If you’re not big on planning ahead, keeping a pantry can seem like the kind of thing best left to Martha Stewart types and doomsday preppers, but it’s truly helpful for anyone who even semi-regularly cooks food at home. You don’t need a ton of space to do it, either, if you choose your pantry staples wisely. A lot of small packages last a long time and pack tons of flavor. We asked Gail Simmons, “Top Chef” host and author of Bringing it Home: Favorite Recipes From a Life of Adventurous Eating, to tell us some of her favorite pantry items.
Use these suggestions as a starting point for stocking your own larder with plenty of versatile ingredients that will make it easy to whip up delicious dishes at any time:
Whole canned peeled tomatoes
These can do so much—serve as the base of a pasta sauce, of course, or be used for soups or stews, or for simmering chicken, fish, or other proteins (think eggs, as in shakshouka). Imported Italian San Marzano tomatoes are especially good, but no matter what brand you buy, be sure to choose whole tomatoes, which are generally better quality than those that come pre-diced or crushed. You can always crush the whole tomatoes with the back of a spoon as they cook to break them down if need be, or blitz them in a food processor.
Fish sauce is obviously fantastic for making lots of Asian dishes—Vietnamese nuoc cham, curry pastes, Thai grilled chicken—but adding a few drops to other things, even on the order of chili or pasta, adds a wonderful boost of savory umami flavor, plus a little saltiness (so whenever you use fish sauce, cut back on regular salt, or omit it all together). Red Boat is a great all-purpose brand.
Don’t confuse these with regular brined capers, which are bland and vinegary in comparison. Salt-packed capers are larger, firmer, and way more flavorful. Be sure to rinse them first; they’ll still have plenty of zest, but won’t shrivel your tongue. Put the amount you need (usually not much) in a small bowl and cover with water, then swish around to dislodge the salt. Drain, take a little taste, and rinse again if they’re still too salty. You can chop them up to mix into sauces, condiments, burger blends, and creamy salads (egg, potato, tuna, chicken…), or fry them to use as a crisp garnish on pasta, pan-fried chicken or fish, or to stir into sauteed vegetables. If frying the capers, make sure to pat them dry first.
Vinegar of all sorts is an ideal ingredient to keep on hand—white vinegar is great for quick pickles, balsamic vinegar for finishing dishes and dipping bread, and a more acidic wine vinegar for perking up dressings, plus rice vinegar if you do a lot of Asian cooking. Malt vinegar is a worthy addition to your roster, too, to use sparingly in salad dressings, marinades, even mashed potatoes—and it’s a classic with fish and chips. Just sprinkle some over top instead of a squirt of lemon juice.
A common vegan pantry item, coconut oil has a high smoke point and is great for cooking and baking. Generally, it can be substituted in equal quantities wherever butter is called for (and in the same form; i.e. melted coconut oil where a recipe calls for melted butter), but it does have a faint coconut flavor, so might not be suitable for everything.
Unsweetened coconut flakes or chips
Another ingredient to keep on hand for use in both sweet and savory recipes is a bag of coconut flakes or chips, unsweetened if possible (you can always add sweetness with other ingredients, but you can’t take it away). You can generally find unsweetened coconut in the organic section of most grocery stores, or online. Use it as-is or toast it first, in granola and baked goods, or for topping curries.
Japanese miso paste is made from fermented soybeans and is available in several different colors, which vary in intensity—white miso is mildest, yellow miso’s in the middle, and red miso is the strongest—but they’re all pretty salty and deeply savory. Add a small amount of white or yellow miso to soups, marinades, dressings, sauces, and glazes to amp up the flavor, but be more conservative with the red variety, which is best with stronger flavors like salmon and skirt steak.
Having several different types of hot sauce and chile paste on hand is never a bad idea, but if harissa isn’t part of your current stable, consider adding it. The North African pepper paste is a spicy and super-flavorful seasoning (in anything from hummus to meat marinades) as well as a condiment in its own right. You can make your own harissa, or purchase it in tubes or jars.
If you instinctively recoil at the thought of anchovies—whether you absorbed the aversion by social osmosis or actually had an unpleasant experience with the pungent little fish at some point—try seeking out a great oil-packed imported brand and use them, as Gail suggests, mashed into butter, melted into sauces or cooked greens, or whisked into salad dressings (Caesar, of course, but don’t limit yourself to that). They’ll boost the flavor of everything else without making food taste fishy—and the really good ones are even tempting to eat on their own.
In addition to all these multi-functional, flavor-packed pantry staples Gail recommends, you might consider stocking things like dried pasta, flour, various grains and rice, chicken or vegetable broth, beans, dried fruit and nuts—it all depends on exactly what you like to cook and eat, and how much storage space you have. Think about fresher things like onions and cheese too. But keeping at least a few powerful pantry players on hand helps you become a more creative cook and stay happily well-fed, even on nights when you have no idea what you’re going to make. Just come home, survey your store of secret weapon ingredients, and chances are, you’ll be inspired.
And check out these recipes featuring some of Gail’s must-have pantry picks for more ideas on how to use them:
Keep eggs and canned tomatoes on hand and you’ll always be able to whip up this satisfying, hearty dish. Customize the spices to your liking, and feel free to add cheese, fresh herbs, leftover sauteed or roasted vegetables…it’s endlessly adaptable. Get our Eggs in Purgatory recipe.
Fish sauce and Sriracha add a lot of flavor to store-bought chicken (or vegetable) broth. Keep rice vermicelli on hand too and all you’ll need to pick up from the store when the mood strikes is a rotisserie chicken, ginger, and some fresh herbs. Switch it up with shrimp or tofu if you prefer. Get our Quick Chicken Pho recipe.
Lemon and capers are time-tested partners with salmon; just add a few other ingredients (like butter, garlic, lemon, and white wine) to make a quick pan sauce for an easy yet elegant dinner. Get our Easy Salmon with Lemon and Capers recipe.
In larger quantities, malt vinegar can make a great glaze for chicken, but it’s also good for perking up dressings, like this one with honey and Creole mustard. Use it on a salad, or for dipping anything fried. Get the recipe.
Coconut oil and unsweetened coconut chips join lots of other potential pantry staples—pecans, oats, banana chips—in this toasty, lightly sweet banana bread granola. If you don’t have banana chips, add raisins or other dried fruit, even chocolate chips. Get Joy the Baker’s Banana Bread Granola recipe.
Miso soup is a classic Japanese comfort food, and miso makes for a great marinade ingredient (try it paired with maple syrup on salmon), but this is so beautifully simple, and can be adapted to work with basically any vegetable in season. It can serve as a side, or a meal on its own, perhaps with some crusty bread if you’ve got it. Get David Chang’s Roasted Asparagus with Poached Eggs and Miso Butter recipe.
You can stir harissa into anything that would benefit from a little flavorful heat, or even use a thin schmear in place of pizza sauce. This chewy wheat berry salad makes a great base for any protein you want to put on top, from seared steak to oven-baked tofu or chicken, or even simply seasoned roasted vegetables. Get our Wheat Berry Salad with Harissa and Pistachios recipe.
One of the ultimate pantry pastas, spaghetti puttanesca is bursting with punchy flavors thanks to anchovies (splurge on the best you can find and afford), olives, capers, and garlic. You can use a 14.5 ounce can of whole, peeled tomatoes in place of the fresh tomatoes, too; just break them up with a spoon as you stir them into the sauce. Get our Spaghetti Puttanesca recipe.