Chances are you have flour, sugar, kosher salt, maybe a well-appointed spice rack, some good olive oil, and a vinegar or two. But there’s more to making the most of your meals than these basics. Chef Ben Chiu-Maes, the self-described head sandwich counter, chief schlepper, and culinary brains of Gaddy Lane, a Brooklyn-based, cross-cultural catering company, relies on a whole other set of pantry staples for inspiration when he’s cooking for his clients and his family. “They are the key to transforming a basic meal into something spectacular,” he says, “and they give you the wiggle room to satisfy that last-minute craving.” Find out how to take breakfast, lunch, and dinner to new heights with these pantry (and refrigerator) staples that can elevate your proteins and vegetables and more.
Chefs and home cooks swear by fish sauce to add a big kick of umami to a variety of dishes. Typically created with fermented black anchovy and sea salt, fish sauce is almost a secret sauce all on its own. Chiu-Maes, who has cooked at Boulevard in San Francisco and The Bar Room at The Modern in New York, says, “Fish sauce is my go-to for adding depth and savory notes to marinades, dressings, and curries that need that extra punch of flavor.” It is a terrific substitute for anchovy paste, but fish sauce doesn’t necessarily impart an overtly fishy taste. Plus, a little bit goes a long way, making it a solid investment. We love Red Boat’s version, but there are a number of brands available that get the job done just as well.
Whatever kind of milk you prefer, it’s typically available in a shelf-stable box so it’s on hand when the mood strikes. Horizon, Lactaid, and Silk all make boxed products that you can stash in your cupboard and use in creamy mashed or scalloped potatoes, mac ’n’ cheese, smoothies, lattes, overnight oats, the béchamel sauce for Stanley Tucci’s popular breakfast pasta bake that nearly broke the internet, and more. And let’s not forget the simple joy of a cold glass of milk with PB&J, or a big bowl of your favorite cereal in front of the TV.
Cornmeal is versatile and thrifty, two qualities we enjoy in a pantry staple. Some people swear by the coarse-ground variety, while others prefer a finer grain. The choice is yours, and whichever way you go, cornmeal can help you out any time of day. Change up your pancake game with johnnycakes (aka cornmeal pancakes) for breakfast. Make a side of hush puppies or polenta fries to go with dinner. Sub polenta for pasta and top it with a quick sausage ragù or meat sauce. Ditch the bread crumbs and pan-fry or bake some cornmeal-crusted fish or chicken! Snack on cornmeal muffins or cornbread with a pot of chili! (OK, we’d better stop now.) Heads-up for the gluten-averse: Cornmeal is naturally gluten-free, but check labels as some facilities are unable to prevent cross-contamination.
You can never have enough condiments, and that includes mustards (yes, plural). The most versatile of them all is Dijon, which we always keep in abundance. It can make an ordinary sando extraordinary, but Dijon is also the building block for an array of salad dressings. Combine oil and vinegar (sherry, white wine, and Champagne vinegars are all options, as is a red or balsamic) and a dash of Dijon and you’ve got a versatile dressing for any variety of greens and vegetables. Dijon works great in a glaze or a rub for veg, meat, and fish too. It’s also a fine addition to slaws and deviled eggs. Plus, what kiddo doesn’t love a honey mustard dipping sauce with crispy chicken tenders?
Regular bread crumbs have their place, but panko bread crumbs have our heart (and stomach). These flaky crumbs deliver a crunch in every bite. A panko coating is all it takes for eggplant parm, chicken cutlets, and fried seafood to get a crisp upgrade when baked or air-fried. We also use panko to forge fluffy meatballs and meat loaf, and impossibly airy stuffed vegetables like mushrooms. Toast up some panko in a pan with a bit of olive oil or butter as a topping for your favorite casserole, or use it to add some texture to pasta dishes, like aglio e olio.
Need a weeknight meal on the fly? It’s easy to put together dinner in a hurry if you have a can of unsweetened coconut milk on hand. Available in full and light styles, coconut milk is vegan, making it a great fit for people eating a plant-based diet. “I was lucky enough to spend two years living in Sri Lanka, where coconut milk is a staple of life. We would scrape fresh coconut and make milk from scratch, a grueling but rewarding task,” says Chiu-Maes. “Back home, I stock up on rich and creamy canned coconut milk. It is the base for curry and adobo sauce, and we love it with cold brew coffee for a vegan take on Vietnamese iced coffee.” If you’ve got a solid selection of spices, you can create a homemade curry from scratch (or just use store-bought green or red curry paste). Sauté your curry paste until it dries out a bit and then whisk in a can of coconut milk. Cook to blend and add chicken, beef, lamb, fish, or just a variety of vegetables (think eggplant, greens, potatoes, and squash) for a bracing bowl of curry in about 30 minutes. Coconut milk is also a key ingredient to make a quick-yet-lush coconut rice that can take a simple grilled salmon or chicken breast dinner to the next level.
So many cakes, dressings, pancakes, and marinades call for buttermilk, and we can’t count the number of times we (a) didn’t have any in our fridge or (b) didn’t want to buy more than we needed only to see it spoil. Enter powdered buttermilk. Just add water and you can make authentic buttermilk fried chicken in a snap. Ditto for ranch dressing, lazy-Saturday homemade pancakes, and buttermilk drop biscuits you can bake in a flash.
Soy sauce (or tamari)
We fully support you ordering from your fave Chinese or sushi restaurant and saving the packets of soy sauce or tamari. But if you really know how to wield either, you’re going to want your own private stash of this stuff. Keeping gluten-free? Go with tamari, as it is usually wheat-free (although you should check labels and with a doctor or a nutritionist if you have a sensitivity). Soy sauce or tamari can turn everyday veg and proteins into a quick and easy stir-fry, but both are also the special sauce in many a Bloody Mary, an outstanding marinade for flank or skirt steak (with a dash of brown sugar), on rice, or even atop grilled or oven-roasted vegetables as a little drizzle.
You know how some recipes call for stock or water? Always opt for stock. You don’t have to spend hours cooking and straining homemade stock for rich scratch-made flavor, though. “Stock concentrate can be a bit divisive among chefs, as housemade stock can be richer and more gelatinous. But for cooking at home, nothing compares with the convenience,” Chiu-Maes notes. “I can honestly no longer face a New York winter without a jar of Better Than Bouillon at the ready.” It’s available in a number of flavors, including a vegan vegetable base. With it, you can make a quick soup, add oomph to pastas, polenta, and rice dishes like risotto, or use beef stock to reinforce sauces like Bolognese. Knorr also has a line of space-saving bouillon cubes and packets.
It’s true that it is lovely to have fresh lemons on hand. It is also true that, more than once, we’ve bought lemons and forgotten to use them. This is why we keep a bottle of lemon juice around at all times. A sprinkling adds a bright note to (and can shave excess richness off) sauces, curries, risotto, and baked goods like cakes, pancakes, and muffins. Lemon juice is another all-star ingredient for salad dressings, like Greek and Caesar. It’s also a key ingredient in ceviche and quick marinades for roasted chicken and fish (just don’t let it marinate too long or the acid will start to cook your proteins).
Sometimes a recipe calls for dark brown sugar, and sometimes a recipe calls for light brown sugar. Spoiler: In our experience, they’re largely interchangeable. When you add brown sugar of any shade to a marinade, it amps up the caramelization when broiling, baking, or sautéing. So gently spoon some into the mix or sprinkle it on top of skin-on chicken thighs to add an extra crisp. It can also provide a slightly sweet accent to pork and salmon dishes. If you’re a fan of overnight oats (or instant oats), brown sugar is a classic addition, imbuing your bowl with more warmth than white sugar.
We can’t be the only ones who think butter makes everything better. But even if you don’t use butter often, allow us to introduce ghee. Ghee is clarified butter, but unlike DIY clarified butter, it has a mildly nutty flavor and it is shelf stable. Butter can burn, but ghee has a higher smoking point, allowing you to infuse buttery goodness into any dish on the fly, no refrigeration required.
Chipotle peppers in adobo
Any night can be taco night if you’ve got a can of chipotle peppers in adobo, no special taco seasoning required. Add a minced chipotle or two with a few tablespoons of adobo sauce to some sautéed ground or shredded beef or chicken, and toss in some diced tomatoes to create a zesty taco or enchilada filling. Give a creamy pasta sauce, like chicken Alfredo, a Southwestern flair with a spoonful. You can also blend mayonnaise and adobo sauce to make an aioli for a hit of heat on your favorite chicken sandwich. Says Chiu-Maes, “In addition to being spicy, chipotles are a great source of smoky flavor. Dump out that liquid smoke flavoring and grab something that is infused with the real deal.”
The buds of the caper bush pack big flavor in a tiny package. They are available in a brine, salt-packed, or if you wanna get fancy, in truffled salt. Capers in salt should be soaked for 15 minutes and rinsed; brined capers just need a quick rinse, so they’re our go-to. They add a salty piquant dash to a number of Mediterranean dishes, like quick-to-prepare lemony chicken piccata and pasta puttanesca, or a simple-yet-elegant broiled fish topped with a tomato, olive, and caper tapenade. And they are an excellent complement to your weekend bagel with whitefish or lox and cream cheese.
We’re not going to tell you which hot sauces you should have on hand, but you should have at least one (if not more), even if you don’t care for spicy food. Hear us out: Hot sauces aren’t all super hot, and they impart big flavor even when used in small quantities. The applications in the kitchen are seemingly boundless. Some Frank’s, butter, and a little time in the oven will produce a spread of chicken wings worthy of your next sports night at home. Cholula made with arbol and pequin peppers adds a punch of smoky heat to eggs, Mexican faves like tacos and street corn, red eyes and Bloody Marys, and pulled pork. A squeeze of sriracha will add excitement to your avocado toast or any stir-fry. You can even use hot sauce as a substitute or addition to salad dressing.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of ALDI