Essential Tools

10 Under-$10 Pantry Staples We Can’t Live Without

September  6, 2018

I’m a minimalist in almost every aspect of my life, except when it comes to my pantry. I can’t resist a new addition, whether it's a spice blend I picked up traveling, a unique type of hot sauce I stumbled upon at my corner grocer, or a niche ingredient called for as “optional” by a recipe I haven’t made since 2004. As a result, it looks like a bomb went off in my kitchen cupboard—and then ricocheted on over to my refrigerator shelves. (Though if you find yourself in an emergency wherein an obscure type of jam is the only antidote, I’m your girl.)

I'm about one purchase away from needing a pretty serious sea salt intervention. Photo by Mark Weinberg

Now that I’m a full-time recipe developer, my larder situation has gotten downright dangerous. I can’t open an overhead cabinet without risking a precipitous toppling, say of some type of rainbow pepper I swore by for 20 minutes during an au poivre phase.

In an effort to turn things around, and honestly, to avoid losing a toe to various falling vinegar bottles, I turned to our team to identify what they consider essentials. These are their top 10 pantry and fridge staples, all under $10:

1. Turn Up the Heat

Photo by James Ransom

Hot sauce was by far the most popular response—sprinkle it on pizza! Drizzle it on eggs! Live large with take out!—though specific brand and flavor are contentious topics. Even Food52 co-founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs don’t agree on this one: Amanda prefers classic Cholula, while Merrill stocks up on Frank’s Red Hot. Our Marketing Coordinator Danielle Curtis-Williams likes Louisiana-style Crystal Hot Sauce, and VP of People and Culture Sean Lee puts Sriracha on pretty much everything.

2. The Magic of Mustard

It’s no surprise that our team loves mustard: It’s a key component of everything from a vinaigrette to a marinade to a properly delicious sandwich, from the humble turkey to the Croque-Monsieurs of the world. You can also use it to riff on classic mayo-starring dishes like potato salad and deviled eggs. Our favorite types are Colman’s English, Grey Poupon Dijon, and Maille Wholegrain.

3. Bring On The Mayo

Photo by Ty Mecham

For the mayonnaise-lovers in the office, it's an everyday essential. We like to slather it on tomato sandwiches and lobster rolls, use it to emulsify dressings, and even add it as a surprise ingredient in killer chocolate cake. We consider Sir Kensington’s, Hellman’s, Kewpie, and Duke’s to be top-notch brands.

4. Call in Capers

Both Amanda and Merrill swear by capers, most commonly known as those little green balls dotting your bagels-and-lox platter. Capers can come packed in salt or pickled in brine, and they're clutch for adding bursts of salty punch to a weeknight pantry pasta, potato salad, tomato sauce, or greens bowl.

5. Anchovies In Everything

You didn't think we'd forget about our Mediterranean fish friends, did you? It's hard for us to imagine a savory dish that wouldn't benefit from an anchovy or two, from aiolis to salad dressings to pestos to butters. And don't sleep on bagna cauda! Your crudités game will never be the same. You can get them by the jar or in canned form.

6. The Best of Britain

Photo by Ty Mecham

Worcestershire Sauce is a British condiment made from fermenting a large handful of loud ingredients, including vinegars, molasses, sugar, and salt. It's one of our team's favorite ways to up the umami in everything from burgers to Bloody Marys to steak to barbecued shrimp. Our favorite is classic Lea & Perrins.

7. We Say Tomato, You Also Say Tomato

With chopped, whole peeled, or pureed tomatoes at your disposal, you're never more than a pot of pasta and a salt-bae-like Parmesan sprinkle away from dinner. Amanda likes the chopped version from Pomi.

8. Wait, We're Not Done With Tomato Stuff

Tomato paste is another way our team loves to go big on umami. Keep a tube of the triple-concentrated stuff at the ready, and use it in any tomatoey ragu, braise, or soup to intensify the flavor.

9. Crunch and Salt to the Max

Our Senior Editor Eric Kim swears by nori, also known as roasted seaweed snack. "I used to always have Garden of Eden–brand Herbes de Provence on hand. After that it was McCormick lemon pepper—the kind you can grind yourself (unsponsored)!" he says. "It’s funny how these spice jars I remember having to refill over and over speak to particular stages in my life and the way I used to cook when I was that person. I don’t have either of those herb/spice mixes anymore. But I do keep roasted seaweed snack in my pantry at all times."

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He uses nori to add flavor to sour cream dip, soft-scrambled eggs, and avocado toast.

10. Salt with Abandon

Most of our team couldn't go a single meal—nay, a snack—without a sprinkling of flaky sea salt, like Maldon. And we don't stop at the savory: Flaky salt comes to the rescue to balance out the sweetness in chocolate desserts like brownies, cookies, and tarts.

This Pudding's Just Begging for a Sprinkle of Maldon

What's your number one pantry essential? Let us know in the comments.

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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.


Karen O. June 1, 2021
You forgot cream horseradish, that is always in my fridge. For Shrimp cocktail sauce, bloody Mary's, in my creamy shrimp salad for a hint of heat. I also use a bit in my thousand island dressing for shrimp Louie salad. Great with left over steak to zip it up and a myriad of other yummy things.
pamela February 24, 2019
chipotles in adobo sauce.. add that to guacamole for subtle, hot, earthy tones..
bunten September 25, 2018
No one has apparently tasted Cains mayonnaise, a New England staple for decades.
Jennifer September 9, 2018
Chicken broth from Costco
Ella Q. September 10, 2018
Another great one!
Dana E. September 7, 2018
Soy sauce! I use it in everything from stir fry, to marinade, sauces, and soups.
Ella Q. September 8, 2018
True! I couldn’t live without soy sauce.
Cory B. September 6, 2018
Sherry vinegar and hot honey for me! Yum :) Also Maldon sea salt and Aleppo or Urfa Biber.
Ella Q. September 7, 2018
I second hot honey!