At the end of a long day, it’s hard to find the motivation to whip up a gourmet dinner. Groceries are expensive, cooking is time-consuming, and that delivery app on your phone is a tempting seductress. But don’t think that a fully stocked kitchen is the only path to a satisfying meal cooked at home. A small arsenal of versatile ingredients is all you need to become the master of your own kitchen.
1. SOY SAUCE
Soy sauce has been a staple of various Asian cuisines for centuries. Just a few dashes of the liquid adds a salty, umami punch to noodles, stir-fries, or whatever else is on your menu at home. And Asian dishes aren’t the only place where this condiment shines. It can also be used in marinades for steaks, glazes for fish, or as seasoning for omelets to give your eggs a savory depth of flavor.
2. GREEK YOGURT
This protein-packed dairy product isn’t just for breakfast and snack time. Greek yogurt has a creamy mildness that’s well suited for sweet dishes and a bold zing that makes it a perfect replacement for mayonnaise, sour cream, and crème fraîche in savory ones. Mix it with olive oil to make a creamy salad dressing, or use it as a marinade for meat when working with Greek or Middle Eastern flavor profiles. It also makes a great addition to soups, sauces, and even cake batters.
Ask a chef about the most versatile ingredients in their kitchen and eggs are likely to come up. Their unique properties make them a key ingredient in pastas, custards, baked goods, and classic French sauces like hollandaise and béarnaise. But the best part about eggs is that they require little technique to make them taste amazing. Hard-boiled eggs can be chopped up and tossed into salads, and a sunny side-up egg on top of rice or pasta acts as an instant rich and runny sauce. If you really want to go back to basics, nothing beats a perfectly made omelet for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
4. SUN-DRIED TOMATOES
Many recipes call for tomatoes to bring a bright, balanced acidity to a dish. If you’re interested in making sandwiches, sauces, or pasta at home, this is a key ingredient to keep in your kitchen. The only issue? Fresh tomatoes don’t stay fresh for very long. One solution to this problem is to opt for the sun-dried version instead. One shriveled piece delivers even more intense tomato flavor than its straight-from-the-vine counterpart, and an oil-packed jar lasts in the fridge for up to six months. Sun-dried tomatoes tend to be too chewy to eat whole, so they’re best chopped up into bite-sized pieces and mixed into salads, omelets, or ground meat for burgers.
5. MAPLE SYRUP
Maple syrup is the undisputed king of breakfast condiments, but don’t be so quick to put it away when you finish your pancakes. Its deep, earthy sweetness makes it an ideal match for savory foods like salmon, sweet potatoes, and salad vinaigrettes. Purchase grade A syrup for a more delicate taste and grade B if you crave a flavor that’s rich and caramel-y. When cooking savory dishes, just make sure to leave that artificial “breakfast syrup” in the pantry where it belongs.
Rice is the cornerstone of many cuisines from around the world, and there’s good reason for that: it’s cheap, long lasting, and incredibly versatile. If your meal is lacking a starch, rice makes for a quick and easy side dish. You can also dress it up and have it play the starring role. Wrap it in a tortilla to make a burrito, simmer it with vegetables and chicken broth to make a soup, or just top it with whatever you have in your fridge to make your own version of a “rice bowl.”
7. HOT SAUCE
If the food you make at home is consistently bland, hot sauce will be your saving grace. Baked chicken breast, boiled broccoli, and a plain bowl of beans can suddenly turn from snooze-worthy to exciting with the addition of your spicy condiment of choice. If you prefer your hot sauce with a vinegary kick, Louisiana-style sauces are the way to go. Sriracha sauce is slightly sweeter with a garlicky taste.
Is there any dish that bacon doesn’t improve? Because it’s usually cured, bacon lasts longer in your fridge than other types of meat. It can be diced up and swapped out for pancetta in pasta carbonara or pork belly in fried rice. The smoky-salty flavor is also a welcome addition to burgers, quesadillas, and mac and cheese.
9. CHICKEN STOCK
If you’re not already using stock in place of water in your kitchen, now’s the time to start. Not to be confused with basic chicken broth, stock is made by simmering bones in liquid over a long period of time, resulting in a rich depth of flavor. It can be used to when making mashed potatoes, sauces, grains, steamed vegetables, and of course, soups. Store it in cubes in your freezer so you can quickly toss it into whatever you’re cooking.
There’s no replacement for the taste of garlic. From Thailand to Italy, it’s used as a central ingredient in many regional cuisines around the world. If a dish is lacking in flavorful ingredients, dice up a clove of garlic and sauté it in with whatever you’re making. Meat, fish, vegetables, pastas, and sauces can all benefit from its presence. And if you’re a true garlic fan, try roasting a head of it in the oven and spreading the buttery cloves onto a slice of bread. Just make sure you also have a mint close by.