8 Chef-Approved Staples to Keep in Your Pantry at All Times

published May 30, 2023
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Someone placing hands on canned goods in a kitchen pantry.
Credit: Sarah Crowley

My favorite kitchen tool isn’t an air fryer, or slow cooker, or even my beloved Phin coffee filter; it’s a well-stocked pantry. Yes, it’s true. I consider these (shelf-stable!) jars, bags, and boxes to be some of the most essential tools in my cooking. With just a few of these ingredients at my disposal, I can throw together a satisfying meal in minutes. 

You know who else is great at converting basic pantry items into a flavor-packed plate? Chefs! They’re the ones who spend at least 40 hours a week cooking for other people before going home to feed themselves. I was curious to know what staples they keep on hand for low-effort, high praise-worthy dinners, side dishes, and beyond. So I reached out to several to find out! These are pantry staples chefs and professional cooks reach for on the regular.

Credit: Marconi Foods

1. Marconi Hot Giardiniera

Marconi’s Hot Giardinara finds its way into countless dishes in my kitchen. Any time I’m looking for a pickle or a hit of acid, it’s going in. Of course the pickled veggies are a must on top of hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches; I’ll even deglaze the pan with the liquid after I sauté … anything. The pickle brine is especially great when emulsified with melted butter and tossed with pasta for extra bite and heat to a pretty basic dish.” Eric Rivera, pop-up chef and owner of Addo

Buy: Marconi Hot Giardiniera, $5.49 for 16 ounces at World Market

Credit: Lao Gan Ma

2. Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp

“A pantry must-have is chili crisp. I usually go for Lao Gan Ma; it’s a classic and easy to find and adds a beautiful crunchy texture and depth of flavor to any quick meal. I top rice, frozen dumplings, and silken tofu with it for easy meals that still have an extra kick.” Irina Groushevaia, recipe developer and freelance writer

Buy: Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp, $9.49 for 24.69 ounces at Umamicart

Credit: Kikkoman

3. Kikkoman Less-Sodium Soy Sauce

“Low-sodium soy sauce is a must-have in the pantry for us. It’s a great base for a marinade and substitution for salt, it keeps the item juicy and flavorful with a bit more depth. We also like to use it mixed with stock to braise meat in the pressure cooker!” — Hannah and Marian Cheng, co-founders of Mimi Cheng’s Dumplings

Buy: Kikkoman Less Sodium Soy Sauce, $3.58 for 15 ounces at Walmart

Credit: Loisa

4. Loisa Sofrito

Sofrito is a mixture of cilantro, recao (also known as culantro), garlic, onions, and red and green bell peppers blended together. Typically sofrito is made at home in a food processor, and every family has their own recipe and ratios for it, but Loisa’s sofrito works in a pinch as a starting layer to any sauce, soup, or stew. Sauté some sofrito in a pan with tomato sauce and olive oil to give all kinds of food instant flavor: rice, meats, stews, and the list goes on …” — Jeremie Serrano, vegan chef and recipe developer

Buy: Loisa Sofrito, $24 for 2 (12-ounce) jars at Loisa

Credit: Maille

5. Maille Dijon Original Dijon Mustard

Maille’s Dijon mustard is a classic pantry staple for anyone who wants to add a slight fanciness to their kitchen. To me, this brand has the most balanced flavor of store-bought Dijon mustards and has a great smooth texture, too. The mustard’s subtle sweetness and delicate tartness make it perfect for sandwiches, dipping sauces, marinades, rubs, dressings, and so on.” — Mark Rabe, chef at Braise 116

Buy: Maille Dijon Original Dijon Mustard, $3.46 for 7.5 ounces at Walmart

Credit: The Rice Factory

6. The Rice Factory Hokkaido Yumepirika

“I always keep Japanese rice from The Rice Factory in my pantry. The company always has several varieties from different regions of Japan, including the new crops (when they are available). You can really taste the difference in freshly milled rice — it is more aromatic and flavorful, and it’s a great base for so many meals. The store in Scarsdale, New York has other curated Japanese pantry items you don’t see in other Japanese grocery stores (you can also order directly online).” Sawako Okochi, chef and author of Love Japan

Buy: The Rice Factory Hokkaido Yumepirika (2022 Crop), $18.99 for 5 pounds at The Rice Factory

Credit: Barilla

7. Barilla Pastas

“You can do so many things with pasta — pasta with tomato sauce, noodles with soy and garlic, cold pasta salad, and even mac and cheese for the kids.” — Michael Schulson, chef, restaurateur, and founder of Schulson Collective

Buy: Barilla Penne, $1.99 for 16 ounces at Target

Credit: Rancho Gordo

8. Rancho Gordo Pineapple Vinegar

“I think most Americans don’t use enough vinegar in their meals and it’s really a disservice to us. It’s deep, rich, sweet, and tangy and cuts through fatty dishes with ease. The pineapple vinegar in particular has a unique, sweet flavor that sets itself apart from the typical apple cider vinegar. More than just for vinaigrettes, you can use a sprinkle of vinegar over most any dish (chicken! Fish! Veggies! Salads!) as you would add a squeeze of lemon over top for a zesty, tangy accent.” Amethyst Ganaway, chef and recipe developer

Buy: Rancho Gordo Pineapple Vinegar, $7.95 for 16 ounces at Rancho Gordo 

Did your go-to pantry staples make the list? Tell us about it in the comments.