There’s an old culinary adage that says a dish is only as good as the ingredients that go into it. While this heavy emphasis on sourcing is a major part of current restaurant culture, I’ve found that the idea doesn’t always carry over to the home cook. This could be due to inconvenience — “I don’t know where to find these ingredients” — or financial constraints — “These ingredients are too expensive” — among other factors. I’m here to tell you that with just a few simple additions to your pantry, you can elevate your cooking game to the next level and create restaurant-quality dishes right in your own home without breaking the bank. Check out my roundup of pantry essentials and where you can find them for yourself.
Spices are one of the simplest and most cost-effective ways to up your home cooking game. Instead of gravitating toward ground spices, try switching over to whole. When spices are pre-ground, all of their essential oils — which contain all of the spice’s flavor — are released and exposed. This process makes the spices more susceptible to flavor loss and rancidity. By buying whole spices and grinding them yourself, you’re getting the biggest flavor/aroma bang-for-your-buck and a longer shelf life to boot. How do you grind spices at home, you ask? A traditional coffee grinder is perfect for such a task, as is a mortar and pestle or mini food processor. For an extensive collection of whole spices, visit The Spice House or Savory Spice Shop.
I am a self-proclaimed vinegar fiend. I think I have six different bottles on my counter at the moment, and I pull on all of them for very different uses in the kitchen. I love using white and red wine vinegars to add a bit of zing to a soup or a pan sauce for meats. Rice wine vinegar adds great depth to vegetable stir-fries and curries. Balsamic is the top dog of salad dressing vinegars and is equally delicious drizzled on top of sweet treats like vanilla ice cream or a bowl of ripe berries. When buying vinegar, it’s important to read the labels, as many commercially produced vinegars are loaded with artificial colors and flavorings. Look for a bottle that lists only the base ingredient for the cleanest and most intense flavor. For a vast selection of vinegars from around the world, visit Eataly, Local Foods, and Pastoral.
Finishing Olive Oils
Many people don’t tend to think of olive oil as a condiment, but I’m here to change your opinion. While I go through a bottle of olive oil a week just for general cooking, I also have an assortment of what I call “finishing oils.” These oils tend to be more nuanced in flavor, giving off notes of everything from grass, to pepper, and even butter. Given their unique characteristics, I gravitate toward these olive oils when I really want to taste the flavor of the oil. For example, when I’m garnishing a bowl of soup, plating a piece of delicate fish, or making a simple, seasonal salad. Think of these oils in the same vein as salt and pepper, an extra seasoning that brings added layers of flavor to the dish. When buying olive oil, look for a dark-tinted bottle (this helps prevent the oil from absorbing too much light and going rancid), the words “extra virgin” on the label (this is the highest quality of olive oil you can buy), as well as a harvest date and estate name. These demarcations ensure that the oil has been minimally processed and maintains the purest flavor possible. For beautiful, small-batch olive oils from around the world, visit City Olive, Eataly, and Pastoral.
I don’t know about you, but the condiment shelf in my refrigerator is always bursting at the seams. Mustards, hot sauces, chili pastes, and even jams and chutneys can be the ingredient that gives your dish that extra special element. Some of my current favorites include harissa, a smoky/spicy Middle Eastern chile paste that works wonders in marinades and salad dressings; whole grain mustard, the unground version of Dijon that adds heat and texture to salad dressings, roasted vegetables, and glazes for fish or poultry; and fermented hot sauces, hot sauces that are naturally aged instead of pasteurized and that are always welcome atop eggs, sprinkled into stews, or even just doused over rice. For condiments galore, check out Local Foods, Pastoral, and Chicago co-ops like The Dill Pickle and The Sugar Beet.
As with olive oil or vinegar, salt is another ingredient that has functions both in cooking and as a garnish. I tend to recommend arming yourself with three different varieties for maximum salt benefits: kosher salt, flaky salt, and fleur de sel. Kosher salt is your workhorse salt, the one that you pull on for seasoning anything and everything. A flaky salt is an ideal choice when you want your salt to serve some sort of textural component in a dish in addition to providing a salty kick (i.e., a salted chocolate chip cookie). When it comes to flaky salt, I am an avid Maldon buyer as it is easy to find, affordable, and always reliable. The last salt variety, fleur de sel, is a bit more of a splurge but will make you look like a true badass among your friends. This French sea salt is harvested by hand, beautifully briny in flavor, and somewhere in between a kosher and flaky salt in texture. Reach for fleur de sel to garnish a piece of fish or a pureed vegetable soup and you’ll feel transported straight to the beach. If you’re looking to pick up all these salts in one go, check out The Spice House, Savory Spice Shop, or your local Whole Foods.
When cooking a dish, there are four primary flavors we tend to think about: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Umami is the more ambiguous “fifth” flavor and is often described as intensely savory and almost meaty. Foods such as Parmesan cheese, truffles, and sun-dried tomatoes all deliver this type of flavor and lend a special roundness and balance to a dish. To up your umami game at home, I recommend three basics to anchor your collection. The first is soy sauce, which, in addition to Asian marinades and stir-fries, works wonders in salad dressings and meaty braises. The second is fish sauce, a concentrated mixture of water, salt, and anchovies that is often found in Thai and Vietnamese cooking. Reach for fish sauce when you want to add that extra something to a soup or vegetable-based side dish. The last is definitely the most divisive but worth a try — anchovy paste. This power-packed condiment made up of ground anchovies and salt is incredibly potent, so a little goes a long way. Think of anchovy paste for tomato-based pasta sauces, curries, and rubs for chicken or fish. For all of these umami sauces, check out Eataly, Local Foods, or your local Whole Foods.
As you’re enjoying dinner tonight, take a moment to remember that there are many who don’t know where their next meal will come from. Feed your stomach, then your soul by joining the fight to end world hunger.
More from Make It Better:
- The Best Plant-Based Dairy, Seafood and Meat Substitutes
- 4 Grilling Tips From Windy City Smokeout Co-Founder Doug Psaltis
- 7 Delicious Recipes That Use Up Extra Produce (And Reduce Food Waste!)
Maddie LaKind is a Chicago-born personal chef, caterer, and writer. Her love of gastronomy began with an introduction to the Food Network as a teenager and has since blossomed into a deep-rooted passion. She spent her early career in the food world working at the famed Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, before moving on to other notable spots including Detroit’s Sister Pie bakery, and Floriole Bakery, Read It and Eat bookstore, and The Social Table in Chicago. In her spare time, she can be found practicing yoga, hosting dinner parties for friends, and sifting through her ever-growing cookbook collection. Maddie is also a supporter of PAWS Chicago. Since adopting her two cats from the shelter, she has served as a volunteer and donated her cooking services as an auction item at fundraisers. Get in touch with Maddie at madonfood.com