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4 Secret Ingredients Chefs Use and You Can Too

To make restaurant-quality masterpieces at home, get a handle on some of the ingredients used in professional kitchens, from citric acid to pectin.

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Citric acid adds sour flavor without introducing any extra liquid.

If you've ever eaten at one of the world's best restaurants, you've probably wondered what wizardry went on behind the scenes to create those silky-smooth sauces, nature-defying meat courses and tantalizing desserts. And you may also have wondered how you could possibly reproduce those results in your own kitchen. Well, while we'd never discount the importance of creativity and training, the first step toward re-creating those elaborate dishes is simple: Take a peek at what's on the chef's shelves. You'll likely find a whole arsenal of secret ingredients, from citric acid to xanthan gum.


The second step toward achieving restaurant magic at home is to learn a thing or two about those ingredients, and fortunately, you've come to the right place. At ChefSteps, it's our mission to empower home cooks, even if that means spilling a few restaurant secrets. So here's our guide to four powerful powders—citric acid, melting salts, transglutaminase and pectin—that will help you start manipulating texture and flavor like a world-class chef.



Citric Acid

You've most likely heard of citric acid, which lends citrus fruits their signature sourness. But did you know chefs often use it in place of lemon juice or vinegar to make those tongue-tingling sauces and bright desserts you ooh and aah over? Because citric acid comes in powder form, you can use it to add an intense pop of flavor without introducing extra liquid. Try a pinch in next Sunday's hollandaise, or swap it in for lemon juice in a nice, gooey lemon curd.

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With melting salts, you can make a smooth, creamy sauce out of your favorite cheese.

Melting Salts

If only there were some way to keep the flawlessly smooth texture of processed cheese products but replace their bland, oily taste with interesting flavors. It turns out there's a class of ingredients that do just that. Melting salts -- including sodium citrate, the salt of citric acid -- keep the fats in cheese from separating from the proteins. With the help of these salts, you can use grown-up cheeses, from Gruyère to chevre, wherever you'd normally be stuck with processed cheddar. Even crumbly blue cheese will melt into a smooth topping for gourmet burgers or creamy base for a cheesy sauce.

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Transglutaminase can bind together multiple cuts of meat.

Transglutaminase (Activa)

Transglutaminase, commonly sold under the brand name Activa, is a naturally occurring enzyme that binds high-protein foods together. Also called "meat glue," this unassuming powder does exactly what the nickname suggests: Sprinkle some on two separate cuts, stick them together, and let them rest in the fridge, and you'll end up with a single slab of meat.


Chefs use transglutaminase to hold together roulades and surimi or to combine thin cuts of meat into thicker cuts that cook more evenly. Vegetarians can get in on the fun too: Use this handy powder to make veggie burgers that stick together in the pan or to sculpt peas into exotic shapes that will give your homemade meal the look of a bank-breaking prix fixe dinner.


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Use pectin to make fruity fillings and toppings for your favorite desserts.


If you've ever tried your hand at preserving fruit, you've probably heard of pectin. In nature, this complex carbohydrate is found in the cell walls of plants, where it helps provide structure, so it's no surprise that in the kitchen, it's most often used to make jams. But that's not all pectin can do. Use it to gel or stabilize gummy candies, fruity sauces and all sorts of sweet creations.


Don't have much of a sweet tooth? With traditional pectin, you'd be out of luck: the powder your aunt stirred into her famous end-of-summer preserves won't gel without a great deal of sugar. But a special variety, low-methoxyl or LM pectin, relies on calcium instead, opening up all sorts of new possibilities for low-sugar gels and confections.


Try It Yourself!

The next step? Order your supply of secret ingredients; most are easy to find online, from Amazon or specialty stores. Then whip up your own kitchen magic. Your imagination -- and your shelf space -- are the only limits.