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!