Hi Claire! Amazing question! I always get asked about the pantry essentials but there are definitely a few things that are worth spending an extra few dollars on that really have the power to make every dish better.
SALT: I am a salt freak. Like this will be how I die. When I am cremated, I will truly just be a pile of salt grains. I only use Diamond Crystal Kosher salt in my cooking. You can…freestyle with it more. It’s not as strong as table salt so you can be pretty generous with it without completely killing or overpowering your meal. I get giant boxes on Amazon and keep them in small dishes around my stove and countertops. For finishing salts (I usually only use on steak and other meats after they’ve been cooked), Maldon sea salt flakes.
OLIVE OIL: Oh man this is gonna sound very ridiculous but someone actually gifted John and me with an adopted olive tree in Tuscany and they press the olives and send you hand marked bottles of your tree’s oil a few times a year. Depending on the weather there, some batches will be super peppery, some sweet and mild. I like it all. It was a really fucking awesome gift (and under 80 bucks for I think 3 huge bottles) but my point is, good olive oil is key to a stocked kitchen. It’s kind of a personal preference kind of thing – they can be strong and peppery, earthy and grass-like, spicy. I vote whatever floats your boat taste-wise – if anything, I’d say don’t get suckered into super expensive, beautifully packaged bottles unless you really, really care about olive oil the same way people really, really care about wine. A great olive oil I always have on hand for cooking is California Olive Ranch Extra Virgin Olive Oil – I feel like it’s easy to both cook and finish with. But if you really want a stronger flavor and don’t wanna ADOPT AN ENTIRE TREE IN TUSCANY, you gotta test some out yourself!
BALSAMIC VINEGAR: I love drizzling tomatoes, burrata and full-on steaks with a really good-quality, slightly thicker balsamic vinegar. Sometimes if I’m feeling crazy, maybe even one flavored with figs. Anyhoo, try a few and invest in a good one, since you aren’t going to be cooking the flavor away. A little goes a long way so it’ll last you.
BUTTER: My family, we are bread people. Toast in the morning leads me into a great day. And nothing changed my world more than discovering butter didn’t just have to be unsalted blocks of fat. It could be delicious, creamy, salted blocks of fat. I’m a big fan of Irish butter, but I also love the butters of Vital Farms – slow churned, pasture raised, and grass fed.