10 Packaged, Store-Bought Foods That Chefs Use to Make Healthy and Flavorful Meals
Professional chefs share the packaged grocery store items that they rely on for robust and nutritious home cooking.
When we think about the food items beloved by professional chefs, we often assume that these culinary maestros prefer to make everything from scratch and would never consider picking up a packaged veggie medley or a jarred sauce from the grocery store. However, plenty of chefs adhere to the rule made famous by the Barefoot Contessa herself, Ina Garten: "Store-bought is fine." We asked a group of 13 chefs to share their all-time favorite packaged supermarket finds, and they provided us with this list of 10 items well worth a spot on your grocery list.
Jarred Marinara Sauce
Some Italian nonnas and high-falutin sauciers will tell you that jarred marinara sauce isn't a smart purchase, since a simple marinara is "so easy to make at home." And it's true, marinara only requires a small handful of ingredients and isn't especially work-intensive. That said, making your own marinara is definitely a time-consuming process, and if you're in a hurry to put a flavorful and nutritious meal on your table, then the jarred stuff can prove very helpful, especially if you're discerning about your preferred brands.
Jamie Hunt, a cooking instructor and private chef whose past celebrity clients include Alicia Keys and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, vouches for the popular Rao's brand of jarred sauce, telling us that "I like to combine Rao's Marinara and Rao's Basil Tomato Sauce to make an assortment of easy [and] healthy meals, [like] chicken or eggplant Parmesan, stuffed turkey bell peppers, or fresh cauliflower pizza. The seasonings in both are spot-on, and minimal enhancement is needed to pull off the perfect meal!"
Pesto, a sauce almost entirely made of fresh herbs, might seem like a surprising candidate for a chef's favorite packaged food. But Bianca Osborne, a Toronto-based chef, TV cooking expert, and the host of the "On My Plate" podcast, says the following in support of her beloved jarred pesto:
"One of my favorite store bought items is jarred pesto; it can be so many things, from tasty vinaigrettes to flavor-packed marinades. Jarred pesto is clutch when it comes to making healthy, delicious, and easy meals come together without too much effort. Jarred pesto comes under fire for lacking freshness, but it's the perfect base to make delicious meals. Consider the pesto a blank canvas that you can shape shift based on how you jazz it up, with things like herbs, spices, citrus zest, nuts and seeds—the options are endless."
Seasoned Rice and Grain Packets
Store-bought rice packets with seasonings included have come a long way from the old Rice-a-Roni days; shoppers can now find nutritious, organic versions of these products that still deliver on the quick-dinner front. Chef and recipe developer Gita Kshatriya, of Warrior in the Kitchen, gives a particular shout-out to Seeds of Change Organic Brown Rice & Quinoa With Garlic, explaining that "[these parcels are] so handy and versatile on busy weeknights. By simply microwaving a packet for 90 seconds and adding vegetables, herbs, and spices, I can create a well-balanced meal for the family in minutes! Not only is it well-balanced and quick, but I can offer variety by changing up the spices and seasonings I [add] to make [the rice packet] Indian, Mexican, Italian, Fusion, Asian, Mediterranean, etcetera. The possibilities are endless!"
The pre-blended packets and jars available in the spice aisle of the grocery store eliminate the need to painstakingly measure dried herbs and spices in order to effectively season a dish, and many chefs find themselves eager to accept the ease and simplicity provided by these products.
Chef Xavier Vance, owner of Vance Events in Chicago, Illinois, swears by Cajun seasoning blends, insisting that they "can spice up any healthy dish and provide a new flavor profile. Cajun seasoning can be folded seamlessly into sauces, [can] serve as a dry rub, [and can] add depth to soups or stews."
Chef and recipe developer Jessica Formicola of Savory Experiments considers store-bought onion soup mix a must-buy because "[it's] one of the most versatile spice blends out there and, for less than $1 per packet, how can you go wrong? I use it for elevating gravies and sauces, as a marinade for roasted vegetables, and for seasoning meats and seafood."
Stir-fry Noodle Kits
An especially popular item among Trader Joe's devotees, the Vegetable and Soba Noodle Stir-Fry Kit gets a ringing endorsement from executive chef Zach Spott of Green Seed Market in Denver, Colorado: "With this handy-dandy package from Trader Joe's, dinner can be a breeze! I like to start by softening the noodles with some warm water, and then I let them chill in the fridge with a touch of sesame oil. To make the stir fry, I add a little bit of oil to a hot pan, then I sauté the veggies included in the kit, along with some more hearty veggies like bell peppers, carrots, and cauliflower. Once they cook to the desired texture, I set them aside and allow to them cool slightly. I'll then take my chilled noodles and toss them in the soy-ginger sauce dressing included in the kit, to which I like to add some fresh herbs, a little rice vinegar, and a touch of sambal chili paste. After tossing the noodles, I plate them in a bowl and top with the sautéed vegetables, sesame seeds, lime, and peanuts."
Making nut butter from scratch certainly isn't an impossibility (as long as you have a strong food processor ready to do the job), but it's also far from the easiest way to get that creamy, nutty goodness. Luckily, both co-owner and executive chef Cesar Zapata of Phuc Yea in Miami, Florida and acclaimed New York chef (and "Iron Chef America" alum) David Burke agree that store-bought nut butter is a very reasonable move for even the most ambitious of home cooks.
Burke unabashedly loves classic jarred peanut butter, telling us that " [I love it] for its flavor, its texture and price. Desserts are an obvious use, especially with chocolate, but peanut butter doesn't have to be relegated to [dessert alone]. It's a great melder of hot and sweet for palate-teasing hors d'oeuvres, like my Peanut Butter and Jalapeño Stuffed Dates Wrapped in Bacon."
As for Zapata, he prefers almond butter to peanut butter, and Barney Butter Smooth Almond Butter is his brand of choice. "I decided to switch to almond butter since it contains more vitamins, minerals, and fiber than peanut butter. I love to spread [it] on rice cakes, raw vegetables, and add it to my workout smoothies. I also like to use this almond butter specifically to make energy bites—I mix it in with chia seeds, flax seeds, rolled oats, coconut, dark chocolate chips, and honey, then roll them into bite-sized balls for a perfect, healthy snack that satisfies my sweet tooth," says Zapata.
Tahini, a savory paste made from sesame seeds, appears throughout Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines, and this versatile ingredient bears many similarities to its close cousin, nut butter. One notable similarity involves the fact that both nut butter and tahini can be made from scratch, but can also be obtained at a grocery store without compromising on quality.
Chef Byron Halliburton of SoBou in New Orleans, Louisiana has great esteem for store-bought tahini's kitchen-workhorse nature, telling us that "tahini is a tasty and easy way to add powerful antioxidants and healthy fats to your diet, as well as several vitamins and minerals. It also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and may reduce risk factors for heart disease. Try using tahini in a salad dressing made with yogurt or make a quick dipping sauce with tahini, lemon juice, and garlic. It's great to use as a glaze for fish by adding it to soy sauce and coating grilled salmon. The can also be used anywhere one would use peanut butter. Try toasted bread topped with tahini, mashed bananas, and fruit jelly!"
Fried Garlic Chips
A product commonly found in Asian markets, fried garlic chips are the grocery store "secret weapon" used by owner Uno Immanivong of Red Stix Street Food in Dallas, Texas. "A secret arsenal in my cooking is Asian fried garlic chips. I prefer the Pandan brand of fried garlic chips over the minced one at local grocers because of their light, almost snowflake-like quality. I use them to garnish dishes like dumplings or fried wings and even as part of a dish like shrimp scampi, butter garlic pasta, and crab fried rice. They have a delicate flavor and crisp texture; a quick addition [will] level up any recipe," Immanivong says.
When it comes to kitchen time-savers, it's hard to beat the straightforward convenience of frozen vegetables. Pre-washed, pre-cut, and pre-peeled, these bags rescue home cooks from the drudgery of prep work, and if you're repurposing your veggies to play larger roles in your dinner spread (as you would with cauliflower rice or cauliflower pizza), then the ease of opening a bag of frozen, pre-grated cauliflower is beyond appealing.
"One of my favorite healthy store-bought packaged ingredients is frozen cauliflower rice! It's nutritious, low-carb, low-calorie, and incredibly versatile. Whether making a low-carb fried rice, topping it with your favorite burrito bowl toppings, using it to add veggies to any smoothie, blending it up with other veggies to make creamy vegetable soups, or serving it topped with curry sauce….. It's always delicious, quick to prepare, and super filling. I always keep a few packs in the fridge!" says chef, influencer, and cookbook author Jillian Glenn insists.
Portland, Oregon-based chef (and contestant on the upcoming season of Bravo's "Top Chef") Sara Hauman also makes full use of frozen veggies, calling out the "frozen vegetable medley" as a particular fave. "I add frozen vegetables to soups, fried rice, and even omelettes or frittatas. Add frozen vegetables at the end of your cooking process and just warm through to maintain a little crunch. The key is to cook the frozen veggies as quickly as possible, since they have already been cooked," says Hauman.
That's right: There are indeed professional chefs who think that it's perfectly fine to buy dried pasta at the grocery store rather than making your own fresh version. Chef Erik Pettersen, owner of Evo Italian in Tequesta, Florida, counts himself among this group, but he does have some strict limitations to his "dried pasta is okay" philosophy. "You don't need to make pasta from scratch if you get high quality pasta. I import my pasta from Italy. You can pair store-bought pasta with homemade sauce and homemade meatballs to add your signature flavor and a personal touch to the meal," Pettersen explains. If you're looking for an extra boost of healthy whole grains, choose whole wheat pasta for you next meal.