White pepper in your fruit tart? Black beans in your brownies? Prunes in your pasta sauce? Yes -- but you'd never know. Cooks employing these tricks aren't trying to fool diners; they're simply trying to wow them. And sometimes the path to a culinary wow includes a secret or two.
Secret ingredients are a time-tested trick, according to Maureen Pothier, chairwoman of the culinary arts program at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I. They're included for any of a number of reasons, but usually to balance flavor, reduce fat or add complexity and moisture.
Secret ingredients are not new; witness the popularity of cakes made with ingredients such as mayonnaise or sauerkraut.
Some tips are passed down (from a mentor, Pothier learned to add cocoa to a lamb rub) and some are invented.
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"As chefs grow in their careers, they start experimenting with a lot of different things, and sometimes those things end up being not too obvious," Pothier said. "As you go, you get more confident and realize what works and doesn't."
Consider the tomato sauce she has served at home and at the restaurant in Providence she owned for 18 years. Pothier was considering how to counteract a tomato's acidity when she remembered a sauce she'd had that prominently featured prunes. That sauce was sweet, and she didn't want sweet. But she took the lesson.
"Knowing that I don't want to throw sugar in my food, I looked for an alternative," she said. "The prunes got tossed in one day and it worked." Pothier also adds a dash or two of white pepper in her cream filling for a Clementine tart. The white pepper, she said, adds another dimension to fruit and makes its flavor a little more complex.
Two warnings: A little secret ingredient usually goes a long way. And be careful of allergies.
"You don't want to use peanuts as a secret because there are just too many nut allergies out there," Pothier said. "Or shellfish."