17 Notable Chefs on the Essential Items They Always Keep in the Pantry
The grains, spices, condiments and canned goods that will turn a passable home chef into great one
I’ve been cooking a lot more frequently than I used to. Sure, there are drawbacks, like the fact that I am not a great chef, but the benefits are undeniable: it’s cheaper, healthier (usually) and i’ve found it can be a very peaceful time away from screens.
One thing I’ve realized as I’ve cheffed it up more and more frequently is that a well-stocked and diverse pantry is the key to making your meals more flavorful, creative and straightforward. You can only do so much with the basic perishable ingredients if you don’t have useful accoutrements to go along with them.
So what are the best ingredients to keep on hand to ensure your cooking doesn’t get bland, repetitive and predictable? I dialed up a few friendly chefs (more than I probably should have) and asked them a simple question: What are five pantry items you would recommend to home chefs to allow for maximum diversity and deliciousness? I also told them to assume they already have basic spices and oils (which I’m assuming you all do, too).
I got some very useful and diversified answers, but the two stars seem to be canned fish and coconut milk. See the rest below.
Ari Bokovza, Executive Chef, Dagon
Harissa: My first staple item and probably most important would be harissa (the stuff we make at Dagon). It goes great with fish, meat, vegetables, eggs and salads. I have even made desserts with it before.
Canned Anchovies: Again great for sauces, vinaigrettes, butter compounds and more.
Dried Chickpeas to keep me nourished and full. Plus one of my favorite combos is harissa with hummus.
Maldon Salt: You can’t talk about pantry staples without talking about good salt.
Greg Baxtrom, Chef-Owner, Olmsted and Maison Yaki
Even if there’s salt and pepper, I’d still want to bring Zanzibar Black Peppercorns from Burlap and Barrel and Pink Salt from Murray River Salt. One of my favorite black peppers, the Zanzibar Black Peppercorn grinder is perfect for just about everything, from crusting a steak to finishing a fresh salad.
I always need a ton of condiments, but if I have to narrow it down to two, I’d grab a bottle of Olmsted’s Aji Dulce Hot Sauce and Milu’s Chili Crisp.
Lastly, for something crunchy, I’d take a bag of salty Tortilla Chips from Zack’s Mighty.
Michael Poiarkoff, Chef, The Maker in Hudson
Martin’s Potato Rolls: Almost anything tastes good on a Martin’s Potato Roll, and the shelf life is admirable.
Copious Amounts of Tinned Seafood: Smoked oysters, herring in mustard sauce, octopus, kippered snacks, etc.
Wholey’s Hot Sauce (to put on top of the canned seafood): The vidalia onion and peach is a nice little hot sauce for anything you’d like to make delicious.
Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar: Good for your health and very tasty.
Cup 4 Cup Flour: Gluten Free, works with most recipes, and it’s a one-stop shop for one of the crispiest breadings you’ll find. A little egg white dip, Cup 4 Cup, and fry.
Glenn Rolnick, Corporate Chef of Alicart Restaurant Group (Carmine’s and Virgil’s Real BBQ)
Corn flakes are not just for breakfast. They are great as a coating for everything from chicken and steak to seafood. They can be used coarse or finely ground and are also a great topping for tuna casseroles and Mac and Cheese. Cornflakes can also be used to thicken soups and sauces.
Yoshida Sauce is a sweet teriyaki-style sauce that is so versatile. I would use it as a glaze for ribs or chicken, or add a touch to make a great fried rice. It’s great to flavor soups and sauces.
Buttermilk Pancake Mix is great, of course, to make any style of pancakes or waffles. It’s also a great coating for fried vegetables or chicken. It can be a thickener for sauces or soups and used to make biscuits and rolls.
Green Curry Paste is great for making sauces, soups, marinades and adding a spicy kick.
Coconut Milk is great for flavoring for soups, making sauces and desserts. It goes great with curry.
Sophia Roe, Chef, CounterSpace TV
Bragg Nutritional Yeast: I sprinkle it on everything!
Salt: Any salt without additives will do, but I am a Maldon fan. Especially if it’s smoked!
Any coconut milk works, as long as coconut is the only ingredient. Native Forest Organic is my go to!
Dried mushrooms: Such a great way to add flavor & depth to soups & stews!
Emerald Cove Seaweed: Particularly the kombu!
Chef Steve Benjamin, Executive Chef, Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills
Orzo can be made warm like a pasta with some sauce, or cold in a salad seasoned with a simple vinaigrette with red wine vinegar and olive oil.
Chickpeas (dry or already cooked) can be used in a salad or a humus. Cooked chickpeas can also be fried to give some crispy texture in any dishes.
Sardines (French of course, or the ones from Portugal are amazing with olive oil) can be use in a salad or just eaten with a dry baguette or crackers.
Dry noodles (Japanese ramen noodle or Udon noodle or Chinese Lo Mein Egg Noodles) can be used for soup. They are best simple, with a drop of soy sauce.
Mario Christerna, Chef-Owner, Brooklyn Ave. Pizza Co
Maruchan Cup O’ Noodles (Shrimp): This particular flavor of Cup O’ Noodles reminds me of coming home from elementary school. First thing I would do is boil some water, put them in the cup and wait for my favorite after school show during that time, which was The Super Mario Bros. Super Show. Captain Lou Albano starred in the show and is one of my favorite wrestlers in the WWF. I would eat them while watching the show and then sing along to the anthem while the credits were rolling, so it’s very nostalgic for me!
Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup: This is a must in any pantry. When I moved out of my house at a young age, I didn’t have my mom’s homemade “caldo de pollo” available to me whenever I got sick. This soup helped me get through those times!
Sadaf Garbanzo Beans (cooked): Talk about a multi-use item that everyone should always have in their pantries. You can use these Garbanzos to make hummus, salads, soups, etc., and they are also a great source of protein. My favorite is when my Indian mother-in-law makes “chole” with them (chana masala) — wow!
Kraft Mac & Cheese: Nothing beats Kraft Mac & Cheese. I have two daughters, a five-year-old and a two-year-old, and they love this mac and cheese just like I did at their age. When I make it for them at home I always make a little extra for me to take me back. It’s a perfectly suitable dish for kids and adults. Hot tip: Add a little garlic and onion powder in it for an elevated flavor kick.
Nestle’s Abuelita: One of my fondest memories from my childhood is my “Abuelita” making us some Abuelita with milk, cinnamon stick and using a “molinillo” to dissolve the chocolate. It’s also very versatile and can be used for Mole, ganache and other chocolate favorites.
David Myers, Chef, ADRIFT Burger Bar
Gluten-Free Instant Oatmeal (unflavored): This is my go-to for a quick healthy snack and keeps me on the right track with clean eating. It’s also perfect for taking on planes and adding into the yogurt you get with breakfast or a quick protein shake you can make on the plane.
Buffalo Jerky: When I am super busy, I open my pantry and grab a pack of Buffalo Jerky. It’s filled with healthy protein and great to take on the go.
Santa Barbara Hickory Smoked Organic Pistachios: These are my favorite to snack on, as they are delicious on their own, or paired with glass of wine after a long day. A pantry must.
Garden of Life Plant-Based Protein Bars: Not only are these flavors dynamite and taste like dessert, they are also packed with healthy protein and carbs. It’s a great healthy meal replacement for busy days.
Puur Chocolat Dulce de Leche Bar: Because sometimes you just need chocolate! Pur Chocolate Dulce de Leche Bar happens to be made from an incredible chef, Ramón Perez, who makes some of the best chocolates you can find in America.
Chef Ilkay Suuctugu, Chef, Matador Room
Ketchup: I’m personally a ketchup lover. If you share a love for ketchup as well, you know that it is a great addition to many foods, not just French Fries. The versatility that Ketchup carries and how it can complement countless dishes makes it a pantry stable for me! I like to use Heinz brand.
Nutella: Obsessed with Nutella since I was a little girl … just a spoon full of this delicious creamy, buttery and nutty goodness is sure to put a smile on everyone’s face.
Tea: Aside from its medicinal benefits and its array of flavors to choose from, tea is not just a drink for me — being Turkish, tea is a huge part of my identity. Tea brings people together, the beginning of a beautiful friendship can start with just one cup on tea!
Canned tuna: This protein-packed meal is inexpensive and has a long shelf life. Canned Tuna is a great ingredient to have on hand for quick dinners, it is great for casseroles, patty melts or simply by itself.
Cédric Vongerichten, Executive Chef/Co-Owner, Wayan
Sambal (Indonesian chili sauce or paste): A traditional sauce/condiment in Indonesian cuisine that first originated in Bali, typically made with a variety of chili peppers as well as shrimp paste, garlic, ginger, palm sugar, shallots, lime juice and other flavorings. My favorite variation that I’ve made is my ramp sambal matah sauce using lemongrass, kaffir, lime, chilis and I replace shallots with ramps for a seasonal component in the spring. I love to pair it with a piece of fish, lamb, chicken, beef or suckling pig; it’s also great in vinaigrettes and marinades.
Crispy Shallots: An essential condiment in Southeast Asian cuisine that’s both salty and sweet. I love the extra layer of texture and flavoring they add to almost any dish. Great in soups and on salads, sprinkled on satays, fritters, noodles and rice dishes as a garnish or minced in meatballs. Indispensable & easy to find in most grocery stores.
Kecap Manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce): one of my favorite ingredients and pantry staples, a signature item in Indonesian cuisine. It has a thicker consistency than regular soy sauce and is delicious in marinades for various proteins (chicken, pork, shrimp), seasoning in noodle and rice dishes, or used alone as a dipping sauce or garnish.
Kombu (dried kelp): A staple ingredient in almost every sauce, stock and soup I make to provide a layer of umami and depth of flavoring. It’s incredibly universal and shelf stable as it’s dried, which is my preferred way to use it. Kombu is also served pickled in vinegar or used fresh, commonly with sushi.
Coconut Oil: A great alternative to olive oil and has a higher smoking point, making it ideal for searing proteins. Also smells so good, which is hard to beat. I use cooking with coconut oil in both savory and sweet dishes.
Kanchan Koya, Founder, Spice Spicy Baby
The Yondu plant-based umami sauce is my secret weapon in the kitchen to add umami depth to almost anything I’m making, whether it’s a plant-based curry, noodle soup or chili. Just a little splash and your dish is transformed with complexity and flavor.
Everyone should have a spice blend on hand they can throw onto anything to up-level the flavor and Burlap & Barrel X Floyd Cardoz ‘s Garam Masala is that blend for me. I sprinkle it on cauliflower and roast it in the oven, on a piece of wild-caught salmon or even on tofu and just that little dusting of sweet, spicy, smoky flavor notes (think cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and so on) is enough to completely elevate a dish.
Blank Slate Kitchen’s Sichuan Chili Oil is a must-have in my pantry for that signature Ma La flavor experience from the lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorns and the spicy chili peppers. I know it sounds overwhelming, but just a little dash can add a very special and exciting note to things like stir fries and noodle soups but also to toast slathered with tahini or a creamy kabocha squash soup.
Just Pomegranate Molasses is one of my favorite condiments ever. Not only can I throw it into my smoothie or on my oatmeal for some tartness and sweetness (not to mention mega antioxidants), but it’s brilliant paired with savory dishes like oven roasted Brussels sprouts with a little goat cheese or even fish. My husband I first had it in Turkey and I was like WHERE HAVE I BEEN?! Most underrated condiment ever!
I can’t live without my jar of Seed and Mill tahini made with roasted organic sesame seeds from Ethiopia. I slather it on toast, whip it up with lemon juice, cayenne, sumac and maple into a mesmerizing salad dressing or even blend it with frozen bananas and cacao powder into a healthy “nice” cream with all the creaminess, not to mention hummus and baba ghanoush, which are on rotation in my household almost daily.
Todd Pulsinelli, Executive Chef, The Chloe
Valentina Mexican Hot Sauce: We always have this in our pantry. Tacos are my favorite food, and I make them at least four times a week. It’s a great way to utilize leftovers from previous meals. I cook with it or splash it on just about everything to add a little kick.
Grillo’s Pickles: This is another item that we always have on hand. They are the best store-bought pickle I have found. Affordable, easy to grab at Costco with our other groceries. It’s a delicious pickle to put on a salami sandwich or just simply snack on.
Homemade Sate Paste: This is a garlic and dried chili paste. We make a milder version of this for the hotel and incorporate it in at least three dishes on the menu. It’s a deep, smokey, gingery, garlicky, chili paste — it honestly sets off any dish. The brand of sate I like to buy is Caravelle pepper SA-TE’ (Tia Chieu SA-TE’).
Ben’s Tasso Ham: Our sous chef, Ben, makes a cured quick ham that’s smoked and coated in Creole spices. We sell it as charcuterie, and it also spices up our shrimp and grits sauce. The Brand of Tasso I like to use is Poche’s tasso and Savoie’s tasso.
Homemade Creole Spice: This is a blend that we use for our blackened butter-crusted drum — a menu staple since we opened. It’s a multipurpose spice: we use it to cure, sausage making and sauces. It has hints of smokey from paprika, heat from cayenne, and we give it our own twist with toasted fennel seed.
Agatha Kulaga, CEO & Co-Founder, Ovenly
Mike’s Hot Honey is a pantry staple that I use almost every day. I put it on my yogurt and granola, drizzle it on pizza for a sweet kick, add it to salad dressing, eat it on toast with salted butter and slather Ovenly cheddar mustard scones with it. I cannot get enough of it.
I also always keep a few tubes of San Marzano Double Concentrated Tomato Paste around. If you’re out of tomato sauce, it’s a great substitute and can add a more robust flavor than canned tomato paste. It’s got depth and adds umami to pasta, soups, stews and veggie dishes. The best part is that it lasts a long time and is super easy to store, unlike the canned stuff.
I love to have Goya Guava Paste on hand and know that I can always find it at my local bodega. I pair it with lightly sweetened Farmer cheese in Hot Tarts (Ovenly’s version of Pop Tarts), use it in glazes for meat dishes and add it onto a cheese plate for a sweet-salty pairing.
There are always stacks of tinned seafood in my pantry, including tins from Jose Gourmet and Patagonia Provisions like Spiced Octopus in Olive Oil and Lemon Caper Mackerel. When I don’t feel like cooking, I crack open a tin and enjoy with a crusty loaf of bread drenched in fancy olive oil or use a tin to add pizazz to a simple pasta dish.
Coconut Cream is one of my favorite shelf-stable ingredients for baking and cooking. Its flavor, fat content and thick consistency make it a great addition to sweet treats like pies, cakes, puddings and mousses as well as in savory dishes like soups and sauces. It’s also delicious mixed into overnight oats and smoothies!
Jason Goldstein, Food Network Star finalist and recipe developer for ChopHappy.com
Calabrian Chili Paste to make spicy pasta sauce, marinate chicken or make an Italian chili.
Chickpeas can be used to make chickpea fritters, chickpea “tuna salad,” crispy sheet pan chickpea snack and chickpea tacos.
Tomatillo Sauce is perfect to marinate pork and veggie tacos.
Cocoa Powder can be used to make a quick steak rub with instant coffee and spices, a fast ice cream with whipped cream and frozen cocoa, or to add flavor to any dessert.
Apple Sauce is great to combine with box cake mix, to use in place of butter in recipes and as a topping for pork.
Lok Yan Li, Chef, Café Kitsuné New York
Maldon salt: Salt I always have in my personal kitchen and professional. Crunchy, just the right amount of saltiness. I finish most of my dishes with Maldon sea salt.
Lao Gan Ma Spicy Crispy Chili: Sticking with the classic. Grew up with this and it gives me a wave of nostalgia. Not to mention, this is the best there is out there.
Sancho Pepper: Very similiar to sichuan pepper but a much more milder note. Fruity, sharp and still numbing sensation. I put it on EVERYTHING currently.
Udon Noodle: Fast easy, my go to when I need a quick fix. It’s a blank canvas. I can stir fry or have it with broth.
Dashi Stock Packets: When I first discovered these, I didn’t know how I had gone for so long without knowing these packets existed. This stuff is magic. Stock in 15-20 minutes. Have it on its own, or simply add soy sauce or mirin to it, you’ll have (almost) a real shoyu dashi.
Joshua Lucio Lasso, Chef, Public Records
Tomato Sauce: I chose this item because the uses in the kitchen are infinite, from adding a bit of chili flakes and lemon to turn it into a Diablo sauce and serving it with eggs, to pouring a bit of tomato sauce into my michelada.
Hominy: I chose hominy because growing up in Ecuador, this “Serranita” would pass by selling steamed hominy with boiled potatoes and served with peanut sauce and you have no idea how delicious this combination of flavors is.
Tortillas: I mean come on, in Latino households we eat every meal with tortillas.
Cumin: This is one of my favorite spices and goes well in all savory things.
Hot Cheetos: Growing up in the hood, hot Cheetos and nacho cheese from the ice cream truck were the thing.
Behzad Jamshidi, Executive Director, Moosh NYC
The “Hon-E Lixr” from Tremblay Apiaries is quite possibly the best honey I’ve used in my life. It’s a bright yellow creamed honey based in bee pollen. I throw a dollop of it next to marscarpone with a good amount of cracked pepper and flaky salt and serve it with fresh bread and mezze. It’s also incredible as a glaze for meats and poultry and for whatever else your honey needs are. I go as far are using it as an antiseptic to treat wounds when I have little accidents in the kitchen.
Canned tuna for me is the most reliable pantry item there is. There is something so special about peeling back the lip of a tin to smokey, briny flakes of tender fish. The Tunisia variety from El Manar is my go to. I love making a big batch of rillettes with it and saving it in jars for when I need a quick snack or I have a friend dropping through.
Pomegranate Molasses: I can’t think of anything more versatile. I use it in the place of balsamic, I add it into my stews, I glaze olives in it with walnut and mint, and I go as far as adding it into shrubs or cordials with rose and mint and other Persian flavors.
Frank’s Red Hot Sauce: Hear me out! I grew up in a very Iranian home and Frank’s Red Hot sauce is how we technically “gentrified” our dinner table. We covered stews and kebobs with it. We could always count on it making an appearance. I treat it more as a chili vinegar than anything and I think that the thoughtful use of acid in food is the cornerstone of great cooking.
Olives in every which way, and in every shape and form they come. They’re perhaps my favorite ingredient to cook with. They are much more versatile than we treat them. I add green olives to broths, throw tapenade into rice and grains. I know it’s not everyones favorite thing, but I truly think there is an olive out there to make more people reconsider their love for them. My personal favorite are the bright green and creamy Castelvetranos.
This article was featured in the InsideHook newsletter. Sign up now.
Suggested for you