15 Greek Pantry Essentials
Chances are your pantry is already stocked with much of what you need to prepare many Greek dishes in your own kitchen. Let's look at the essential everyday ingredients used in Greek cuisine.
Olive oil is the foundation of Greek cuisine. You simply cannot cook Greek food without olive oil. Contrary to myths you may hear, you can indeed cook with olive oil, and Greeks typically cook with extra virgin at that! Good quality extra virgin olive oil has a relatively high smoke point of up to 410 degrees F and can be used for everything from sautéing to deep frying.
Keep in mind that all oil will smoke if heated high enough; the key to prevent olive oil from smoking is to cook at a consistent heat and to buy good-quality oil. As the North American Olive Oil Association explains: “Extra virgin olive oils contain polyphenols and antioxidants that fight the breakdown of the oil and the formation of free radicals. Because of this, extra virgin olive oil often holds up longer and better than other oils at moderate cooking temperatures.”
Dried Greek Oregano
Called rigani in Greek, oregano grows wild throughout Greece and is used in a variety of Greek dishes. Don’t worry about making a special trip to the store for fresh oregano, however; dried oregano is what is typically called for in Greek recipes—everything from patates lemonates (roast lemon potatoes) to horiatiki salata (the famous Greek salad).
When buying dried oregano, keep in mind that there are different varieties that possess unique tastes. The two broad categories of oregano are Mediterranean and Mexican, and sub-types include Greek, Italian, and Turkish. You can certainly get away with whichever type of oregano you already have in your cupboard, but for truly authentic Greek flavor, it is worth seeking out dried Greek oregano at a local spice shop or online.
Feta cheese is the national cheese of Greece and has P.D.O. (Protected Destination of Origin) status—meaning that within the European Union only feta cheese produced in Greece can be called ‘feta’. This ancient cheese features prominently in many classic Greek dishes, such as spanakopita (spinach pie) and tyrokafteri (a spicy feta spread). It’s a mainstay in most Greek households and is served on the side of many meals, especially vegetarian dishes.
Stocking feta cheese in your fridge is worry-free, thanks to the fact that it will last weeks, even months, when stored in brine. For authentic Greek meals at home, be sure to seek out Greek feta sold in tubs—this means it will come in its own brine, and you can keep it in the refrigerator for seemingly forever (though it’ll never last that long!). By law, Greek feta is made with sheep’s and goat’s milk, which makes for a creamier texture than domestic and Danish versions made with cow’s milk.
Related: Find out how to make your own feta cheese.
Dried legumes star in several Greek dishes, including gigantes (baked giant beans), fakes (lentil soup), fasolada (white bean soup), and fava (yellow split pea puree). Keeping dried beans in your pantry means that you can cook authentically Greek even if the fridge is practically empty, as most bean and lentil dishes call for just a few other everyday ingredients.
A little-known fact: Greece consumes more pasta per capita than most other countries in the world, with only three consuming more pasta than Greeks! Pastitsio and Yiouvetsi are perhaps the most famous Greek pasta dishes, but pasta is also served as a side to many others, such as xtapodi kokkinisto (octopus in red sauce) and, similarly, kotopoulo kokkinisto (chicken in red sauce).
Tomato paste and puree
Tomatoes lay the foundation for the majority of Greek dishes. Fresh tomatoes are indeed delicious—such as in kagianas (scrambled eggs and tomatoes) and garithes saganaki (shrimp saganaki)—but preserved tomatoes are often used, along with tomato paste. For authentic Greek flavor, buy a double-concentrated tomato paste and choose tomato passata or strained tomatoes in jars or Tetra Paks over canned diced tomatoes (though the latter will always work in a pinch!).
Other Greek pantry staples:
- Bay leaves
- Cinnamon (ground and sticks)
- Red wine vinegar
- Rice (medium-grain)
- Dried fruits (golden raisins, figs, currants)
- Nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, sesame seeds)
- Canned fish (sardines, tuna)
- Olives (Kalamata and others)