Weeknight Cooking

Treat Yo' Self: What Pantry Items to Splurge On and How to Use Them

April  9, 2014

Cooking on the cheap shouldn't mean minute rice and buttered pasta every night. With a little creativity and a little planning, Gabriella Paiella shows us how to make the most of a tight budget -- without sacrificing flavor or variety. 

Today: Go ahead, loosen those purse strings.  

When you're on cooking on a tight budget, you spend a lot of time cutting corners in your kitchen. You pack lunch instead of succumbing to the comfort and ease of Seamless. You lug oats and grains home in bulk, save your stale bread, and use every last scrap you come across. 

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Sometimes, though, there are ingredients that you're going to need to spend a little more money on -- either there is no cheap substitute for what you need, or using the inferior version is going to severely impact the quality of your dish. I've rounded up a few investment pieces for your pantry, so go ahead: Treat yo' self.

Miso Paste

Miso paste gives me the most sticker shock whenever I need to restock it. That being said, it has a unique flavor that simply can't be replicated, all while being incredibly versatile. I'm reminded of this every time I use it in anything from soup to vegetable dishes, and even dessert

Coconut Oil 

Coconut oil ain't cheap, but it's a handy fat to have around, especially if you can't or don't eat dairy. For savory dishes, you can use it to impart a sublime flavor to simple roasted vegetables or dress up fresh summer dishes. On the sweet side, it's perfect for a number vegan desserts, from chocolate layer cake to a genius DIY magic shell

Maple Syrup 

Non-pure maple syrup is little more than high fructose corn syrup and caramel coloring -- your pancakes deserve better. Learn more about the real thing here, then use it past weekend breakfasts: It's great for dressing up greens and roasting roots. And in cake, of course.

Parmesan Cheese

I'm not saying I don't eat large quantities of Parmesan cheese in one sitting. (Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, or whatever.) But Parmesan should typically last a long time, so buy a higher quality -- for your own good, steer clear of $3 pre-grated stuff; it's barely cheese. Use it to garnish an otherwise bare-bones farro salad or add heft to vegetable soup. Just make sure you store it correctly, so it lasts as long as it should: Learn the proper technique here.

Olive Oil and Vinegar (for finishing) 

You can get away with a lower-quality olive oil if you're just using it for cooking. But if you need some to finish off a recipe -- to drizzle over fresh tomatoes or serve with great crusty bread and fresh mozzarella, for example, keep a nicer quality bottle on reserve. Here's how to shop for the best, and keep it around for a long, long time. Same goes for vinegar -- it's so concentrated that you only need to use a small amount at any given time. Not to mention, the cheaper varities of balsamic tend to just be sweet vinegars with caramel color added. 

Tell us: What are your favorite pantry splurges? 

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • KansasKate
  • Tanya
  • PieceOfLayerCake
  • simone
  • Maia Rossini
    Maia Rossini
Yes, my name rhymes.


KansasKate May 7, 2014
In addition to all the great suggestions already listed...

Nielsen-Massey® vanilla, both liquid AND beans.

L'Arte dell'Olivo® white balsamic vinegar.

Tellicherry black peppercorns.

Sarawak white peppercorns.

Fleur de Sel de Guérande

True Cinnamon: Cinnamomum verum aka Ceylon or Sri Lanka cinnamon. (C. verum is what's used in Europe and what is called "canela" in Mexico.)

Cassia Cinnamon: Cinnamomum burmannii aka Indonesia or Korintje cinnamon OR Cinnamomum loureiroi aka Vietnamese or Saigon cinnamon. (Cassia is what's normally sold in US grocery stores and used in US baked goods.)

Local honey from your farmers' market.
Tanya April 12, 2014
Add finishing salts and NUT OILS. Toasted sesame. Macadamia. Even avocado and other specialty oils. And special vinegars!
PieceOfLayerCake April 12, 2014
Oh....and whole spices.
PieceOfLayerCake April 12, 2014
Good salt, for both cooking and finishing. I use Morton's kosher as my workhorse and generally Maldon for finishing. Although I've amassed quite the collection of smoked, grey, flaked, volcanic, briny, etc. varieties that can really add magic to a dish.
simone April 12, 2014
A good cheese shop will often offer a discount if you buy real parmesan in quantity, like over a lb, and if not ask them.
Maia R. April 12, 2014
I have to agree on the eggs. The couple of extra dollars a dozen that I spend on eggs from an actual farm instead of the grocery store makes a HUGE difference to so many of our meals.
Allison B. April 12, 2014
good tomato paste!
Nancy H. April 12, 2014
Splurging on extra-virgin olive oil makes good sense--good economic sense and good health sense. In my kitchen we use a good Greek ev oil for all-purpose cooking and an expensive Tuscan for finishing. The Tuscan gets used slowly, by the tablespoon, the Greek goes into the skillet by the glug.
asia April 12, 2014
That's why, when my husband recently boiled down 70+ gallons of sap to make 8 quarts of maple syrup, it felt like money in the bank!!
Erica C. April 11, 2014
Not exactly a splurge (because individually, they're generally cheap), but I usually have about a dozen bottles of hot sauce in the fridge. Also, really good eggs.
Gabriella P. April 11, 2014
I'm with you -- I love me some hot sauce.
Pegeen April 9, 2014
Thanks for a great column - so useful.
(But no sherry or madeira? What a difference they can make!)