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The Most Underrated Dessert Ingredients, According to Boston Pastry Chefs

Don't forget the salt

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For Eater Boston’s first-ever Sweets Week, professional pastry chefs from Boston-area restaurants have weighed in on several survey questions; we’ll be sharing their answers throughout the week. Today’s question: What’s the most underrated dessert ingredient?

Read on for their thoughts, including some basic yet underrated building blocks (salt, olive oil, herbs) as well as some less standard choices (mushrooms, mahleb, cucumbers).

(Check out yesterday's question as well, where the chefs shared advice for home bakers who want to up their game.)

Adam Ross, pastry chef at Deadhorse Hill

"Sourdough starter. Most people don't think of it in any context outside of bread-making, but it can be incredibly versatile and adds an interesting and unique flavor to any number of pastries and desserts. Try a sourdough pate brisee; you'll be amazed at the flakiness and depth of flavor it has!"

Alex Bonnefoi, pastry chef at Strip by Strega

Alex Bonnefoi Provided

"Olive oil is underrated because it opens so many doors for creative additions or new flavors, such as strawberry vinaigrette and olive oil ice cream."

Ashley Low, head baker at Loyal Nine

"Salt. Even if a recipe doesn't call for it, I will take it upon myself to add a pinch. It rounds out existing flavors and may even bring out a few that you didn't know were there."

Ben Dorn, pastry chef at Saltbox Kitchen

Ben Dorn Provided

"I think the most underrated dessert ingredient is lard. Over time it has become an undesirable four-letter word, but in fact it has many benefits that people either don’t know about or choose to overlook. For one, it has 20% less saturated fat than butter and none of the trans fats that shortening has. Using lard will also result in a flakier pie crust than using butter alone. Lastly, with the spotlight brought to sustainability and employing sustainable practices, using lard ensures that you are using every part of the animal."

Brianne "Bee" McCaughin, pastry chef at Osteria Posto

Brianne "Bee" McCaughin Provided

"This might sounds odd, but I think the most underrated dessert ingredient is — eggs! Think about it; eggs are in almost every dessert from cookies to ice cream, yet they are under-appreciated and overlooked by most! Plus, who doesn't love a nice creamy custard made possible by the magic of eggs?"

Carla Pallotta, co-owner of Nebo (and head of the dessert program)

"I would say salt. Salt enhances spices, and the contrast makes the dessert taste sweeter without the added sugar."

Chris Mendonca, chef at Granary Tavern

Chris Mendonca Provided

"Cardamom pods. A lot of people forget the aromatics and subtle accent it can throw into a dish. I thoroughly enjoy them for ice creams and cakes."

Christina Allen-Flores, executive pastry chef at ArtBar and Studio at the Royal Sonesta

Christina Allen-Flores Brian Samuels for the Sonesta

"Apple sauce. I don’t think most people realize its versatility in baked goods. It is subtle in flavor; it will not overwhelm other flavors. It can be used as a substitute for eggs, butter, and/or oil. It also helps to keep baked goods from drying out as quickly as without it in a recipe."

Dave Becker, chef/owner of Sweet Basil and Juniper

Dave Becker Provided

"Salt. I like savory in my desserts. Maybe to a fault. Some level of burnt too. Overly toasted nuts or the past-caramelized sugar on a crust."

Doug Phillips, executive pastry chef at Woods Hill Table

Doug Phillips Provided

"Most underrated dessert ingredient for me is full-fat heavy cream. From making unctuous mousses and creamy ganaches to simply whipping into the best topping for fruits and cakes, it is a must-have ingredient."

Hannah Lurier, executive pastry chef at Alta Strada Wellesley

Hannah Lurier Provided

"I think the most underrated dessert ingredient is butter. Butter is an ingredient that can be very mysterious. Take tart dough as an example: Depending on how large the butter chunks are cut into the flour determines how flaky and tender your crust will be."

Jamie Bissonnette, chef/owner of Little Donkey, Coppa, and Toro

Jamie Bissonnette Nick Solares for Eater

"Coconut milk. I love the balance it adds to sauces and what you can do with it."

Jenn Harvey, bar manager at Temple Bar (formerly a pastry chef at Stix)

Jenn Harris Nina Gallant for Temple Bar

"Give me a dessert made with almond paste/marzipan any day of the week. When I was little, I used to sneak it out of the cupboard and eat it straight from the tube; my mom was not a fan of that move. Most people use it strictly for croissants/Danishes, but for cookies and cakes, with the right recipe, it leaves the treat so moist and sweet."

Jesse Jackson, III, executive pastry chef at No.9 Park

Jesse Jackson, III Dale Cruse for No. 9 Park

"The most underrated ingredient is by far vanilla! Many people view vanilla as just "plain" flavoring, but it is anything but that. Here at No.9 Park, I purchase vanilla beans from Uganda as well as from Indonesia. Ugandan beans have more of a full-bodied and robust flavor, and Indonesian beans give off deep woody flavors. One scoop of Ugandan vanilla bean ice cream is never enough!"

Kate Holowchik, pastry chef at The Townshend

Kate Holowchik Rachel Leah Blumenthal for Eater

"Acid of any sort. We think sugar when we think pastry, but the presence of acid — whether it be in citrus juice or vinegar — can really bring a dish together. Acid can complete a dish and tell the brain that a plate is balanced. This is where you will see people scraping the plate because everything is in balance."

Katie Gordon, pastry chef at Trade

"Cardamom. Beautiful flavor profile and adds a nice touch to cookies."

Kenny Hoshino, pastry chef at Alden & Harlow and Waypoint

Kenny Hoshino Galdones Photography for Waypoint

"The most underrated ingredient in desserts is salt. Adding salt can really enhance the flavor, sharpness, and even sweetness of the dessert — especially with desserts that have chocolate, nuts, or fruit."

Kevin Walsh, chef/owner of Tapestry

Kevin Walsh Provided

"Vegetables. I have created great desserts using parsnips, squash, salsify, and cucumbers."

Kristin Wilson, pastry chef at Legal Harborside

Kristin Wilson Provided

"Goat cheese. It goes well as a cheesecake, with chocolate, with berries, and many other uses. I think it’s mostly knows as a savory item, so it gets passed over."

Laura Campagna, former pastry cook at Tamo Bistro & Bar

"Savory ingredients. Adding an herb, for example, can brighten a sweet dish, and most people avoid doing so."

Lauren Kroesser, pastry chef at Island Creek Oyster Bar

Lauren Kroesser Michael Harlan Turkell for Island Creek Oyster Bar

"The most underrated dessert ingredient is flaky sea salt. I put it on everything, especially chocolate. It does wonders to make flavors pop and to balance out sweet pastries, and it also adds texture."

Lilah Rogoff, pastry chef at Catalyst

Lilah Rogoff Provided

"The most underrated dessert ingredient is salt. It is a flavor enhancer, so it actually highlights sweetness, but it balances it too. Everyone loves desserts that are sweet and salty."

Maria Cavaleri, executive pastry chef of Big Night Entertainment Group (Empire Asian Restaurant & Lounge, Red Lantern, and GEM)

"Tea is an underrated dessert ingredient. For example, I use loose tea ground with sugar to put on my doughnuts. It’s delicious!"

Marissa Rossi, executive pastry chef at Puritan & Co.

Marissa Rossi Provided

"I am currently slightly obsessed with mushrooms. I think the earthiness goes really well with chocolate. I just put a dish on Puritan's dessert menu with dried porcini powder."

Meghan Thompson, pastry chef at Townsman

"Salt and acid are underrated! Desserts and their components need to be seasoned like savory dishes. It's all about balance, with an obvious sweet twist. These two ingredients can really make the star flavor pop."

Michelle Boland, pastry chef at Davio's Lynnfield

"Definitely salt. Without salt, most baked goods are tasteless — it gives cakes, sauces, and other dessert components so much depth."

Nathan Kibarian, pastry chef at Bastille Kitchen

"Mahleb. It’s the seed of the St. Lucy cherry that grows around the Mediterranean. It has wonderful aromatic properties and lends well to breads and pastries. Its flavor is earthy yet subtly sweet with a hint of almonds and cherries. I use it in a lot of breads and cookies around the holidays; it’s definitely a treat."

Rachel Gibeley, pastry chef at Rosebud American Kitchen and Bar

Rachel Gibeley Provided

"I love using lavender and rose in my baking. I know they are often associated with beauty/bath products, but they're amazing in desserts when used in the right quantities."

Rae Murphy, pastry chef at Porto

"A high quality cocoa powder. A poor quality cocoa powder is so evident in the final product — that unmistakable taste of chalk. A nice cocoa powder is smooth, rich, and intense."

Robert Differ, pastry chef at Bar Boulud

Robert Differ Provided

"Nut paste — hazelnut and macadamia, especially. Nut paste is a multipurpose ingredient. It can be used in mousse or as a sauce; it is just so versatile."

Robert Gonzalez, pastry chef at Bistro du Midi

Robert Gonzalez Provided

"The most underrated baking ingredient is salt. It is not just exclusively for savory. Salt is a flavor enhancer. Adding a pinch of salt to your ice cream base, cookies, cakes will dramatically give your desserts that pop it needs."

Shawn Dresser, pastry chef at Boston Harbor Hotel

Shawn Dresser Provided

"Salt. Salt is the last thing people think of when thinking about dessert. Most people only think sweet, but salt actually brings out the sweet flavors everyone know and loves."

Main image: Shutterstock/Jiri Hera

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