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10 Pantry Staples Chefs Can't Live Without

Here’s what the pros keep in their kitchens.

<p>SGAPhoto/Getty Images</p>

SGAPhoto/Getty Images

Want to cook like a professional chef at home? After picking up their grocery shopping habits, stock your pantry with the essentials the pros always have on hand for the highest level of home cooking. Seasonings, tinned fish, grains, and more are all chefs must-haves for a well-stocked pantry. And the good news is that none of these items is super niche, expensive, or hard to come by. Chefs are, by practice, all about optimizing efficiency in space, cost, flavor, and more, so you know these chef pantry essentials are versatile, and very much worth stocking at home to elevate your own cooking. Here’s what to add to your grocery list so you can cook like the pros.

Related: 24 Genius Kitchen Hacks Food Editors Swear By

Maldon Salt

This flaky salt is a favorite of chefs worldwide, thanks to its versatility. “Maldon salt is a key ingredient in pretty much every savory or sweet dish I make,” says Fernanda Serrano, Executive Chef at elNico at The Penny in Brooklyn. “I love the texture of its flakes when used as a finishing salt. For me, this is the last step before serving a dish or dessert. Top all your dishes with this and you can't go wrong.”

Dates

A bag of dates can be a garnish, snack, or key ingredient to many recipes. “For Mexicans, having dates for breakfast is a big thing,” says Serrano. “I could never imagine leaving my house without my mom asking me if I had something for breakfast, and I would grab a date. As a child, I got into smoothies with coconut milk, kale, broccoli, spirulina, half a banana, and dates. They would fill me up, and to this day, I always make sure to have a fast, healthy option for the morning. For a small snack, I will always grab a bunch of dates and almonds because they are high in fiber and natural sweeteners that can be added to numerous pastries.”

Stone-Ground Polenta

James Beard Award-winning chef Suzanne Goin of Los Angeles' a.o.c. and Caldo Verde always has Bob’s Red Mill grains in her pantry—muesli, granola, flax, hemp, and flours. The brand’s polenta is a particular favorite of hers. “The polenta might be a little coarser than what some people are used to, and it takes a while to cook, but it’s so corny and deeply flavored,” Goin says. “A favorite last-minute Sunday dinner at our house is chicken paillards with polenta, rapini and lemon-caper brown butter, and this polenta just makes the dish. We also prepare it with sautéed mushrooms and whatever greens we find at the market or in the fridge. Top with mascarpone and pecorino, and a little gremolata. It’s super satisfying.” 

To cook polenta, bring a 4:1 ratio of salted water to a boil. Whisk in the polenta (1 cup per 4 cups of salted water) and stir well until the polenta is totally incorporated. Cook for an hour or more, over low heat, stirring every once and a while making sure the bottom does not scorch. Add more water as needed.  Finish with butter and pecorino, or olive oil and nutritional yeast for a plant-based riff.

MSG

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is sold as a seasoning similar to salt. “At home, I always keep a jar of MSG handy and urge my friends and family to do the sale,” says Robert Hartman, Chef de Cuisine at New York’s Saint Theo’s. “A pinch of MSG here and there is an amazing and surefire way to add more flavor and unlock more umami in your dishes.” 

Related: 5 Ways to Upgrade Your Scrambled Eggs, According to Professional Chefs

Worcestershire Sauce

Offering tangy, rich, and umami flavors to a range of dishes and cuisines, Worcestershire sauce is a favorite of home cooks and pro chefs alike. Chef Roberto Santibanez of New York’s Fonda, prefers Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce as a pantry staple. “This sauce seasons everything, even a can of tuna,” he says, “I love using this after I’ve been away from home for a while and have barely anything in the pantry."

Bay Leaves

Dried leaves can go a long way in home cooking. “Bay leaves help you aromatize anything from ground beef, turkey, soups, etc.” says Santibanez. “It turns whatever you are making into a beautiful aromatic dish. You can sauté mushrooms with bay leaves, they can go in tomato sauce, rices… they really fix everything.”

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

High-quality extra virgin olive oil is an essential to any cook. "I always keep flaky Maldon salt, lemons, and one bottle of high-quality extra virgin olive oil on hand,” says Eric Huang, chef and owner of Pecking House. “I cook more from an Asian pantry these days, but those three staples are undeniably versatile, and are approachable ingredients to level up your cooking. A high-quality extra virgin olive oil is going to have a lot of inherent flavor, and thanks to a great deal of monounsaturated fatty acids, has a very pleasing mouthfeel at room temperature. You can add body and fat with olive oil to pretty much anything, and even if you positively drown a piece of fish in it, it just needs a squeeze of lemon to be delicious. That's all that is required to balance the use of olive oil—a little acidity in the form of fresh lemon juice. A roasted chicken, steamed sea bass, grilled salmon, even an aggressively charred steak -- add great olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, and a pinch of flaky salt, and you can both impress home cooks and professional chefs with your thorough comprehension of elemental seasoning.”

Anchovies

Tinned fish has had and is having its moment, though chefs know that a tin of anchovies is a staple pantry tem. “Good quality anchovies, such as Cantabrian, are a must. They will keep forever unopened, and are so versatile when needed,” says Andrew Quinn, chef and co-owner at The Noortwyck. “Thrown into a salad dressing for a salty kick and some umami, or just placed over hot toast with butter. Dice some up small and melt into some warm olive oil, and toss with cooked pasta and dinner is ready. Quick, easy, and delicious.”

Related: 10 Life-Changing Lessons I Learned at Culinary School That Every Home Cook Should Know

Hot Sauce

Every chef has their own preferred brand, but hot sauce in the pantry is a must. Quinn is a big sriracha proponent. “It has that addictive quality that hits just right,” he says. “It goes great as a condiment, of course, but I like to throw it into anything I can: marinades for meat and poultry, into scrambled eggs, stews, mac and cheese... the list goes on. It even works on ice cream! It’s easy to use, inexpensive, and doesn't take up much space. It's essential.”

Chili Powder

Made from ground red chilis, and occasionally other spices, chili powder comes in so many varieties, depending on your preference of heat, sweetness, and savoriness. Cedric Vongerichten, chef and owner of Ma.Dé and Wayan, always has some in his pantry. "I always have chili powder on hand,” he says.” It's a versatile spice to add heat and flavor to many dishes or snacks, and makes everything more exciting.” Try adding a pinch of chili powder to your favorite go-to recipes and see how just a bit punches things up.

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