seaweed-based ingredient to a dessert recipe might not seem like an immediately obvious choice, Cochran's creativity has rendered fabulous results. In fact, he has even come to use agar-agar as the secret ingredient when making a delicious cheesecake. "I make a whipped cheesecake and use [agar-agar] instead of gelatin," he said.

Try using agar-agar to make this vegan lime cheesecake. Unlike gelatin, which is made from animal parts, agar-agar is 100% plant-based.

12. Fish sauce

If you're tired of using the salt shaker, fear not. There are more interesting ways to add a salty taste to your cooking. Some chefs suggest fish sauce to flavor your food. Among them is celebrity chef Dale Talde, best known for appearing on "Top Chef."

For Talde, Vietnamese-style fish sauce isn't just a secret ingredient — It's the ultimate secret ingredient. As he told Yahoo!, fish sauce is his "number one ingredient." True to his word, Talde reported adding a few drops to creations ranging from salad dressing to risotto. While some people might worry fish sauce could overpower the rest of their meal, Talde says the ingredient does the opposite. Ultimately, when used in moderation, this ingredient boosts the other flavors in a dish.

To take a page out of Talde's book, try making these seared scallops with basil risotto. When you start adding Parmesan cheese to your rice, reach for the fish sauce and add a few drops. The flavor will accentuate the creaminess of the risotto. It will also blend well with the taste of the seared scallops.

13. Mascarpone cheese

Silky and smooth mascarpone cheese originated in northern Italy (via Real Simple). This cream cheese has a high-fat content that adds a richness to popular Italian desserts, like tiramisu, as well as adding creaminess to pasta dishes and sauces.

For Italian-American chef Giada De Laurentiis, mascarpone is the secret ingredient to all sorts of recipes. As reported by Cheat Sheet, the chef once went so far as to declare, "I love to use [mascarpone] in both sweet and savory [creations] ... It can be used in place of sour cream or cream cheese." One such creation is De Laurentiis' soft and creamy pumpkin pie (per SheKnows). Rather than mixing the pumpkin with a can of condensed milk, De Laurentiis blends it with a special combination of mascarpone and whipped cream, resulting in a fluffy filling with a deep flavor. 

To try out De Laurentiis's secret ingredient, start with this easy pumpkin pie recipe. However, instead of adding a full cup of whipping cream, add a cup of De Laurentiis' mascarpone/whipped cream blend. 

14. Love

It might seem stereotypical to say your secret ingredient is love, but chef Nicola of Nicola's Pasta Fresca swears by it. This isn't about the love you have for your guests, but the love you have for the food itself. For Nicola, the best thing you can do for a meal is to choose ingredients with care. In an interview with Sickles Market, the chef explained, "[My grandmother] would tell me the secret ingredient to the best-tasting food is the love that you put into the recipe and the quality of hand-picked ingredients." 

Be sure to always choose the freshest foods possible. Whatever you're making, your cooking technique will never be as important as the quality of your ingredients. Of course, there are always ways to rescue wilted vegetables or cut around bruised fruit. However, at the end of the day, it's hard to go wrong with fresh and vibrant ingredients.