Experts Say: These are the Hardest-Working, Most-Versatile Pantry Ingredients

September 29, 2016

Let's say you want to move to Mars but you can only fit a small kitten in your bag along with a handful of pantry items (side note: This is my fantasy).

You cannot fit table salt and kosher salt, for example. You can most certainly not fit Tabasco and Sriracha. Or Hellmann's and Duke's. What to do, what to do... You want the most versatile, foundational items that won't be prohibitive whether you want to make Indian food or Mexican food, dinner or dessert. That you can sub in freely. That won't leave you wishing you could jet-pack back to Earth to grab the red miso instead of the white.

We put this question—of the totally pared-down, Mars-mission-minimalist pantry—to the experts: We asked the people who know about all the kinds of salt and all the kinds of flour to choose just one (or, in the case of spices, just three—because spices are light and they come in small packages and hey, you're going to Mars and you'll need some of the comforts of home!).

Here's what the modern-day gourmand's bare-bones pantry would look like (on Mars):

The pared-down pantry, according to our panel of experts. Photo by Bobbi Lin


I‘d recommend having one’s favorite 70% chocolate bar. Good for nibbling. Great for making brownies, soufflés, pudding, drinking chocolate, tortes, etc. and also for adding a bit of depth to savory meat sauces, grating over salads even! But there should be two chocolate items: I would add a great natural cocoa powder as well.
Alice Medrich, author of Seriously Bitter Sweet: The Ultimate Dessert Maker's Guide to Chocolate


Honestly, for versatility I would stock white sugar simply because it offers the most options for cooking and baking. For just taste, I would go with maple because of how much I love its rich buttery flavor... but for all of the other amazing things that white sugar does (makes cake batters fluffy, makes cookies crisp, adds sweetness without an actual flavor for certain savory applications), it wins.
Joanne Chang, author of Baking with Less Sugar: Recipes for Desserts Using Natural Sweeteners and Little-to-No White Sugar


Flour-wise, I would definitely go with all-purpose (be sure to get unbleached always!). All-purpose is what you're going to use most of the time for baking (and you can even use it for things that might call for 00 or bread flour, you'd just need to allow for some textural changes), and it's also what you'd want for anything like making a roux, thickening a sauce, etc. It's also going to be pretty versatile across cuisines and certainly across flavor profiles, as it doesn't impart flavor the way, say, almond flour would.
Posie Harwood, Content Editor & Managing Editor of SIFT Magazine at King Arthur Flour

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Also Sandy Oaks Extra Virgin Olive (a Texas company owned by a woman) because it is not too "fruity" and their regular olive oil is great. Vinegars are apple cider, balsamic, red wine and rice. I have white for cleaning purposes only. Parmesan rinds are in my freezer. Several cans of San Marzano tomatoes along with Hunts diced tomatoes (unsalted) ”
— Kim

I'm totally the worst person to ask as I always bake with several gluten-free flours. The one I use most often is sweet rice because it's sticky like wheat flour, but it needs to be mixed with less sticky flours, like oat or millet. I haven't found an all-purpose gluten-free blend that I like, so I essentially make my own with sweet rice flour, oat flour, and millet flour in roughly equal parts. It makes something similar to an AP blend but with more nutty, whole-grain flavor.
Alanna Taylor-Tobin, author of Alternative Baker: Reinventing Dessert with Gluten-Free Grains and Flours


If I could only have one salt in the kitchen, I would salt French grey sea salt (Celtic grey sea salt), which comes in fine or coarse grain. The fine grain sea salt is perfect for cooking or seasoning and the coarse grain is a nice finishing salt, as it has a soft crunch and a rich, briny flavor. Since it is available in two grain sizes, it is can span the cooking-finishing question. If you can’t have 2 grain sizes in this pared-down pantry, pick fine grain, which works both as a cooking and finishing salt.
Didi Davis, Owner of Salt Traders

When it comes to salt, my preferred ones would be grey sea salt because it is good both as a seasoning before you cook and as a final touch, as well as for blanching water for veg or pasta. A lot of other salts cannot fill this function well. It delivers a great sea flavor with coarse texture.
Lior Lev Sercarz, author of the upcoming book, The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices and founder of La Boîte

I would always choose our Jacobsen kosher sea salt. You can use it in any application: to salt pasta water or to finish a dish. Our sea salt can replace your table salt and its quality rivals any other salt on the market. Handmade on the Oregon Coast, it's crisp, clean and bright taste will elevate any dish.
Hope Williams, Jacobsen Salt Co.

Every time you salt, you are creating flavor and sustaining the life you want to lead.
Mark Bitterman

First, the one salt in the universe I would NOT have is kosher! I know it’s trendy and all that but it’s not really a food—more of a refined chemical. We are the only nation on earth [...] that intentionally uses a super crappy salt simply because it is better than a super-duper crappy salt.

So [...] what is the one salt. [T]hat is equivalent to asking what is the one knife, or the one pan you would use. Salt is [unlike] any other ingredient in that it is used with every other ingredient. Like no other ingredient, you want a salt that is tuned to the characteristics of the food.

So, I’ll first answer what I think is the true question, which is: How can I use salt effectively? The answer is to have 3 salts: a delicate, moist, granular fleur de sel for finishing most foods [...]; a coarse, chunky, minerally sel gris for hearty things like steaks, roasts, and root vegetables—and this one also makes a good cooking salt; and a fine flake salt for fresh greens, margarita rims, and anything that wants crispy salty texture without overwhelming saltiness.

But, gasp, if I had to throw two of my children out to sea and rescue just one, I’d pick any unrefined, hand-harvested, sun evaporated sea salt. Unrefined is key, because the trace minerals and residual moisture of a natural salt gives it flavor complexity and an unctuous, luscious crunch. Hand-harvested means people are making your food, not machines and factories, so your food is part of all that good stuff that makes our communities and economies vibrant. The sun-evaporated part matters because the most common salts in the U.S., like kosher and table salt, are made using fossil fuels. Sun-evaporated means your salt is made using 100% renewable energy. All of this, I believe, contributes to something deeper than the sum of its parts. Every time you salt, you are creating flavor and sustaining the life you want to lead.
Mark Bitterman, author of Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes and CEO of Bitterman Salt Co.


I would choose either a high-quality black pepper such as Tellicherry, or a white Muntok pepper.
Lior Lev Sercarz


Truthfully, I'd go with, Datu Puti brand Sukang Maasim (cane syrup vinegar). If vinegar could be considered light and bright, this would be it. Luscious and clean, it's a great carrier of flavor, as seen in the national dish of the Philippines, adobo, or [you can] infuse it with garlic, ginger, and chiles for the ubiquitous condiment, suka pinakurat (chili vinegar).
Michael Harlan Turkell, author of the upcoming Acid Trip: A Fermented Look into Vinegar’s Soured Past & Bright Future

Apple cider vinegar. Hands down the most versatile if you're going to have just one. Also readily available in most places. Though I am tempted to make the case for rice vinegar.
Harry Rosenblum, co-founder of The Brooklyn Kitchen, author of the upcoming Vinegar Revival

Olive Oil

We are talking strictly extra-virgin—no point in looking at anything else.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins

If I can only stock one olive oil, I would want it to be my own, the oil we make from our 150-tree orchard in the hills between Tuscany and Umbria. But failing that, I would suggest [...] an oil that is fairly well-distributed in the U.S.—and that presents a real problem. What I find in New England is not necessarily available in the Southwest and vice versa.

For a general, all-purpose oil (and we are talking strictly extra-virgin—no point in looking at anything else), I suggest trying either a Greek oil such as Iliada (my daughter uses this as her all-purpose oil in her restaurants) or a California oil. My current California favorite is Séka Hills, produced by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in the Capay Valley north of Sacramento, but it's not always easy to find. Much more widely distributed (I just happened to see it in a local Walmart) is California Olive Ranch, a very acceptable and adaptable oil.

One caution however, and this is important: Check the date. All California extra-virgins should come with a use-by or harvest date and that is important (some other olive oils do as well, but they are often expensive estate-bottled oils from Italy or Spain). Do not buy an oil that is two years past harvest—it won't be dangerous but it will be faded and possibly even rancid if it hasn't been carefully handled.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil


Calrose: This is a great all-purpose white rice, and since many brands are grown in California, you can easily find very fresh grains that cook up quickly and evenly. Also, it's delicious!
Carolyn Phillips, author of All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China

Thai fragrant rice: Widely regarded as one of the finest rices, this long-grained variety has a delicate flavor and fragrance, is widely available, and can be used to accompany all kinds of Chinese and East Asian food. (I mean, you could use Thai fragrant rice in other cuisines, or in desserts, but it changes character of dishes. So if you're trying to be at all authentic...)
Fuchsia Dunlop, author, most recently, of the forthcoming Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China


You can mitigate the pungency and adjust flavor on red misos, but you cannot add the intrinsic depth of fermentation back into white miso.
Nancy Singleton Hachisu

In Japan, our go-to miso is Yamaki Jozo’s inaka miso, a gently flavored miso with a loose consistency that makes it easy to incorporate into various preparations. In our area, inaka miso is made from soybeans inoculated with white rice koji [koji is a fermenting catalyst, known as Japanese "yeast"]. For some strange reason, this miso is not readily available abroad: It seems that there are quite a few white misos (short fermentation period, high percentage of rice koji) and also quite a few dark-profile misos (which are either oxidized or long-fermented). So the long answer here is that if I lived in the States, I would buy the best white miso I could find and the best brown rice miso, and I would use a mixture of both on a daily basis, though sometimes would use either one on its own.

So-called red misos have more fermentation going on so more flavor. You can mitigate the pungency and adjust flavor on red misos to dial back its punch, but you cannot add the intrinsic depth of fermentation that red miso contains back into white miso. Inaka miso or brown rice miso are the most versatile misos out there.
Nancy Singleton Hachisu, author of Preserving the Japanese Way and Japanese Farm Food


I probably use smoked Spanish Paprika, ground cumin, and Aleppo chile flakes the most. Smoked paprika works great in any sauce, stew, fried eggs, or in salad dressings (for a Russian-style salad dressing with oil, vinegar honey, and tomato paste), not to mention with brewer's yeast on popcorn. Cumin is just a clear pantry favorite: People probably don't recognize how much they use. Great for a fresh tomato salsa, shakshuka, roasted potatoes, you name it. Aleppo chili flakes for flavor and a touch of heat—it's a great one to have on the table to add a little pizazz to whatever might need it.
John Beaver, co-owner of Oaktown Spice Shop

The three must-haves (although it could be 30) would be:

  1. Pimentón (smoked paprika): adds great depth to the most simple dish and a nice smoky note that mimics grilling and meat flavor. It has great character even in cold or raw dishes (not the case for all spices).
  2. Aleppo (Maras) chili flakes: a fantastic combination of mild heat, citrus notes, and light sweetness. I honestly think you can add it to any dish on earth, including sweet preparation. [Editors' Note: read more on the distinction between Aleppo and Maras here.]
  3. Nigella seeds (a.k.a. the new sesame): offers great crunchy texture and notes of onion, garlic, and nuts. Nigella seeds are great in baked goods, salads, cheese, fruit dishes, and you can always sprinkle them on anything (plus, great color).
    Lior Lev Sercarz

Soy Sauce

I would probably use organic Kikkoman. I'm not a fan of tamari: It's heavy and dark, without umami or any bright notes. A well-balanced fermented soy sauce made with just soy beans, wheat, and salt, without added alcohol, can be very versatile and used in all sorts of culinary applications. I would use the regular [not reduced-sodium]—just use less! And make sure it's not the kind with added alcohol. Reduced-sodium is usually just watered down... less umami.
Miyoko Schinner, author of The Homemade Vegan Pantry


I think this is the cruelest trick of all! One bean? I weep at the thought! I would choose Yellow Indian Woman. It's creamy like a black bean but light enough you can use it in a lot of Euro-centric dishes, even a pasta e fagioli. It remains whole (making it suitable for salads) and yet it exudes a great bean broth that's saucy. You could even use if for a red beans and rice-type dish. So it would pain me but I would choose Yellow Indian Woman, also known as Buckeye in its native Montana.
Steve Sando, President and Founder of Rancho Gordo

I think this is the cruelest trick of all! One bean? I weep at the thought!
Steve Sando

While I love pink beans for their creaminess, white beans for their mildness and red kidneys for their hearty meatiness, if I had to choose just one type of bean, it would be the black bean. The classic pot of black beans stewed with onions, garlic, and spices and served with white rice is truly the perfect meal—comforting, satiating, satisfying, and affordable!

But that's just the beginning...

  • You can do like the Cubans and mix black beans with rice and vegetables for the classic dish of moros y cristianos. Or make a pot of black bean soup and top with white onion and cilantro.
  • In Venezuela, black beans are called caraotas negras and are often cooked with pork (bacon), topped with crumbled white cheese and served as part of the national dish called pabellén criollo. Another delicious use of black beans in Venezuela is stuffing them into arepas along with white cheese for a dish called Arepa de Dominó.
  • In Brazil, black beans are stewed with an array of meats—smoked, salted, and fresh—for a national dish called feijoada, which is served with rice and an orange wedge.
  • Black beans are consumed in Costa Rica in many different ways: One of my favorites is puréed into a creamy soup and topped with hard-boiled eggs and cilantro.
  • In Mexico, black beans are often cooked with a unique herb called epazote. In more southern Mexico, you'll find black beans refried—cooked with lard and mashed.
  • Refried black beans are also traditional in Guatemala. But there, the beans are puréed to a smoother consistency, cooked on a griddle, and flipped over like an omelet and are called frijoles volteados ("voltear" = to flip).
  • In Honduras, refried black beans are spread onto flour tortillas and topped with egg, cheese, sour cream, avocado, and folded over like a taco for a dish known as a baleada.

Of course, there are so many more non-traditional ways to use black beans: I like to stuff black beans into burritos, quesadillas, and enchiladas; I like to add them to my chili or use them in salsas, salads and as a topping for nachos. I like black bean burgers. Black bean layer dip has been known to come out during Super Bowl over here. And I admit to baking with them in some curious recipes, like black bean cupcakes with guava frosting and black bean brownies.

Also worth noting: Because of their pigmentation, black beans are very high in antioxidants (a recent study found them to be higher in the antioxidant anthocyanin than blueberries!).
Carey Yorio Neuman, Recipe Tester, Developer, and Editor at Goya


I always have 3 dried chiles on hand. Always. Ancho chiles. Guajillo chiles. Chiles de árbol. They have very different flavor profiles: Anchos are a bit spicy, a bit sweet, a bit tart, sort of like spiced up prunes! Guajillos are happy, peppy, mild chiles with a lot of flavor. Chiles de Arbol are feisty, rustic, and smoky. If I were to have only one.... I think it would be anchos. All these chiles can go savory and sweet, but the anchos may be able to do it more successfully. (All chiles are versatile! The least versatile would be the hottest ones simply because of that fact.)

You can use anchos in different cuisines: I make an insane ancho chile burger for example, or ancho pasta... ancho sandwiches...

Now, not dried chiles but canned chiles: I always, always, always, have chipotle chiles in adobo sauce. In fact, can't live without them. If I were asked which would I rather have a dried chile or chipotles in adobo, I would say chipotles in adobo and I go for La Morena, which is available everywhere. Chipotles in adobo start with fresh jalapeños that are then dried and smoked. Once dried and smoked, they are called chipotles. Then, they are macerated in a tomato sauce, with vinegar and spices. We go through four or five cans a week in my house. We use them 24/7.
Pati Jinich, host of Pati's Mexican Table

Hot Sauce

One of the first thing that jumps to mind is vinegar-based hot sauces: Frank’s, Tabasco, Louisiana-style. They're really good in general because they play both the role of vinegar and flavor-adder—you can use them in a salad dressing or any time you’d normally add vinegar.

Crystal is very plain—almost just like vinegar and peppers mixed together—and so I wouldn’t be afraid to put it on pretty much anything, and that goes with Frank’s, as well. It's easier to control the level of heat, it’s not going to overwhelm what you’re eating (Sriracha, on the other hand, is pretty overwhelming). Part of the reason that these have been around for over a hundred years is that you can put it on anything—it doesn't go out of style.
Mike McAdams, Founder of Fuego Box


That's easy: spaghetti. Because it's wonderful in so many sauces (even in that perfect pantry dinner with just olive oil, garlic, and chile), with pesto, all'Amatriciana, with raw tomatoes, with cacio e pepe or carbonara, you name it. And everyone loves it, including picky children. If you ask me, it is always suitable to have spaghetti! If you want to add something to a minestrone or warming chicken broth, all you have to do is break up your uncooked spaghetti in inch-long pieces and add those to the soup. And leftover spaghetti is fantastic turned into a frittata (one of my favorites), which is even good cold.
Emiko Davies, author of Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence

I would say you should go with our organic durum semolina reginetti. Originally from Naples, reginetti or mafaldine pasta, means “little queens” in honor of Princess Mafalda of Savoy from the 12th century. It’s a traditional durum semolina pasta and the ruffled edges are beautiful to behold and complement any sauce.
Scott Ketchum, Co-founder of Sfoglini

And as for the other pantry staples of canned tomatoes and neutral oil, our Test Kitchen Chef Josh Cohen picked out whole San Marzano tomatoes (because you can always chop whole tomatoes but you can never un-chop chopped tomatoes) and grapeseed oil (high smoke point, no overwhelming flavor).

What other pantry staples would you take to Mars if you had a little room in your satchel stuffed with the essentials above? Tell us in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Linda
  • Jenness
  • Liza Garfield
    Liza Garfield
  • OhMisha
  • Kim
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Linda June 17, 2018
His name is Mark Bittman, not Mark Bitterman.
Nichole June 17, 2018
Two different people. This dude's name is Mark Bitterman. See
Jenness October 10, 2017
No anchovies?
Liza G. August 3, 2017
I wonder about the comment regarding Kosher salt. Many top chefs and food writers praise it highly. Why is this so?
OhMisha August 3, 2017
Leave sfoglini behind and bring a bag of semolina instead. You'll have plenty of time on your hands on Mars, so make your own damned pasta and save that $26 bucka pound for some salted cod or something.
Kim August 3, 2017
Kim R

I prefer kosher and sea salts and have a small collection of other salts given to me as gifts. Also Sandy Oaks Extra Virgin Olive (a Texas company owned by a woman) because it is not too "fruity" and their regular olive oil
is great. Vinegars are apple cider, balsamic, red wine and rice. I have white for cleaning purposes only. Parmesan rinds are in my freezer. Several cans of San Marzano tomatoes along with Hunts diced tomatoes (unsalted)
Douglas M. August 3, 2017
Speaking of Mars, a wheel of Parmagiano-Reggiano is slated for inclusion on the payload of the first Mars voyage for its high taste to weight ratio.
Douglas M. August 3, 2017
After seeing how versatile they are, I would add seeds for sprouting including at least alfalfa and lentils. They add great nutrition and texture to almost any meal.
Nichole October 5, 2016
A very good (or favorite cheese) maybe a parmesan reggiano or a fabulous swiss. A good white wine and a good tequila. Fish sauce of course. A great packed fish (tuna, salmon, sardines, or cod). Absolutely rice vinegar and course grain mustard.
Pastraminator September 29, 2016
peanut butter, crackers, english dry mustard, sesame oil, fish sauce
Ali S. September 29, 2016
I can't wait to try cane syrup vinegar!
EmilyC September 29, 2016
Michael H. September 30, 2016
It's so great over chicken adobo and rice, or just rice, or everything really (been putting it over soft scrambled eggs lately).
Ali S. September 30, 2016
Made a squash agrodolce with it last night. It reminds me of white vinegar but "fresher"—like vinegar crossed with citrus almost. Thank you for the recommendation!