Stars of the store cupboard

From aromatic spices to exotic mushrooms, stocking up on a few key ingredients can give a delicious new dimension to everything we cook. Chefs share their cabinet secrets with Gillian Orr

Thursday 02 December 2010 01:00 GMT

We all know the basic ingredients that we are supposed to have in our kitchen store cupboards. A good extra virgin olive oil, some decent stock cubes, plenty of tinned tomatoes and the obvious seasonings are just some of the items you would find in even the most unadventurous cook's kitchen. But what secret weapons lurk in the cupboards of top chefs?

These are the sort of materials that you might not immediately think about buying, perhaps ones you haven't even heard of, but things that will instantly brighten up a variety of dishes. Here, some industry experts share the more unusual products they like to stock up on and offer their top tips on using them to inject some new and exciting flavours into mealtimes.


Cardamom, a staple in Indian cuisine, has a strong, aromatic taste and can be bought in pod or ground form. Henry Dimbleby, the founder of Leon, notes that it works well in both sweet and savoury dishes: "I add it to upside-down apple tart and I make a milk pudding which is just milk flavoured with saffron and cardamom and stirred into yoghurt with pistachios on top. For basmati rice, crack a couple of cardamom pods into your oil before you add the rice and you will give it a lovely seasoned flavour."


Jarred and tinned anchovies are popular among chefs who describe them as nature's flavour enhancers. "If you heat an anchovy in oil or cream over a low heat," Dimbleby notes, "it will sort of break up into a paste and then it will melt into a gravy which is great with beef or lamb. No one will really know it's there but it really adds something."

Salted anchovies

Unlike the familiar anchovies mentioned above, salted anchovies come in salt rather than oil. "If I ever go to Italy or Spain I always buy a big tin of salted anchovies," says Stevie Parle, the chef and food writer. "It's great to throw them in with slow-cooked meats to give them a depth and richness that you wouldn't get otherwise. Or put them in a pan with a steak."

Rose harissa

Made with chillies, oil, cumin and coriander with rose petals crushed into it, this Moroccan paste has a lovely warm kick to it. "You can either just spoon it on top of things such as vegetables or a bit of rice, or you can stir it into things at the last moment," says Dimbleby. "It's got that perfect mix of warm base flavours and a chilli kick as top flavour. If you stir it into a bland soup it will just lift the whole thing. If I'm on my own I will literally eat basmati rice with a great spoon of rose harissa and I'd be really happy."


The buds of the caper bush, picked and pickled to release an intense flavour which comes from the mustard oil that it releases, are hugely popular in Mediterranean dishes. Chef and restaurateur Mark Hix enthuses: "Capers are the perfect standby ingredient. I like to add shaved parmesan and capers to sprouting broccoli just before serving."

Kecap manis

A dark brown, syrupy soy sauce, kecaps manis is often called Indonesian soy sauce and has a sweeter flavour than the normal variety. The food writer Sophie Grigson describes it as "wonderful stuff". She goes on: "It's great in salad dressings and all kinds of things. It's sweet and salty and is quite thick, certainly thicker than your average soy sauce. It will make a very lovely change to regular soy sauce if you want a bit of a different flavour."


Known for its bright orange colour, turmeric appears in many Indian and south-east Asian meals. Apart from being frequently used in curries, it will provide any dish with a nice warm background. "It has that kind of mild but warm flavour that works in lots of things," says Dimbleby. "I love roast cauliflower in turmeric, for example."


A gutsy paste made with olives, capers, anchovies and oil, tapenade has a superb, deep flavour and is traditionally served with breads and crudités. However, Dimbleby likes to "toss some freshly boiled runner beans in olive oil and tapenade to really set them off. You can use it over lots of vegetables. For parties, take some puff pastry from your freezer, roll it out, spread the tapenade over the pastry then roll it up like a little roulade and cut it into swirls. Bake it in the oven and it makes really cool, retro canapés."

Pomegranate molasses

Pomegranate molasses, a concentrated syrup of pomegranate juice, has a sweet and sour taste and works well as an alternative to honey. Dimbleby sings many praises: "You can make salad dressings with it. You can smear it onto meats such as lamb and it gives it this really crispy, tangy flavour. You can put it in stews and if you rub it on meats, for instance lamb chops, it really brightens them up."

Dried porcini

The great thing about this meaty-flavoured mushroom is that it has a fantastic dried version. Stevie Parle recommends putting them "in a tomato sauce with pasta or making a simple dried porcini risotto with them. When you soak dried porcini you get a delicious liquid from them which you can use instead of stock. Then you just need rice, butter and parmesan. You might think you had no food in the house but then be able to make a really simple, delicious risotto."


Cumin is one of the most widely used spices in the world and can be purchased as whole seeds or in ground form. "Cumin is one of those all-round spices that isn't too pungent," says Mark Hix. "But at the same time it's quite addictive and has a nice smooth flavour. I'd add it to pan-frying aubergines and it's also great to throw in vegetarian stews."

Lingham's sweet chilli sauce

Lingham's, based in Malaysia, is one of the world's leading chilli sauce manufacturers. They purvey a few varieties but it's their sweet chilli sauce that is a favourite with Mark Hix. "It's nice if you're doing Asian stuff and it's quite an easy dipping sauce, too."

Turkish red pepper flakes

An easy way to add some fire into dishes is with Turkish red pepper flakes. "It's a gentle chilli that you can use all the time," explains Parle. "It works as a seasoning that's not too spicy; it's got more of a smoky taste. I put it on everything, especially rice and in salads."

Maple syrup

We might be more accustomed to pouring this sweet stuff over pancakes but maple syrup works well with more savoury foods too, especially meat. Top chef Angela Hartnett like to rub it on to chicken wings and drumsticks to give them a sweet and salty taste. It also caramelises nicely over vegetables such as sweet potato and carrots.

Shoyu soy sauce

Shoyu is a specially fermented soy sauce and the foundation of Japanese cuisine. Earle notes: "The production of it is very different to normal supermarket soy sauce and will make a real difference in your cooking. It's almost like the difference between cheap balsamic vinegar and expensive balsamic vinegar. A lot more time is taken to ferment and age it; it's really delicious."

Confit lemons

Confit means to preserve something by immersing it in another substance and confit lemons can be cooked in either a sugary or salty syrup. Hartnett says: "Then they can be used in salads, put in sauces, in pasta dishes. They add that sweet and sour sharpness. They have the sharpness of the lemon and the sweetness of the syrup."


These dry Italian chillies give a little kick to anything they are put in and mean you don't have to worry about keeping fresh chillies. "They work really well in classic tomato sauces, if you put them in right at the end. Simply putting peperoncino, garlic and oil over spaghetti works well too. They give a bit of heat to the dish without killing you," says Hartnett.

Cipriani dried egg pasta

Chefs tend to scorn using dried pasta, insisting fresh varieties are the only way to go. However, there is one that gets the professional thumbs up: Cipriani dried egg pasta. "As far as I'm concerned it's the finest dried pasta about," enthuses Hix. "It's really quick; it only takes a couple of minutes to cook so it's fantastic if you're in a rush. You can buy it from most supermarkets and Italian delis. It's not the cheapest on the market but it's worth it."

Spanish smoked paprika

Made from peppers that have been dried by smoking using oak wood, it has a distinct smoky flavour, giving dishes a taste not dissimilar to barbecuing. It is a firm favourite with Grigson. "I use this a lot: from seasoning tomato sauce to rubbing it on poultry before roasting it, in soups. You can get two versions, one that's mild but smoky and one that's hot and smoky. You can get a bit obsessive about it, though. Before you know it all your food tastes like it has come off a barbecue."


Sumac is a Middle Eastern spice which has a brick-red colour. Almost crystalline with a slightly tart, sharp lemony taste, it can be sprinkled onto grilled food. "It's especially great on chicken or lamb," says Grigson, "but I also like to put a little over yoghurt. Sumac trees are a common garden plant in this country but it's not the same kind of sumac so don't try and dry the fruits of the sumac in your front garden because they're poisonous. It's a very useful spice because you just add it at the end of cooking when you want a bit of a pick me up and something to give a bit of vivacity to some food."

Tinned flageolet beans

Of the many tinned beans on offer, flageolet beans are popular with those in the know. Grigson says: "I always brings tins of flageolet beans back from France with me because it's not always easy to find them in the UK. They're so good to put in stews, tomato sauces, salads and soups."

Apple balsamic vinegar

Just like standard balsamic vinegar but made in this country with apples instead of grapes, it is matured over a number of years in different types of barrels and is slightly sweet with a slight apple flavour. "You use it just as you would normal balsamic vinegar," says Grigson. "But if you're looking for new flavours it's a great one to stock up on. It's absolutely lovely and worth searching for."

Mustard fruits

Essentially just pickled fruit with mustard essence, they can be bought whole or made at home. Either way, they keep for a long time can be a potent addition to meals. Hartnett suggests serving them "with cold meats and cheese as an alternative to chutney".

Vanilla sugar

Using some vanilla sugar instead of the regular variety can really brighten up desserts. Hartnett recommends putting a dried vanilla pod into a tub of sugar to season it up. "It is great used in cooking desserts and with cream. It just adds another layer."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in