Have you ever noticed how Auntie Alice's food always tastes so much better than anyone else's? It might be simply because Alice is a better cook, but it might be because of a Secret Ingredient she uses.
Truth in Television, as many chefs will keep part of their recipes secret.
If the secret ingredient is humans, see The Secret of Long Pork Pies, or I Ate WHAT?! if the ingredient is horrifying to discover. A common twist is for the secret ingredient to either be something ludicrously common, or flat-out nonexistent. For intangible ingredients (often "love"), see Insubstantial Ingredients. If the ingredient is kept secret to prevent viewers from recreating dangerous items themselves, it's And Some Other Stuff.
- In a Donald Duck comic book story, he insisted on putting ketchup on all of Daisy's cooking, much to her annoyance, because it just didn't taste as good as Grandma Duck's food. When Daisy checks with Grandma, it turns out the old lady's secret ingredient is... ketchup, which she puts in everything.
- Asterix: The magic potion of the Gauls that gives them invincible powers also contains a secret ingredient. Over the years the reader has learned some of the ingredients, but not all of them and it seems to be that new stuff is just added in there at random, such as lobster, mistletoe (Asterix the Gaul), reasonably fresh fish (Asterix and the Great Crossing) and petroleum (Asterix and the Black Gold). As a general rule, the only time Getafix openly admits to the presence of an ingredient for the potion is when he's running low on one, can't get it locally, and needs to send Asterix to go on a journey to acquire more.
- Nero: In De Man Zonder Gezicht professor Adhemar gives a man without a face a face. He needs the others to bring him the following ingredients for his potion: 1) Some tears of a Mexican virgin 2) A sneezing fit from a sjabrak tapir and 3) an autograph from Mao Zedong.
- In "Nightmare Night and Nyx", a fanfic of Past Sins, which is itself a fanfic of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Flitternote really likes Twist's candy canes. It turns out they have love as a secret ingredient. Literally. Flitter turns out to be a changeling, a race of shapeshifters who eat love.
- Invoked but ultimately averted with the "Secret Ingredient Soup" in Kung Fu Panda: Po's (adoptive) father eventually reveals that there is no "secret ingredient" and it's the belief there is one which makes his soup so highly-regarded. It's this bit of information that helps Po understand the wisdom of the Dragon Scroll.
- In Demolition Man John Spartan eats a burger made in the underground sewers by the people that live there. He keeps saying how great it is and then is told they are rat burgers. Most people would be disgusted, but he just keeps on eating it. Likely case of beggars can't be choosers since he literally couldn't find a better burger in a vegetarian only society.
- In Planet Terror, a subplot deals with JT trying to find the perfect BBQ sauce recipe. Before he tastes a sample, it gets mixed with some of his blood, leading him to correctly deduce from it that all that was missing was a little bit of salt (since human blood tastes salty).
- In the film Soylent Green, the main character finds out that the secret ingredient used in most of the food keeping the human race alive was human flesh.
- In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Kirk, Spock, and Bones have beans while camping, and Bones shares a flask of his "secret ingredient" with Kirk—Tennessee whiskey.
- Superman: Last Son of Krypton. Clark Kent makes a bet with his rival Steve Lombard that his mother's (Mrs. Kent's) soft drink was the best drink ever. While on the planet Oric, he obtains a spice so powerful that a drop of it added to his mother's drink would make it irresistible to the human palate.
- George's Marvellous Medicine: George accidentally makes a medicine that makes everybody grow to enormous proportions. He uses all medicines he can find on his parents' farm and in their kitchen, except from the medicine cupboard, because his parents had forbode him to open it, because it contained stuff that could kill you and he had promised them that he would never do it. Later when he tries to recreate the stuff the new medicines don't have the desired effect, because there's always some ingredients missing, and as his mother puts it: you also need to put the exact same amount of everything in there.
- The Bliss Bakery series is all about a baker family and the secret ingredients they use to make their baked goods have beneficial effects on the people who eat them. Delicious taste is usually included.
- The Cemeteries of Amalo: Not all of Thara's petitioners are interested in solving murders, and one in The Grief of the Stones is a baker who wants to find out the secret ingredient for his recently deceased business partner's prized scones.
- Cake Boss: Buddy has ordered the cameraman to stop filming a couple times, so Buddy can add a secret ingredient without the show's viewers learning what it is.
- On Angel, Angel once drinks a cup of blood with an unusual taste. He's told "the secret ingredient is otter."
- Reversed on Iron Chef and Chopped, where the ingredient is a secret from the chef, not a secret of the chef's.
- When Jesse and Walter are held captive by Tuco in Breaking Bad, Tuco notices them carrying a small bag of meth that smells differently then what they gave him before. Jesse tells him that it's a new mixture they're working on, and the secret ingredient is chili powder. It's ricin. Unfortunately, Tuco doesn't like chili powder, so he sets it aside.
- Man v. Food does this a lot: everywhere Adam Richman goes to pork out (or indeed to make mere porking out look like anorexia by comparison), the eaterie inevitably has a "secret spice" or a "secret ingredient".
- The Red Green Show: When Red Green makes "Possum Lodge Fire Engine Chili," the secret ingredient is kerosene.
Red: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. You're thinkin', "that's poison", right? Well, you know what? The poison part burns off... I'm pretty sure...
- My Wife and Kids: At the end of the episode "Sister Story", Michael's sister Kelly tells Jay that the secret ingredient to Mrs. Kyle's brownies was nutmeg; the fact that her mother-in-law never told her the secret was something that always bothered Jay, and a sign that she and Kelly had finally gotten over their long-standing animosity for each other. Subverted, as Kady quietly remarks that nutmeg isn't the secret ingredient, but Claire shushes her to keep her from ruining the moment.
- Although Alfred Tetzlaff in Ein Herz und eine Seele first treats the entire recipe for his New Year's punch as secret, he eventually mentions that it's based on rum made by his grandfather. The actual secret is that there aren't any other ingredients. The punch is heated rum.
- Played with in DmC: Devil May Cry, the secret ingredient of a soft drink is vomits from a Succubus, a nasty one with a foul mouth.
- Played with in Tales of Vesperia during the following skit where Yuri talks about his "secret ingredient". But gets averted by Rita's skit, when she threatens to use her own secret ingredient!
- Used in Skyrim during the Dark Brotherhood penultimate quest. You imitate a world-known chef and have to cook a meal; at the end of the cooking, you can tell the cook helping you to close her eyes as you add "secret herbs" to the recipe. It's actually poison since your target is the guy who will eat the meal.
- In Hitman (2016), one of the targets in the Sapienza level, Silvio Caruso, spends ridiculous amounts of money hiring the best chefs in the world to try and replicate his deceased mother's secret spaghetti sauce recipe, and all of their attempts have failed miserably. 47 can discover the secret for himself in the attic of Silvio's house. There was no recipe. His mother used store-bought sauce.
- In Borderlands 3, one mission on the besieged planet of Promethea has you killing ratches (ugly, dog-sized eusocial rat/cockroach things) for the Dynasty Diner to make burgers from. At first it's implied to be Reduced to Ratburgers, but no. They apparently taste better than they look, and have always been the secret ingredient at Dynasty Diner.
- TFS at the Table, Team Four Star's Dungeons & Dragons campaign, has a major Running Gag in the form of Grammy, the sea hag cook introduced in the first episode and eventually hired by the protagonists. She loves cooking meals with unusual and often unsettling secret ingredients and expects her diners to be able to guess what it is. In the first session she made chicken noodle soup (or rather, seagull noodle soup); it only gets weirder from there, including such delicacies as a tomato bisque with mandrake or pancakes with abyssal crabs (shell and all). To put a fine point on it, "Secret ingredient!" is Grammy's catchphrase.
- Binging with Babish acknowledges this in its video on the Krabby Patty, deciding that, considering Mr. Krabs's personality, the "secret formula" probably doesn't exist at all; more realistically, Krabs would just decide it was cheaper to make up a rumor about a secret ingredient.
- In Phineas and Ferb ("Meatloaf Surprise"), the secret ingredient in the Doofenshmirtz family meatloaf recipe is hate.
Dr. Doofenshmirtz: Usually it's love, but Great-Grandma Gretel had some issues.
- In Courage the Cowardly Dog, the secret ingredient in all of Muriel's cooking is vinegar. Even in candy.
- In an episode of The Proud Family Suga Mama's cookie bars are so delicious because she put her foot in it. Normally this is just a turn of phrase, but she meant it literally, and revealed it on a national TV show which caused everyone to retch up their free samples.
- Arthur: Arthur & Buster enter a cooking competition and bake a cake; their secret ingredient is double the amount of chocolate the recipe calls for. Then DW accidentally uses up all the baking powder.
- Futurama, "The 30% Iron Chef": After Bender wins a cooking competition using drops from a crystal flask filled with "the essence of pure flavor", Professor Farnsworth runs a chemical analysis and announces the mystery liquid is "Water! Ordinary water!" Immediately after Fry concludes that all Bender needed to cook well was confidence, the professor adds, "Yes, ordinary water, laced with nothing more than a few spoonfuls of LSD."
- Also the secret ingredient of Slurm is slime from the slug queen. In fact, it's the only ingredient.
Grunka-Lunkas: Grunka lunka dunkity dasis,
The secret of Slurm's on a need-to-know basis.
- In "In Bender's Big Score", Bender, at one point, travels through time, and comes back with the Colonel's secret recipe: "chicken, grease, salt."
- Also the secret ingredient of Slurm is slime from the slug queen. In fact, it's the only ingredient.
- At the end of the Back at the Barnyard episode, "Chez Pig", all of the barnyard animals ask Pig for the secret ingredient of his grandma's Truffle Pies, Pig finally gives in but when he reveals the secret ingredient, a duck shows up and quacks, completely drowning out what Pig said. However, the other animals are heard exclaiming in disgust, implying that the secret ingredient was actually disgusting.
- The opening narration of The Powerpuff Girls:
"Sugar! Spice! And everything Nice! These were the ingredients chosen to create the perfect little girls. But Professor Utonium accidentally added an extra ingredient to the concoction... Chemical X. Thus, the Powerpuff Girls were born!"
- The Simpsons:
- Marge's secret ingredient for lamb chops is salt.
- The secret ingredient for making a Flaming Homer (Or Flaming Moe's) cocktail is "Krusty Brand Non-Narkotik Kough Syrup". A drink company's analysis of the cocktail reveals the secret ingredient is love.
Frink: According to the gas chromatograph, the secret ingredient is... love?! Who's been screwing with this thing?
- SpongeBob SquarePants:
- Plankton's schemes revolve entirely around discovering the secret ingredient of the Krabby Patty at business rival Mr. Krabs' The Krusty Krab. At one point (after overtaking the restaurant with the help of his millions of hillbilly brethren), Plankton finds out that the secret ingredient is actual plankton (Plankton and his family do not take the news well, except for Cousin Clem who can't read), but Mr. Krabs reveals that it wasn't the real secret ingredient, just a fake one used to dupe Plankton. Another episode involves the entire restaurant going into lockdown as the secret ingredient is air-lifted in.
- As a gag, the fake recipe Plankton reads does include "love" as an ingredient, but not as the secret ingredient. Judging by how Plankton reads it normaly, it seems this is a standard ingredient.
- One episode involved the secret ingredient to the secret formula itself somehow going missing when SpongeBob went to pick it up. It was revealed in the end Mr. Krabs stole his own secret ingredient to avoid paying.
- "Goodbye, Krabby Patty?" has Don Grouper make krabby patties that can be frozen and eaten all year, all of which include a secret filler ingredient. The secret ingredient turns out to be sand, which SpongeBob realizes not long after.
- Series creator Stephen Hillenberg was adamant that he would never reveal what the secret ingredient was, implying that he had actually come up with an idea for what it was, but he presumably took this bit of information to his grave.
- When Johnny Bravo wins a trip to the factory where they make Jake's Jerky, he sees his friend disappear into the vat labeled "Secret Ingredient," not realizing that his friend was only investigating it for himself. He then bursts into a press conference shouting, "Jake's Jerky is people!"
- Actually his friend just went to look for the secret himself. Which turned out to be soy. Which is even worse for Johnny. "Jake's Jerky is health food!"
- While she hasn't appeared in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Coconut Cream from the Generation Four My Little Pony toy line has a description reading "Coconut Cream makes delicious pies to share at parties and picnics. The only thing she won't share is the secret ingredient!"
- In the episode "Maud Pie", Pinkie Pie reveals that the secret ingredient to her rock candy... is rocks. But they're a special kind of rock that her sister Maud discovered, and Pinkie refuses to divulge any further details.
- On Family Guy the gang start a lemonade stand to help Joe raise money. Joe comments on how well the stand is doing, and Peter says that it's because of his secret ingredient: vodka.
- One episode of The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy featured the gang selling cookies made with the recipie of Grim's Aunt Kali. After they prove a success, Aunt Kali gives in and says that the secred ingredient is bugs, ticks and nightcrawlers. People are shocked at first... before they immediately resume eating them since they are delicious either way.
- In The Fairly OddParents!, Timmy opens a lemonade stand that gains great success because of the secret ingredient: Cosmo's sweaty socks. The problem starts because, it turns out, fairy sweat makes the lemonade grant people's wishes.
- In the Garfield and Friends episode "Mamma Manicotti" Garfield is used as a taste-tester by Mamma in a competition with a corporation that wants to mass-produce her recipes. At first the corporation tries Cutting Corners by using artificial flavors and ingredients, but even when they use the exact same ingredients they can't come close to the authentic version Mamma makes because her secret ingredient is "love".
- In the Hey Arnold! episode "Eating Contest", the competitors were eating stuffed peppers made by Arnold's grandmother. When Stinky passed out, Helga sarcastically asked Arnold if his grandmother stuffed the peppers with socks, to which his grandfather indignantly cried "That recipe was suppose to be a secret!"
- In The Dick Tracy Show episode "Cooked Crooks," Joe Jitsu impersonates a famous French chef to fool Mumbles and Stooge Viller, who are out to steal the chef's famous recipe for chocolate la googoo. Joe adds ingredients like diced antelope's hooves and diced bee's knees to the mix then pulls out a box of a secret ingredient. When Stooge and Mumbles get a hold of the ingredient, they add it to the mix which explodes on them. The secret ingredient is revealed to be gunpowder.
- One episode of Carmen Sandiego has V.I.L.E. infiltrating a celebrity chef's Halloween party to steal his annual charitable donation. When Carmen and her friends stop them, they settle for stealing the chef's trademark secret recipe. Though Paper Star only seemed interested because it was a heavily guarded piece of paper, not because of what was on the paper.
- In Gravity Falls Lazy Susan supports Lil' Gideon claims of being psychic because he knew the secret ingredient for her coffee omelette. Later, when Gideon is revealed as a fraud that uses hidden cameras, we learn what it is... coffee.
- Truth in Television. Just a pinch of the right herb or spice can work wonders on a meal, it's no surprise some may want to monopolize on it. However, usually the secret ingredient will be something simple, like a dash of herbs de provence, or a bit of lavender, rather than something exotic. Since the average consumer has an exaggerated impression of the secrecy, however, a company can deny revelations by spiteful former insiders or an attention seeker who just happens to get it right.
- KFC's "eleven herbs and spices" (which, for the record, are probably something like ground oregano, chili powder, ground sage, basil, marjoram, pepper, salt, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, and monosodium glutamate). The actual "secret" to the flavor, however, is more about KFC's particular technique for pressure-frying the chicken.
- The "secret formula" for Coca-Cola.
- However, a 2011 episode of This American Life seems to have cracked the secret.
- Coca-Cola has one more advantage than its secret recipe, however. They're the only company legally able to import great numbers of de-pharmaceuticalized coca leaves, which are still used as flavoring a century after cocaine was removed from the recipe. Ironically, this means that the ballyhooing about the secret ingredient is rather pointless; even if someone did know the formula, they wouldn't be able to recreate it, especially on a large scale.
- In 2006, Pepsi was approached with an offer to sell them Coke's recipe - which they immediately reported to Coca-Cola, arranging a sting with law enforcement.
- A comparable level of secrecy surrounds the recipe for Scotland's favourite soft drink, Irn-Bru. One of the ingredients is known to be quinine of all things. There are also trace amounts of iron, but not enough to be detectable.
- For decades, the original recipe was a secret even to Barr's, until it was rediscovered in The New '10s and marketed as "Irn-Bru 1901" (coincidentally, shortly after new UK sugar laws meant "regular" Irn-Bru had to reduce its sugar content to maintain its price — 1901 gets away with a higher price point by being sold as something special). The official website says the 1901 recipe includes "quillaia for a frothy head, sweetened only with sugar and containing no caffeine, although of course it still has the same top secret IRN-BRU essence!"
- Cooking show chef Emeril always adds a dash of "essence". Bam! However, given how Emeril Lagasse has made the recipe for "essence" publicly available, this is less a Secret Ingredient and more a Trademark Ingredient.
- The "history of the company" plaques in Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers restaurants are titled "Everything But What's in the Sauce."
- The secret sauce on a McDonald's Big Mac. Lots of restaurant spices in general, actually.
- The Big Mac sauce was admitted in 2012 not to have been a secret for several years, having been available online for some time (it's Thousand Island Dressing). The Daily Mail (for once not spreading hysteria) explains.
- "We need more Secret Sauce. Put this mayonnaise in the sun."
- Oysters Rockefeller were invented by Jules Alciatore in 1899 for the family restaurant Antoine's. While knock-off versions exist, the genuine recipe is still a family secret.
- Mitrofan Lagidze, the creator of Lagidze water, was once accused of using some secret ingredient by Joseph Stalin himself. Lagidze proceeded to make his famous drink right in front of Stalin, after which the latter was forced fo admit this trope isn't always the explanation.
- Chartreuse. An alcoholic drink distilled from 130 different kinds of plants, flowers and herbs. It is produced only by Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse cathedral and the exact recipe is a secret known to only two monks at a given time. Supposedly the original recipe was derived from a manuscript listing a method to prepare the elixir of life.
- Something truly fascinating unfolds when it comes to the supposedly secret recipe of Pan de Soya Lulu (Lulu's Soy Bread), a widely renowned jelly-filled soy bread exclusively available at Mexican state fairs. Unlike many instances of this trope, both the recipe's ingredients and cooking techniques are in the public domain. In fact, the bread is prepared and cooked right in front of the audience, with no attempts to conceal anything. The twist lies in the fact that hardly anyone has successfully replicated the same bread, even with similar industrial cooking methods. This is because the preparation method involves a combination of unique ingredients and specially crafted cooking devices owned exclusively by the franchise owners.