The five underrated health food ingredients you should be buying (even if you don't wear Teva's).
Packed with shelves of kombucha, green juice bars, and wheatgrass, you could very easily breeze past natural food shops in favor of a grocery store that sells ice cream made from actual dairy and Cheez-its for a late-night snack emergency.
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But wait! Take a step back. Hidden amongst the carob bars and the cheese-free cheese are a few oft-overlooked ingredients that can make our cooking (and snacking) a little better. Consider this: Natural food shops cater to the vegan, vegetarian, insert-diet-here crowd. Their customers need to find clever ways to recreate favorite tastes and to amp up the flavor when salt or dairy or meat is missing. So think of these ingredients as the culinary pinch hitters of your kitchen, ready to do the work.
Here are five you should try:
1. Apple Cider Vinegar
Acid is a brilliant way to instantly brighten up a dish. Like a pinch of salt, adding acid quickly takes flavors from flat to fascinating. You've probably got a few vinegars in your pantry: maybe white wine, red wine, and balsamic. Next time you shop, get apple cider vinegar, too. It's touted for everything from lowering blood sugar to helping with heart health. You can use it as an all-purpose cleaner, to soothe sunburn, to make your hair shiny, or as a room freshener. But most importantly, it tastes really good.
Everyone's eating coconut these days: coconut water, coconut milk yogurt, giant juices out of whole coconuts on the street. This is a trend I support and you should hop on board, whether you eat dairy or not. Coconut milk—the liquid that comes from the grated meat of a brown coconut—is intensely rich and creamy, with a subtle sweetness. It tastes faintly tropical but is mild enough to pair with everything from fish to cake.
You can ditch that bottle of soy sauce. Pick up liquid aminos acids, a dark, protein-packed, salt-free liquid made from soybeans, isntead. You've likely seen the yellow bottle of Bragg's Liquid Aminos sitting on a shelf somewhere—it's a throwback to the '70s era of ingredients like wheat germ and carob.
Surprisingly enough, it tastes almost exactly like soy sauce. Liquid aminos are an excellent way to get a salty, umami flavor in your food, perfect for any place you'd use soy sauce. The hard-to-place flavor is less aggressive than soy sauce, which helps to not overwhelm recipes with more assertive flavors.
Not just for tea drinkers anymore, matcha has been popping up in unexpected places. Matcha is considered a nutritional powerhouse because you actually ingest the leaves (unlike regular tea leaves which you steep then discard), giving you more antioxidants and vitamins. The caffeine level in matcha is closer to coffee than tea, but matcha releases caffeine slowly over time rather than all at once.
But let's talk about taste. Matcha has a smooth, earthy flavor that is both sweet and slightly vegetal. Despite the bright green color, it's not particularly strong in flavor when you bake or cook with it. It pairs well with creamy, delicate flavors like mochi in this Coconut Matcha Cake or butter and sugar in these Matcha Snickerdoodles.
Natural food stores are the place for alternative sweeteners. The sugar shelf is packed with dozens of options and granulated white is usually banished to a low, dusty corner. Your options range from agave nectar to coconut sugar to date syrup, but I recommend brown rice syrup. About half as sweet as sugar, brown rice syrup is less liquid-y than agave nectar and pale amber in color. The thicker texture is perfect for baking (it helps to not dilute batters and doughs).
I use it in Hippie Crispy Treats (warning: these are utterly addictive) and Homemade Mallomars. Try it in your next batch of granola, or swap it for the sugar in a chocolate chip cookie dough recipe for a chewier, more moist cookie.