Most of us are good about keeping essentials like butter, milk, and eggs on hand in our refrigerators. But there are a few other items that a busy cook’s well-stocked fridge should never be without. These are the ingredients that, when paired with a few pantry staples and a little imagination, can save you a trip to the market when it’s time to figure out what’s for dinner tonight. For an example of a dish you can put together with our fridge essentials, see the recipe for Fettucine with Tomatoes, Capers & Olives.
We’ve rescued many a dull dish with a spritz of lemon juice or a pinch of lemon zest. Brightly acidic, lemon enhances other flavors while at the same time adding its own citrusy note. We most often use it to punch up brothy soups, all kinds of sauces, vegetable side dishes, and anything with fruit in it. To finely grate zest without getting any of the bitter white pith, invest in a rasp-style grater—you won’t regret it. Lemons will keep in the refrigerator for about two weeks.
Besides its obvious use as a sandwich condiment, Dijon is the secret ingredient in countless sauces. It’s especially crucial in vinaigrettes because it’s a natural emulsifier, meaning that it helps keep oil and vinegar from separating. When the jar is just about empty, don’t throw it out. Instead, add some oil and vinegar to the jar and shake into a mustardy vinaigrette. Dijon will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.
Homemade or good low-salt canned or boxed chicken broth is one of the most versatile ingredients you can have on hand. We use it to make soup, whip up pan sauces, or make rice pilafs or risotti. Broth that won’t be used before it spoils gets frozen in ice-cube trays so we can thaw it in various amounts. Once opened, a can or box of broth will keep in the fridge for two weeks. (Pour canned broth into another storage container.)
Worth the cost at almost any price, true Parmigiano-Reggiano is full of intensely savory flavor that’s crucial to so many dishes, from pastas to hearty soups like minestrone. We keep a chunk in the fridge for grating fresh right before we need it (once grated, it starts losing its flavor, so don’t bother buying it already grated). When the cheese is used up, we stash the rind in the freezer for simmering in the next pot of minestrone. A well-wrapped chunk of Parmigiano will maintain its best flavor for about a month.
A handful of chopped herbs lends fresh flavor and color to just about anything. You can always find parsley, cilantro, mint, rosemary, and thyme (and a few others) in the test kitchen refrigerators, ready to be chopped and scattered over a chicken sauté as a flavorful garnish or stirred into bean salads, salsas, and pan sauces or gravies, among other things. Store herbs stems down in a few inches of water, loosely tented with a plastic bag. They’ll stay fresh for about two weeks this way.
Olives and capers
Olives and capers aren’t the same thing, but we group them together because they both have piquant, briny flavors and are frequently used in tandem. A jar of small capers and some pitted kalamatas from the deli olive bar are always in the fridge. They’re both good additions to tomato sauces, vinaigrettes, and potato or pasta salads. Olives will keep for about a month in the fridge, and capers will keep for about three months.
Sweet and unctuous, oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes are a great addition to pizzas, pastas, frittatas, casseroles, and even sandwiches. Quality varies among brands, so sample a few to find one you like, and if the oil is tasty, try adding a little of it to a vinaigrette. Oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes will keep for about three months in the refrigerator.
Savory, salty soy sauce is our secret ingredient in all sorts of marinades, dipping sauces, and dressings. A little sprinkle of soy sauce is also a great flavor booster for plain broiled fish and steamed vegetables. Look for naturally brewed brands of soy sauce, and as the label instructs, refrigerate after opening to keep it tasting its best; it keeps indefinitely.
Fresh ginger lends a sassy, unmistakable zip to whatever it’s added to. A knob of fresh ginger in the fridge makes it easy to pull together a quick stir-fry for emergency dinner situations or perk up vinaigrettes or dipping sauces. To peel fresh ginger, scrape it with the side of a spoon. A well-wrapped knob of ginger will keep for about two weeks in the refrigerator.
Bacon and pancetta
Bacon makes everything better. Bacon and its unsmoked cured Italian counterpart, pancetta, contribute a meaty richness—and in the case of bacon, a measure of smokiness—to chowders and bean soups, stuffings, and quiches, among other things. If we won’t be using the whole package within a few days, we freeze it in small batches so it’s easy to thaw only what we need.