These Secret Ingredients Will Take Your Cooking to Another Level

For generations, home cooks have discovered ingenious and unexpected uses for everyday ingredients. Taste of Home Community Cooks share their favorite secret ingredients, and the surprising ways they use them.

What is your secret ingredient?Photo: Shutterstock / gpointstudio

Raisins in lasagna? Sauerkraut in cake? Whether born from economy, experimentation in the kitchen, or a desire to use up leftovers, home cooks have long had their own unexpected and secret ingredients in delicious dishes both savory and sweet. I asked fellow Taste of Home Community Cooks to share their favorite top-secret ingredient.

1. Black Beans

They are delicious on nachos and in soups, but have you ever tried them in a brownie? Really! Black beans add moisture and protein to brownies and surprisingly, no bean taste. Additionally, when black beans are used in place of flour, the result is a decadent, gluten-free treat. Ann Sheehy of Lawrence, Massachusetts, loves this recipe for rich and chocolaty Black Bean Brownies.

2. Mayonnaise

So much more than just a sandwich spread, mayonnaise is a secret ingredient home cooks love to use for beautifully moist baked goods. Allison Ochoa of Hays, Kansas, has a family recipe for a rich Chocolate Cake made with mayonnaise, and Deborah Pennington of Decatur, Alabama, uses it as her secret ingredient for succulent cornbread. Try mayonnaise in these sweet Honey Cinnamon Bars, too!

3. Raisins

We love raisins in our sweet breads, cakes and cookies, but would you ever expect to find them in lasagna? It sounds strange, but raisins in this recipe actually complement the sweetness of the Italian sausage that’s layered into the casserole. Raisins also bring the sweet to the sweet-and-savory party in dishes like chili and beef stew.

4. Baby Food

It’s not just for the little ones anymore! These unassuming jars hold perfectly pureed, not-too-sweet blends of fruits and veggies that are perfect, time-saving ingredients for flavorful baked goods. Baby food prunes create a delicious Chocolate Cake. A blend of apple, apricot and carrot baby foods are used in these Carrot Cake Bars, and jarred plums in this lightly spiced cake.

5. Sauerkraut

It’s difficult to imagine this strong, cabbagey condiment in anything other than a savory dish. Somewhere along the way though, clever cooks discovered that when it is rinsed to wash away the sour flavor, sauerkraut provides a lovely texture and moistness to baked goods. Dawn Lowenstein of Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, and Ruth Hartunian-Alumbaugh of Willimantic, Connecticut, recommend trying it in this chocolate cake, and Ann Sheehy of Lawrence, Massachusetts, likes sauerkraut baked into rye bread.

6. Soda

Sodas are sugary and strongly flavored, and so are perfect for adding sweetness and zing to many savory dishes! Cindy Reams of Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, puts a whole can of Pepsi into her beef chili, and cola is also the central ingredient in this glazed chicken recipe. Root beer is a tasty braising liquid for barbecue pulled pork, and ginger ale makes a sweet-spicy glaze for baked ham.

7. Chocolate

Great news, chocolate lovers: You can get your fix at dessert and at dinner. Chocolate is a common ingredient in traditional Mexican cuisine, and just a small amount adds a huge depth of flavor and richness to savory dishes. Jennifer Patterson of Shoshone, Idaho, recommends adding chocolate to chilis. Try it in this slow cooker pot roast recipe, and also in Chicken Mole Casserole.

8. Coffee

Like chocolate, coffee is the surprising ingredient in many savory recipes that gives oomph and richness to the base flavors in these dishes. Plain pork chops get a boost thanks to coffee in the marinade, and Mary Anne Thygesen of Portland, Oregon, loves how coffee enhances the flavor of these Slow Cooker Potluck Beans.

9. Velveeta

And the most surprising top-secret ingredient revelation came from Jennifer Stowell of Montezuma, Iowa, who shared the tip of using Velveeta processed cheese… in fudge! This Surprise Fudge recipe uses cubed Velveeta in combination with vanilla extract, butter, sugar and nuts. Taste of Home reviewers who tried this recipe say the fudge is really creamy and delicious, and does not taste one bit like cheese.

Think your family can guess the secret of these dishes? Give the recipes a try, and find your new favorite, top-secret ingredient!

The Ingredients in These Recipes Will Surprise (and Delight) You
1 / 15

Popular Videos

Nancy Mock
Discovering restaurants, tasting bakery treats, finding inspiration in new flavors and regional specialties—no wonder Nancy loves being a food and travel writer. She and her family live in Vermont and enjoy all things food, as well as the beautiful outdoors, game nights, Avengers movies and plenty of maple syrup. Find Nancy’s writing and recipes at her website: Hungry Enough To Eat Six.