Every avid cook (and baker) has things they swear by in their cooking and baking. Particular ingredients, brand names to buy, methods, etc. I have many quirky things that I do or ingredients that I buy that I feel make a difference and I want to share a few of the critical ingredients I’ve found that can help elevate your cooking and baking to the next level with minimal effort.

Fresh Garlic: Garlic does not have to be intimidating, I promise! Of all the main dish recipes I have on this here blog, I’m guessing that at least 96.3% of them call for minced garlic. Because bulbs of garlic are not overly pricey, that is what I always use. Fresh garlic can elevate an everyday pasta dish to be completely out of this world. It has a flavor like you can’t get from garlic powder, garlic salt or even the preminced garlic.
Check out a simple garlic tutorial on how to conquer those pesky little cloves.

Fresh Ginger: Ginger is such a unique ingredient. It scared the bejeebies out of me the first time I went to buy it. It is brown and ugly and is morphed into all sorts of weird knobbies and shapes. But again, like garlic, fresh ginger will make your dishes pop with flavor. While the taste of ginger inspires lovers or haters, I am definitely a lover. It adds a complexity you can’t get with any other ingredient. I buy big knobs of ginger, peel them with a sharp paring knife and then cut them into 1-inch chunks and store them in a freezer-safe ziploc bag in the freezer. When I need them, I simply pull out a chunk and grate it on my rasp grater. Not only does the ginger grate more finely than I could achieve with a knife, but it keeps the ginger from going moldy in my fridge.
here for a picture how-to on grating ginger.

Fresh Parmesan Cheese: A few years ago, my Aunt Marilyn, was telling me how she always uses fresh Parmesan cheese (meaning she shreds it herself from a large block) in her cooking. I didn’t dare admit to her at the time that I used the preshredded stuff in the bag or plastic tubs. I mean, it was real cheese, so I didn’t think there was much difference. Her comment plagued me until I finally bought a block of Parmesan cheese myself. And shredded it. And used it in a pasta dish (I think this one, actually). And had a hard time not eating the rest of the block of cheese plain. It was so fresh and creamy and salty and flavorful. And I’ve never looked back. My kids have gotten so used to me having a large chunk of Parmesan cheese around that my five-year old often asks for a thick slice of it for his after school snack. It truly is a step above buying it already shredded, which can be stale and overly salty. I have found the best bang for my buck is to buy a large wedge of Parmesan at Sam’s Club. I get it home, immediately remove it from the black plastic it is wrapped in and store it in a ziploc bag. It lasts for a long time. Be sure to cut the rind off before shredding – you can throw the Parmesan rind in homemade spaghetti sauce and other pasta sauces to deepen the flavor.

Pure Vanilla Extract: According to Cook’s Illustrated, which is the Consumer Reports of the cooking and baking world, if you are buying ONE bottle of vanilla extract and using it for all your baking needs, including cakes and puddings, use pure vanilla extract. Interestingly, tasters couldn’t tell a difference in cookies made with pure or imitation vanilla (although the specific brand of imitation vanilla they used that ranked so high is hard to find – other imitation brands are terrible and very harsh tasting), but they could definitely spot the difference in cakes, puddings and other goods. I highly recommend using pure vanilla extract – the purpose of vanilla is to heighten our tastes for other foods, including chocolate. And I’m all about being able to taste more chocolate. Again, the best buy I’ve found is buying the pure vanilla extract at Sam’s Club – much, much cheaper than buying it in little bottles at the grocery store.

Fresh Lemons:I don’t know what it is about the taste of fresh lemon juice but it can brighten up so many dishes to a whole new level. Here’s the thing: bottled lemon juice just doesn’t cut it. It isn’t as sharp and fresh as well…a fresh lemon. Because lemons are usually fairly cheap and available year round, I always, always keep at least three or four in my produce drawer at any given time. A little hint: to get the most juice out of that little squirt, microwave the lemon for 10 seconds before cutting and juicing.

Although I have a few more tricks up my sleeve, that’s probably enough for now so I don’t run the risk of being an utter food snob. Feel free to leave any questions or input in the comments!

30 Responses to Critical Ingredients and Simple Tips

  1. […] My Kitchen Cafe pointed out how using fresh ingredients (garlic, ginger, Parmesan cheese, lemons) and pure vanilla extract can make a huge difference in cooking. […]

  2. […] My Kitchen Cafe pointed out how using fresh ingredients (garlic, ginger, Parmesan cheese, lemons) and pure vanilla extract can make a huge difference in cooking. […]

  3. meyer says:

    I second that! Great tutorial!
    Ken Meyer

  4. Your garlic tutorial is excellent. I forwarded it to tons of people.
    Julia Sanderson Jones
    Nashua, Iowa (Old Bradford)

  5. Mel says:

    t3 – I’ve never even thought about buying lemons online but I’m glad that you have the option if you don’t have access to fresh lemons. I normally use the lemons I find in the grocery store and I’ll be perfectly honest, I have no idea what variety they are. Just everyday lemons. I don’t have access to meyer lemons (at least for a price I’m willing to pay), so I’m sorry to say that I don’t have any recipes.

  6. T3 says:

    I liked your list so much I have passed it along to several friends. You are absolutely spot on when you say the taste of fresh lemon juice “can brighten up so many dishes.” Where we live we don’t have ready access to fresh lemons so I order them online at http://www.buy-lemons-online.com/ which delivers fresh lemons picked right off the tree and shipped direct. A question I have regarding your recipe is what kind of lemons do you use? Eureka lemons? Or Lisbon lemons? Also, do you have any recipes for Sweet Meyer Lemons?
    Thanks a million for these terrific tips
    Thanks a million

  7. leslie says:

    A food snob? I think not!! I agree with each one of your tips. But wait..maybe I am a food snob too!!! lol

  8. Motion DeSmiths says:

    Amen. This is the true gospel of delicious foods' basic commandments.I would like to add, when you buy fresh Parmesan it should be the kind with a rind. Parmesan cheese without a rind is PACKAGED LIES!I like to buy the big block of Parmesano Reggiano at Costco, cut it into usable bits, and cut off the rind. I save the rind in a bag in my cheese drawer and add it to soups and sauces (like a bay leaf–you just leave it in there for hours and take it out when serving). You would not believe the depth it adds to your dishes.

  9. Katy ~ says:

    I'm in all four corners with you on these. All essential in my kitchen too!!

  10. Melanie says:

    Thanks for your comments everyone. A few follow-ups:Nichelle – I'm not a real Rachael Ray watcher, and while I've tried a few of her recipes, I don't know her cooking style well enough to glean tips – most of my tips come from other random chefs on the Food Network, Cook's Illustrated or my own experience. Stacie – thank you for your comment! So glad the sweet and sour chicken and caramel bars were a hit. I really appreciate everything you said – thank you!Lauren – amen to real butter!

  11. Stacie says:

    I've been reading your blog for about a month now, and I thought I would introduce myself and say THANK YOU! I am so in love with your blog right now and wish I would have found it sooner…instead I will spend nearly hours at a time poring over your recipes and tips. Everything we have tried so far has been excellent. My huaband especially loved the Sweet and Sour Chicken and I gobbled down the Oatmeal Caramel and Chocolate Bars.I also really love posts like this one with tips about how to improve my cooking in small and simple ways. Your blog appeals to me in so many ways. I love your organization, your pictures, and descriptions. The recipes feel approachable, but take me out of my comfort zone just enough to help me improve and keep me coming back for more. I will definitely check back often and will send my friends and family too. Thank you!

  12. Melanie says:

    annebabe – are you sure you really want to know all this? Hmmm, this might be a bit lengthy:1) My guidelines for processed foods are always growing. Five years ago I wasn't selective at all about what I bought. I've changed a lot of my preferences but still have a long way to go. I set little goals all the time, like this month I will forever be done buying pancake syrup, or whatever it might be. Other than condensed soups, I avoid almost any product that has high fructose corn syrup, artificial food coloring or MSG, including yogurts with HFCS, juices, breads, most crackers and cereals. I've found brands in all of those areas that have a less processed ingredient list. I also stay away from any prepackaged dinners like Hamburger Helper, frozen pizzas, macaroni and cheese, canned raviolis (sick-o-rama), and on and on. The only canned goods I buy consistently are diced tomatoes, tomato paste, green chilies, some bean varieties and occasionally canned fruit in pear juice. I don't buy fruit snacks or those kind of treats for my kids (I buy them natural fruit leather instead or make my own). My philosophy is mainly to try to buy as many whole foods as I can – the less processing the better. Like I said, I have a long way to go but am making baby steps. It kind of makes me sick sometimes to turn a product around and look at the label and see what kind of synthetic junk is in a lot of our foods. 2) When I say "adapted from" on a recipe, it means I've changed something about the recipe significant from the original source. Sometimes that's based on what I have on hand (like I sub a fresh jalapeno for a can of green chiles, etc.) and a lot of times, now that I am cooking more, I can look at a recipe and kind of spot areas that I want to change based on my family's tastes or ingredients I either never use or are too expensive. I like to sub ingredients in and out to see if they will work. Almost every recipe I post on my blog I've made at least twice so I can fine tune it, although occasionally I'll make something that is just so stinking good, I can't wait to post it! I always post the recipe exactly how I made it, even if that means I've made changes from the original. 3) Embarrassing as it is to bring me out of my food nerdiness, I try at least 4-6 new recipes a week. My main philosophy for my cooking blog is to only post recipes that I would make again and again. Sadly, of the 4-6 new recipes I try a week (and even the ones I create out of my own little head), only about 50% are "blog-worthy." It's frustrating to waste the ingredients but usually it gives me an idea of something I can try to make myself – even better than the recipe that failed.Ok, that was way too much info. Thanks for asking, though!

  13. Melanie says:

    Julianne – I use fresh lemon juice in pasta dishes that aren't tomato based (like a simple light sauce made with olive oil and garlic). I'll just squeeze half a lemon over the pasta or grate a teaspoon of zest into the sauce. Fresh lemon juice is also great in rice and bean concoctions (kind of like Tami's salad). I don't squeeze my ol' lemons on EVERYTHING but I've found simple dishes benefit most from the lift in flavor.

  14. Lauren says:

    I would agree- but have to add real butter! Margarine, spreads, etc. are just nasty, and who knows what the heck all those ingredients are. I'd much rather eat something that I know what it is, even if it is a little fattier. Plus, it tastes better!

  15. grace says:

    sadly, the only things in your list that i keep on hand are fresh garlic and pure vanilla extract. i just don't use parmesan or ginger that much (can you guess which spice i use instead?). i'm starting to appreciate the zing of fresh lemon juice though, so that may be added to the staple list soon. great tips!

  16. Amanda says:

    Agreed, but I have to suggest you try Pecorino Romano (Locatelli) instead of the Parm. It is amazing.

  17. renee says:

    cheese is my all time fav food! and parm is one of the best! i always wonder where the best deal is because in the grocery you see a SUPER SMALL block and it's really expensive! thanks for the sam's tip!!!!

  18. megan says:

    I totally agree with you on the fresh parmesan cheese! I just started using it recently and it makes a complete difference!I'll admit, I do tend to use the minced garlic, but if it's a special dish I'll chop my own.Also agree with you on the fresh ginger, but I'm too lazy to add it to too many things. 🙂

  19. Gillie says:

    Not a snob, you just like real food! I can never understand recipes that call for garlic salt/poder etc. Yuck, sorry! I'd add limes to the list too otherwise I totally agree!

  20. Sonya says:

    I never thought about freezing the ginger. I will try it for sure since many of my new recipes have ginger in them. I agree on fresh parm cheese. It is so yummy peeled w/ a potato peeler and eaten with crackers for a snack.Thanks for some great tips.

  21. Nichelle says:

    do you get any of your ideas from rachael ray?

  22. Anonymous says:

    Another bonus of using fresh lemons instead of 'lemon juice' is that you can use the peel which holds all the super tangy lemony oils.One of my favorite recipes (which uses three of these wonderful ingredients) is what I call 'chili-lemon-rocket-asparagus spaghetti', which has lots of minced garlic, fresh grated parmesan and a good squeeze of lemon juice and the grated peel. Yum!

  23. Chrissy says:

    Good tips.. have to agree preshredded cheese loses flavor… fresh ginger, garlic and lemon u can't go wrong.

  24. annebabe says:

    love your trade secrets!!few questions while we are the on subject of you sharing your infinite wisdom with the blogging world:1) In your profile (and in numerous recipe posts) you profess an interest in staying away from processed foods. Besides condensed soup (gag) what else do you considered processed foods? velveeta? etc? Just curious.2) many of your recipes will say "slightly adapted or adapted" at the bottom. Are you adapting it to your family's specific tastes, for example, extra cheese because that's how you like it? That would account for adapting it. Or are you making things twice? For example, once the exact way the original recipe calls for, but then didn't like the end result? So then you make it again and tweaked the amount of baking soda and voila, loved it and then posted it? Or are you just that good/experienced in the kitchen, that all you have to do is look at a recipe and think, this would taste much better if I upped the oregano and garlic? So you make the recipe your way and post the original recipe with you adaptations? 3) on average- out of the number of new recipes you try a week, or month, how many are hits? 50%? 95%? Few things bug me more than wasting time and ingredients on something that didn't turn out well. alright, that's it for now, thanks for always sharing!!

  25. melanie says:

    melanie, i LOVE your blog! i created my shopping list using your guide and we are having one of your dishes every night. we have yet to find something we don't like. thank you!i agree with everything you posted except i have never tried fresh parmesan, i will just add that to my grocery list. 🙂

  26. Julianne says:

    Dang. I meant "threw away" my ginger and not "through away". Darn.

  27. Julianne says:

    Nice!I too have become a fresh parmesan cheese lover and believer. It is so much better, and really, I think it lasts about triple the amount of time a bag of it does, plus it tastes just wonderful. So the expense you pay up front for the little block of it, I think, more than makes up for itself over time.Wish I would've known you could freeze fresh ginger. I recently through away my first bulbous purchase of it b/c it finally went moldy sitting in our fridge. Boo.Fresh lemons! I just don't know when to use lemons…you know, when it will "heighten" a dish and when it will make you wish you could cry because it is too much. Any hints there?Fresh garlic = A MUST! The taste is so much better than the bottled stuff (though I'd rather have the bottled stuff than nothing). But I do use garlic powder when I am just being too lazy to deal with the garlic cloves. Which isn't too often, b/c the garlic cloves just aren't hard. I'm just lazy.And that shouldn't shock anyone.

  28. jaesi says:

    whole-heartedly AGREE!You are a smart women.

  29. Livin Local says:

    Amen to the list, especially the parm.

  30. doublebatch says:

    I say AMEN to everything you shared! Thanks for reminding me that I need to get back to using fresh ginger. I don't cook or bake with it nearly as often as I should.L-O-V-E your blog!

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