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 up your sleeve. Those 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 our shelves no matter what, and some tips on how to get the most from them.
For the Fridge
Frozen Coconut Milk
Coconut milk + curry paste + a head of cauliflower is my dinner more often than I care to admit. Most of the time that's canned coconut milk (Chaokoh is the best), but when I'm feeling fancy, I reach for a block of frozen coconut milk. I get it at the Thai markets near my apartment, and it's the closest thing to making your own from scratch. The taste is so much more intensely coconutty, and it's more rich and fatty than the canned stuff. It's also less obsessively filtered, so you get some nubs of coconut meat for extra texture. Harder to find than canned coconut milk, but totally worth it. —Max Falkowitz
Indian Lime Pickle
The Indian restaurants I grew up eating in served three different things in their pickle and chutney rack: a sweet and sour tamarind sauce, a hot and creamy cilantro-chili sauce, and pungent marinated onions. All fine things indeed, but none of them blow-your-mind-intense in terms of flavor.
These days, I prefer to serve my curries, grilled meats, and pilafs with lime relish (I'm partial to Patak's brand). Made with salted preserved lemons packed with oil and spices, it's bitter, salty, sweet, and sour all at the same time. Even thinking about it is making my lips pucker a bit. It's great on the side, but it's equally versatile as an ingredient. I like to blend it up with some orange juice and ginger for a creamy dipping sauce for fried chicken. Chop it up and fold it into your rice or your cous cous. Roughly chop it and use it in place of preserved lemons in a tagine. Or just eat it straight out of the jar with your fingertips (just make sure to have some water handy, it's intense!). —J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
Preserved lemons are my go-to pantry staple—you can always find a jar of it at the back of my fridge. They brighten up just about anything you can think of and add a layer of complexity and warmth without much effort. I love combining them with some coriander and olive oil on roasted chicken when i get bored of straight-up herbs and they pair well with virtually any fish. Or I think about how I can complement a grain dish, like combining them with chopped parsley and mixing that with israeli couscous or farro. When I'm throwing together lunch to bring to work and pressed for time, I add preserved lemons to some beans and greens to make it infinitely more interesting. The possibilities are endless!
Sichuan Fermented Broad Bean Chili Paste
My favorite dish in the world is mapo tofu. Actually, I take that back. My favorite dish in the world is this mushroom-based version of mapo tofu, and seeing as neither of these dishes would exist without fiery-and-funky Sichuan Broad Bean Chili Paste, it's got a permanent space in my fridge. Sometimes I'll get cold sweats in the middle of a work day, saying to myself, Oh crap, did I run out of chili-bean paste? and I'll order a pack of it even though in reality I've still got plenty left. This is how I end up with two or three packs at a time and why I need to suddenly start using it with everything. It's particularly tasty with some very simple stir-fried green vegetables—beans, asparagus, cabbage, and broccoli are all great—or stirred into a hot soup. —J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
Yuzu, a small, wrinkly, lime-like citrus fruit is distinctly Japanese. It's prized for its highly aromatic, not-too-sour juice, and it can be really tough to come by in the U.S. You'll occasionally see fresh yuzu or sudachi in fancy supermarkets or Japanese grocers during citrus season commanding prices that even a Bi-Rite or Whole Foods employee would balk at. I can count the number of times I've used fresh-squeezed yuzu juice at home on one finger.
But I always keep a small bottle of yuzu juice in the door of my fridge. Even in pre-squeezed form, yuzu juice is alarmingly expensive, but a teeny tiny bit goes a long, long way. It's my favorite condiment to drip over glisteningly fresh and fatty hamachi sashimi with just a drop of high quality soy sauce and a sprinkle of sea salt. It's great dripped into a simple broth with a few braised greens, and it makes a fantastic flavoring agent for salad dressings. Oh, and don't forget to drizzle a bit on your ramen! —J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
For the Pantry
Since I'm mildly lactose intolerant and get weirded out by the taste of cow boob juice, it's difficult for me to finish a quart of milk before it spoils. A couple of years ago I switched to stocking evaporated milk in my pantry for all of my baking needs and I've used that exclusively for all of my cakes, cookies, confections, etc. ever since. I don't taste a difference between the canned and the fresh version since much of the taste is killed in the oven and evaporated milk lasts for YEARS. It's also perfect for those quick cheese sauce cravings you get in the middle of the night. You can bet I'll have pallets of evaporated milk for when the apocalypse inevitably happens. —Leang Chaing
Briny-sweet clam juice usually comes in a glass bottle with a nice long shelf life. I usually keep a few around—they're great for traditional preparations like clam chowder or spaghetti with clam sauce. But it's also wonderful in bright, vegetal summertime dishes (I even put a splash in my Bloody Mary or gazpacho from time to time), and works beautifully in place of vegetable or chicken stock in pan sauces for fish, seafood curries, or even oven-braised vegetables. —Niki Achitoff-Gray
Probably the only item on this list that isn't about adding flavor, unflavored gelatin is all about adding texture. For most of us, having this in the pantry is typically for projects like making juices into jello and other sweets like marshmallows. But as Kenji and I have been finding over and over again these past several months, 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 to in cassoulet, meatballs, arancini, and coq au vin, just to name some examples. —Daniel Gritzer
This might be bending the rule of what exactly constitutes a pantry staple, but it's something that is always, always, always in my pantry: popcorn kernels. Using a brown paper lunch bag and the microwave, you can have a pretty cheap, healthy snack on your hands in a couple minutes' time. I usually just top my popcorn with some olive oil and sea salt, but the possibilities are truly endless, depending on whatever other ingredients you've got lying around. Spice blends, herbs, butter, grated cheese, maple syrup, honey, buffalo sauce, you name it and it probably tastes great on popcorn (though some of these toppings get you out of the healthy column pretty quickly). —Ben Fishner
I'm not sure it's interesting and unusual, but I'm always certain to have popcorn (the un-popped stuff) in my pantry. It's the perfect late night snack when you manage the resist the slice of pizza on your walk home (or worse, the pizza place was closed). I usually keep it simple with butter and salt, but poking around your recently purged spices and cribbing from Daniel's creative popcorn flavors the possibilities are nearly endless. —Paul Cline
I crush these up and add to everything from oatmeal to boring rice and pasta dishes, and basically anything else that needs a little bit of oomph. The crunch adds a nice textural boost and the honey adds a touch of sweetness to an otherwise ho-hum dish. —Vicky Wasik
Orange Blossom Water
Orange blossom water tastes like grandma, but a grandma who knows how to COOK. I use it like vanilla extract in ice cream, pavlova, and anything that has honey and nuts. Essential waters are such an under appreciated baking ingredient, and a good orange blossom one will balance sweet and bitter orange flavor with a wonderful floral undertone. You don't need much, so one bottle winds up lasting a while. Get Cortas; theirs is good stuff. —Max Falkowitz
Extra-Crunchy Peanut Butter
Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, we only ate the locally produced Bama brand, which still exists as a (no longer local) label of Welch's. Now that I live in New York, I'm stuck with Jif. Fewer people seem to appreciate crunchy peanut butter over smooth. Fools! Peanut butter and banana sandwiches are a classic, but PB also works well on almost any cracker (better if the cracker is bitter/salty or at least non-buttery). Crunchy peanut butter also goes much better than smooth with apples or pears. I even once occasionally enjoyed the beloved Southern tradition of the peanut-butter-and-baloney sandwich, though it's been years. And peanut butter is great on a toasted onion bagel, though it makes for a messy melt. —Chris Mohney
My variety of choice (when I can get them) is the Polish wild borowik mushroom. They're hard to come by, but can usually be found in Polish speciality shops, especially around the holidays. I stock up on a few dried strings at once and hydrate as needed to make soups or stuff pierogies. But having a bag of dried shiitake or porcini mushrooms can be just as useful. In all cases, you just soak the mushrooms to rehydrate them —Vicky Wasik
Tex-Mex is my favorite kind of cuisine, plus beans are good for you, right? If I'm indulging in a dinner of nachos (we're talking just chips and cheese in the microwave) a can of black beans dumped on top can help make me feel better about myself. On the flipside, if I'm trying to throw together a cheap and somewhat healthy lunch or dinner, I'll put quinoa or farro with black beans and frozen corn, and maybe a little salsa mixed in. —Leandra Palermo
Working at home, I struggle with quick lunch ideas beyond another fried egg. And while you well-prepared types can certainly make your own refried beans and stash them in your freezer or fridge, I find it really handy to have a can or two of the premade kind in the pantry—even the fat free version is fine. Heat 'em up, put a dollop in a tortilla with salsa, and you've got the kind of quick meal that keeps you going all day. They're also good on nachos, of course, or just in a bowl with some good hot sauce and chopped onion. —Maggie Hoffman
Chipotles in Adobo
Smoky, spicy, and just a little fruity-sweet, chipotles in adobo are an essential addition to countless soups, stews, and braises, especially of the Mexican or Tex-Mex variety. I'm kind of a baby when it comes to spicy food, so while the whole smoked jalapeños themselves tend to be a little too hot for me, puréeing them into the adobo sauce leaves you with a thick, pasty sauce that I'm addicted to slathering on sandwiches, stirring into mac and cheese, or mixing into mayo or ketchup for an awesome dipping sauce for fries, wings, or...my finger. —Niki Achitoff-Gray
For the Spice Rack
I don't usually like to recommend products you can only buy from one place with a high price tag, but what the hell, sometimes you gotta splurge on your spices. La Boîte, a boutique spice company from the mad-scientist mind of Lior Lev Sercarz, makes an incredible smoked cinnamon that finds its way into almost every spice cake I bake. The cinnamon is Cinnamomum verum, the real-deal "Ceylon" cinnamon with a gentle reedy, vanilla flavor that lingers on the tongue. (As opposed to the more common and tongue-singing C. cassia that tastes like Red Hots; a delicious spice to be sure but not welcome in everything.) Lior then smokes the cinnamon to enhance its savoriness and add burnt sugar notes, and the result is a gorgeously complex spice that makes the best honey cake I've ever had. Even small amounts make a big difference in recipes, so a small jar lasts me a while. —Max Falkowitz
Sometimes I think back to the life I led pre-2005 and have no idea how I managed. No, I didn't have to walk to school in the snow with no shoes uphill both way. I'm talking about something way worse: a complete lack of Sichuan peppercorns. Between 1968 and 2005, the aromatic, citrus-y, camphorous, mouth-numbing spice was banned for import to the United States, which means that until that year, nobody was really experiencing traditional ma-la Sichuan food in this country. At least not legally. Can you imagine Dan Dan noodles with just the heat and none of the numbingness? Or lamb with cumin without the balancing citrus aroma? And if it weren't for Sichuan peppercorns, my favorite crispy chicken wing recipe in years wouldn't even exist!
Not all Sichuan peppercorns are created equal and I've found more than my fair share of bad batches filled with little black seeds and twigs (only the reddish outer hull should be used). Luckily, Amazon carries them, even if your local spice shop doesn't. —J. Kenji Lopez-Alt