We make a mean spaghetti and meatballs, but it’s time to up our cooking game. So we checked in with 12 chefs from all over the country for advice on the one ingredient we should always have in our kitchen.
1. Bacon Fat
“After frying up bacon at home, I always save the bacon fat in a jar and keep it by the stove as an essential addition to other dishes. It enhances foods like beans and greens—anywhere you want a rich smoky flavor. Grease a pan for eggs with a little bacon fat instead of butter. You’ll never turn back.”
-Austin Kirzner, Executive Chef, Red Fish Grill in New Orleans, LA
“Lemons, limes or grapefruits—you can use the zest, juice and fruit to brighten any dish. This also limits the need for extra salt. From a simple Bibb lettuce salad to a roast duck (my favorite meal), citrus is always my must-have.”
-Tom Douglas, Executive Chef, Tom Douglas Seattle Kitchen in Seattle, WA
“It’s one of my favorite kitchen staples, either canned or jarred with olive oil and salt. A little anchovy can go a long way to add depth and complexity. The briny punch of anchovies adds contrast and new layers of flavor to really elevate the otherwise simple dish.”
-Nicholas Stefanelli, Chef and Owner, Masseria in Washington, D.C.
4. Soy Sauce
“Good soy sauce is essential. I mainly use it to get the kids to eat! A great tip: Mix it with mayo for a dipping sauce for chicken. Or combine it with rice wine vinegar and chili sauce for a quick pork or beef marinade. Sometimes I'll even sneak it into New Orleans red beans and rice.”
-Chip Flanagan, Executive Chef, Ralph's on the Park in New Orleans, LA
5. Strained Yogurt
"Use it for breakfast with fresh fruit and granola, for lunch as a tzatziki sauce on pita with grilled chicken or vegetables, as a salad dressing, or a marinade for lamb or beef. Its thick tanginess makes it a healthy, flavorful substitute for mayonnaise or sour cream. It can even been used in baking."
-Brandon Shapiro, Chef de Cuisine, Wildwood Kitchen in Bethesda, MD
-Roger Jacobsen, Executive Chef, American Whiskey in NYC
7. Celery Salt
“Celery salt is an ingredient I always have on hand. It has an earthy, natural saltiness (umami) that works well as an all-purpose seasoner."
-Chris Clime, Executive Chef, PassionFish in Reston, VA, and Bethesda, MD
8. Unfiltered Organic Olive Oil
“I cook with meat all day and have three go-to ingredients that are easy to find: unfiltered organic olive oil, kosher salt and fresh black pepper. When cooking with meat, keep the seasonings simple so the quality of the meat can shine through.”
-Christina Scifo, Executive Chef, Maxwell Chophouse in NYC
“I’ve become a big fan of mead (an alcoholic liquid made by fermenting honey with water). Anything made from honey is going to add complexity and flavor to whatever you’re cooking. Mead has yeasty undertones that give it a completely unique component. I've found people are often left scratching their heads as they try to figure out what they're tasting that gives off those smooth, soft, yeasty and sweet notes.”
-David Guas, Chef and Owner, Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery in Arlington, VA
10. Sherry Vinegar
“It's aged and fermented in oak barrels, soaking up the flavors and aroma of the wood—it creates a rich but slightly sweet nutty vinegar. In any professional kitchen, you'll find a variety of vinegars being used, but in most homes I rarely see any. Sherry vinegar can be used to finish sauces and gravy, liven up soups or stews or mixed with olive oil. You can also use it to dress chicken, romaine lettuce and grated Parmesan cheese for a fast and healthy dinner. Look for the word solera on the bottle, which is the traditional aging method.”
-Alan Wise, Former Executive Chef, Magnolia Restaurant and Lovage Rooftop & Indoor Lounge in NYC
11. Condensed Milk and Frozen Pureed Fruit
“I keep a few cans of condensed milk in my pantry and ice cubes of passion-fruit puree in the freezer. Condensed milk is a surprisingly delicious way to sweeten things when baking or lightly soaking cake layers. Passion fruit was everywhere for me growing up in Hawaii. If you can't get it fresh, having it on hand in frozen form works nicely to add tartness and light floral notes that stand out from standard lemon juice or zest.”
-Tiffany MacIsaac, Pastry Chef and Owner, Buttercream Bakeshop in Washington, D.C.
12. Brown Butter
"Black & Bolyard’s Bay Leaf Brown Butter is a super-easy way to instantly elevate any classic dish. I like it on soft-shell crabs, which are now in season.”
-Dave Seigal, Executive Chef, Cull & Pistol Oyster Bar in NYC