Treat Your Shelf: Pricey Pantry Ingredients We Thi…


overhead shot of an array of tinned fish, or conservas, on a wooden table with bread and olives.

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, unless otherwise noted]

Ask anyone at Serious Eats and they won’t deny trying to get a good deal where they can, especially when it comes to shopping for groceries. It never hurts to save a couple of bucks here and there, and there are certain dishes where there isn’t much difference between using the best-of-the-best ingredient versus something you picked up at the corner store. But there are certain instances where it’s worth going all out for quality ingredients. Whether that means dropping some serious dough on ventresca tuna for a quick, satisfying meal; exploring the vast world of cheese before putting together your next cheese plate; or going out of the way for a fresh, creamy pint of ice cream, there’s no shame in indulging in top-notch goods that make us happy. Here are our favorite ingredients that are worth every penny; make sure to share yours in the comments.

Anchovies

“Several years back, I forced my colleagues to endure an anchovy taste test—admittedly a trial even for the most enthusiastic anchovy lovers among us. The results were clear: when cooking with anchovies, or even puréeing them for a dressing, differences in quality became virtually indistinguishable. But if you like using whole filets on salads and pizza, or if, like me, you’ll happily stand over the sink eating them straight from a jar, then seeking out a higher-quality producer like Ortiz is well worth the price difference. I’m a big fan of Ortiz’s salt-cured, oil-packed anchovies, but my favorite splurge is their boquerones. Both versions are plump and smooth, with a balanced flavor and tender texture that doesn’t disitnegrate when you try to pluck one straight from the packaging.” Niki Achitoff-Gray, editor in chief

Cured Meats

“Supermarket-grade prosciutto has a repulsive slimy texture and tastes mainly of salt. A chewable salt lick for humans. The fresh-sliced stuff from an Italian deli counter has a delicate, melt-in-your-mouth texture and complex, nutty taste. Eat with ripe cantaloupe.” —John Mattia, video editor

“I feel gnawing frustration every time I open one of those vacuum packs of pre-sliced prosciutto, the meat compressed into a shiny, plasticky veneer. It has none of the life and soul of the stuff that comes freshly sliced from behind a deli counter. And don’t even get me started on low-quality pancetta and dry-cured salumi. Get the good stuff, order it online if you have to. It’s worth it.” Daniel Gritzer, managing culinary director

Olive Oil

Olive oil being poured into a stainless steel skillet.

“For a long time the only olive oil I used at home was Frantoia. It was tasty enough to use as a finishing oil, since it has some overt floral notes that made its presence felt even in otherwise flavorful foods, like pasta dressed with ragu, and worked well with more delicate dishes, too, like salads and fancy scrambled eggs, but it also isn’t so pricey that I’d worry about using it for cooking things. As a result, I typically shied away from pricier oils. In the last year, though, I’ve been buying things from Gustiamo, mostly because Sasha has converted me to investing in things like colatura and premium pasta like Faella, and I’ve been working my way through their olive oil collection. Yes, some of them are very expensive, but I have yet to purchase one that wasn’t worth the price.

“When the pandemic hit, the first thing I did was order bags of Faella pasta and three different bottles of olive oil from Gustiamo, and the result is that eating pasta, that most commonplace thing, has become something of a treat each and every time, whether it’s just spaghetti aglio e olio or noodles tossed with marinara. One thing to keep in mind about good olive oil is that it’s a fresh product, and once you open the bottle it’s best to use it quickly and liberally to get the most out of your purchase. A related observation: While it may seem silly to buy a smaller bottle when a can might seem more cost effective, if you open up a can and take a year to use it up, you’re just wasting good olive oil AND money at the same time.” Sho Spaeth, staff writer and editor

Canned Tuna

“Along with beans and flour, canned tuna was one of the most popular pantry items flying off grocery store shelves earlier this spring. We love using tuna for easy, quarantine-friendly dishes like diner-style melts, bean salads, and pastas, but not all of these recipes call for the same type of canned fish. For a mayo-based tuna salad, we recommend using more affordable water-packed tuna rather than the pricier stuff in olive oil—the mayonnaise provides plenty of fat to coat the lean tuna, and plenty of flavor along with whatever seasonings you add to the mix, which would mask the olive oil notes anyways. But for recipes like Spanish-style tomato and tuna salad and Roman-style spaghetti alla carrettiera, ones that take a lighter approach to dressing tinned tuna, we love using ventresca—tuna belly preserved in olive oil. Unlike regular lean tuna, which is pretty dry and chalky on its own, ventresca is much fattier, giving it a silky, tender texture and richer flavor. It’s delicious straight out of the can or jar. Ortiz and Tonnino, two widely available brands, both produce excellent ventresca, and there are plenty of smaller brands that can now be found online and in specialty shops. Ventresca is pricey stuff, but we’re fans of the occasional splurge on non-perishable foods; it’s an investment that won’t go south on you, and a treat for your future hungry self.” Sasha Marx, senior culinary editor

Soy Sauce

Small bowl of soy sauce

“I used to be something of a good-soy sauce skeptic. My Japanese family uses run-of-the-mill Yamasa, and for a long time I thought that if it was good enough for them, it should be good enough for me. But as I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into the weeds of making ramen, I’ve come around to the idea that good soy sauce, like good olive oil, is worth paying money for, and so now I always stock several bottles of Yamasa’s Marudaizu soy sauce, which is made from just soy beans, wheat, salt, and water. It’s my general purpose soy sauce. For sashimi and ramen tare, I’ll supplement the Yamasa with Kishibori shoyu, which is pricier and of much higher quality, so much so that you really don’t want to heat it at all, lest you lose some of its volatile flavors and aromas. Like olive oil, soy sauce is a fresh product, and you’ll want to use it as quickly as you can after opening it (those volatile flavors and aromas again), and you want to refrigerate it once opened.”
—Sho Spaeth, staff writer and editor

Fish Sauce

Fish sauce is one of my favorite things, and even the cheaper brands are amazing flavor enhancers. But the Red Boat brand really takes things up a notch, adding way more complexity for just a few more dollars. Give it a try!” —Daniel Dyssegaard Kallick, full stack developer

“Everything I said about soy sauce applies to fish sauce, too. I used to go for the cheaper fish sauces, ones that include sugar and MSG, but now I rely solely on Red Boat fish sauce. It’s made from just anchovies and salt, and it has a delightfully round and full flavor. I bought three bottles as soon as the pandemic hit; it’s pricier online than it is in some Asian grocery stores (Fei Long, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, has a good price for Red Boat), but the convenience of having it delivered to my door was very much appreciated, as was the very fine job of packaging the glass bottles (a broken bottle of fish sauce is a tragedy on a number of levels, but the smell it generates isn’t pleasant). Again, as with olive oil and soy sauce, fish sauce is a fresh product, and you should use it quickly and keep it refrigerated after opening to preserve volatile flavors and aromas.” —Sho Spaeth, staff writer and editor

Milk Chocolate

An assortment of milk chocolate bars, unwrapped or partially wrapped, arranged on a wooden background

“Decent, much less awesome, milk chocolate is hard to come by at the supermarket, with most brands scraping in at the FDA required minimum on cocoa solids, but Askanya is a Haitian bean-to-bar chocolate company that goes all in with their 47% milk chocolate bar.” Stella Parks, pastry wizard

Yogurt

“The first time I picked up a couple of jars of The White Moustache yogurt, my wife understandably gave me a healthy dose of raised-eyebrow side-eye when she saw their price tag. ‘You want to spend how much on yogurt?’ I explained that this was no ordinary commercial yogurt, but rather the creamiest, silkiest, tangy yogurt I’d ever tried (I first tried the stuff over a year ago when Ed had brought some into the office after interviewing The White Moustache founder Homa Dashtaki for an episode of Special Sauce). After trying a few spoonfuls of the Persian yogurt with some fresh berries, my wife is a full convert. We aren’t buying it by the case, but picking up a few jars as a treat every couple of weeks feels like a just reward for grocery shopping these days. I don’t know if special occasion yogurt is a thing, but this would be it.” —Sasha Marx, senior culinary editor

Jam

“Feels like I’ve tried every strawberry jam on the market, and while most look and taste more or less like the others, Scyavuru is in a class of its own. It’s too pure for PB&Js, the sort of jam you’d break out for company and then spoon it into a mason jar to pretend you’d made it yourself. Not that I’m saying you should do such a thing.” —Stella Parks, pastry wizard

Coffee

Coffee being poured from a French press into a mug.

[Photograph: Nick Cho]

“My parents have instilled an insane sense of frugality in me, so when I first moved to New York as a grad student living off minimal money, I resorted to getting all of my groceries from Trader Joe’s—including my coffee. But then I realized how much I was missing out on the local coffee sources available all around me. While I’m still pretty cheap when it comes to other forms of sustenance, now I spend a little extra money trying new blends and supporting small businesses. Though there are plenty to choose from in New York and beyond, I always keep a taste of home with me in the form of a bag of Weird Brothers Coffee beans (you’re looking at one of the Virginia coffee shop’s former baristas). There’s nothing quite like a quality, fresh brew to kick off each day.” Yasmine Maggio, assistant social media editor

“I secretly love reading coffee descriptions, chock full of interesting flavor notes (like ‘orange sherbert,’ ‘lush,’ and ‘toffee’) about the roasted beans. Although I’m a sucker for Dunkin’ Donuts, there’s something indulgent and straight up delicious about ordering coffee straight from the roastery. I discovered Ceremony Coffee Roasters when I was living in Washington, DC, and have been an avid fan since. I’m currently hung up on their Brazil Araponga, a single-origin with chocolate cake, dried cherry, and full tasting notes, which I buy whole and grind for my morning cup.” Kristina Razon, operations manager and associate podcast producer

“Leave the Bustelo on the shelf; I’d rather go without than drink bad coffee at home (there’s a time and a place). Lately, I’ve been ordering in bulk (four pounds at a time) from Passenger Coffee in Lancaster, PA, to minimize trips out of the house.” —Paul Cline, president

Tomato Paste

A bowl is filled with tubes of rigatio coated in creamy orange vodka sauce, with cheese grated on top

[Photograph: Daniel Gritzer]

“I need to start by blaming Sasha for my Gustiamo obsession. When he first wrote about colatura, he opened up a world of really good quality Italian ingredients. And now I’m hooked. My most-used ingredient from Gustiamo is this ‘tomato concentrate,’ which I can only describe as the best tomato paste I’ve ever had. A big plunk of it will add rich, savory, deep tomato flavor to your sauces. And with Daniel’s penne alla vodka? It’s a game-changer.” Ariel Kanter, director of commerce and content marketing

Cheese

“We’ve already established that there’s a measurable difference between American and Italian parmesan cheese. Excellent cheese-board worthy cheese costs more because it’s been made by crazy dairy nerds who tirelessly tend to each individual cheese over the course of its production and maturation process. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, cheese preferences are really personal—and there’s no accounting for taste. If you love your supermarket brie, I’m not here to stop you! But if you’re looking to expand your palate, our cheese content is a great place to start. Just make sure that if you are bothering to spend big, you’re treating that cheese right.” —Niki Achitoff-Gray, editor in chief

“There is nothing wrong with supermarket cheddar. Nothing. But there is something really beautiful about the cheddar from Jasper Hill (a farm in Vermont where I’d love to live). This cheddar is remarkably flavorful. We can go through a half a pound easily in my apartment (of two). I just dive into it with a sharp knife. No crackers. No apples. No jam. This salty, rich cheddar is perfect on its own.” —Ariel Kanter, director of commerce and content marketing

Milk

“I never really considered milk to be an essential ingredient in my pantry until I picked up a half-gallon of Ronnybrook’s creamline milk for a cheese recipe. It was much pricier than even full gallons of standard grocery store milk, so I didn’t want it to go to waste after I was done. That’s a worry I’ll never have again. The milk was like adding a splash of luxury to anything that I would normally use dairy in. Cereal became fine dining. Cheap tea or coffee was now a pinkies-out affair. I even found myself making brownies just as an excuse to drink a glass of the stuff. This blurb was not sponsored by the folks behind the Got Milk ads, but if they wanna send some money my way so I can continue to buy fancy milk, I’m willing to make a deal.” —Joel Russo, video producer

Dashi Ingredients

Kombu, katsuobushi, and anchovies

“Admittedly this is a niche purchase for a niche audience, even if one of my deepest convictions is that everyone, everywhere, could improve their cooking ten-fold if they regularly made fresh dashi at home, but the only thing I actually panic-bought when it became clear we’d have to isolate in our homes was bags of hana katsuobushi and good kombu (and a few bags of niboshi, for good measure). This is not just a ramen thing, although it is that, too: Dashi is the fundamental flavor of Japanese cooking, moreso than soy sauce or miso, and dashi made from quality ingredients is a kind of cheat code for excellent food. I realize I am in a minority both here at Serious Eats and among home cooks who make Japanese food—even in Japan, many home cooks rely on the instant stuff. But that shouldn’t be the case! Dashi takes 15 minutes to make! Anyway, katsuobushi is shavings of cured, dried, smoked, fermented skipjack tuna loins, and hana katsuobushi refers to the large feathery shavings typically used to make dashi, as opposed to the smaller shavings typically used to top dishes (I, personally, use hana katsuobushi as a topper). There’s an incredibly wide variety of kombu out there, but in the United States price is usually a good indicator of quality, and good kombu produces better dashi.” —Sho Spaeth, staff writer and editor

Loose Leaf Tea

“If you enjoy drinking tea at all, consider skipping the tea bags and (slightly!) splurging on loose leaf tea. They undoubtedly make a better cup of tea, since whole leaves retain flavor and aroma better than pulverized leaf dust. Comparing the same brand and type of tea at cost per cup, loose leaf tea only costs a few cents more. I also feel good about not adding more single-use teabag waste to the world and not ingesting micro-plastics. Those silky sachets from fancier brands are composed of nylon and polyethylene terephthalate, which slowly degrade in a cup of hot water.—Maggie Lee, UX designer

Ice Cream

“I generally prefer ice cream in its most basic form—I want to taste the cream! On the west coast I’ll spring for a pint of Straus creamery’s vanilla bean. It has the purest fresh cream flavor, and will disappear at an alarming rate. I’ve yet to find it on the East coast, so in the city I tide myself over with Morgenstern’s burnt honey vanilla. And if I’ve already made the trek there, I’m probably also grabbing a pint of lemon jam cardamom.” —Jina Stanfill, social media manager

Spices

Overhead view of ground spices scattered on a black plate.

“I recently moved, and took it as an opportunity to audit my spice collection with an honest, critical eye (and nose). The result is that literally everything went into the trash, and I had to reflect on the fact that many of the spices I’ve been using were probably stale long before I picked them off the supermarket shelf. I decided to splurge on a selection of new spices from Burlap and Barrel and I’ve been blown away by the difference. Their single-origin spices are so much stronger, more aromatic, and nuanced than anything I’ve worked with before. I’m particularly obsessed with their powdered black lime, their Urfa chili, their fermented white pepper, and their flowering thyme. Not only is my food tastier and my cooking more interesting, but when I have friends over I basically make them come into the kitchen and smell every jar. Hopefully at least some of them will come back.” —Niki Achitoff-Gray, editor in chief

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