Food

17 Genius Ingredients To Make You A Better Cook In 2016

Pantry goals.

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1. Tomato Paste

Think of tomato paste as a super-concentrated version of a tomato (less water = more flavor). It's got this super-tangy, bright, kinda sweet flavor that will add a whole other ~dimension~ to your cooking.

TO USE IT:

-Next time you're making a stew or braise, start by sautéing a few tablespoons of tomato paste in a bit of olive oil until it gets nicely brick red and the natural sugars (tomatoes have lots of sugar) start to caramelize. Then add your onions and veggies.

-Spread some onto bread before toasting and topping with cheese or a fried egg.

-For more tomato-y flavor in your tomato sauce or minestrone soups, sauté a few tablespoons in olive oil before adding your canned tomatoes.

2. Whole Grain Dijon Mustard

Yeah, you probably have mustard, but do you have WHOLE GRAIN MUSTARD?

While still super tangy and spicy, it's more mild than straight-up Dijon, PLUS it has this really awesome texture. (All those teeny mustard seeds!!)

TO USE IT:

-Toss a few tablespoons with vegetables like potatoes and carrots before roasting (they get these amazing little crispy bits that are crazy delicious).

-To use as a marinade, thin the mustard with a little olive oil, add a handful of chopped herbs and add some salt and pepper. Toss steak, chicken, or pork all up in it before searing, roasting, or grilling.

- Whisk into vinaigrettes for salad (like this French Potato Salad), mayonnaise for spreads, and even yogurt for dipping raw vegetables (crudités are back, y'all!)

3. Miso Paste

Miso paste is good for SO MUCH MORE than soup (although it's great for that, too). It's got a little tang, a whole lot of saltiness, and just a wee bit of sweetness.

TO USE IT:

-Thin with a little water till it's the consistency of ranch dressing and season with salt and pepper. Toss with shrimp, chicken, pork chops, or vegetables before roasting (the sugars in the miso will start to caramelize and brown, which will be insanely delicious — like in this miso-roasted cauliflower).

-Whisk a little into some rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, and a little water for a creamy *VEGAN* dressing for salads and noodles.

-Stir into melted butter and smear onto fish fillets before roasting in the oven.

4. Good Olive Oil

This may seem super ~basic~ but I just wanted to take this opportunity to say that good olive oil DOES make a difference. Whether you're consuming it raw (like, in salads or drizzled over grains and pastas) or cooking with it (these olive oil fried eggs are the truth), good olive oil will instantly make everything taste better. FYI, ICYMI, places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's offer some high-quality olive oils for not that much $$.

TO USE IT:

-On everything, always. Choose extra virgin. This means less processed, meaning more pure, meaning more flavor.

5. Apple Cider Vinegar

I use this vinegar more often than any other vinegar. It's got a mellow acidity with very little sweetness, so it won't punch you in the face with aggressive vinegary-ness. It pairs well with everything from vegetables to grains to chicken. I even like putting it in certain PIE fillings instead of lemon juice. You can drink it, cook with it, make cocktails with it; what's not to love?

TO USE IT:

- Swap out your balsamic vinegar next time you're making a salad dressing to ~switch things up a bit~.

- Add a splash to the skillet after cooking chicken or pork, scrape up those browned bits, and BOOM you just made a quick and easy pan sauce.

- Add to maple syrup and lemon juice for a crazy delicious beverage like this Detox Drink.

6. Crunchy Sea Salt

Flaky sea salt is the best thing to happen to your mouth. They are beautiful, crunchy, giant flakes of salt that look like tiny pyramids and are really not all that salty. (I mean, it's salt, but different salts have different levels of saltiness. It's true!)

A box of this stuff (which runs about $6 for an 8oz. box) will last you basically forever and make everything you cook or bake look and taste fancy AF.

TO USE IT:

-Sprinkle it on chocolate chip (or any) cookies before baking.

-Use it as a finishing touch steak, pork chops, or lamb — sprinkle it on just before you're ready to serve it.

-Use to season salads for extra crunch.

7. Tamari (gluten-free soy sauce)

I like keeping this on hand because it tastes just like soy sauce but with a deeper, richer, sassier flavor. Plus, all my gluten-free friends can have it (and we *all* have a gluten-free friend).

TO USE IT:

- Use it any time you'd use soy sauce, like in this Napa Cabbage Slaw.

- Instead of buying those Tamari Roasted Almonds, just toss some raw almonds with a few tablespoons of tamari and roast at 300° for 20–30 minutes.

8. Coconut Oil

Coconut oil, let me count the ways. I started cooking with coconut oil one day when I ran out of canola oil and thought, What the hell?! HOLY MOLY did this change everything.* It's not overly tropical, so no, it's not like cooking with suntan lotion, but it does lend a vaguely nutty, coconut vibe. When shopping, just know that the unrefined stuff will have a stronger coconut flavor (which I dig) and the refined stuff will be mostly neutral (also great). Oh, and it's solid when room temperature and liquid when warm (kind of like butter), so don't freak out if the texture changes depending on your kitchen.

TO USE IT:

-It's AMAZING in cookies (like these Ginger Molasses Cookies), pound cakes, muffins, and brownies. Just substitute it for butter in your favorite baked good.

-Use it instead of canola or olive oil next time you sauté/roast/simmer vegetables.

-POP YOUR POPCORN IN IT. My greatest achievement as a cook was discovering how good this tastes.

*I also use it as a lotion and hair mask, so you know, I really REALLY love coconut oil.

9. Capers

Think of capers as salty, briny little surprises in your food. If you are one of those people who doesn't love olives, you might not be down with these, but I AM NOT THAT PERSON. Kind of like mini pickles — great on your bagel, yes, but great to cook with, too.

TO USE THEM:

-Toss a few tablespoons into your garlic and olive oil pasta.

-Add some to your skillet when cooking your next batch of regular ol' chicken (like this Lemon Chicken With Capers).

-Chop up a few tablespoons and add to your next tuna or egg salad.

10. Chile Flakes

Might seem obvious, but this is the one spice I keep next to my salt because I use it as frequently as regular ol' black pepper. (But then again, I really like spicy food.) It infuses whatever oil you're cooking with so much flavor that you only need a pinch, so be conservative.

TO USE IT:

- Sprinkled over fried, poached, or soft-boiled eggs. And pizza.

- On Avocado Toast (duh).

- Mix with chopped parsley as a finish over pastas, warm grains, stews, and braises.

11. Panko Bread Crumbs

Keeping panko bread crumbs in your freezer (the best way to store them) will mean you are minutes away from crispy, breaded, baked, or fried heavenly bliss at all times. The coarser texture means bigger crunch, plus you can use them wherever regular bread crumbs are called for.

TO USE IT:

- As a coating for fried or baked chicken (try with whole pieces, or cute lil' nuggets).

- Toss with a little olive oil or melted butter and use as a topping for eggplant parmesan, mac 'n' cheese, and other baked casseroles.

- Use in meatballs or meatloaf instead of classic breadcrumbs (the fluffy texture of the panko actually makes for ~lighter balls~).

12. Greek Yogurt

The best thing about Greek yogurt, aside from literally everything, is that it can do everything sour cream can do. And some of the things mayo can do. It's like a tangier, lighter, creamier miracle ingredient. Warning: Keeping some in your fridge at all times will encourage you to eat it with ALL OF YOUR MEALS. Also, the difference between 2% and full fat is not that noticeable, so you can feel good about going low-fat here.

TO USE IT:

- Smear it under vegetable or grain salads.

- Spread it onto toast and top with sweet stuff (apples drizzled with honey) or savory stuff (avocado with crushed red pepper).

- Stir in herbs, chopped cucumber, and/or diced shallot and serve as a dip (like this tzatziki, which I would eat as a meal) or as a baked potato topping.

13. Tahini

Think of this as peanut butter 2.0. It's toasty, nutty, crazy creamy and the kind of thing that you never knew you wanted — but you definitely want it. It's an amazing way to lend rich creaminess without dairy.

TO USE IT:

- Thin it out with a bit of water, add some chopped herbs and make an insanely good dressing for vegetable and grain salads.

- Whisk it into yogurt with a squeeze of lemon juice to make a dipping sauce for grilled or seared chicken.

- To really blow your mind, substitute tahini for half the amount of peanut butter in your next peanut butter cookie dough.

14. Fish Sauce

Yes, it's a sauce, made from fish, which may not be everyone's bag. But it should be.

Fish sauce is full of that elusive fifth taste ~umami~ and is salty, funky, and the secret ingredient to most Thai and Vietnamese foods you can't get enough of. A little bit goes a long way, which means a whole bottle will keep for all of eternity (in the fridge, it'll keep at least a year after being opened) and you can use it in all your things.

TO USE IT:

- Add a dash to roasted vegetables like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, or cauliflower after they come out of the oven.

- Whisk lime juice, a pinch of sugar, chile flakes, and a dash of fish sauce for an insanely delicious salad dressing. (This is why papaya salad is so good.)

- Add a dash to your next batch of tomato sauce for pasta — trust me on this.

15. Turmeric

Fresh turmeric root can be harder to find but WORTH IT. (Check South Asian markets or online specialty stores.) The dried ground stuff is awesome, too. It has this vaguely ginger-y flavor and an INSANE electric orange color that just makes me want to rub it all over my face. Oh, and it also has some incredible anti-inflammatory properties.

TO USE IT:

- Add a pinch or two into your next batch of hummus.

- Sauteé with onions and garlic when making pureed soups or stews (like this Acorn Squash and Apple Soup) .

- Simmer a bit with grated ginger, honey, and lemon slices for a super addictive and ~restorative~ beverage (hot or cold).

16. Seeds!

All of the seeds, really. Hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds. They are maybe the most versatile thing in your kitchen, not to mention how ~cool~ and *healthy* they are. Just be sure to store them in the freezer to increase shelf life.

TO USE THEM:

-Toast them and sprinkle over salads. (Kind of like a crouton!)

- Add to granola (a few tablespoons into your favorite recipe) or use to make a Sweet Seed Crumble for your next dessert.

- Sprinkle over cookies, flatbread, or biscuits before baking for a nutty, seedy crunch.

17. Anchovies

I could literally write a book on my love for anchovies. Even if you're not into fish-related things, think of them as a super-secret salty ingredient that makes pretty much everything better. If you're using them raw, chop them up super fine, but if you're going to cook with them, just throw them into a hot skillet or pan with some olive oil; they'll dissolve almost immediately.

TO USE THEM:

- Throw a few into your olive oil while cooking garlic for your next pasta sauce. (Like this classic Spaghetti Puttanesca.)

- It's a non-negotiable in classic Caesar salad, but a fillet or two is also great blended into most any vinaigrette.

- Chop up a whole jar and smash with a stick of butter. Use this butter to smear over a chicken before roasting, or toss with roasted vegetables hot out of the oven.