Food writer and Eater's editor-at-large Helen Rosner has the simplest secret-ingredient tip in all of cookendom.
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2 failproof ways to make all food better: add lemon juice (just before eating) to anything savory, add a sprinkle of salt to anything sweet
— Helen Rosner (@hels) May 29, 2017
Transforming a dish with one new ingredient feels magical, like you're the Ratatouille rat chomping on a big mouthful of cheese and strawberry. It inspires some people to carry around hot sauce or a proprietary salt mix. It's especially revelatory to those of us who grew up on the bland flavours of the US Midwest.
Other universal add-ons include:
- Savoury dishes: Hot sauce or chilli powder for heat, fish sauce for saltiness and umami, MSG (if you agree that it's safe) for umami
- Sauces: A pinch of sugar to balance tartness
- Rice dishes: Sesame oil to deepen flavours
- Mexican/South American cuisine: Lime (as a climate-matched alternative to lemon)
- Vegan dishes: Nutritional yeast for nutrients and umami, smoked paprika for a bacon-like smokiness
But above all, salt and lemon. In the cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat, Samin Nosrat writes, "Salt has a greater impact on flavour than any other ingredient." She talks about a chef who added three heaping palmfuls of salt to Nosrat's polenta. She was terrified, but she tasted it: "The corn was somehow sweeter, the butter richer. All of the flavours were more pronounced... No matter how I tried, the word salty did not apply."
Nosrat's favoured acid is vinegar; she has a similar story of adding vinegar to a carrot soup, afraid it would turn into "a sweet-and-sour abomination", but finding it brought out the flavours of "the butter and oil, the onions and stock, even the sugar and minerals within the carrots". Still, she makes room for "a hit of acid at the very last seconds" from a freshly squeezed lemon, lime or orange. "The volatile aromatic molecules disperse over time," which is why the lemon in a restaurant entrée is served on the plate for you to squeeze yourself.
Rosner recommends fresh lemon in her excellent soup recipe called "Roberto", which is written with inexperienced cooks in mind and has descriptions such as "[The sausage] should look speckled with dark spots, like a leopard or a cute dog".