One of life’s constant challenges is figuring out what’s for dinner. Who has the energy to experiment with new recipes after a tiring day at work? Even with a fridge filled with protein, meals often become repetitive and unimaginative.
Sure, you may have different kinds of protein in your freezer and a crisper full of vegetables. But you need to bring in the flavor. Enter: condiments. These pantry essentials can inject a bit of pizzazz and loads of flavor to your meals. Even sprinkling a new herb on your old recipes can make a huge difference. Start with a basic list of condiments then add to it as you become more comfortable in the kitchen and figure out which flavors appeal to you the most.
Everyone likes different things, so some condiments are a matter of taste. But these are undoubtedly a staple in every kitchen.
Salt. If you think salt just adds, well, saltiness, think again. This seasoning can enhance the flavor of food in more ways than one: It can suppress bitterness and even bring out other flavors and aromas of food. There are a number of different types of salt (table salt, sea salt, pink Himalayan salt, kosher salt) and chefs generally choose salt based on texture. Whichever you decide to keep in your pantry, just make sure you don’t go over the recommended daily intake. While salt is essential, organizations like the American Heart Association warn against the dangers of consuming too much of it (mainly increased blood pressure).
Pepper. If you can, stock up on whole peppercorns, which bring a more robust flavor than their powder counterpart. Fill a pepper mill and grind fresh pepper whenever you season food and stash the remaining peppercorns in an airtight container.
Ketchup. If you choose one without added sugars, ketchup can actually be good for you. It’s low in fat, low in calories, and contains lycopene and Vitamin A.
Mayonnaise. While not exactly a low-calorie condiment (a mere tablespoon has a whopping 90 calories), mayonnaise does contain some heart-healthy fat and is better for you than sour cream and cream cheese. You can opt for a low-fat kind as this doesn’t have significant added sugars. Mayonnaise is so versatile and can be used as a base for dips (or a dip in itself), dressings, and sauces.
Mustard. This condiment is normally paired with ketchup to top burgers but on its own, it’s quite versatile. Aside from adding flavor to grilled meats, it can also be used as an emulsifier for salad dressings and added to different sauces.
Soy Sauce. Soy sauce is a staple in the Asian kitchen. Typically made of soybeans, wheat, salt, and a fermenting agent, soy sauce has many varieties with some nuances produced by the ratio and source of ingredients. Feeling adventurous? Try tamari, a wheat-free Japanese soy sauce that’s a by-product of miso as it matures.
Vinegar. Just as there are plenty of types of soy sauces, there are also many kinds of vinegar. The kind (or kinds) you keep in your pantry would depend on the kind of cooking you normally do: Wine vinegar is great for dressings, rice vinegars is used in Asian cooking, and cider vinegar is popular among health buffs.
These additions to your pantry can step up your culinary game.
Herbs. Oregano, rosemary, basil, and thyme are some of the most common spices. Dried versions are more potent than fresh herbs so you’ll want to scale back when using dried in place of fresh in recipes.
Spices. This is highly dependent on the kind of flavors you enjoy. Chili, cumin, paprika, and cayenne pepper are just some of the spices that bring the heat.
Teriyaki Sauce. This sweet sauce brings an Asian flavor to such proteins as chicken and salmon. Bonus: Its sweetness makes it kid-friendly.
Oyster Sauce. This thick condiment is on the sweet side but it has a subtle taste of the ocean courtesy of oyster essence or extract. It’s great in stir-fries.
Hoisin Sauce. With a sweet-salty flavor profile, hoisin sauce is commonly found in Asian cuisine. It makes a great dipping sauce for barbecued meats and Peking duck.
Sriracha. Or anything else that brings some spiciness to dishes. If you like it hot, this condiment made of red chili and garlic can be sprinkled on just about anything.
These condiments all give dishes a different flavor dimension but remember to always be mindful about the sugar and salt content.