As a culinary school trained cook, I know how to work magic using advance techniques and exotic ingredients. But the truth is, building great flavor at home — and even in restaurant kitchens — often comes down to smart use of a few inexpensive ingredients easily found in the supermarket.
Here are the seven top food products that I reach for on a weekly, if not daily, basis to make food at home taste great. And…shhhh…I happen to know that top chefs reach for these, too, and not just when they’re cooking for their children.
1. Ketchup: It may seem that this one needs no explanation, especially since a lot of kids consider ketchup a major food group, but there is more to ketchup than you may realize. Chefs take advantage of ketchup’s sweet and tangy flavor by using it in everything from glazes to brines. This list of seven ways to use ketchup at Food &Wine is a great place to start for some recipe inspiration.
We’re a Heinz family (and most professional cooks I know are too), with one caveat: I seek out Simply Heinz when I can. It’s the same Heinz taste, but without high fructose corn syrup and made without GMOs. If your kids are sensitive to sugar and like to douse their burger in ketchup, Trader Joe’s also makes a good one that contains only 2 grams of sugar per tablespoon, versus the 4 grams in Heinz.
2. Hellman’s (Best Foods) mayonnaise: This is another no-brainer, but most chefs know that mayonnaise is meant for more than tuna salad. Mix a little with parmesan cheese and rub on chicken breasts before baking to help the chicken stay moist and delicious. Or spread mayonnaise, not butter, on the outside of your grilled cheese before cooking and thank me later.
I can sing the praises of homemade mayonnaise, but the only one you’ll ever find in my fridge is Hellman’s, also known as Best Foods west of the Rockies. No other brand can compare. Well, except maybe Japanese Kewpie mayo, which makes killer potato salad. Just be aware that it also contains a small amount of MSG (which is probably why it’s so good – ha!).
3. Lea & Perrin’s Worcestershire sauce: I would be willing to bet that most people have a bottle of Worcestershire sauce in their kitchen, but aren’t quite sure what to do with it. This fermented, ultra-savory sauce beautifully compliments beef, is a magical marinade, and makes your party Chex Mix addictive. Try the Dead Easy Steak Marinade at Alexandra Cooks (above) or add to burgers, meatloaf, or grilled chicken for unexpected zip.
4. Dijon mustard: Dijon mustard is the essential ingredient in every salad dressing I make. I even like to mix the vinegar and oil right in the empty mustard jar for easy shaking and storing. Beyond that, Dijon is a great flavor boost when rubbed on salmon or pork, or added to olive oil and tossed with potatoes and veggies before roasting.
5. Sriracha: This spicy, but well-balanced chile sauce amps almost any dish, and is the key ingredient that propels a kid-friendly stir-fry into an adult favorite (just add it to portions left after mild ones have been doled out). Besides garnishing Asian dishes, I mix Sriracha with mayonnaise for a quick marinade, dipping sauce, or spread for our editor Stacie’s ridiculously good Thai Chicken Burgers with Quick Pickled Carrots, the recipe for which is in her book Make It Easy (available at our affiliate Amazon) and also at The Steamy Kitchen, where you can give it a try before realizing that you need the book.
6. Parmigiano-Reggiano: If push came to shove, I think I’d give up my highlights to make sure that I could always have real, imported Parmigiano-Reggiano in the fridge. This firm, salty cheese has a long shelf life, so I always snag a chunk when it’s on sale. It’s definitely not cheap, but a little goes a long way. I find that shaving some over pasta, grains, or salad gives the dish an edge that everyone loves.
Also, you should always buy a chunk with the rind attached. Once the cheese is all gone, place the rind into a ziplock baggie and store it in the freezer. Keep collecting them so that you can throw a rind into the pot any time you’re making a soup or stew. It will lend a great savory bite that will set even the simplest dishes apart.
7. Fish sauce: Like Worcestershire, fish sauce is made from anchovies. But fear not: fish sauce does not make your dish taste like anchovies or even fishy. Rather, it lends a salty, intensified (improved) flavor to everything from stir-fries to a chicken marinade. No one will be able to place the flavor, but I guarantee they will compliment it. Just go easy at first until you get the hang of using it.