I am a condiment connoisseur. I have a hard time resisting any bottle, jar, or tin—be it spicy, pungent, tangy, salty, you name it. Sometimes I’ll buy a condiment to develop with or make a specific recipe, and other times I’m just attracted to a shiny label (which probably means it’s getting added to my cart).
I’m always game to try something new, but after many years of cooking I’ve definitely honed in on a collection of staples I prefer never to be without—the all-star team, if you will. My trove of oils, pastes, and sauces all hail from different countries and different cuisines, and vary in texture and piquancy, but they all make regular appearances in my kitchen. And while everyone's definition differs, I consider many of the flavor-packed ingredients I use to boost dishes (either before, during, or after cooking) a condiment.
Below are nine such staples—from sesame oil and capers to Worcestershire sauce and Dijon—that I reach for over and over again. There are plenty more lining my shelves, but these are some of the most-loved and most-used.
Harissa, a hot chile paste, is a staple in North African and Middle Eastern cooking. The recipe varies between regions, so sometimes it’s very spicy, other times less so; it might be tangy from extra vinegar, or on the smokier end, depending on the types of peppers. I absolutely love the punch it gives to all kinds of dishes, from hummus to dressings. You can use it as you would any hot sauce, in soups, stews, chili, dips, and marinades.
Try it in: Baked Chicken Legs With Herbs & Lemon
2. Toasted sesame Oil
Toasted sesame oil (which is made from roasted sesame seeds; regular sesame oil is made from raw, pressed sesame seeds) has a distinctly nutty, aromatic flavor. You can use it as a condiment or a seasoning in anything from soups to salad dressings. I’d suggest adding it toward the end of a dish to preserve its deep flavor (heat will mute the taste). Just keep in mind that a little goes a long way—even a drizzle or two will make a noticeable impact.
Try it in: Sesame Oil Hummus
Capers add tiny bursts of briny flavor to all sorts of dishes—and if you’re a vegetarian (and therefore skipping salty sauces made with fish products) they’re a great option for adding flavor. They're delicious in mixtures for marinating, as well as blended into dips and sauces like tapenade and pesto. I keep a fairly massive jar on hand; sometimes I'll add them whole to dishes, and sometimes I'll chop them up so they blend in more. Make sure to rinse them before using, especially if you’re buying them packed in salt, to reduce their salty intensity.
4. Oyster Sauce
Oyster sauce is used frequently in Chinese cooking, most notably Cantonese cooking. It’s a thick, syrupy sauce made from a reduction of cooked oysters, and provides a briny, seafood-y flavor to other meats and vegetables. It’s an A+ addition to dipping sauces and glazes—I also add a glug to almost every stir-fry I make.
Try it in: Chicken & Spinach Stir-Fry
5. Dijon mustard
Dijon mustard is one of my favorite ingredients of all time. Its sharp tanginess gives pretty much any dish a lift, like: dressings for greens, grains, and vegetables; rubs; and sauces, like this one for steamed mussels. I always have both coarse and smooth Dijon on hand, because sometimes I’m looking for that texture from the whole mustard seeds, and other times I want a smooth, emulsified consistency.
Ponzu is light, bright, and less salty than soy sauce—it also has a hint of citrus, typically from yuzu juice. It’s often used for dipping, but it also tastes great with everything from seafood (mix it in a sauce for drizzling over salmon) and meat (use it to marinate steak or pork) to salad dressings (hello, vinaigrette).
Try it in: Avocado Salad with Creamy Miso Dressing
7. Worcestershire Sauce
This sauce gets its umami-rich flavor from fermented fish, and has a great balance of sweetness (molasses and sugar), saltiness (salt), mouth-puckering tartness (tamarind and vinegar), and a slight savory bite (garlic and onions). Add it to meatloaf, burgers, and meatballs, as well as stews and braises. Even use it in marinades and hot dips! In my mind, when Worcestershire is used best, you don’t really taste the sauce itself, but you notice that the dish has a more pronounced depth of flavor.
Try it in: Blue Cheese Dip
Gochujang, a fermented red chile paste, is the foundation of many Korean dishes. The level of spice can vary between brands, but know that it’s going to bring a punchy kick (again, a little goes a long way). It also adds big umami flavor, and occasionally, a hint of sweetness. Put it in salad dressings, sauces, chili, stir-fries—basically anywhere you want to add a bit of heat.
Try it in: Spicy Greens Salad with Gochujang Dressing
9. Fish Sauce
There’s a reason so many condiments have fermented fish as their base, and that reason is—yep, you guessed it—umami. Fish sauce, an essential element of Southeast Asian cuisine, brings that salty, savory, can’t-stop-eating-it special something to a number of dishes, from fish and meat marinades to stir-fries and vinaigrettes. It’s flavor is intense, so use it sparingly. It may smell a bit, well, fishy, but once it’s added to a dish you’re left with a lovely, rich flavor.
Try it in: Lemongrass & Ginger Chicken Thighs