Chefs and Food Pros Reveal the 12 Pantry Staples That Got Them Through the Pandemic
Home cooks weren't the only ones finding a new appreciation for some reliable shelf-stable foods during the long days of the pandemic. Here, 12 chefs share the ones they turned to time and time again.
The pandemic pushed home cooks and expert chefs alike to make the most of what they had on-hand in the kitchen. Amid shortages and reduced shopping trips, "pantry staples" became more essential than ever, and plenty of culinary mavens discovered a newfound appreciation for these foods they once took for granted.
We asked a group of pro chefs, recipe developers, and food bloggers for the pantry goods that they couldn't do without during quarantines and shutdowns, and they offered up these 12 easily-found, shelf-stable foods that belong on your next grocery list.
1. Panko Bread Crumbs
Lightweight and ultra-crunchy panko bread crumbs were a true pandemic pantry workhorse for Atlanta-based chef and cookbook author Jennifer Hill Booker, who tells us that "Panko can amp the flavor and texture of an average dish like pasta, roasted chicken, chops, and burgers; can add extra crunch to roasted veggies and casseroles; and are a nice base for fried eggs."
She continues, "I find that panko bread crumbs don't get soggy when used on meat dishes or need much oil to get crisp and brown, which makes them my go-to for chicken and salmon croquettes."
2. Elbows Pasta
While stuck at home during pandemic shutdowns, recipe developer Rowena Murakami of Tiny Kitchen Divas frequently reached for a box of pasta, and she cites the elbow shape as a particular favorite.
"I always have pasta in my kitchens, both at home and at work. It's versatile, easy to prepare, and has a long shelf life. The Barilla Elbows Pasta is one of my favorites. As with most Barilla pastas, it develops a good bite and holds flavors well," says Murakami.
3. Dry Polenta
"I really love having Golden Pheasant Dry Polenta in my pantry," chef/owner Colin Smith of Roundabout Catering in Reno, Nev. tells Allrecipes. "During COVID, we were not running to the store all the time, so the polenta gave me breakfast, lunch, and dinner versatility."
Smith continues, "I would make chorizo and green onion grits and serve them with fried eggs and pico di gallo. I would make polenta cakes for lunch and serve those with a simple, fresh tomato sauce. For dinner, I would make creamy Parmesan polenta with braised short ribs. I'd also make sweet corn cakes with ricotta and baked apples throughout the pandemic. It's a very versatile ingredient overall, and not just for dishes in a restaurant!"
4. Mac and Cheese
The boxed mac and cheese from Annie's is an undeniable cult classic, and chef and recipe developer Jessica Randhawa of The Forked Spoon leaned on this item for meal-prep support while feeding her family during the pandemic.
"With my six-year-old son home full time, as his school was closed, I quickly learned that having fast and easy pantry meals for him was key for my family to maintain a sane household. I found that having Annie's Mac and Cheese always on hand was essential for a fast pantry-to-bowl meal that was always going to be a hit. I also would add frozen peas into the mac and cheese when heating up the cheese sauce, to make sure that he got some vegetables with the grains and proteins already in the box," Randhawa explains.
5. Vegetable-Based Rice
"Early on in the pandemic, just like everyone else, I was exploring and experimenting in the kitchen, cooking tons, and always coming up with new recipes. But after a few months, that started to get exhausting, even for me. Frankly, it was nearly a year before we ate a meal outside of the house."
He continues, "RightRice, a rice alternative made from vegetables that's ready in about 10 minutes, was a perfect pantry staple to always have on hand to make a quick, delicious, healthy meal, from risotto to 'rice salad' to rice and eggs."
6. Soup Mix Packets
A standard item found in Filipino households, Knorr Tamarind Soup Mix is "primarily used as a soup base for Sinigang [a stew made with pork, vegetables, and sometimes seafood]," insists co-owner and chef Phillip Esteban of White Rice in San Diego, Calif.
During the pandemic, however, Esteban got creative with the Knorr Tamarind Soup Mix and found some tasty new uses for this flavorful product: "I adapted this as a spice rub for Smoked Tamarind Chicken Wings! I first brine the wings for 2 hours, then strain and let them air dry in the refrigerator overnight. This allows the skin to lose moisture to have a crisper texture. I use the Knorr Tamarind Soup Mix Packet as a dry rub and smoke the wings in a Traeger Grill for 45 minutes at 225 degrees F. Then increase the heat to 400 degrees F for an additional 15 to 20 minutes to crisp up the skin."
7. Chili Crisp
"This stuff works wonders on anything and everything. If you want to spice anything up with a huge amount of flavor, try this guy instead of any other hot sauce. My go-to meal is noodles, scallions, cubed chicken, and some of the chili crisp. GAME CHANGER," Ahn assures us.
8. Dried Mushrooms
Chef/instructor Jennifer Kempin of the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts praises Pistol River Mixed Wild Dried Mushrooms as a multitasking wonder product (and, therefore, an item that really came in handy throughout the pandemic).
Kempin tells Allrecipes, "I use Pistol River mixed wild mushrooms. They are easy to find and fairly inexpensive. I loved having them during the stay-in place orders. They allowed me to make several dishes throughout the weeks with only one bag."
"Not only are these really good for you and easy to find in most grocery stores, but when they are dried, they pack a ton of flavor and can last in an airtight container for a really long time. They can be used to make risotto, rice, warm salads, rehydrated and chopped for vegan patties, pulverized and made into a dry rub for beef creating a delicious crust full of umami, and even breakfast as a side for congee. Don't forget that the liquid that is used to rehydrate them can be used as stock and flavoring, especially for vegan and vegetarian items," says Kempin.
9. Chicken Base
"During the pandemic, it was crucial for me and my family to stay away from highly populated places like supermarkets," explains executive chef Yasemis Gomez of Unit B Eatery Spirits in Pembroke Pines, Fla. Gomez goes on to say that "during [quarantine], I was only going to the supermarket once a month, so it was important that I got ingredients that were easy to store and cook. I also needed ingredients that could be used in multiple recipes, so my go-to ingredient was Better Than Bouillon Premium Roasted Chicken Base. It's an all-in-one seasoning base that can be used in soups, stews, and any savory food. It has endless possibilities, so it's still my favorite ingredient to use at home even now."
10. Anchovies in Olive Oil
A bit of salt and brine can do quite a lot to boost meal flavors, and because Don Bocarte Cantabrian Anchovies contain both, executive chef Ryan Hacker of Brennan's in New Orleans used them frequently while cooking over the last year.
"Anchovies, like the Don Bocarte Cantabrian Anchovies in Extra Virgin Olive Oil, are one of my favorite unexpected ingredient staples to have in my kitchen. A little anchovy can go a long way to add depth and complexity," Hacker tells us. "The briny punch of anchovies adds contrast and new layers of flavor to really elevate an otherwise simple dish. A classic application and one of my favorites at home is adding it to a Caesar Salad dressing."
"I doubled down on eating pita sandwiches during the pandemic, and the most important part (other than the bread) is the tahini," claims Jason Travi, Freshly's executive chef of innovation and a major fan of the nutty sesame paste that's so crucial to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking.
"I loved Soom brand tahini. They make a great product out of one ingredient, which is what tahini should be. Shopping in standard grocery stores usually gives you bad brands of tahini that have crazy long shelf lives or are made with inferior ingredients, so to be able to find Soom in my local grocery store was a relief. Tahini is for more than just pita and hummus, I use it to make homemade Middle Eastern style sesame candy called halva that brings me back to my childhood every time I try it," he says.
Related: 18 Tasty Recipes Starring Tahini
12. Canned Chickpeas
The convenience of high-quality canned chickpeas was a saving grace for chef and recipe developer Jason Goldstein of ChopHappy, who says that "canned chickpeas were so useful during the pandemic. I love Eden Organic. I made chickpea 'tuna' salad, chickpea fritters, and I even just coated plain chickpeas with olive oil and seasoning and toasted them until they were crunchy for a snack. They are versatile and have lots of protein. One can becomes a magical and easy dinner!"