Everyone has half a sack of flour and an old jar of vinegar on the shelf, but the truly creative home cook goes beyond the boring staples -- a few impressive ingredients can make a huge difference when meals need to be whipped up on the fly. We asked three professional chefs -- Thrillist's very own recipes editor Perry Santanachote, Dara Pollak of Skinny Pig NYC, and Jessica Maher of Metier Cook's Supply -- to share some of the ingredients that 1) they consider crucial, and 2) go way beyond a budget bottle of olive oil. Now would be a good time to start writing a grocery list...
Instead of reaching for butter or oil when cooking eggs, Perry always grabs her trusty jar of duck fat. It's a luxuriously rich starting point for almost any dish.
"Don't throw the juice out when you buy a jar of pickles," says Jessica. "The pickling liquid already has a lot going on with all of the spices in it. It makes for a really nice deglaze for vegetables like cauliflower and roasted vegetables and adds a nice bit of acid and depth. We also like to put it in chili."
Keeping a crisper full of jalapeños is an easy way to add spice to any dish, but the pro move is to go for rarer peppadew peppers, which Dara likes because they also add a sweetness that works well to upgrade snacks like cream cheese or milder cheddars.
Black peppercorn grinder
Most home cooks ignore the fact that spices have shelf lives. Ground pepper starts to lose its flavor after a few months, but peppercorns last much longer. An oversized pepper mill looks impressive, but Perry says that a cheap disposable one works just fine.
"We use it on cream of wheat, on top of pancakes instead of maple syrup, and in dressing. Dressing is also a great staple to make, we make ours with honey, garlic, mustard, lemon, salt, pepper, and olive oil," says Jessica.
The right oils
It's obviously important to have a decent bottle of olive oil, but it's worth mentioning because so few people know how to shop for it. With extra-virgin olive oil, go for a pricier bottle packaged in dark glass that's been cold pressed and states the origin and harvest date -- the more specific the better. Perry suggests also having a bottle of canola oil handy, because its flavor is more neutral and the high smoke point will keep it from burning as easily as EVOO.
In addition to saving pickle juice, Jessica also hangs on to those old jars of olives. "We like to use it when making mayonnaise and we put it in tuna salad so it has more of a Mediterranean taste," she says.
Peanut butter is one of those nostalgic staples that will always have a place in the kitchen, but the more mature move is to opt for the richer and nuttier flavors of almond butter. It turns fruit or oatmeal into a meal, but Dara says there's no shame in snacking on it straight out of the jar.
Nam pla prik or other Asian chili sauces
In addition to looking outside the Huy Fong box, Perry suggests exploring the greater realm of Asian hot sauces. You can't go wrong with sweet chili sauce or fermented gochujang, but for Thai cooking Perry always keeps a jar of nam pla prik handy.
Diverse soy sauces
Americans typically consider all soy sauces equally, but there's actually a diverse range of soy sauces on the market. Perry enjoys darker varieties because they're sweeter and thicker, but gluten-free tamari soy sauce is also worth a try.
First off, any cook will tell you that unsalted butter is the move since it allows for better control of sodium levels, but Perry upgrades it by batching compound butter to freeze for later. Her favorite is snail butter, the type of herbal garlicky condiment served alongside escargot. Just mix in lemon, garlic, capers, and some herbs, then freeze into cubes to use to finish steak or stuff into baked potatoes.
Chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
Anything you can pop right out of a can to improve other dishes is a boon to the home chef. A can of chipotle chiles in a savory adobo sauce can be thrown into just about anything, but Dara mixes it with sour cream or yogurt for a simple crema that she puts on tacos (and just about everything else).
Although you might not find it on the shelves of a regular grocery store, this acidic berry is a staple at Middle Eastern markets and one of Perry's favorite spices for its ability to add complexity to otherwise bland chicken dishes.
A sriracha other than Huy Fong
It's no secret that we love the cock, but just as there's more to the world of ketchup than just Heinz, different srirachas have unique flavor profiles. Dara is currently on a Fix kick for its slightly sweeter and more mild flavors, but it's worth branching out and taking home a bottle of another brand to test the differences.
It's not always the healthiest move to keep a pound of ripe bacon in the fridge, but it's fatty, salty flavors in dishes are unparalleled. The solution is a jar of bacon jam, which Dara uses religiously in everything from eggs to grilled cheese to burgers.
Although steak sauce is out of style, Worcestershire is alive and well. "This is my #1 ingredient for all things gravy," says Dara, who praises it for its ability to give the illusion that a sauce has been simmering for hours.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Dan Gentile is a staff writer at Thrillist. He is now putting duck fat in everything. Follow him to 10 extra pounds at @Dannosphere.