No matter their size, we use them all: Thick asparagus can be roasted or grilled yet remain juicy. Medium-size, peeled and blanched spears are lovely as a simply dressed side dish. Pencil-thin asparagus stays crisp as a last-minute add to stir-fries.


Even when there’s so much of it around, we can still find new ways to deploy green zucchini and yellow squash. Experts agree: Refrigerate it unwashed – preferably not in the crisper drawer -- and rinse just before using.

Fennel bulb

Its sweet, mild anise flavor is unmistakable, and its firm texture holds up even when sliced thin and tossed with a dressing. Use it raw and cooked; when stems are attached, reserve them for making aromatic broths. The lacy fronds can stand in for a fresh dill garnish.

Ginger root

This zippy fresh ingredient will breathe life and aroma into vegetable stir-fries, hot soups, sauces, dressings and more. It can be refrigerated for a few weeks or frozen for a few months. Choose a smooth-skinned, moist-looking knob of it, and scrape the peel off with a spoon.


Finely grated zest and juice of lemons, limes and oranges can brighten almost anything you cook (and drink). They can last for a few weeks in the fridge. Those fruits’ flesh, as well as grapefruit, are equally great in sweet and savory dishes and salads.

Fresh herbs

Fresh parsley (grassy), basil (sweet and slightly licorice-y), thyme (mildly floral) and rosemary (piney) add color, texture and aroma. Wrap herbs with woody stems in a paper towel inside an open zip-top bag; stand herbs with tender stems in a jar with a little water and cover loosely with plastic.


They provide crunch and color when raw; they add a sweetness to soups and sauces when cooked and pureed. Go for full-size rather than “baby” carrots (which aren’t really young, just machine-whittled); you can scrub rather than peel.


You know it as a crisp snack with a swoosh of peanut butter and a flavor note in basic broths. But try adding its leaves to your favorite salad or roasting its long ribs in the oven.


It’s okay to refrigerate grape and cherry tomatoes, which are typically ripe and ready to go at your grocer. Stash these small guys on the door or in the warmest part of your fridge.


These are sometimes called green onions, and it’s hard to think of a Latin or Asian dish that can’t be improved by a handful of them, thinly sliced for maximum crunch.


Red means ripe, and sweet, while most jalapeños are sold green and can have varying levels of heat. Char or roast red bell peppers or jalapeños, then cover them so they steam, and you will be able to discard their tough skins.

Salad greens

Always rinse before using. If they look a bit wilted, soak them in cool water for 5 minutes, then dry in a salad spinner. When you can, buy whole heads, because the greens will stay fresher longer.


Russets are big with starchy interiors, Yukon or Dutch gold are small, thin-skinned and yellow-fleshed. To prolong their shelf life, store them away from onions (they release gases that make each other spoil faster).

Whole garlic

Choose heads whose papery skins are tight, with no green shoots at the top. We opt for garlic not grown in China, due to pesticide concerns. Store in a dry place, and use up a whole head before breaking into a new one.


White onions are used most often in Mexican cuisine and are sharp-tasting when raw; yellow are all-purpose; red onions' outer layers can be tough but the overall flavor is mild; shallots are small, with more complex flavor.

Green peas

Trust us, there are many more ways to enjoy them than cooking them in water or butter. Bonus: A frozen bagful makes an instantly handy cold pack for an innocent bump or scrape.


Frozen corn off the cob can taste as sweet and crisp as fresh corn does. Pick bags that feel like there are loose kernels inside rather than clumps; the latter can indicate freezer burn (loss of moisture). Shelf life: Up to 1 year, well sealed.

Green beans

Whether they are regular or thin (haricots verts), cook them in a little boiling water instead of a lot; this will get them done faster and retain more nutrients. Same goes for the effects of freezer burn; see CORN.


There is hardly a spice or fresh herb that doesn't go well with these prepped, frozen leaves. Buy frozen spinach in bags rather than 10-ounce frozen blocks, for ease of use.

Ground Cardamom

Although we prefer to keep whole pods on hand, ground cardamom comes in handy when you have minutes to assemble a spice mixture. It can go sweet as well as savory, and figures in several cuisines.

Black peppercorns

Start with whole and grind for maximum flavor. Black pepper doesn't always have to be used in tandem with salt, but if it is, you can simplify your cooking by combining them in a pinch bowl first.


Coarse kosher salt can be used for cooking as well as a finishing flourish, while fine sea salt may have a more mineral flavor that compliments seafood (often gray in color if not refined).

Chili powder

All-purpose and available in most food stores, this ground spice can be a blend of sweet and spicy dried peppers (and sometimes other spices) that’s good for general seasoning and for making chili. It won’t lose color, but it will lose some potency after 1 year.


Think of the sweet variety as a pure, one-pepper ground spice that is often used to add warm color to a dish. The smoked kind (a.k.a. pimenton) is Spanish, typically dried over a wood fire, and can be sweet or hot and spicy. It's quite potent.


Ground cinnamon will retain its aroma long after its flavor has diminished a bit; try to replace your stash after a year. In stick form, we prefer the brands that are softer and not so tightly rolled.


This is the seed that smells and tastes earthy and a bit gritty, used in Mexican, Middle Eastern and Indian cooking. (If you don’t care for the flavor, you can spot it at 1/8 teaspoon.) We’re stocking it ground, for convenience.

Dried oregano

Choose brands that feature visible, chopped dried herbs instead of ground powder. Use either a Mediterranean oregano (Greek or Turkish) or a Mexican one; the latter might have citrus notes as well.

Crushed red pepper flakes

This is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get spice; if you bought small dried red chile peppers, then stemmed and crushed them into small bits, with their seeds, you could make your own. A small pinch goes a long way (a.k.a. chile flakes).

Garlic powder

Granulated has a slightly coarser texture (less likely to clump in liquids), and we like it for rubs and spice blends. Use it and the powder sparingly, as both are potent players made from dehydrated garlic cloves.

Onion flakes

You guessed it — the flakes are dehydrated onions, and particularly useful for adding oniony essence without adding fresh onions' moisture. What would Everything Bagel Spice or onion dip be without it?


A good version of this increasingly popular Middle Eastern spice blend will have discernible bits of sesame seed and dried thyme, plus ground sumac and maybe dried citrus zest or dill. You can DIY your own blend.

Celery seed

This is an unheralded spice that is essential for making potato salad, spice rubs for grilled meats (best to grind it first for those) and for any quick-pickling.


Whether you prefer the real thing or its turkey alternative, a smoky bacon imparts unmistakable flavor, aroma and texture. We’ll use it sparingly, so if you have the time, wrap 2-slice portions in plastic wrap and gather in a ziptop bag, for stashing in the freezer.

Flank steak

This primal cut of beef is lean, which can translate to tough when you don’t cut it right (against the clearly visible grain). It is also relatively inexpensive. When you bring it home, transfer the meat to a zip-top bag, add a little oil and herbs, seal and freeze. It will marinate as it defrosts.

Chicken breasts and thighs

With just these two cuts in the freezer, countless quick dinners are possible. Unless they come vacuum-packed, take the time to wrap the boneless, skinless breasts and bone-in, skin-on thighs individually and then seal in a large zip-top bag.

Ground turkey

We like dark-meat ground turkey, because it is moister than white-meat ground turkey. You'll reduce unsaturated fat intake by using lean ground turkey instead of lean ground beef.


Expert advice says you can cook and bake straight from frozen fillets (cod or other white-fleshed, mild-tasting fish), which certainly is a boon for cooks in a hurry. When you can, buy fillets that are vacuum-packed.


Purchase skinned, center-cut fillets in 1-pound pieces when you can, for best recipe flexibility. Wrap in plastic wrap and freeze for 2 to 4 months. Look for salmon labeled as wild-caught or responsibly farmed.


Year after year, this is America's most popular seafood. The most versatile kind to keep on hand is U.S. wild-caught, shell-on, raw and deveined -- preferably 21-to-25-count in size.


It is a workhorse in the kitchen and takes to freezing well if you don’t eat it that often. Buy an unsliced loaf from your favorite store or bakery, for maximum flexibility, and carve it up into portions.

Corn tortillas

A world of tacos and oven-baked crispy strips opens up when you have these versatile six-inch rounds on hand. Check freshness dates on the package before you buy, and keep in mind that locally made brands might just taste better than mass-produced commercial ones.


Cooking time and texture corresponds to size: Basmati and other long-grain rice will yield separate, firm pieces; arborio and other short grains will be moist and mushy. Instant brown rice is convenient and healthful.

Dried pasta

Some hold their shape or hold sauces better than others, so keep them all on hand: vermicelli, fettuccine or pappardelle, macaroni or other small shapes, wide egg noodles, quick-cooking or pearl couscous.


This is sold mostly as coarsely ground cornmeal, although it can be made with semolina wheat. Serve as a soft, warm, savory porridge and top it, or chill till firm and grill, bake or pan-fry it.


Nutrient-filled and less starchy than rice, this good and complete source of protein can be cooked in a batch and frozen for up to a year. Pronounce it KEEN-wah, and rinse it first to get rid of a bitter edge.


This has more texture than regular dried bread crumbs and tends to absorb less fat. But it doesn't brown that quickly when used as a baked topping, so we like to toast it in a skillet first with a little butter or oil.

Dried lentils

They are multipurpose! Green lentils hold their shape when cooked and taste a bit peppery, brown lentils are quick-cooking (30 minutes max) and available, red lentils break down easily and make great thickeners.


Grill it, stuff it, crisp it in the oven, tear it into croutons or soak it a la French toast: This is the bread you can always work with. For best quality, take the time to wrap each one individually, then gather in a zip-top bag for freezing.

Unsalted butter

Although you might be used to keeping salted butter around, this one allows for greater control over the amount of sodium you cook and bake with. Look for U.S. Grade AA on the label, for best quality.


Wrapped well, a craggy chunk of this salty hard cheese can be refrigerated for months. Grate it, shave it with a vegetable peeler and toss the rinds into soups for added flavor. It even works for many lactose-intolerant individuals.


You’ll find uses for all three of these dairy products -- yogurt, sour cream and half-and-half -- whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner. They add tanginess, creaminess and richness. Low-fat versions are okay, but you can skip the nonfat ones.


Large is the default size used most often in recipes; refrigerate them in their carton at the back of the fridge rather than in the egg holder on the door (where temperature changes can affect their shelf life and flavor).

Canned legumes

These are all handy sources of protein: Cannellini beans are creamy and mild, chickpeas add texture and offer a quick route to homemade hummus, black (turtle) beans are firm and meaty.

Canned tuna

Check sustainability ratings and look for "albacore" on the label. We prefer the flavor and nutrients of the fish that is oil-packed.

Canned whole tomatoes

They come peeled and are generally more tender than canned diced tomatoes. Choose no-salt-added, when you can find them, and use the juices from the can, too. Fire-roasted tomatoes add a smokiness.

Coconut milk

Rely on this canned, non-refrigerated liquid for cooking and baking. Aroy-D brand is well blended, mild in flavor and our favorite for general use and as a dairy substitute.


Sesame seed paste looms large in Middle Eastern cooking and often makes a fine substitute for peanut butter in saucy recipes. A good brand should be creamy and nutty-tasting, and no traditional hummus should be without it. It’s always a good idea to stir before using.

Prepared mustards

Save the yellow squeeze-bottle kind for hot dogs; true Dijon mustard is French and multipurpose. Whole-grain or coarse mustards offer more of a sweet-sour balance with a touch of brown sugar -- and texture.

Fish sauce

This fermented Asian condiment can be used instead of Worcestershire sauce and adds an umami-quality richness. It does not have to be refrigerated, but Red Boat, a brand we like, recommends it. Shelf life: 1 year.

Tomato paste

Buy this pure, concentrated goodness in a tube for per-tablespoon convenience. It can be refrigerated for months and used to build a sauce and is not sweet like ketchup.


You had it on hand already, right? A squirt is no substitute for tomato paste in most recipes, but it will add sweetness and spice. Keep it refrigerated, because modern ketchup is often made with fewer preservatives.


This Asian condiment is salty-sweet, glossy and thick; brush it on where teriyaki is called for. If you find its flavor too intense, try diluting it with water or a neutrally flavored oil.


A workhorse condiment that stretches further than you may realize, mayo has a "best-used by" refrigerated shelf life of 4 months or so. Unless you use it often, you may want to buy it in small quantities.


Vegetable oil is neutrally flavored and good for basic cooking; extra-virgin olive oil can be grassy or buttery, for cooking and dressings; toasted sesame oil is nutty and assertive -- an Asian ally.


Having chicken and vegetable broths is invaluable for soups, stews and sauces. Choose no-salt-added concentrates (refrigerate after opening) and liquids to control flavor and sodium intake.


Red wine vinegar lends deep acidity and tartness, champagne vinegar works for dressings and quick-pickling, balsamic vinegar's sweetness works in savory and sweet preparations.

Hot sauces

Mere drops of a thin, Louisiana-style hot sauce can perk up almost any savory dish or dip, while Sriracha-type hot sauce adds complexity and texture to Asian and Indian foods.

Soy sauce

This soybean-based condiment has been used for centuries. Look for "naturally brewed" on the label. Low-sodium can be up to 40 percent less salty, and a good brand of tamari should be wheat-free.


Choose your favorite based on color and personal taste: Darker ones often have a stronger and distinctive flavor. A mere teaspoon can correct a vinaigrette that's too sharp-tasting.

Apricot jam

This fruit flavor is especially versatile, often used as a glaze and a sweetener. (It's a go-to for chef Jacques Pepin.) A commercially made jam can be refrigerated for up to a year.


The default is unbleached, all-purpose. If you don't use it much, store it in a zip-top bag in the freezer -- you can use it chilled in just about any recipe. Do not keep seasoned flour that you have used with raw chicken or fish.


Granulated sugar is refined; organic cane sugar is less refined and a worthy stand-in. Light brown sugar has a light coating of molasses. Confectioners’ (powdered or icing) sugar is for dusting and frostings.

Unsweetened cocoa powder

You'll find it labeled either natural or Dutch-process; the latter means it has been treated to be less acidic. We like it in savory recipes as well as sweet. Stir into hot milk with sugar to make hot chocolate.

Baking soda

This is a long-lasting mineral (sodium bicarbonate) that produces carbon dioxide gas when combined with an acidic ingredient; then it acts as a leavener. It also helps baked goods brown.

Baking powder

To add an element of confusion, this white powder has baking soda in it, plus a powdered acid such as cream of tartar, and sometimes cornstarch. It needs some type of moisture to activate it. Baked goods recipes often call for both.

Golden raisins

These are juicier than dark raisins because they are treated with sulfur dioxide and dried differently. It's always a good idea to plump them up briefly in hot water or a liqueur, then drain and dry before cooking or baking.

Nuts + seeds

For a wide range of uses, keep these on hand: whole cashews and pine nuts, walnut and pecan halves, blanched or sliced almonds. A few minutes of toasting brings out their flavors. Store them in the freezer. Buy roasted/toasted sesame seeds -- a timesaver.

About this story

Design and development by Jake Crump and Amanda Soto. Photos by Matt McClain/The Washington Post; food styling by Amanda Soto, Jennifer Beeson Gregory, Tanya Sichynsky, and Matt Brooks. Fennel bulb, ginger root, flank steak, tahini, and corn tortillas photos by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky. Photo editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory.


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