11 Dishes Ina Garten Improves With A Secret Ingredient

In the world of gastronomy, Ina Garten is known for her approachable cooking style and for creating easy-to-make recipes that somehow manage to be both sophisticated and satisfying. She has a knack for transforming the ordinary into something special and often adds unexpected ingredients to classic dishes, elevating them to new heights.

In each of these 11 dishes, the Barefoot Contessa adds one secret ingredient to a familiar recipe and turns it into something extraordinary. From ensuring remarkable flavor in soup to hiding baked goods in a classic dessert, Garten often adds a surprise ingredient that delights her ever-loyal fans.

Garten's culinary philosophy centers on creating joy through food; as such, these unexpected twists will help you enjoy being in the kitchen and cooking for those you love. Whether you're trying out her chicken chili or truffled mac and cheese, prepare to add a touch of Garten's magic to your dishes. Let's uncover the adventurous ingredients that will make you wonder how you ever cooked without them.


Nothing beats a bowl of homemade soup, especially if it's a cold day or you're feeling a little under the weather. Making your own soup from scratch can be a joyful process — you can watch it simmer away while you inhale its delicious aromas. At the very least, it beats reaching for a can of the pre-made stuff. Imagine your disappointment, though, if you sat down to take your first warming sip and discovered it didn't taste quite as good as it smelled.

Bland soup is a culinary faux pas that Ina Garten never has to worry about thanks to her secret ingredient, which is something you'd usually throw in the trash. As the Barefoot Contessa told Parade, throwing in a parmesan rind near the start and allowing it to bubble away with the soup will give the dish a depth of flavor that a dash of salt simply can't achieve.

Parmesan is one of the most umami-rich foods out there, meaning it has an extremely palatable, savory flavor that keeps people coming back for more. The rind, while inedible, is packed with that umami kick. Instead of chucking it, freeze the rind in a plastic bag or box and bring it out to add to soups or other savory, slow-cooked dishes as needed. It will slowly release its rich, nutty flavors into the broth and ensure your soup has that je ne sais quoi. Just remember to fish out the rind before serving.


When the time comes to bake brownies, an intense chocolate flavor is the key to a successful batch. Using high-quality chocolate is, of course, crucial, but Ina Garten has an added ingredient that will take your brownies to new chocolatey heights.

"Chocolate is really enhanced by the flavor of coffee," Garten explains in a Food Network YouTube video. For this reason, she adds instant coffee — not freshly ground — into her brownie mix. If you usually pass on coffee-flavored desserts, don't worry. Fans of her "outrageous brownie" recipe insist that you can't detect the coffee flavor, but that the chocolate is definitely more intense than in regular brownies.

This phenomenon is also backed by science; a 2020 study published in Foods found that coffee boosts people's sensitivity to sweet tastes while diminishing bitter ones. If you're already going to the trouble of making brownies, you might as well make sure they're the sweetest, most chocolatey version they can be. This secret ingredient is a testament to how simple, affordable ingredients can elevate recipes from good to gourmet, creating a luxurious treat with just a few added spoonfuls of a pantry staple.

Mashed potatoes

There are a few ways you can mix up mashed potatoes to make the perfect batch, from adding cream and butter to switching up the variety of potatoes to adding some of the spuds' cooking liquid. In your quest for potato perfection, you may want to heed Ina Garten's advice, as she has a secret ingredient that will give your mash a surprising lift.

Garten's addition of lemon zest to her website's pureed potatoes recipe is a stroke of genius that cuts through the potatoes' creaminess and creates a wonderfully complex side dish. While most people focus on making their spuds as creamy as possible, a cook with Garten's expertise realizes that adding acidity will balance the dish's flavors and keep people's tastebuds dancing.

Garten warns, though, that lemon becomes unpalatably bitter if it's left for any length of time, so it's best to add the lemon zest as close to serving time as possible. This way, the zest will provide a subtle whisper of citrus without overpowering the dish.

Beef stew

In a ranking of comfort foods, beef stew is surely a top contender. For many, the dish conjures memories of cozy family evenings and heartwarming meals. It exudes rich, deep flavors, but it does need a long cooking time for these to develop.

For added warmth and depth in your beef stew, consider Ina Garten's secret ingredient: cognac. This French brandy will add a sophisticated layer to your stew and enhance the existing flavors of the meat and vegetables. Its fruity, spicy notes will add complexity to the sauce and elevate this comforting dish to a gourmet showstopper.

Garten also has another tip regarding the cut of meat you should use. "I used boneless short ribs, which get very tender as they cook, instead of the usual chuck," she said in an Instagram caption. If you choose short ribs, they'll break down as they simmer in the cognac-rich sauce, resulting in a melt-in-your-mouth meal that can become your new signature dish for special occasions.


Most home cooks have a go-to chili recipe that suits those cold weeknights when you need a simple dish to keep your family warm and satisfied. Ina Garten turns this concept on its head with a chili recipe that tastes just as good in summer as it does the rest of the year. A lighter version of the traditional beef and bean stew, it's bursting with flavor thanks to one secret ingredient that Garten included in her website's recipe: basil.

The sweet, fragrant flavor of this herb lifts the full-bodied chili and adds a fresh note. The basil should be added in two stages — once at the beginning so it can infuse into the sauce and again at the end to give a hint of freshness on top of the dish.

Garten also strays from the usual chili formula of beef and beans, opting instead for the lighter option of bone-in chicken breasts. This protein switch makes sense, as Garten is a chicken connoisseur — she has plenty of tips for cooking chicken perfectly every time — but it also means you can enjoy this chili all year round, even as a winter comfort dish when needed.

Beef burgers

Few classic American dishes are as quintessential as a beef burger. Homemade burgers are easy to put together and, when done right, are utterly delicious. Ina Garten, of course, knows that what you put on your burger is hardly as important as what you put in it, starting with the highest quality beef.

On her website, Garten calls her signature beef burger the "Niman Ranch Burger," named after the top-quality meat that she insists on using. Niman Ranch is known for its high welfare standards, raising livestock humanely and giving each animals the best possible life, thus ensuring tastier beef. By starting with premium meat, your burger will be juicier and packed full of flavor, and you won't need to pile it high with toppings — just let the beef speak for itself.

If you can't access Niman Ranch beef, try to source grass-fed meat with around 20% fat for the perfect flavor. It will transform your burger from a barbecue staple to a gourmet delight that will have your friends begging for the recipe.

Mocha icebox cake

Ina Garten is skilled at elevating classic desserts, but if you're seeking more elaborate fare, her icebox cake certainly looks the part. With five beautifully arranged layers (and the inclusion of Garten's favorite gourmet cocoa powder), this is a dessert that people will eat with their eyes before they devour every last piece. Containing coffee and Kahlúa liqueur, Garten's icebox cake recipe also features a secret ingredient that she hides in every layer: chocolate chip cookies. The chef shared her recipe in an Instagram video, showing how she tops the cookies — bought from Tate's Bake Shop in Southampton, New York — with a layer of mocha cream before repeating the process four more times.

The result is a delicious, creamy cake with a satisfying crunch in every mouthful. The cookies absorb the flavors of the liqueur and coffee, creating a bridge between the layers and giving the overall dish a pleasing depth of flavor. Though Garten chooses Tate's cookies for their thin, crispy texture, if you can't get a hold of them, just use your favorite cookie instead.


With such a huge variety of breakfast foods available today, many folks choose a different option each morning. Ina Garten, however, springs for the same wholesome, comforting breakfast each day: oatmeal. While she enjoys various toppings, including fresh fruit and maple syrup, one essential ingredient may surprise many oatmeal lovers. As she explained to Bon Appétit, she makes it with salt. This may seem counterintuitive in such a sweet, creamy breakfast, but it's actually quite a common way to serve the dish in Scotland.

Porridge, as it's known in the U.K., is traditionally cooked in a huge pot with only water and a pinch of salt. This is thought to enhance the oats' flavor, so Garten's secret ingredient may lead to an even richer bowl of oatmeal. If you like to add syrup and other sweet toppings to your breakfast, you may find that a dash of salt balances these well and allows you to enjoy a hearty bowl of goodness that prepares you for the day.

Mac and cheese

Ina Garten often encourages home cooks to make food that brings them joy, using straightforward ingredients that are accessible to everyone. Even when eating out, she appreciates the simple things, as evidenced by her recommendation for an "unpretentious" restaurant in Paris. Every so often, though, the Barefoot Contessa likes to throw a luxurious ingredient into an otherwise classic dish, elevating it from a family midweek meal to a dinner party favorite. The humble macaroni and cheese gets this treatment with the upgraded version Garten shared on her website: truffled mac and cheese.

By adding white truffle butter to the cheese sauce, the dish gains another layer of complex flavors in a dish already packed with delicious umami notes. The truffles' rich, earthy taste complements the sharp cheese and creates a balanced, velvety sauce that clings to the pasta. For the best pasta to pair with this high-end sauce, Garten recommends the Cipriani brand; for more everyday dishes, she reaches for De Cecco.

Garten points out that only white truffle butter should be used, as black truffle has a very different flavor profile that would prove too strong for the dish. So, if you can get your hands on some white truffle butter, try adding it to your next batch of macaroni to create a delightfully creamy dish that will be a joy to both cook and eat.

Hot apple cider

Hot apple cider is a wonderfully comforting autumnal drink — the alcoholic equivalent of a big hug. Most recipes include, alongside the obligatory apples, warming spices such as cinnamon and cloves, as well as citrus fruits like oranges and lemons. Ina Garten, however, has a secret spice of her own that she likes to add to her website's mulled cider recipe: black peppercorns.

Though some folks may not consider peppercorns to be a common drink addition, many cultures add a twist of black pepper to desserts, and there's a scientific reason that peppercorns may enhance the flavor of sweet dishes and drinks. Dr. Koushik Adhikari from the University of Georgia told Delish, "Spiciness can cause salivation that helps with the interaction of taste molecules with the taste cells located in our taste buds." This means that sweet flavors can be intensified when eaten alongside peppercorns, such as in Garten's hot cider.

The Barefoot Contessa also recommends adding some star anise and a dash of bourbon for additional warming effects. The subtle heat of the peppercorns, cinnamon, and cloves, alongside the sweetness of the apples, creates a comforting and memorable drink that will have you longing for crisp, cold evenings under the stars.


For a keen home cook, making lasagna is a labor of love, and there are plenty of ways to tweak this classic dish and put your own stamp on it. From switching up the meat to adding layers of vegetables, everyone has thoughts on what makes the perfect version of this traditional comfort food. Ina Garten's recipe, as shared on her website, has its own secret ingredient that takes her lasagna to a tangy new level: goat cheese.

By adding creamy goat cheese alongside the usual mozzarella and parmesan, Garten's lasagna gains layers of savory flavors that cut through the rich sauce and sweet tomatoes. The addition of an unexpected ingredient to such a classic meal is a genius move — the overall dish still tastes familiar, as it contains all the standard lasagna ingredients, but the tang from the goat cheese adds a sophisticated edge that will delight your tastebuds. Next time you're whipping up a tray of lasagna, consider making a small adjustment that will have a big impact.