Brow Beat

The Term “Secret Ingredient” May Be Overused—but This One Is Both Subtle and Amazing

This post originally appeared on Food52.

“Secret ingredient” is a term that’s tossed around much too casually. (I’ve tried to use it judiciously when explaining this column, Genius Recipes, but you can be the judge of that.) What we need more of are the true secret ingredients—the ones that filter in without announcing themselves, but leave everything better in their wake. I’ve seen pickle juice do this for mushroomsred onions for balsamic vinaigrette.

I found a really good one recently while taking a class with David Mawhinney, Culinary Director and Executive Chef at Haven’s Kitchen—a trick for making tomato sauce taste so good that you assume the tomatoes must have been grown by monks on a biodynamic farm, irrigated with anchovies or MSG. Or at least that the sauce must have been carefully constructed with garlic and onions and just the right blend of herbs. Nope, none of this.

Mawhinney tosses fresh pasta with butter and a fine dusting of lemon zest, then with a tomato sauce made from little more than coarsely grated roma tomatoes, simmered down to a marinara-like consistency (see my dramatic recreation in the video above). He finishes with Parmesan, tapping the same Microplane he used on the lemon. 

“Lemon zest adds a brightness,” he told me. “Without adding additional acid (already provided by the fresh tomato). The addition of a small knob of butter supplies richness and helps bind everything together.” Just be sure to add the zest just at the end, he points out—reheating will kill the fragrance and will make everything taste like ordinary tomatoes again.

Try this with the last of this season’s tomatoes before they flee the market. See if anyone can guess your secret.

Got a genius recipe (or tip!) to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what’s so smart about it) at kristen@food52.com.

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