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Eight Essential Pantry Items for the Home Cook

Herdy gerdy flurdy... oh sorry, wrong chef.

So you cook at home quite a bit: you're always making fresh pies for when your family comes to dinner, crafting soups out of odds and ends you found in your vegetable crisper, and entertaining friends with your artful grilling techniques. But if you're like me, you don't always have everything you need on hand. Fresh ingredients are a vital part of good cooking, so it makes sense to by your veggies the same day you plan on making fajitas or your clams just the moment before they go into your paella. A lot of the time, though, I forget a small-but-vital ingredient that I didn't realize I needed until I'm already covered in flour.

Well that's where this list comes in. These eight items are foodstuffs that, no matter the dish, you should have on hand at all times to give your meals that extra snap. You probably have a couple of these in your larder already, but having all eight will not only lessen the amount of time you spend running to the store, but also improve the quality of your cooking dramatically.

8) Dijon Mustard: Pardon me, but do you have any salad dressings, sauces, or soups? Well, if you plan on making any of those, a teaspoon of spicy, tart mustard from those cheesy commercials will go a long way. Mustard is a quick fix for any vinaigrette that won’t hold up because it acts as an emulsifier, bonding vinegar and oil like nobody’s business. A dab of the stuff can also add a bit of brightness to any dull sauce. And don’t forget: it tastes pretty damn good on a sandwich, too. Just keep clear of that crappy yellow stuff with the screw on nozzle.

7) Worcestershire Sauce: Yes, it’s hard to pronounce and even harder to spell. But I can’t tell you how often a dash of this anchovy-laden liquid comes in handy. I always slip a couple dashes in my homemade burgers, and steaks and chops can get a big boost in flavor from just a quick soak in it. I also use Worcestershire to sneak a salty dose of anchovy flavor past my vegetarian girlfriend, especially when making Caesar salad dressing. Trust me, she’ll thank me for it later.

6) Sambal Oelek: Samba whazahoo? This one isn’t just in here to mess with you, folks. This spicy Asian paste is essentially ground red chilies, and it’s the perfect item for adding some heat to a meal of any origin. Add it to your stir-fry, pop it in puttanesca, or mix it into a marinade for grilled chicken wings. Shit, eat it on your hot dogs. Whatever, man. No one’s keeping count. You can find sambal oelek, plus a garlic-infused version as well as the smoother chili sauce known as sriracha, at just about any Asian grocer.

5) Honey: Ever watch Bobby Flay cook something? Nine times out of ten, the celebrity chef will drizzle a little honey in the mix. And with good reason: honey doesn’t just sweeten dishes; a small amount of it will mellow and smooth out any flavors that are too harsh or sharp on the tongue. Almost anytime I make a spicy sauce or chili I add a tiny bit of honey just to round out the flavors.

4) Stock: Want to know why your francese sauce is tangy enough to clean your floors with? You’re not using stock, man! And please, please, please – stop buying those tin cans with the red and white label. It doesn’t taste like real stock. And stop using those sodium-enriched bullion cubes. They’re all salt, you know. Here’s what you do: Buy a whole chicken, get some carrots, some celery, and some onion. Throw it all in a pot, cover it with water, and simmer it for an hour or two. You’ll have actual stock on your hands, which you can freeze into cup-size portions for use at a later date. If it sounds like to much work, just remember that horrid francese sauce you made last week.

3) Real Butter: Not margarine. Not heart-healthy spread. Real butter. Stop worrying about your calories or your fat intake or how much cholesterol is clogging those struggling arteries of yours. If you can’t take the fat, get another hobby. If you want your dishes to taste like they were rolled together on a factory floor, then by all means, use the fake stuff. But if you want to make food that your taste buds will remember, you need to use honest to goodness nutty, fatty, delicious butter.

2) Kosher salt: As much as I love the nostalgic quality of that salt package with the little girl and the umbrella, that stuff isn’t going to get you far, culinarilly speaking. About the only thing I use regular iodized salt for is salting water I’m going to boil pasta or potatoes in. Otherwise, use a larger grain kosher or sea salt to cook with. There is not much of a chemical difference, but I find there's a big flavor difference: instead of that tinny, acrid taste iodized salt has, you’ll just taste… well, salt. Plus, larger crystals means more control over how much you add – you’ll probably end up using less salt in the long run, too.

1) Fresh herbs and spices: This jumble of items is not a cop out. It’s a warning. You know that cabinet full of dried-out, dried-up spices that you’ve had for ten years now? None of that is going to make your pasta sauce taste better. In fact, that dusty jar of basil is probably going to make it taste worse. Yes, there are some herbs and spices that make sense to keep dry versions of: cumin, cayenne pepper, and oregano (it has a much more pronounced taste when dried) come to mind. But do yourself a favor and buy your other herbs and spices fresh or in whole seed form.

-- John Linn

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John Linn

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