7 Groceries I Started Buying After Working in a Test Kitchen for 5 Years

published Jul 17, 2022
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reusable grocery bags on the floor in the kitchen filled with groceries
Credit: Joe Lingeman

A lot has changed in my life since spending five years developing recipes for magazines, cookbooks, and television shows in a professional test kitchen. For one thing, I spend a lot more time preparing my ingredients, or organizing my mise en place, before starting a recipe. I also streamlined my collection of cooking equipment to include just the most important and diligently tested items, ditching the rest to create a more organized and functional kitchen.

Another thing that has changed is my grocery list. To be ever-ready to follow (or create, in my case) recipes, I learned the importance of stocking good-quality but also highly versatile groceries. Here are some groceries I learned to love during my time at the test kitchen, starting with savory and moving into sweet. 

Credit: World Market

1. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

As someone who basically chugs olive oil, I have a pantry full of bottles from different Mediterranean regions. But olive oil has an extremely large range of flavors — bitter, nutty, fruity, floral. What I realized after developing recipes for years at the Test Kitchen is that in order to make consistent recipes, you need a go-to olive oil that is good-quality but also neutral enough in flavor to be versatile. This well-balanced oil fits the bill. It’s readily available at many grocery stores and can also be purchased online. 

Buy: California Olive Ranch Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, $10.49 for 16.9 ounces at Thrive Market

Credit: Photo: Tara Donne; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

2. Panko

I cook a lot of Italian food — meatballs, eggplant Parmesan, chicken Milanese — which means that I use a lot of breadcrumbs. I used to be very old-school about my crumbs and would save bits of stale bread to grind up and season with herbs and salt. While that method is tried-and-true, I learned the value of stocking a plain, consistent breadcrumb that can provide a blank slate for diverse applications and that will give you a good crunch. Whether you’re binding crab cakes or coating chicken to fry, this panko delivers.

Buy:  Kikkoman Panko Bread Crumbs, $1.89 for 8 ounces at Instacart

Credit: Olexiy Bayev

3. Parmigiano-Reggiano

Store-bought Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (cut from a giant wheel and sold in a block or chunk) are completely different products. Pre-grated, domestic Parmesan often contains additives and less-nuanced flavor and texture than the real-deal Italian cheese. DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) Parmigiano-Reggiano is made from raw milk and has a crystalline texture, while Parmesan is usually made from pasteurized milk and can be soft or clumpy. When you grate your own Parmigiano-Reggiano off the block with a rasp-style grater, it’s as fluffy as a cloud and melts differently on hot food than the pre-grated domestic stuff. Luckily you don’t have to go all the way to Italy to get it: Boar’s Head sells a delicious Parmigiano-Reggiano for about $20 per pound.

Buy: Boar’s Head Parmigiano-Reggiano, $10.79 for 7 ounces at Target

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

4. Anchovies

I don’t like fish, but after working in the Test Kitchen I came around to anchovies. Of course, you can eat them straight out of the jar or tin, but sadly this is totally lost on me as a non-fish-lover. I use them when I need a secret weapon to add a boost of umami to dressings, dips, and sauces (when you sauté them in a little oil they melt away, leaving behind their explosive flavor). The little cured fish can truly transform a dish without adding fishy flavor — if you use the right kind. I recommend the Merro oil-packed anchovies from Sicily, but the ones from Agostino Recca are also a solid option.

Credit: Riddley Schirm

5. Sea Salt Flakes

Sure, every kitchen has salt. Kosher and table salt each have a place in cooking, and I recommend having both on hand. And another true delight to consider stocking at home is flake salt. Rather than stirring it into a recipe, this is finishing salt to sprinkle on top of a dish. Its crunchy texture gives salt a whole different dimension — one that’s especially irresistible on desserts, like anything with caramel or chocolate ganache, or chocolate chip cookies. It gives your treats that salty-sweet dimension and it looks pretty, too.

Buy: Maldon Sea Salt Flakes, $5.54 for 8.5 ounces at Amazon

6. Bittersweet Chocolate Baking Bars

Chocolate chips are plentiful in my pantry at all times, but I also learned about the importance of stocking chocolate bars for baking.

You can generally get better-quality chocolate in bar form and it doesn’t have the extra ingredients often found in chocolate chips that make them waxier in texture and less intense in flavor. When making pots de crème or other silky chocolate desserts, bar chocolate is a must. My favorite bar for baking is readily available in grocery stores: Ghiradelli Premium Baking 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate.

Buy: Ghiradelli Premium Baking 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate, $2.59 for 4 ounces at Instacart

Credit: Shutterstock/urbanbuzz

7. Corn Syrup

Corn syrup is not the same thing as high-fructose corn syrup (the ingredient found in many sodas and processed foods) and can be extremely helpful in baking. This invert sugar extends the shelf life of pastries, helps baked goods stay moist, and inhibits crystallization, which translates to smoother candies, icings, ganache, ice cream, and more. Basically, it does things granulated sugar can’t.

Buy: Karo Light Corn Syrup, $4.89 for 16 ounces at Instacart

What are some of your favorite grocery staples? Tell us in the comments below.