Are you a self-proclaimed, bonafide foodie? Make sure you're pantry is stocked with these five culinary essentials in their most gourmet, healthy and pure of forms, and get one step closer to mastering your home chef skills. They’ll take your level 1 Home Cookery to level 3 Top Cheffery.
1) Sea salt
Whenever a dish is in need of flavor balancing, the answer is usually found in one of two ingredients — salt is the first. Why? It brings out a dish's flavors. How? Osmosis 101 (hello, chemistry drop-out!) reminds us that water flows to where it is less concentrated, and when salt is added to a food, water (and thus flavor essence) is inextricably drawn to it, bringing the flavors out of the food from whence it came. Thus, great flavors are born.
Of course, too much salt can simply make a dish, well, salty. Oh yes, throw away your table salt, your regular old iodized white salt, because it’s devoid of the 80-some magnificent trace minerals found in natural sea salt — such as potassium and magnesium, which also happen to stabilize blood pressure naturally… a reason why regular table salt contributes to high blood pressure, while sea salt may not. Pink Himalayan salt is even bettter!
The first thing to balance out a dish’s flavor is salt, but the second: acid. No, we’re not talking a psychedelic trip, we’re talking natural acidity. Vinegar, alcohol, juice and citruses all have this acidic pungency which balances a flavor’s tone, but lemon juice is usually the best choice. Lemon juice has the sharp acidity to bring out a food’s brightness and make flavors pop while still being gentle enough to consume raw, unlike some vinegars which are too biting. Fresh lemons should be kept on hand and used liberally. Not only do they make foods taste better, they also help to cut the fat. A squeeze of lemon juice over an oily fish, a meaty stir-fry, or a cheesy polenta lifts the heaviness of the food and actually helps your body digest fats. Pretty awesome. Get more idea for essential lemon uses here.
3) Pepper grinder
Yes, we too don’t like to waste, but here’s another thing that’s as good as garbage: the ground pepper in a shaker sitting in your cupboard. Using store-bought pepper that’s already ground and packaged (and is probably years old) is like buying a sandwich that’s already been masticated for you—yes, gross. What’s the point? Ground pepper is devoid of most any flavor, spice, pungency and (surprise!) trace minerals. Not unlike sea salt, whole peppercorns are rich with minerals like magnesium, calcium, iron and phosphorus — the more whole the peppercorn is when you take it home, the more minerals you’ll get on your plate once it’s ground fresh. Do yourself a favor and buy a pepper grinder and a small bag of whole peppercorns — your food will be finished with a rich, robust fullness and have a healthy kick of nutrients to boot.
4) Extra-virgin olive oil
Still scratching your head wondering what extra-virgin really means? Simply, it’s olive oil that’s been mechanically pressed from fresh olives without the use of harsh heat, or any solvents or additives; it’s like the first juice of olives. After that first pressing, the remaining “stuff” gets re-pressed, only using higher heat and a bit of additives — then you get “regular” olive oil. Then, a bit more heat, more additives, and you get “light” olive oil. The heat gets hotter and the solvents get more disgusting as you go down the line, until eventually you have “pomace” oil (please don’t eat this).
Getting to know extra-virgin olive oil is like getting to know wines; there are boundless varietals, seasons of harvest, different tasting notes, complexities, aromas… it’s a sensational ingredient. To be a true foodie, take a trek to Whole Foods or your local artisanal cheese/wine/butcher shop, and buy yourself a few bottles of authentic EVOO. Get one that’s bold and spicy, one that’s peppery, one that’s young and grassy — experiment with them in the kitchen, and you’ll know what true old-world cooking can be like. A drizzle on a salad, or over a fresh pizza, or over salted caramel ice cream — and you’re a regular born-again foodie.
It’s not nearly as romantic as olive oil, but it’s just as essential. Mustard’s magic is in its ability to emulsify things. Yes, emulsify; to make things bind together. When making mayonnaise, or a creamed sauce or a simple vinaigrette from scratch (which, as luck would have it, is made with all 5 essential ingredients included here!), mustard is a key ingredient for holding things together and making them cream up. And if you’re vegan, it’s even more essential, as egg yolks are the other thing that play such a role in the kitchen. With mustard on hand, you can make French sauces, Italian dressings and good ole American dips in a snap — learn more here.