My top five flavour bombs: The kitchen cupboard must-haves to cheat your way to flavourful food

If I could cook low and slow every day, I would. It’s the simplest way to get the best flavour out your curries, chillies and ragus. You cannot beat that stick-to-the-pot, dense, deep flavour that can only be achieved by letting something render down to the point of jamminess, only to be rehydrated when the time is just right.

But! But… I don’t have the time to do this and to be perfectly honest, even if I do, most of the time I don’t really want to let something cook so long that I’m eating near bedtime. My stomach wouldn’t let it happen, either.

So for weekday evenings, when I desperately want something that would usually require hours of cooking, there are a few things I always reach for to fake that deep, umami goodness.

1.  Tinned anchovies

DO NOT SCROLL PAST THIS IF YOU THINK YOU HATE ANCHOVIES. Seriously. I love fresh anchovies but couldn’t stand the tinned ones for many, many years. I like them now but you don’t have to like them to use them in your cooking. Trust me on this one.

Have you ever tasted a pasta sauce or risotto and thought to yourself, this is okay but it needs a lil’ something something? That can be solved with anchovies. So many dishes fall flat because they’re missing those layers of flavour, that umami base that makes people go ‘oooh’ but they’re not quite sure why.

Cook three to four anchovy fillets in oil (you can use the oil from the tin or jar) alongside your onion and garlic – whatever you’re frying off for your base. After just a few minutes, they’ll have almost completely dissolved, leaving you with a delicious oily paste that melts away into your sauce. You’ll barely know it’s there.

2. Marmite/Vegemite

Now, the reason I just said don’t scroll past if you think you don’t like anchovies, is because I fucking HATE marmite. I cannot explain how much I despise the stuff. I know it’s divisive but I really think it is disgusting and don’t understand how people can spread something like that on toast and be like ‘mmmm’. ANYWAY. 

I discovered this little trick when I was short on stock while making a chilli and knew that marmite had a super bitter, savoury flavour. So against all my natural marmite-hating instincts, I decided to take a punt and chucked in a few teaspoons. Turns out, it makes chilli taste amazing and has since become my go-to for making my chilli con carne extra special every time.

All in all, I’d say I use about a tablespoon of Marmite for a four person chilli, so do what you will with that information. All I will say is that it’s best to do a little at a time so you don’t end up with marmite-con-carne.

3. Mushroom power

I rave about mushroom powder so much that I’m sure people think I’m fully mushroom-mental. Honestly though, it’s changed my life and I wouldn’t make a mushroom risotto/soup without it. I even toss my cooked mushrooms IN mushroom power to make them more mushroomy. It’s not only great in a super savoury risotto though, I use this in so many dishes from spag bols and scrambled eggs to meat rubs (cue Ainsley Harriot).

There are a lot of different mushroom powders knocking about but my favourite to use in everyday cooking is this mixed wild mushroom powder. It’s cheaper than the pure Porcini mushroom powder but I do think that if you want the porcini for a specific dish, it’s worth spending the extra on. If you get through it as quickly as I do though, you’ll probably want to keep costs down as much as possible. I have tried a few other brands, all of which were good enough, so if you can’t get your hands on these specific ones, definitely try another.

The pot looks small but you really don’t need much and 80g of this stuff keeps me going for a couple of months at least. At the moment, I’m using Black Trumpet powder, which is quite coarse and much earthier tasting. It works best in dishes with very heavy flavours like red wine ragu, whereas the mixed wild mushroom power can handle lighter dishes.

4. XO sauce

For stir fries, fried rice, ramen, pork, duck and even scrambled eggs, it has to be XO sauce. For some reason, this stuff is so hard to find in the shops but it’s so good. If you’re unfamiliar with XO, it’s a spicy seafood sauce from Hong Kong made with dried shrimp, scallop, ham, garlic, chillies, oil and sometimes a few other goodies. All this dried, jammy goodness gives it an incredibly sweet and rich, umami flavour that’s so wonderfully complex and incredibly layered. Again, much like some of the other things on this list, it may not sound super appetising on the surface, but it really is superb.

In a four-person fried rice I usually use about 1 tbsps-worth, but if you’ve not had it before, start with about half this amount and keep adding bit by bit until the flavour’s right for you. Too much can be overwhelming. For two eggs, I only need half a tsp (if that) to create a dense, savoury scramble. It’s become such a crucial part of creating my favourite fried rice dish now, that when I don’t use it, it always feels like there’s something missing. I’ve tried a few different brands of XO Sauce but I always come back to the Lee Kum Kee version, which is lucky, because it’s usually the one most widely available.

5. Tomato Puree

Sounds like an obvious one, right? We all know you can’t make a decent ragu without it and it’s a lifesaver when making a chilli too. But, it’s so much more than it seems. A good tomato puree can transform gravies, soups, stews and even things like aioli, giving them a rich layer of flavour that won’t come across as overly ‘tomatoey’. Instead, it adds that little something that most people won’t be able to put their finger on… or maybe they will, I don’t know how complex your friends’ palates are.

When I’m making any kind of gravy, I always add a little tomato puree, to give it a greater depth of flavour. Sometimes as little as half a tsp is enough to take sauces up a notch. It’s also a great way to add more complexity to a premade jar pasta sauce. Often jarred tomato sauces can be watery and a little bland, which is why I tend to stay away from them.

However, every now and then I find myself reaching for one because I am way too tired to cook. But before you simply throw that jarred sauce over your pasta, gently fry up 1-2 tsps of puree in a little olive or vegetable oil for a couple of minutes, then add your jar of sauce to that. Not only will this thicken it, it’ll also bring the sauce a tad closer to that jammy, rich flavour that usually comes from a slow cooked sauce.

What are your secret ingredient must-haves? Let me know in the comments.

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