Back in college, our dorms were connected to the dining hall, library, gym, and laundry room through a series of underground hallways. This meant that as long as I didn’t have class, I could stay inside for days on end. Now I’m not saying that I did this…but I’m not not saying that there was a stressful finals period or two where the outside air did not kiss my skin for longer than a doctor would recommend.
It’s harder for me to be a hermit in New York City. I make some obligatory social appearances (a friend’s birthday party, The Met Ball, etc.), commute to work, and—also for work—stop by three or four grocery stores and lots and lots of farmers markets multiple times a week.
And that’s why I feel both guilty and savvy in revealing the ingredients I like to order from the internet. I believe in buying food IRL, but these special fellas are not so simple to find, even in this giant city, which makes beckoning them via the web a little justified. And yes, it plays into my hermetic tendencies: one fewer item I have to venture out for, one step closer to those days when I didn’t have to put on real pants for entire weekends.
So maybe I prefer to online-shop for hard-to-find foods rather than dresses—I’m okay with that. I still get the pleasure of receiving a package in the mail (and who among us doesn’t love that?) and trying out a new-to-me ingredient. Maybe you’ll try a few and we can compare notes? Here are my top 8 picks.
1. Soy curls
They’re made with one ingredient (if you guessed soy, you’re right!) and the preparation couldn’t be simpler: Soak them in water for 10 minutes, wring them out, then sauté them in a little olive oil until brown and crispy. You can season the soaking liquid or the curls themselves, and you can eat them on their own (like I do) or get more creative and add them to sandwiches, tacos, soups, salads, or stir-fries.
As a vegetarian who survives by eating many eggs a day (don’t @me), I love having another easy, quick-cooking protein source. And for those of you who are fake meat averse, know that these aren’t as tough, chewy, or sinewy as seitan.
2. Black sesame paste
If I consume any more sesame, I’m going to turn into one giant sesame seed. But really, I can’t get enough of the stuff. I want every plate of roasted vegetables to to be doused with turmeric tahini dressing; I want every dessert, from cake to pie to cookies, to be plush with the stuff—and nutty, pleasantly bitter, and just a tad savory as a result.
But if there’s anything I love more than tahini, it’s black sesame paste, which is earthier and roastier. I used to make own, until I realized how convenient it was to have a jar of the professionally-ground paste on hand. It’s much smoother than what I can make in my home kitchen. Plus, having a jar on hand makes it possible to add my favorite flavor to swirl buns, mochi, gelato, or whipped cream on a whim, without breaking out the blender, food processor, or spice grinder. Buy it unsweetened (either in a jar or a convenient squeeze pouch), and you’ll be able to control the level and source (honey? brown sugar? maple syrup?!) of the sugar.
3. Yuzu kosho
I didn’t even know what yuzu kosho was before I started working at the Taiwanese café Té Company in the West Village, where Chef Frederico Ribeiro uses it freely yet judiciously. Made from green or red chiles that are fermented with the zest and juice of the yuzu citrus, as well as salt, the Japanese condiment is intensely spicy and acidic yet bright, fresh, and even a little bit floral.
I can’t tell you all the ways Chef Ribeiro uses it (some are secret), but know that you can add it to a marinade to cut the richness of red meat, or whisk it into a vinaigrette that’s poured over a delicate fillet of poached fish. Spread it on a piece of toast before smashing on your avocado, or drop a spoonful into a lemon-buttermilk dressing, then toss it with chopped Romaine and crisped-up soy curls (yep, I went there) or soft-boiled eggs.
And psssst, I’m not the only person who’d like you to buy it.
4. Puffed millet
Sqirl’s Puffed Granola is reason enough to hoard bags of puffed millet in your pantry: I’ve made it multiple time in one week, eating it by the nugget and then crumbling it into my morning cereal and my after-dinner chocolate pudding and directly into my mouth.
But I also like using puffed millet in place of a portion of the usual Rice Krispies in the eponymous treats, to mix it into yogurt with crunchy toasted nuts and lots of berries, and to make no-bake energy bars by folding the millet into a mixture of coconut oil, almond butter, date purée, coconut flakes, and cinnamon. Cover it with a layer of melted chocolate and you’ve got dessert! Or swap the puffs in for the popcorn in these granola bars.
Poha, which is a homestyle breakfast food in western and southern India, doesn't need to be doted on—there’s no boiling or fluffing and, in comparison to the oft-fussy rice, it’s harder to mess up. Instead, you just run the flakes under water (or soak them for 10 minutes), and then add them directly to a big skillet. If you’re already cooking spices and vegetables in that pan, the plain poha will absorb all of those flavorful oils.
I like to mix the rehydrated poha into a sizzling paste of ginger, chile, and garlic, then add sputtering mustard and cumin seeds and serve it as a base for my curries or dal. Because I typically only remember to make rice when I’m nearly through making dinner, poha is a starch savior, completing a meal in practically no time.
6. Pearl sugar
Before I realized that I could buy pearl sugar on the internet, I treated each granule like a diamond. I’d sprinkle only my most precious loaves of yeasted bread with the treasure—and then I’d pick up each piece that didn’t stick to the surface, running my hands along the baking sheet’s edges. (I never said I wasn’t weird.)
Now that I’m not as afraid of running out, I’m a little less of a miser. I’ll sprinkle it on muffins, pastries, sweet buns, scones, shortcakes, cakey cookies—really anywhere I want to add a little sweet pizzazz (and—let’s be frank—impress friends). And you can’t make liège waffles without it!
A word to the wise: Belgian and Swedish pearl sugar aren't exactly the same. Compared to Belgian sugar, the Swedish pearls are daintier; they're likely to melt into waffle batter, meaning that the final product will lack the distinctive crunch.
7. Datu puti cane sugar vinegar
When vinegar expert Michael Harlan Turkell named Datu Puti brand Sukang Maasim (cane syrup vinegar) as the hardest-working, most versatile vinegar, I gasped. Could cane syrup vinegar be more versatile than white vinegar? Than apple cider? Than white wine?
He called it light, bright, luscious, and clean—and, although most of us at Food52 were skeptical, my friend Ali took the bottle home, used it all up, and ordered more. We turn to it for marinades, vinaigrettes, pickles and chili oils—because it’s not too biting or overpowering—but also for refreshing shrubs.
8. Cocoa powder
I am a Stella Parks devotee (have you tried her unflappable, incomparable pie crust? how about her roasted sugar? or her actually heavenly angel food cake? want to join my fan club?), so when she tells me that grocery store cocoa powder is not living up to its full potential, I believe her.
I’d like to try every cocoa powder on her list, but for now, I’ve fallen in love with her top pick, Gerbs, which is a natural cocoa powder with a fat content around 39% (compared to the usual 10% of most grocery store brands). A great-quality cocoa makes baked goods like cakes and brownies richer, darker, and more flavorful, and its nuanced flavor (Stella calls it simultaneously earthy and fruity, like dried figs) shines through in simpler chocolate treats, like pudding, ganache, and hot cocoa. Your fudgy desserts will never be the same.
Do you order any specialty ingredients online? Share them in the comments.