Let’s be real: This isn’t the most inspiring time of year when it comes to fresh ingredients. But when the produce aisle is lacking, the pantry saves the day. (Go, pantry, go!)
In the latest episode of Dear Test Kitchen, our test kitchen chef Josh Cohen shows us how to use fridge and shelf staples to spruce up any dish, no matter how simple. Take, for instance, a pot of white beans, cooked with water and salt. Sounds—what’s the word—boring, right? Not so with a few easy-peasy additions.
When you have a blank slate—whether it’s cooked beans, roasted broccoli, or broiled pork chops—adding even one or two flavor boosters makes all of the difference. Here are the four flavor elements Josh harnesses to elevate any recipe; a well-stocked pantry will take care of the rest.
Making a dish more savory also means making it more satisfying. (Lip-smacking, if you will!) Many of these ingredients are rich in umami, the fifth taste. This is especially valuable in vegetarian dishes, where a little meaty flavor goes a long way. Four ingredients to always have around:
Fish sauce. Salty, funky, and pungent. Add a few dashes to a blah salad dressing, especially if it’s citrusy. Or do as Momofuku does and douse on roasted brussels sprouts.
Nutritional yeast. Often found in vegan recipes where it acts as a cheesy doppelganger (say, this pesto or queso sauce. But it’s just as great as a finishing touch. Think atop a buttered baked potato, just-scrambled eggs, or roasted broccoli.
Miso paste. Three common types: white (sweet, mellow), yellow (slightly funkier), and red (the most salty and pungent). Add some to soup broth, of course—but also to vinaigrettes and braising liquids. I love mashing miso with soft butter and putting that toward everything from grainy toast to boiled parsnips.
Tomato paste. Ultra-concentrated and tangy. Use a spoonful to make even the quickest tomato sauce seem like it took all day. Josh likes to fry a bit of tomato paste in olive oil (just watch it to avoid any burning), then add leftover pasta, making it feel brand new. This Genius recipe is little more than pasta, chickpeas, and tomato paste (aka, dinner tonight).
Richness is great (love you, cheese), but if there isn’t acidity for balance, your palate will get pretty tired pretty fast. These ingredients can be incorporated at any point in a recipe, but you’ll get the most bang for your buck if you add them at the very end so their brightness can show off. Four ingredients to always have around:
Lemons. Best known for their sour juice, but don’t forget the zest, too—preferably grated on a Microplane so it’s superfine. Squeeze lemon juice over anything fried (especially seafood) or sautéed greens (kale is my favorite). I like to use the zest as a finishing touch. Try setting out a lemon and Microplane by a cheesy pizza. It’s even more addictive than grated parm or chili flakes.
Quick pickles. Pickles sound complicated, but they don’t have to be. Josh likes to make quick pickles: a DIY hot brine, poured over chopped vegetables, kept in the fridge. For the brine, figure 2 parts vinegar to 1 part water, seasoned to taste with sugar, salt, and spices. For the vegetables, well, whatever you want. As you work your way through the jar, don’t forget to use the brine, too (think of it like infused vinegar), splashed atop fatty or creamy dishes.
Sumac. A spice as a source of acidity? Indeed. These purply-red berries are dried and ground into a powder. Sumac’s tart, sour, almost lemony flavor is indispensable in hearty (read: wintry) recipes. Rub it all over a roast chicken or sprinkle it on pan-fried potatoes or braised chickpeas. Or go rogue and add it to brown-butter granola.
Greek yogurt. Yeah, Greek yogurt is rich and creamy. But it’s also super tangy. Think of it like a brighter sour cream. I love dolloping this atop a meaty braise or hearty stew or spicy chili. For bonus points, stir something into the yogurt—even a little salt makes a big difference. Or, for a little kick, add some prepared horseradish or sriracha.
If savory pantry staples add depth and acidic ones balance richness, then spicy ones sidestep blandness. I love spicy ingredients for their confidence, their loudness, the way they demand that you pay attention to whatever you’re eating. Four ingredients to always have around:
Calabrian chiles. Giada De Laurentiis swears by this ingredient: “I throw this blend of crushed dried chiles and extra-virgin olive oil into everything, from pasta sauces and stews to salad dressings for a bit of mellow heat.” Josh likes to mix equal parts Calabrian chili paste and olive oil for a quick chili oil to drizzle on anything.
Urfa biber. “Not gonna punch you in the face with spiciness” is how Josh describes this one. Likewise, our contributor Sara Jenkins describes this dried Turkish spice (available in flakes or powder) as “a dark, almost winey-flavored chile with a faintly smoky flavor.” Sprinkle on roasted potatoes or stir-fry into the sautéed-vegetable base of any meaty braise. Its relatively mild heat means you can use it with abandon.
Chili crisp. Dried chilies very happily living in oil. I’m partial to La Gan Ma, which has a delightfully crunchy texture. My go-to uses are eggs (scrambled, soft-boiled, fried, you name it), blanched tofu, and any rice bowl (even if it’s just, you know, rice in a bowl).
Hot sauce. Simple? Sure. Good at what it does? You bet. I always like to have a classic cayenne and vinegar–based sauce in the fridge, which brings both spiciness and acidity. It’s great shaken on everything from egg sandwiches to tacos, but I like to use it as a seasoning in recipes, too, from creamy tomato soup to mac and cheese.
Herby flavors don’t always have to come from fresh herbs. When your fridge is bare, turn to the cupboard instead. These grassy, herby notes round out the flavor and make it seem thought-out even when it’s last-minute. Four ingredients to always have around:
Bay leaves. An MVP for stocks, soups, and sauces. Just don’t forget to remove it before serving and taste along the way—cooking these for too long can lend unwanted bitterness. Try adding one to this simple chicken stock or basic pot roast.
Dried oregano. This is one of those rare ingredients that a lot of people prefer dried to fresh. Combine with ground cumin to bump up the flavor of canned beans. Shake onto a Greek-inspired salad with tomato, cucumber, olives, and feta, dressed with olive oil and red wine vinegar. Or, my favorite, sprinkle on an Italian-style sub sandwich with ham, salami, provolone, lettuce, and tomato.
Coriander seeds. Having whole versus ground coriander in the pantry doubles the possibilities. Add whole seeds to simmering broths for a bright, citrusy flavor. Or use a spice grinder or mortar and pestle to grind these into a powder to rub on meat or bloom in oil, then stir into braises.
Fennel seeds. Like Josh, my love for fennel seeds knows no end. Admittedly, the pungent, anisey flavor takes some getting used to—but you’ll be obsessed soon, I promise. I like to stir-fry the seeds at the start of a tomato sauce. Josh likes to grind the seeds into a powder and sprinkle atop roast chicken (any roasted or pan-fried meat would be great).