I Write Cookbooks for a Living — Here Are the 10 Grocery Shortcuts I Can’t Live Without

published Jan 25, 2023
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

To say I spend a lot of time grocery shopping is an understatement. As a cookbook author and recipe writer, I’m at my local supermarkets so often that the clerks know me by name. If a product is delicious and a time-saving shortcut that’s worth the money, you can bet I know all about it. 

Some I’ve found through working in restaurant kitchens — where time equals money and shortcuts are valuable — and some ingredients I’ve found on my own and use as time-savers that help me get dinner on the table without a lot of effort. After a long day of editing recipes, sometimes the last thing I want to do is spend hours in the kitchen. Here is a peak into my pantry and the shortcut products I swear by.

Credit: Ivy Manning

1. Spice Pastes 

Patak’s has 10 different Indian-style spice pastes. Unlike simmer sauces, where you use one jar to make only one meal, these are super-concentrated pastes, so just a few tablespoons can be used as a marinade or a springboard to a curry. Just sauté a protein of your choice with an onion and a few tablespoons of the curry paste and choose your own adventure — add water, tomatoes, broth, or coconut milk, and veggies. (There are recipes on the back of the jars, if you don’t want to wing it.) I always have the vindaloo paste and mild curry paste on hand for on-the-fly curries.

Buy: Patak’s Vindaloo Curry Spice Paste, $4.89 for 10 ounces at Instacart 

Credit: Ivy Manning

2. Beef Broth Concentrate 

This liquid broth base comes in handy little packets that make one cup of stock when diluted with water, and it truly tastes like homemade broth. It’s great for making instant broth for soups and sauces, but I also add it undiluted to vegetable sautés, Bolognese sauce, mashed potatoes, and gravy to amp up the flavor. It comes in a reduced-sodium version, too!

Buy: Savory Choice Beef Flavor Broth Concentrate, $4.93 for 12 pouches at H-E-B

Credit: Ivy Manning

3. Soy Curls  

I’m married to a vegetarian, and I often struggle to come up with plant-based meals for him when I’m cooking meat for myself or work. These dried, shelf-stable curls are made from nothing but non-GMO soybeans, but they have a texture like pulled chicken and a neutral flavor that lends itself to just about any dish. After a quick soak in warm water, I can add them to casseroles, fajitas, and grain bowls. Even I, the carnivore wife, love a pile of barbecue-sauced soy curls on a bun. Look for them at natural food stores (sometimes available in bulk) and online.

Buy: Butler Soy Curls, $9.44 for 8 ounces at Amazon  

Credit: Melissa Ryan

4. Frozen Puff Pastry  

Having a block of this all-butter puff pastry in the freezer is like dinner party insurance. Need a quick appetizer? Defrost it; roll it out; and top it with cherry tomatoes, Parmesan, and fresh basi. Voila! A sophisticated savory tart. Need an impressive dessert but have zero time? Roll it out, bake it between sheet pans, cut into rectangles, and layer with whipped cream and berries for a quick Napoleon pastry. Or twist strips of the pastry with pesto or olive paste and you’ve got herby breadsticks. The plant-based version is excellent, as well.

Buy: Dufour Puff Pastry, $10.99 for 14 ounce at Instacart 

Credit: Ivy Manning

5. Fried Shallots (Sometimes Labeled “Fried Onions”) 

I first came across these crispy little flavor bombs while taking cooking classes in Thailand. As soon as I was Stateside, I went to my favorite Asian grocery store and got a big jar. Not to be confused with the American fried onions that grace green bean casserole, these shallots are thinner, extra-crispy, and have a shallot-y sweetness. They are the secret ingredient in my salad rolls, I sprinkle them on noodle bowls and macaroni and cheese with abandon, and I’ve recently started adding them to salads in lieu of croutons.

Buy: Maesri Fried Shallot, $8.50 for 7 ounces at Amazon 

Credit: Ivy Manning

6. Horseradish Aioli

I’m usually not a fan of premade combo condiments — the condiment shelves in my fridge are already crammed with too many jars. But this eggy, zippy horseradish mayonnaise from Stonewall Kitchen is one exception. It’s a game-changer on roast beef or fish finger sandwiches, and makes an awesome dip for boiled shrimp. I love it slathered on corn on the cob, elote-style, and it elevates canned tuna like nobody’s business. We go through a jar of it a month. 

Buy: Stonewall Kitchen Horseradish Aioli, $9.95 for 10.25 ounces at Stonewall Kitchen

Credit: Ivy Manning

7. Frozen Shelled Edamame 

Just about the only food I don’t like is peas — especially if they’ve seen a freezer. Where recipes call for peas, I sub in frozen shelled edamame. Buttery and with a nice pop when you chew them, they lack even a whiff of the green pea flavor that I avoid and they cook through from frozen in mere minutes. I use them in shepherd’s pie, soups, fried rice, poke bowls, and salads to add protein and color.  

Buy: Wel-Pac Shelled Edamame, $4.59 for 16 ounces at Instacart

Credit: Ivy Manning

8. Shelf-Stable Gnocchi 

Shelf-stable gnocchi are precooked, so you only need to heat them through and they’re ready to eat. Although the usual method of cooking is to boil the little potato-based dumplings in a pot of water, they also can be reheated in marinara sauce or on a sheet pan. I stash them in the freezer for last-minute additions to lots of meals.

Buy: Private Selection Basil Pesto Gnocchi, $2.49 for 16 ounces at Kroger

Credit: Ivy Manning

9. Corn Muffin Mix 

I always have this cornbread mix on hand for whenever I need a quick hot cornbread … aka chili night. I often doctor it up with cheese, pickled jalapeños, taco seasoning, and/or frozen corn to make it a little extra. When I slather it with honey butter, no one in my house complains that this cornbread isn’t homemade. It’s not just for cornbread, though — it’s a baking mix with all sorts of applications, like cranberry upside-down cake and pumpkin spoonbread. This stuff is “America’s Favorite” for a reason.

Buy: Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix, $0.55 for 8.5 ounces at Target

Credit: Ivy Manning

10. Enchilada Sauce 

This enchilada sauce comes in a convenient pouch with a thick texture that clings to tortillas. It has a rich, fire-roasted flavor, mild spiciness, and it isn’t too sweet. It’s great for quick enchiladas, but I also use it in the slow cooker with chicken thighs for meal prep and as a tortilla soup starter, too. My only complaint — I wish it came in bigger pouches! 

Buy: Frontera Red Chile Enchilada Sauce, $8.92 for 8 ounces at Walmart

Do you have a favorite grocery shortcut you swear by? Tell us about it in the comments.