The Pantry Staples We Can't Live Without

These are the kitchen staples we love best—the secret weapons we keep on our shelves no matter what.

Jar of homemade chili crisp with a spoonful being removed

Most of us keep certain staples around the kitchen—flour and sugar, butter, olive oil and vinegar, eggs, milk, maybe some garlic and onions. But chances are you also probably have some special ingredients you like to keep around, secret weapons that turn humdrum meals into great ones and find their way into more dishes than you can count.

These are the kitchen staples we love best, the products we keep on hand no matter what, and some tips on how to get the most from them.

For the Fridge and Freezer

Nam Prik Pao

A spoonful of nam prik pao being lifted out of a jar.

VIcky Wasik

Keep your fridge stocked with versatile, umami-packed condiments, and you'll never have to suffer through underwhelming, rushed WFH lunches and drab clean-out-the-fridge weeknight dinners ever again. Nam prik pao, a Thai condiment made primarily with dried spur chiles, garlic, shallots, and dried shrimp, is a great example: It’s deeply savory, spicy, slightly sweet, and has an underlying roasted allium complexity. The thick, jammy consistency makes it perfect for incorporating into all sorts of dishes, or for spreading on a piece of bread. Use it in stir-fries, add it to salad dressings, toss it with blanched greens, spoon some over rice, stir some into chicken soup, incorporate it into tuna or grilled cheese sandwiches—it improves everything, and it lasts forever in the fridge. Pailin Chongchitnant’s recipe is fantastic, and much simpler to make than other versions, which can call for frying shallots and garlic separately before working them into a paste. Do your future hungry self a favor and make a batch as soon as possible. Sasha Marx, senior culinary editor

Chili Crisp

Chili crisp has become such a trend that it almost feels pedestrian to list it here, but I will because it honestly remains the condiment to beat. Thanks in large part to the trend, there are now a dizzying number of brands sold in every imaginable shading of flavor, all based on the premise that a chile-infused oil with aromatics like garlic and spices is delicious on almost everything—it is, and I always have one kind or another in my fridge at all times. Daniel Gritzer, senior culinary director

Ramen Broth/Tare

A spoonful of shoyu ramen broth being lifted from a bowl of broth and noodles

I eat noodle soup pretty frequently, and to make noodle soups, you have to have broth and something to season it with. Given my interest in ramen, I will almost always have a broth made for ramen around; conveniently enough, ramen broth is very versatile, especially simple ones, and can be used as a cooking stock or the base for any number of different noodle soups. Tare, or the noodle sauce for ramen, is also quite useful, if less versatile, which is why in addition to having a couple tares in my fridge at all times, I also stock a variety of good soy sauces (right now, the fancy Zhongba light soy sauce is my favorite, but I've been getting a lot of use out of this Suehiro usukuchi, too), vinegars (this Baoning black vinegar is incredible), fermented bean pastes (like pixian doubanjiang), and flavorful fats, which I either make myself (chile oil is always useful to have around) or buy (this green Sichuan peppercorn oil is hauntingly good, although I use it sparingly). It obviously helps to have noodles around, too; I always have banh pho, Jiangxi rice vermicelli, and ramen of some kind in my cupboards/fridge/freezer. Sho Spaeth, editor

Trader Joe's Red Pepper Spread

There’s nothing special about another millennial raving about yet another Trader Joe’s product, but I’m going to do it anyway. Their red pepper spread with eggplant and garlic has seriously changed my cooking game. I add it to everything from shakshuka to pasta sauce and pizza for a *chef's kiss* boost of flavor. It has that je ne sais quoi factor every meal needs (and deserves).  Yasmine Maggio, associate editor

For the Pantry


Vicky Wasik

I couldn’t tell you when tahini became my thickener-slash-condiment of choice (that’s a lie, I absolutely can: in, like, September of 2020 when I became exhausted and just stayed that way), but it is absolutely my go-to. In this apartment, it goes on cheeseburgers, in soups, and, on some of the more frantic days, on toast. When I’m feeling ambitious, it becomes a crucial part of salad dressings. Oh! And on falafel. Always falafel. —Tess Koman, senior editorial director

Canned Cherry Tomatoes

I only recently learned that canned cherry tomatoes were a thing and now I make regular trips to my local Italian importer, D Coluccio & Sons, to make sure that my pantry is constantly stocked. I typically use these to create a fresh burst cherry sauce that I can toss with sausage, fennel ribbons, and pasta, throw over chicken cutlets with mozz for a quick parm, or spread as a base on top of some homemade sourdough pizza dough—which is in my repertoire, in case you were wondering. —Elspeth Velten, vice president and general manager


At least once a week, I rummage around in my refrigerator for my jar of instant dashi. It's saved me from many sad desk lunches while working from home. With a jar of it at my disposal, I can quickly whip up some miso soup or a chilled bowl of udon. And if I'm feeling ambitious, I'll cook up a pot of pinakbet, a Filipino vegetable stew, and enjoy it with rice. Kristina Razon, associate editor

Malted Milk Powder


Vicky Wasik

I'm a lifelong believer that every milkshake is better as a malt, a stance that grew firmer when Stella laid out her argument that malted milk should be thought of as the umami bomb of the dessert world. It was a truth that always lived in my bones, but wasn't fully awakened until I'd read her words. Now it's a truth that lives in my pantry full-time. —Daniel Gritzer

Rancho Gordo Garbanzo Beans

Once a week, I'll cook a batch of dried chickpeas in my slow cooker (eight hours on high does the trick—this method from Alexandra's Kitchen 'chickpeas' Instagram story works well for me). With these on hand, it's easy to throw together quick weeknight meals, which is essential in my house. I make a lot of variations on grain bowls, but also love just eating a big bowl of chickepas with a poached egg on top. —Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm, commerce editor

Estratto di Pomodori

My colleague Sasha has, over the years, shown me I have terrible opinions about a range of specialty Italian products, like colatura, which I used to think was just expensive fish sauce, and bottarga, which I was previously content to just grate over aglio e olio (don't do that, do this). But the most useful correction of the error of my ways was when he convinced me that I really did want to shell out 30 bucks for fancy tomato paste. Now, I can't really do without this sun-dried tomato paste concentrate, even though I very rarely use it to make Italian food—I use it mostly for Indian-ish food— channa masala, curries, etc. It's orders of magnitude more flavorful and complex than any other tomato paste I've tried, and while the price tag hurts, I never hesitate to order more when I'm running low. (Also, if you're ordering it—and you should—pick up some good olive oil, which is very much worth it: this one is the one I have open right now, and it's fantastic.) —Sho Spaeth

MSG (Monosodium Glutamate)

Vicky Wasik

I use crystalline MSG in my cooking and I'm not ashamed of it. While it's hardly a silver bullet, it adds a certain savory oomph that, in some applications, can't be beat, and it's also shelf-stable and inexpensive. And if you're wary of adding it to your own food, rest assured that not only is it safe, it's already in basically every processed food you already eat; "hydrolyzed vegetable protein," "textured vegetable protein," and "yeast extract" are ingredients which the FDA acknowledges contain MSG, but do not require being labeled as such. Since you're already consuming it, whether you realize it or not, you might as well just lean in and deliberately take advantage of what this seasoning has to offer. Jacob Dean, updates editor

Unflavored Gelatin

Probably the only item on this list that isn't about adding flavor, unflavored gelatin is all about adding texture. For most people, having gelatin handy is useful for projects like making juices into jello and other sweets like marshmallows. But as Kenji and I have said over and over again, unflavored gelatin is incredibly helpful in a lot of savory applications as well. Take chicken stock, for instance, where a couple packets of unflavored gelatin can transform thin store-bought stock, making it more closely resemble traditional long-simmered stock that's essential for sauces with great body. Thus far we've used it in cassoulet, meatballs, arancini, and coq au vin, just to name some examples. —Daniel Gritzer

Sun-Dried Tomatoes

I can’t resist sun-dried tomatoes when I pass them at the grocery store. Aside from eating them straight from the jar or bag (oil-packed ones should be refrigerated after opening, FYI), they’re great for sprucing up any of your average, everyday meals like sandwiches and scrambled eggs. You can easily turn them into a quick red pesto with some nuts, grated Parmesan, and olive oil, or just throw them into your pasta as-is. They’re a small-but-mighty addition to a number of meals, easily turning your dish into something special. —Yasmine Maggio

Popcorn Kernels


Having popcorn on hand in the pantry is hardly a novel idea, but I feel the need to sing its praises once again. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the perfect any-time, any-day snack. I prefer the stovetop-with-plenty-of-oil popping method, which allows the popcorn to take on a lot of dry seasonings. From there, I have my go-to sweet and savory options (though I have been known to make both at once). When I’m hankering for a savory snack, I like to use a blended mixture of nutritional yeast and a flurry of other random spices. When I want something sweet, I turn to my roommate’s method: just dump a bunch of chocolate chips into the bowl as soon as it’s off the stove, which produces a (quite messy) mix of melted chocolate with some still-solid pieces in there. It’s a little salty, a little sweet, and definitely requires a spoon to eat. —Jina Stanfill, social media editor

Maesri Curry Paste

Making your own curry paste is great and worth it, but having a go-to pre-made paste as a fall-back is a weeknight life changer, and Maesri is the best. Collecting all of the colorful cans in grocery stores across town is a fun game in itself, and in my house, it can be prepared in its traditional fashion as detailed on the label, used as a dry seasoning for protein and greens in a stir-fry, or combined with coconut milk and my choice of steamed shellfish du jour. —Elspeth Velten


Rendered leaf lard is a staple in our home kitchen, and has a rich, relatively neutral flavor that makes it suitable for both stovetop applications and for baking. Try adding some to your homemade tortillas, or plop a dollop into a pot of simmering dried beans: it'll change your life. —Jacob Dean

Secret Aardvark Hot Sauce

I always have a bottle of this on hand! It’s a more substantial sauce with a lot going on—which, as Kenji notes here, will keep you coming back for more. I like a hot sauce that’s actually hot, and this one has just the right amount of spice. It’s somewhat synonymous with breakfast in my mind (I’ll always add it to a scramble or a breakfast sandwich), but its applications go far beyond that. —Jina Stanfill

Condensed Milk


Vicky Wasik

Cans of condensed milk last forever (not literally—don't sue me if you drink rusty milk from a swollen 50 year-old can), and they're key to have on hand for impromptu special treats. You can pour it into the blender to make an Indonesian avocado shake, directly over fresh berries, spread it on toast with butter, or pour it over some store-bought sponge cake in a lazy nod to tres leches (minus the other two leches, though adding a can of evaporated milk and some cream or whole milk can get you closer to the real thing). —Daniel Gritzer

Lap Cheong

I always have a selection of lap cheong, a Chinese-style sausage, in my pantry, (typically soy sauce flavor but right now, duck liver,) ready to break into for addition to fried rice, eggs, rice cakes, or oatmeal. If I'm feeling fancy, I'll slice up a few links, toss them with ginger, chilies, garlic, and fermented black beans, tuck it all around a whole fish from the freezer, and steam the lot in tin foil. I consider lap cheong an "accent meat" in what I pretend is my plant based diet. Please don't ruin that illusion for me. —Elspeth Velten

Canned Fava Beans

While I'm a huge fan of dried beans (shout out to Rancho Gordo!) favas are the only bean I can think of that are simply better from the can. Canned favas have the texture I want, I don't have to peel them (favas have a thick, leathery skin that needs to be removed), and the liquid they're canned in is deeply flavorful. My pantry always has at least four cans of fava beans in it, and our recipe for spicy ful medames is my go-to for days when I don't have the energy to cook, but also don't want to order in. —Jacob Dean

For the Spice Rack


Vicky Wasik

Sumac is a wonder spice, delivering not just earthy, fruity, and floral flavors to whatever it's sprinkled on or in, but also a punchy tartness that brightens up any dish. Acidity is one of the key flavors in cooking, right up there with saltiness and sweetness, so having multiple ways to add it is always a plus. In sumac's case, you get that bright pop without the accompanying liquid that comes with citrus or vinegar—a useful quality in many situations. —Daniel Gritzer

Spice blends

Spice blends are pantry staples all over the world for the obvious reason that a pinch of any of them will add a lot of flavor to whatever you're cooking. While there's no harm in buying these pre-made at the store, they're all very easy to make and will almost always be better if you make them yourself. (Because you're buying and toasting whole spices and them grinding them up, right? Right!) Sohla's chaat masala and some kind of garam masala (I sometimes use Kenji's, sometimes other recipes...I'm masala curious and you can be, too!) are two I have around pretty much all the time, but I've spent many happy weeks working my way through fresh batches of Ozoz's yajin kuli and Sohla's dry harissa. —Sho Spaeth