18 Underrated Pantry Items To Buy At The Grocery Store

If you're sick of pasta, rice and beans during your coronavirus self-quarantine, chefs say to reach for these flavorful, shelf-stable ingredients.

Since the coronavirus crisis escalated a couple of weeks ago, grocery shoppers have experienced nearly unprecedented difficulties. Picked-over produce departments, nonexistent fresh meats, a shocking dearth of pasta, rice and paper products, a need to keep 6 feet between themselves and other patrons ... the list goes on.

For all of these reasons, it’s become imperative for savvy shoppers to stock up on nonperishable items that they can tuck away in their pantries until they’re needed, saving another trip to the grocery wasteland. In these circumstances, keeping ample supplies of staples like pasta and rice seems like a no-brainer ― but less-obvious, underrated pantry items can prove equally valuable, transforming a bland supper into a meal brimming with flavor and nuance.

We asked professional chefs to offer suggestions for their favorite shelf-stable “secret weapons” and came up with 18 items that deserve a prime position at the front of your pantry.

Jarred Salsa

That jar of supermarket salsa that’s been lingering in your cupboard since you hosted that backyard barbecue? Its potential uses extend far beyond Taco Tuesday, according to cookbook author and recipe developer Christine Pittman of The Cookful and Cook the Story.

Salsa is incredibly flavorful and is quite salty and acidic, so it can be used to perk up all kinds of soups, sauces, stews and more. I use a jar of salsa to make a quick chili that tastes like it’s been simmering all day; I just add salsa instead of one can of tomatoes or tomato sauce. You can also add salsa to any braising liquid when you’re making a pot roast, and it’s delicious mixed with pulled pork! For side dishes, toss hot salsa with cooked cauliflower or cooked legumes, and it is, of course, wonderful mixed into rice,” Pittman said.

Chipotles in adobo are whole smoke-dried jalapeno peppers in seasoning.
Chipotles in adobo are whole smoke-dried jalapeno peppers in seasoning.

Chipotle Peppers In Adobo Sauce

Smoky and spicy canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce can be found in most grocery stores, and their powerfully smoky punch makes them a must-have for chef, nutritionist and blogger Michele Sidorenkov of My Millennial Kitchen, who tells us that “canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce pack big flavor in a really tiny can! I always have them on hand to add a bold, rich flavor to any dish. I really love using chipotles because you only need one or two chilies to add a new dimension of flavor to slow-cooker chicken, Southwestern soups or sauces. If you don’t have a lot of seasoning options in your pantry, one chili in adobo can be substituted for a wide variety of seasoning combinations.”

Dried Chiles

If you value variety in your heat-bringing ingredient supply, then head to the dried chile section of your market. “We always have dried chiles in our kitchen at home. Arbol, ancho, guajillo, chipotle ... they are all staples in things my wife and I make at home, like harissa, chili, stew sauces or marinades for items we grill,” said pitmaster Hugh Mangum of Mighty Quinn’s in New York City. “They last forever, and there are so many varieties out there. You can order them online, but I prefer to shop in person at stores like Dual Market or Kalustyan’s [in New York] because I feel like a kid in the cereal aisle at the grocery store.”

Vienna Sausages

The canned pork-and-beef mini wieners known as Vienna sausages may sound like a retro food item that’s now past its prime, but chef David Santos of Good Stock and Um Segredo Supper Club in New York urges home cooks to give this midcentury fave another look: “Vienna sausages are my friend. I can eat those little buggers cold out the can. I love them and they aren’t in enough houses in case of emergency! I like to jazz them up hot-dog style with fried onions and mustard.”

Spam

Hormel’s cooked and canned pork product, referred to as Spam, first appeared in American markets during World War II, and after it spread to the Pacific islands, it ultimately became a pantry essential in many Hawaiian households. Chef Jeff Osaka of Osaka Ramen in Denver, regularly uses Spam on his restaurant menu and in his home cooking, explaining that “my secret weapon is most definitely Spam. I use it in fried rice, and I have a Spam musubi,” a popular Hawaiian street food consisting of grilled Spam and rice wrapped in nori, “on my menu at Osaka Ramen. I also love to add fried Spam to instant ramen and to replace the ham in a Denver omelet with Spam.”

Sardines

When we think about shelf-stable fish products, many Americans picture a can of tuna. However, canned sardines have been in the nonperishable seafood game for quite a while, and chef and cookbook author Sarah Adler finds great merit in their distinctive flavor. “I love sardines and use them all the time for a quick meal. I get a cast iron pan steaming hot and fry the sardines in olive oil for about two minutes on each side or until they’re crispy. They’re perfect on toast with a homemade herby green sauce or roasted red-pepper harissa, or chopped and served over garlicky garbanzo beans and sauteed spinach. They’re versatile, tasty, and an easy added protein to all types of savory salads and dishes.”

Smoked Herring

Popularly known as “kippers,” smoked red herring are an important culinary tradition in the U.K., and cookbook author and TV host Ali Rosen ― whose current Instagram Live series focuses on pantry meals ― believes that these British pantry darlings should receive the same level of appreciation from stateside home cooks. “The overlooked secret-weapon canned ingredient for your pantry is definitely kippers. They are smoked herring, and they’re a much easier way to add a bit of protein to anything than the strong tastes of sardines and tuna. Their mild, smoky flavor goes perfectly with easy meals like avocado toast or butter pasta or a simple salad. If you need something you won’t mind eating over and over, kippers are the perfect item to stock up on,” Rosen said.

Brown Anchovies

“Currently overlooked in favor of their more bougie cousin, the white anchovy, brown anchovies are great for adding a salty savory element to a dish,” executive chef Philip Whitmarsh of Jewel of the South in New Orleans said of his favorite under-the-radar pantry item. When it comes to specific uses for brown anchovies, Whitmarsh advises they are “especially good with braised lamb or other meats. Finely chop several anchovies and sweat off with onions, and the pop of flavor is truly delightful.”

Tamarind paste (in the bowl at right) is extracted from the tamarind fruit.
Tamarind paste (in the bowl at right) is extracted from the tamarind fruit.

Tamarind Paste And Fish Sauce

“With the lockdown in New Orleans, I really like to spend a lot of time in my kitchen because it keeps me sane and busy,” executive chef (and “Top Chef” alum) Nina Compton of Bywater American Bistro in New Orleans told HuffPost. She looks to pantry items with assertive flavors to liven up her dishes, and the two she finds herself reaching for again and again are fish sauce and tamarind paste. “Fish sauce and tamarind paste are amazing items to always have on hand in your kitchen. They’re super flavorful and are great for marinating chicken or beef; they also add a great flavor when cooking rice and are essential for making a terrific stir fry using anything you’ve got lying around.”

Chicken Bouillon Powder

A flavor powerhouse that’s both shelf-stable and small-space-friendly, chicken bouillon often comes in cubes but can also be purchased as a loose powder, which allows you to measure quantities with more precision. Chicken bouillon powder is a beloved ingredient of Casey Thompson, a “Top Chef” vet and executive chef of the soon-to-open Georgette in Sonoma, California, who explains that chicken bouillon powder “is overlooked and can make your food taste 100 times better. I have a friend who says, ‘I use chicken stock to make my lentils, but it never has much flavor.’ I tell her to buy the chicken powder (in the jar) and sprinkle a little into the final dish to season it. It will transform your flavors into an all-day, deep-tasting dish! This will also work with beans, soups and blanched vegetables.”

Baby Corn

In the pantheon of canned vegetables, corn tends to get very little respect, even among consumers who have no problem with shelf-stable produce. However, there’s a canned corn product out there that brings both an appealing texture and a welcome vegetal flavor to the table, and that’s baby corn. Chef Christina Stanco of Central Kitchen & Bar in Detroit, is a big baby corn fan, claiming that “my ultimate shelf-stable secret weapon would have to be a can of baby corn. I always have a can in my pantry for a quick stir-fry. It always seems to be that secret ingredient that will set your stir-fry apart from others. Even better, it adds an unexpected sweetness to your dish.”

Castelvetrano olives are great as a snack or for chopping up and incorporating into pastas, baked chicken dishes and so much more.
Castelvetrano olives are great as a snack or for chopping up and incorporating into pastas, baked chicken dishes and so much more.

Castelvetrano Olives

Current “Top Chef All-Stars” contestant Brian Malarkey, the executive chef of Herb & Wood in San Diego, swears by Castelvetrano olives when cooking out of his home pantry because “they are mild and versatile and aren’t as briny and sour as other olives. They add the perfect texture and flavor to any dish and can be served warm or cold.”

Sesame Seeds

According to “Iron Chef” icon Masaharu Morimoto, sesame seeds should be a regular presence in pantries and spice cabinets around the world. “Even though they may not be used often in Western countries or cuisine, sesames are very nutritious (with vitamins and dietary minerals) and are a very common pantry item in Japan. There are many creative ways to use sesame seeds in home cooking that can add great texture and flavor,” Morimoto said.

Powdered Buttermilk

Buttermilk’s transition into a shelf-stable product happens courtesy of powdered buttermilk, a lesser-known item sold in baking aisles with a plethora of potential uses. Powdered buttermilk fan and recipe developer Jessica Formicola of Savory Experiments gives us the rundown: “I am never without powdered buttermilk. It can be used for any meal, and it makes some mean pancakes, hoe cakes, breads and even salad dressings like ranch. You can even toss fingerling potatoes in it before roasting. So versatile and tasty!”

Canned coconut milk can add a ton of flavor and richness to just about any savory recipe.
Canned coconut milk can add a ton of flavor and richness to just about any savory recipe.

Coconut Milk

The recent trend toward plant-based milks elevated coconut milk’s status among gourmands and health-conscious diners, and according to executive chef Srijith Gopinathan of Campton Place Restaurant in San Francisco, this pantry item “can make an ordinary meal truly extraordinary with almost the similar effort. Coconut milk is so versatile it works superbly well with vegetables, seafood, meat, rice and even fruits and a few amazing desserts. In addition to the aroma and taste, coconut milk gives extremely satisfying consistency to soups and stews. This has a natural affinity to spices, makes some of the best curries from the south of India and other coastal nations in Asia.”

Instant Coffee

Coffee snobs may turn up their noses at instant coffee, but this self-stable powder effectively delivers coffee flavor when added to baked goods or meat rubs. At least that’s what chef and TV host Robert Irvine of “Restaurant: Impossible” thinks: “Instant coffee adds great flavor when baking treats like cakes and muffins. It can also be added to various spice blends, like Montreal seasoning and BBQ rubs used for grilling and roasting meats.”

Maggi Sauce

The flavor of Maggi sauce often draws comparisons to soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce, or to a combination of those two. It’s savory, salty and an easy way to add depth and nuance to a dish, as executive chef Paul Klaassen of HenDough in Greenville, South Carolina, and Hendersonville, North Carolina, likes to do: “We use it to season some of our cocktails [at HenDough], like Micheladas, and it is also a great way to add umami to braised dishes and sauces. It’s such a versatile ingredient and adds that mysterious ‘I don’t know what’s in this, but it tastes really good’ flavor to a lot of dishes. It’s usually found in the spice aisle.”

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