From pudding mix to saltines.

By Clarissa Buch
November 04, 2020
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Credit: Shutterstock / Pipas Imagery

No home kitchen is complete without these boxed ingredients, according to professional chefs around the country. From quick grits to onion soup mix, add one (or all) of these to your next shopping list and stay stocked up.

Cornflakes

“I have boxes of all sorts of things in my pantry, but I find cornflakes particularly useful. I often use them instead of cornbread in stuffing. Potato flakes are great for making rolls from scratch, too.” — Bruce Moffett, chef/owner of Moffett Restaurant Group

Brownie mix

“Sometimes you just want a taste of your childhood — something familiar, like a chocolate covered cherry from a yellow Whitman's chocolate box. The perfect way to recreate that nostalgic flavor is by elevating boxed brownie mix to make it something totally unique. I love to add maraschino cherries and cream cheese to Ghirardelli brownie mix for a creative twist on traditional boxed brownies that makes them feel homemade and special. Boxed brownie mix saves time and ensures you will have a consistently great end product. It also acts as a blank canvas to get totally creative with, too.” — Anna Francese Gass, author of Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories From The Tables of Immigrant Women

Ramen

“These are for the late nights when you get home after a long closing shift, and you’re craving umami. This fills the void easily.” — Randall Matthews, chef/partner of Ada’s on the River from Alexandria Partners Restaurant Group

Hurting and hungry? This quick soup, with a hearty mix of noodles, chicken, eggs and spicy Sriracha, is just what the doctor ordered.
| Credit: John Kernick

Quinoa

“You will always find boxes of quinoa in my pantry. I love to take leftover meats and veggies from the fridge, add a sauce (like This Little Goat Went To Southeast Asia), and make a quick stir-fry the next day over freshly cooked quinoa.” — Stephanie Izard, Food & Wine Best New Chef 2011; Top Chef, Iron Chef, and James Beard Award winner

Granola

“With high-fiber ingredients like oats and flax seeds, granola makes a delicious and healthy snack and can help reduce blood sugar. I love to mix with fruits, yogurt, or enjoy on top of one of an acai bowl. It’s also easy to grab and go if you're on the run.” — Mario Laufer, founder of Carrot Express

Quick grits

“I always have them around. For breakfast, lunch, or dinner, instead of using water when cooking them, I use half milk and half heavy cream for a much richer finished product. I also add butter and cheese, but that's just me.” — Scott Linquist, chef/partner of Coyo Taco

Credit: © Lucy Schaeffer

Graham crackers

“I don’t know any chefs that don’t have a box of graham crackers or crumbs. Not only do they make a great snack, but they also are crucial in making so many quick and easy desserts, various tarts, and pie crusts. The best is a glass of milk, a banana, and graham crackers.” —Lance Knowling, co-founder of Black Chef Series and Lance at Home 

Pudding mix

“The instant vanilla (or chocolate) pudding mix ensures that each batch of banana pudding will have the perfect flavor and consistency. This is an easy hack that makes for a dessert your guests won't be able to put down.” — Bobbie Lloyd, chief baking officer at Magnolia Bakery

Bucatini

“It's such a versatile pasta and keeping it in my pantry means that I can always whip up a simple, comforting dish with whatever ingredients we've got in the fridge.” — Camilla Marcus, chef/restauranteur of West~Bourne

Credit: © Abby Hocking

Beans

“I can make hummus, soup, and purée with dried beans. They are great to accompany almost anything — or even on their own as a bean-forward dish like red beans and rice.” — Mike DeCamp, chef of Jester Concepts

Panko

“I always have some panko in the pantry because it's the best all-around breadcrumb, whether it's for making meatballs, crusting a piece of fish for a quick pan-fry, or for topping off a casserole before baking for some quick texture.” — Nick Leahy, chef/partner, Nick's Westside 

Hondashi

“Hondashi comes in a powder form and is a great pantry staple for chefs. The strong flavor of the bonito and kombu mix add a certain depth of flavor to any sauce or stew, usually leaving the guest questioning how many hours it took to make such an amazing sauce." — Henry Hané, executive chef of My Ceviche, ZUUK Mediterranean Kitchen, Bebitos Café, and B Bistro Miami 

Recipe: Kamaboko Dip

Credit: Victor Protasio

Lipton’s onion soup mix and Hidden Valley dried ranch dressing

“Ok, so you can call me a shoemaker if you want to … but we all know what brisket would be like without that onion soup mix: drab. And a green goddess with avocados without a heavy pinch of that ranch dressing powder? Well, good but definitely not as good. I’m just saying …” — Michelle Bernstein, celebrity chef and owner of Café La Trova and Michelle Bernstein Catering

Bulgur

“I particularly love bulgur because it is native to my country, Turkey. I like to cook it in a little bit of butter with shallots, and, of course, finished off with sumac on top.” — Ehran Ozkaya, executive chef of Joia Beach

Rice

“It is very easy to prepare, and it has a long expiration period. It can be used as a side dish to accompany a protein; or simply add fresh vegetables to create your own at-home grain bowl. For example, simply add a little bit of puréed tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and fresh lime to create a Mexican rice.” — Jorge Gutierrez, chef of Lona Fort Lauderdale

Recipe: Yogurt Rice

Credit: Photo by Greg DuPree / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer

Japanese curry

“Because it’s just delicious!” — Jose Mendin, chef/owner of Pubbelly Sushi

Mushroom powder

“An ingredient I always keep around is mushroom seasoning powder, sometimes sold as umami powder. It’s an incredibly versatile flavor enhancer, great for giving an extra umami boost to everything from ramen broth to beef bourguignon. It’s especially helpful for vegetarian dishes, adding a nice savory element that really rounds out vegetable stock and makes it a much better substitute for meat stock.” — Forrest Brunton, chef of Chasing Sage

Dried cranberries

“I love to add them to salads, make a sauce for seared duck breast, or even a lamb chop glaze. I also like to mix them with salted almonds or put them in my morning yogurt or shake for a flavor/texture boost.” — Glenn Rolnick, corporate chef of Alicart Restaurant Group

Saltines

"I always keep a box of saltines to make an aji verde sauce. It's my special technique to thicken the sauce with blended jalapeños, cilantro, and feta cheese to create a creamy and smooth consistency and texture." — Julian Medina, owner/chef of El Fish Shack

Credit: Photo by Greg DuPree / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

Cake mix

“I always have a box of packaged cake mix on hand. I love to make a two-ingredient cake with one box of cake mix and one cup of applesauce, and then follow the instructions. It’s an easy dessert that you can decorate in all kinds of fun ways.” — Jason Goldstein, recipe developer for Chop Happy

Bone broth

“It’s versatile and nutritious. When I’m at the grocery store, I buy one or two, even if I already have five at home. I never want to run out.” — Jada Veljkov, executive chef of Greyfield Inn

Mac ‘n cheese

“We have two young boys and no matter how many different ways we try making mac ‘n cheese from scratch, they only want to eat the boxed stuff. We’re working on it.” — Bryan McClure, chef de cuisine of Common House

Cereal

“I have long given up dairy and wheat, and somehow there is and always will be cereal in my pantry.” — Matt Greene, executive chef of Common House

Credit: Photo by Johnny Autry / Food and Prop Styling by Charlotte Autry

Broccoli and cheese rice

“Sometimes I add freshly grated cheddar and steamed broccoli to enhance it; and when feeling really fancy, I add crispy bacon ... it’s a guilty pleasure!” — Adam Sobel, executive chef of Michael Mina Group

Baking soda

“It's the most important single acting leavening agent you can have. Plus, it’s a natural smell eliminator!” — Geoffrey Zakarian, celebrity chef and food council chairman for City Harvest

Sazón Goya

“It’s an all-purpose seasoning designed to enhance the flavors of Latin cuisine. It’s safe to say it’s a staple in every Latin kitchen in Miami and beyond.” — Leo Osorio, head chef at Kush by Stephen’s

Sweetened condensed milk

“It is well known for its use in baked goods and fudge, but I use it for a foolproof method to make dulce de leche. Simmer it for a couple of hours in water and it’s ready to go. I use that method for all kinds of treats, from a gooey layer in my blondies to sneaking it in my coffee for a version of a Cuban latte that is killer!” — Matt Bolus, chef/owner of 404 Kitchen

F&W Culinary Director Justin Chapple launched his Mad Genius platform to introduce the F&W audience to smart, fun food hacks. This one was inspired by the Spanish chef Ferran Adrià of elBulli, who made an ingenious ice cream by blending frozen fruit with sugar and fromage blanc—no ice cream maker needed. Justin swapped in sweetened condensed milk to make the recipe even more accessible. The creamy, sherbet-style dessert is one for the ages: It uses just four ingredients and comes together with a quick whirl of the food processor.
| Credit: © Greg DuPree

Beef/chicken stock

“Rarely do I have the time to make my own stocks at home, let alone go through the process of chilling properly and then storing or freezing. Boxed stocks are a great solution because they can always be enhanced. Sauté some mirepoix and tomato paste, deglaze with a nice red wine, add boxed beef broth, and reduce for a nice easy demi-glace that takes minutes as opposed to hours/days in the restaurant. Pro tip: Purchase the low sodium options as they can be salty. It’s easier to add salt than it is to remove.” — Vince Terusa, chef of Selanne Steak Tavern

Polenta

“It’s instant and gluten-free. Just simmer in chicken broth and finish with parmesan and butter. You can also bake it and cut into squares.” — Donatella Arpaia, celebrity chef and owner of Prova Pizzabar

Crackers

“I am a big cheese and cracker lover, so I have a ton of different crackers at home. Triscuits are my favorite.” — Anne Burrell, celebrity chef

This crab cake from F&W contributor Andrew Zimmern has been the most popular recipe on foodandwine.com since it went live in 2012. The reason is simple: It’s the best. Period. Zimmern explains why: “It doesn’t have a lot of filler, has no minced red pepper, no parsley—none of the usual crap that chefs typically ruin a good crab cake with.” This recipe originated with Zimmern’s best friend’s wife (a native of Baltimore), who calls this her “secret country club recipe.”
| Credit: © Greg DuPree

Pancake mix

“I love making pancakes for breakfast on my days off. It reminds me of my childhood. This is a quick and easy way that I can enjoy pancakes whenever I want, minus the work involved in weighing out your dry ingredients. All I do is add butter, milk, and eggs.” — Ricardo Jarquin, executive chef of the St. Regis Bal Harbour and W Miami 

Black organic lentils

“They are great warm or cold with a shallot dressing and chopped Italian parsley. When I go on a picnic, I always prepare a Black lentil salad with a Dijon mustard dressing, watercress (when in season) and shaved radish.” — Alain Verzeroli, culinary director of Le Jardinier and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon

Crispy shallots

“They are the perfect garnish for almost anything, from a pasta dish to a salad. They also last forever, which makes them even better to have in your pantry.” — Michael Schulson, chef/owner of Schulson Collective

Anchovy paste

“Used properly, this one ingredient can really take your meal to the next level. It gives a nice hit of salt and umami and tends to round out dishes.” — Brandon Byrd, culinary director of NOLA Pizza Co.