My Favorite Secret-Weapon Ingredients for Plant-Based Cooking

©. Melissa Breyer

For flavor, depth and texture, these simple vegan staples work like magic.

I love cooking and food so much that when I go on vacation, I do my souvenir shopping at grocery stores. I've hauled the strangest and most beautiful things home, canned and dried delicacies from all over the world have found a place in my kitchen and eventually my family's meals. I am just smitten with ingredients, which has been a good thing since I'm often (happily) tasked with making food to suit a variety of diets and preferences. Members of my household swing from vegan to omnivore, and extended family provides a whole other array of quirks; but even so, my arsenal of ingredients rarely fails me.

Most of my cooking is vegan and vegetarian, which I've been doing since I was 12 years old. While I think that plants on their own are absolutely delicious, coaxing the most flavor out of them is not only fun, but works well to keep the omnivores happy as well. With that in mind, the following 10 ingredients are my go-to staples that never let me down.

1. Miso paste

Miso paste is basically umami – that elusive fifth taste – in a jar. It is so savory and deep and delicious, and adds a satisfaction factor to things in the same way I think meaty flavors would. It is the perfect stand-in for anchovies (like, in a Ceasar salad), and adds depth to soups and pasta dishes; rubbed on vegetables – eggplant, winter squash, you name it – before roasting is transformative.

2. Dried mushrooms

Also great for umami and their concentrated flavor, but excellent for texture as well. There are many kinds, so I suggest trying different ones to find what you like; personally, I love them all! I use shiitake, wood ear, matsutake, morel, trumpet, chanterelle and the real workhorse, porcini. They need to be reconstituted with hot water, but then you have two ingredients: A rich flavorful broth as well as the toothsome mushrooms themselves. I adore mushroom barley soup using both components, plus fresh button mushrooms for extra texture. Great in soups, stews, stir fries, pasta, pizza, etcetera.

3. Roasted jalapeno

Raw jalapeno is nice, roasting one transforms it into something else entirely. That sharp bright pepper flavor turns into a smoky sweet spiciness that can add a surprising little something in unexpected places. I almost don't make pesto without adding some; it's also amazing in hummus, vegetarian chili and bean soups, salsa and anywhere else you can think of. They are quick to roast if you have a gas stove; just put it on the open flame and turn it with tongs until all sides are black and blistering. Once cool, wipe off most of the charred skin and use accordingly. (As always, when handling hot peppers, wash your hands well after.)

4. Bragg Liquid Aminos

This darling from the 60s health food movement has endured and remains a perpetual favorite among wholesome eaters. Also derived from soybeans, it tastes a lot like soy sauce, but it is non-GMO and is gluten-free; and as its name suggests, it boasts a whole party of naturally occuring essential and non-essential amino acids. I get it in the spray bottle and use it in salads, salad dressings, on vegetables, in rice and grain dishes, in soups and beans, stir fries, marinades and anywhere else I might need a salty/umami spritz.

5. Good olive oil

I realize that a lot of kitchens have olive oil in this day and age, but that doesn't mean it doesn't deserve a shout-out. It is powerful stuff! Lately I've been trying something I learned fromThomas Keller, which is to mostly use other vegetable oils for cooking and use olive oil mostly for finishing/dressing a dish. (Previously I've predominantly cooked with olive oil, despite its low smoking point.) This has meant more splurging in the olive oil department, and the discovery of all the amazing flavors it has to offer, from spicy and peppery to sweet, grassy and nutty. And lo and behold, I now love olive oil more than butter, which used to be my favorite food group.

6. Nutritional yeast

The unfortunately named nutritional yeast is a super staple for vegans for both its nutrients (especially protein and B-complex vitamins) and its flavor. It is a yeast grown on molasses and comes in powder form; it is inactive, so it doesn't have leavening power like other yeasts used in the kitchen. My household has been using it for so long I don't remember if it is an acquired taste or not. It is a little different in flavor, but it's that distinctive flavor – with its nutty and cheesy umami personality – that makes it such a great stand in for cheese. I mean, not like cheese as in cheese and crackers, but anywhere you might use grated cheese. Like, popcorn, on top of pasta or in pasta sauces, to replace the parmesan in pesto, in salads ... and really just sprinkled anywhere you want an extra sprinkle of depth and flavor.

7. Smoked paprika

Sweet paprika is a classic; smoked paprika is its exotic sultry sister. It's got so much smoky spicy flavor that just a dash of it can bring all the goodness of barbecue right to a dish, no animals required. Try it on popcorn with flake sea salt, good olive oil, and nutritional yeast and you can test four of my favorites in one place.

8. Maple syrup

I probably use maple syrup more for savory dishes than I do for pancakes and their friends. For me, that perfect balance of sweet-salty-spicy creates a ringing harmony that rivals, I don't know, ABBA? For instance, marinating/brushing eggplant or winter squash in soy sauce (or Braggs) with maple syrup and cayenne before roasting brings out all the best parts of the vegetable and results in a beautifully meaty-not-meaty dish that is super satisfying. Maple syrup also pairs wonderfully with dijon (or wasabi, yum) for a honey-mustard kind of relationship.

9. Dried seaweed

For a long time I assumed that dried seaweed was pretty much limited to the nori sheets used for snacking and to make sushi rolls, and some other random assorted seaweed-salad seaweeds exclusive to Japanese restaurants. Oh my goodness I was so wrong. There are so many amazing kinds of sea vegetables and they are so nutritious and have so many uses – and best of all, of course, is that they are so delicious. They are very full of flavor; savory, sweet, salty, earthy ... and come in a range of types and textures. They can be used as a seasoning or as a stand-alone vegetable; in salads, stirred into soup, tossed in noodles, you can even roll things up in sheets of nori. Brilliant, right? They differ in preparation, but most packages will have instructions for use.

10. Citrus zest

I'm adding this one because it's an ingredient that almost always ends up dying an ignominious death in the compost or trash can, and that's just a crying shame. I absolutely adore lemon zest; so much that in my dark-humor imagination, lemons call me the lemon torturer when they see me coming with my microplane. Citrus zest adds all the deep orange/lemon/lime flavor without the tart punch (which I love too, it's just different). Our go-to green salad is a bowl of big mixed leaves dressed with olive oil, a little balsamic, sea salt and loads of lemon zest. It is so much more delicious than its parts; zest just brings a bright dimension to nearly every plant-based dish I can think of. At this point, I can't imagine guacamole without lime zest or asparagus without lemon zest (and olive oil and flake sea salt; are you seeing a theme here?). So whenever you use citrus, embrace the zest as well!

You can use a citrus zesting tool, a microplane, or the smallest holes of a cheese grater; you can also use a vegetable peeler or even a knife, just be sure to avoid the white pith which can be bitter. You can freeze juiced halves and zest them as needed, or you can make the zest and then freeze it on its own. You can also dry it and use it like that, or pack zest in sugar or salt for savory or sweet applications. If you are using citrus already, consider the zest a free ingredient.

Bonus! Flake sea salt

I know, salt seems basic beyond even worth mentioning so this is just an add-on ... but while some people have sweet tooths, I have a salty one, as one look in my pantry would tell you. I have so many kinds of salt, it's kind of silly, but my go-to is Maldon sea salt flakes. Different from finely ground salt, which seasons something over all, and course salt, which offers big hard crystals, flake salt is great for finishing and gives little crispy pops of salt that don't overpower and don't break your teeth. It gives lots of pizzazz in a way that elevates the seasoned ingredient, so that, for instance, a lovely raw radish becomes extra spicy and vibrant, or avocado drizzled with lemon and olive oil becomes somehow even more dynamic.

So there you have it; a handful of super simple secret weapons for vegan cooking. One really doesn't need a lot of fancy meat and dairy substitutes to make the most from an animal-free diet – just some basic staples used purposefully and a bit of creativity to explore the power of plants.