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12 Ingredients That Will Make You a Better Cook

Ready to add some pizzazz to your favorite dishes? These versatile ingredients will help.

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Instant flavor boosters

If you ask us, “bland” is the worst thing anyone can call our food. We spend so much time planning menus, carefully measuring ingredients, and cleaning up afterward that our food had better be flavorful! Fortunately, you don’t have to scrap a bland meal entirely. Adding a few ingredients will transform your entree or appetizer from “meh” to “magnificent.” Whether you want to take a so-so dish to new heights or add some pizzazz to fail-safe favorites, here are 12 flavor boosters everyone should have in their kitchen. Ready to raise the bar even higher? Try adding these other pantry staples that will make your recipes way better.

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LLANO, TEXAS-DEC 24, 2014: Small bottle of McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract with baked cake in background. Horizontal with copy space.; Shutterstock ID 239758756Warren Price Photography/Shutterstock

Vanilla extract


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Consider vanilla extract the gift that keeps on giving. A consistent crowd-pleaser, it’s sweet enough to satisfy your craving without adding mounds of sugar. Go ahead, add a couple of drops to plain milk, a fruit smoothie, or Amish oatmeal.

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Worcestershire sauce


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There’s a reason Worcestershire sauce is one of the most versatile condiments around: It starts as anchovies fermented in vinegar and includes chili peppers, garlic, onions, salt, and sugar. While the thought of combining sweet, savory, and…well…anchovies…may be cringe-worthy, we have to admit it’s delicious in meatloaf and Bloody Marys. Don’t miss how to fix 17 of your most common cooking disasters.

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Champignon mushrooms on the wooden table. Selective focus.; Shutterstock ID 618976709Kaiskynet Studio/Shutterstock



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Vegetarians are no strangers to this flavor-boosting commodity. Mushrooms are packed with umami (one of the five basic tastes, along with sweetness, saltiness, sourness, and bitterness), which is commonly associated with meats. Whether you eat ’em solo or add a portobello or two to your lasagna, you’ll wind up with a savory—and dare we say meaty—meal.

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Balsamic vinegar; Shutterstock ID 388915489kazoka/Shutterstock

Balsamic vinegar


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Make no mistake, balsamic vinegar isn’t just good on salads. It works with everything. Seriously, everything. The perfect blend of sweet and savory, you can use it on chicken, fruit, or even in popsicles! Choose vinaigrette, glaze, or syrup…the culinary sky’s the limit here. Find out the timeless cooking tips we learned from Grandma.

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Fresh made Mustard on a vintage background (close-up shot); Shutterstock ID 562035217HandmadePictures/Shutterstock



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Ketchup may be the condiment of choice for hamburgers and fries, but when it comes to cooking, it’s all about the mustard. It doesn’t matter if you use a bold Dijon or spicy yellow; mustard is a great addition to salads, sandwiches, and marinades. And did you know it’s great on seafood? Try this dijon-crusted tilapia and see for yourself. Every foodie should know these 25 brilliant kitchen hacks.

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Anyone looking to add some zing to their dinner should pick up some lemons, limes, or oranges. In addition to giving any dish an indisputably fruity flair, the acid in citrus can help balance and enhance your meal’s flavor. This steak and citrus salsa dish packs a punch and will have ’em coming back for seconds. Make sure you’re not committing any of these cooking shortcuts you really can’t get away with.

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vegetable broth; Shutterstock ID 537666007margouillat photo/Shutterstock

Vegetable broth


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If you want to add nuance to steamed broccoli, cook it in vegetable broth. This trick lends a touch of flavor that won’t overpower the rest of the meal. (Hey, meat-eaters! You can substitute chicken broth or beef broth, if you prefer.) Learn the ways to cook everything faster.

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Fresh leeks whole and sliced on a wooden kitchen board; Shutterstock ID 583263889Vitylia/Shutterstock


We love onions as much as the next person, but the smelly breath that follows isn’t doing anyone any favors. Consider trading out onions for leeks. They’re stench-free, plus they’ll add a subtle sweetness to any meal. Already fully on board with leeks? Give this healthy chowder a whirl. These kitchen mistakes are costing you money.

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Cayenne pepper on the wooden floor; Shutterstock ID 418894738Thanatip S./Shutterstock



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Your spice rack is a treasure trove of flavor boosters, but we have a soft spot for cayenne powder. The spicy pepper is mind-blowingly good when cooked into zesty chili, but did you know it’s also good for you? Cayenne is an anti-inflammatory—so blend some into a mug of hot water and fresh lemon juice to get a jump on those early cold symptoms. Don’t make these cooking mistakes that can ruin your food.

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Aged hard cheese


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Put your love of Parmesan and Pecorino Romano to good use by sprinkling it on an arugula salad, pasta, or an omelet. Not only will it add richness, but it also reduces the need for salt. A little bit of cheese goes a long way, so a sliver will give you maximum flavor with minimal calories.

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Everyone knows that a splash of wine can improve chicken Marsala, but adding a quarter-cup or so to the pan after sautéing vegetables or cooking meats will remove the crusty bits from the pan, ultimately bringing that flavor back into the dish. But before you throw any ol’ wine into a recipe, we recommend choosing your bottle with care. The wine’s flavor plays a role in the dish, so if you don’t like drinking it, you probably won’t like eating it. Check out these secret uses for ordinary kitchen gadgets.

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Let us count the ways we love ginger. On its own, ginger is a fantastic palate-cleanser between courses. It’s also a helpful digestive aid. Plus, ginger adds a serious kick to ice cream, hot tea, and even poultry. But fresh ginger isn’t for the faint of flavor, so consider yourself warned. Another way to up your cooking skills: putting these cooking tricks that are only taught in culinary schools to use.

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Taste of Home
Originally Published on Taste of Home

Kelsey Mulvey
Kelsey Mulvey is a New York-based writer. She has written for several publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Time Out New York,,