Whether you’re a pro making homemade meals or have the local pizza joint on speed dial, these 12 pantry staples will help enhance (or rescue) mealtime. A little of these ingredients goes a long way, so start with a splash or a pinch, taste, then add more if necessary.
A lot of us use coconut flakes for sweet dishes like baked goods, granola and oatmeal. But coconut, especially when toasted lightly on the stovetop in a dry skillet, can really add a punch to savory dishes like curry (and other stews) or baked fish.
A strange mixture of vinegar, molasses and anchovies adds a bit of je nes se quoi to everything from hamburgers to drinks to Chex mix. You can use it to marinate meat, add a splash to finish a pan or pasta sauce, or even perk up an onion dip. You can also find vegan versions of Worcestershire sauce.
This paste made from sesame seeds is common in the Middle East and most folks know that it is used to make hummus. Versatile tahini also makes a great addition to salad dressings and can be stirred into soups. Spread it onto sandwiches and maybe even try mixing it into cookie dough.
"Everything But the Bagel" seasoning
This cult product from Trader Joe's is made up of everything you'd expect to find on covering an everything bagel: sesame seeds, dried minced garlic and onion, black sesame seeds and poppy seeds. You can add it to hummus or popcorn. You could sprinkle it on salad, avocado toast, roasted veggies, eggs, pizza, etc. The flavor-enhancing possibilities are endless!
Most people think of nutritional yeast as something they find in the back of a hippie health-food store. But nutritional yeast gives dishes a rich, cheesy, umami flavor while being a great vegan option. You can top popcorn, stir it into rice or pasta dishes or even sprinkle into clam boils.
Made of cooked and fermented soybeans, this flavor enhancer ranges from mild (white) to medium (yellow) to rich (red). You can whisk it into salad dressings, add a bit to mac and cheese or make a warm and comforting bowl of miso soup. Once opened, store it in your refrigerator covered with a piece of plastic wrap to keep the miso from oxidizing.
Sprinkle it on top of casseroles or soups, fold it into savory baked goods, or mix it with breadcrumbs and herbs to make a crispy crust for chicken or pork chops. Parmesan cheese adds a nice balance of salt, fat and umami (savory flavor). For the best flavor and freshness, purchase a block of cheese and keep it carefully wrapped in your fridge, grating it right before use.
Top a burger, make a coating for baked salmon or chicken or use it to whisk up a quick vinaigrette for your salad greens. Dijon mustard is a more well-rounded and versatile condiment than its yellow cousin, and comes in handier for a variety of dishes and cuisines.
Good quality extra-virgin olive oil
Not all oils are equal, and you can taste the difference. Drizzled over veggies or roasted meats, turned into salad dressings, even baked into cake, you’ll be able to taste the fruity and nutty difference compared to common vegetable oils or lower-quality olive oil brands which can taste rancid.
Add a ton of flavor and some protein by using chicken stock when cooking grains and soup instead of boring ‘ol water. If you find you have some left over, freeze in an ice cube tray, then transfer to a sealable plastic bag. To add a splash of stock to make a pan sauce, thin a stew or add a touch of flavor to cooking rice, simply toss in a frozen cube.
This isn’t the sauce that comes in a can, but the highly concentrated stuff that comes in a squeeze tube. Cooking down tomatoes, olive oil and salt makes it rich and caramelized. Add a squeeze or two to pizza or pasta sauce, curries, soups or anywhere else you are using tomatoes to pop the flavor.
Vinegar can be used to make salad dressings, liven up soups, add a little pep to roasted veggies, make quick pickles or even brighten up grain salads. White vinegar is awfully potent and apple cider vinegar is kind of boring, so reach for something a little more flavorful. If you’re looking to add just a touch of sweet or balance out acidic tomato dishes, use a high-quality balsamic vinegar. If you want to add a nuttier or deep flavor, indulge in a bottle of sherry vinegar.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2019, and updated in May 2021.