Two Mysterious Ingredients That Nearly Every Restaurant Swears By
Spend enough time hanging out in a restaurant kitchen (or watching Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives), and you’ll eventually encounter two mysterious-sounding ingredients that only chefs, and not home cooks, seem to use: browning agent, and beef or chicken base. What the heck are these ingredients, exactly, and should you invest in them?
Browning agent, usually sold under the name brand Kitchen Bouquet, is billed as a “browning and seasoning sauce for meat, gravy, and stew.” It has a mildly vegetal flavor, but it’s primarily used, as the name might imply, to give food a browner color. If it’s brushed on top of meat before it’s cooked, the end result will be a pleasing (if slightly artificial-looking) shade of brown, and adding a small amount to stews and sauces also achieves the same effect. Some steakhouses keep a bottle on hand as a “secret ingredient,” and if roast beef or prime rib (especially at a cheaper steakhouse) seems to have an exterior that’s unnaturally brown, that’s the culprit. So should you keep a bottle around? Up to you: It certainly won’t hurt your food, and a nice “roasty” color is certainly always appreciated, even if it is cheating a little.
As for beef base, it’s actually a paste that lots of chefs use to season roasts, stews, and sauces. Think of it as super-flavorful umami-packed concentrated stock, similar to a bouillon cube, but in our opinion far superior. It gives an extra beefy (or chickeny) kick to meat dishes, and I personally highly recommend always keeping a jar in your fridge (Better Than Bouillon is a good brand, and you can find it at every supermarket). If your gravies are tasting a little wan, a little scoop of beef base will give it that rich, beefy flavor. As opposed to concentrated stocks, beef base actually contains real beef as well as stock, along with umami-rich hydrolyzed soy protein and yeast extract. You can also rub ham base onto your ham before it goes into the oven, add some lobster base to your lobster bisque, or add roasted chicken base to kick up your chicken soup or turkey gravy. Chili base, clam base, fish base, mushroom base, turkey base, seasoned vegetable base, and au jus base are also available, but can be a little harder to find. It’s a secret ingredient definitely worth having in your arsenal.