One of life’s simple (and most convenient) pleasures is being able to put together a fast and delicious pasta dish using just what you have on hand. If you are looking to up your pasta game, here are 15 pantry staples that will elevate any pasta dish:
Olive oil is a pantry staple for a reason, and it is the perfect ingredient to add to your pasta. Extra virgin olive oil will have the strongest flavor (not to mention health benefits) due to the lack of processing and thus the higher levels of antioxidants and flavonoids. Different kinds of EVOO have different tastes depending on the types of olives used — and if you want even more variety, then you can get flavored olive oils as well.
Besides extra virgin olive oil, butter is the other essential fat that goes well on pasta. It can be used by itself, or combined with other ingredients to form a sauce. If you only have salted butter on hand, then watch how much additional salt and spices you add to the pasta to avoid oversalting it.
Sometimes you are just too tired or busy to make pasta sauce from scratch, so it is always good to have some pre-made jarred sauce on hand that you can use in a pinch. Classic tomato sauces are available in many different variations, but do not be afraid to branch out into new flavors, such as alfredo, pesto and even pumpkin.
If you feel up to making your own pasta sauce, then you will almost certainly need some kind of tomato. Canned crushed tomatoes are a popular option, but recipes may call for plain tomato sauce, tomato paste, diced tomatoes and other options. Fresh tomatoes are an excellent topping for a cold pasta salad, and sundried tomatoes add a lot of flavor to both hot and cold pasta.
Herbs and Spices
Herbs, spices and other aromatics are often the key between a bland dish and one that you cannot stop eating. Fresh herbs are awesome for pasta and a must for pesto, but they go off quickly. So if you do not have them on hand, then the dried versions are fine.
Lemon juice and zest can add a much-needed splash of acidity to pasta, elevating an otherwise boring dish into something delicious. We recommend buying whole lemons over pre-bottled lemon juice for versatility’s sake, so you have the option to choose juice, zest or both.
Onions and Garlic
These pantry staples form the backbone of many recipes, and this is true for pasta as well. Chop them super fine to include them in homemade sauces, or cut them in larger chunks if you want to use as a pasta topping instead. They cook up beautifully in both butter and olive oil for a simple yet rich and flavorful pasta addition.
Technically, this is more of a refrigerator staple than a pantry staple, but we could not include a list of essential pasta ingredients without putting hard cheeses on the list. Parmigiano-Reggiano is an obvious choice, and Grana Padano and Pecorino Romano are two other great options to grate over your pasta or blend into sauces.
Cured Meats and Anchovies
If you want to add some protein to your pasta, then consider cured meats or anchovies. Pork products such as pancetta are the most commonly used, but you can experiment with other cured meats if you are not that partial to pork. Not everyone loves anchovies either, but there is no denying that their salty, meaty taste does work well with pasta, which is why so many recipes call for them.
Dried or Canned Beans
If you are not a meat eater, then opting for dried or canned beans is another excellent way to add protein and flavor to your pasta. Slow cooking the dried beans yourself with herbs and other aromatics will result in more flavor, but canned beans are faster so you can get dinner on the table fast on a weeknight.
Breadcrumbs are one of those pantry staples that almost everyone has on hand, which is why it is so fortunate that they go great on pasta. We prefer panko breadcrumbs for their larger texture, which crisps up beautifully when fried in butter in a pan on the stovetop. FYI — Toasted breadcrumbs also make a fantastic topping for homemade mac and cheese.
Olives and Capers
Olive oil goes great with pasta, so it stands to reason that their namesake fruit — alongside their cousin capers — is also an excellent topping. That is why so many pasta recipes call for either olives or capers as an ingredient. Experiment with different kinds to figure out your perfect flavor combinations.
Nuts are not just for trail mix and salads. We love them in pasta as well. Pine nuts and walnuts are two classic options to keep on hand due to their usefulness in pesto recipes, but you can also try other varieties as well. For instance, peanuts are an excellent topping to use on rice noodles in a stir-fry.
Dried mushrooms are the perfect way to add woodsy, umami flavor to your pasta without resorting to meat. Fresh mushrooms will also do, but dried mushrooms have much more flavor. Many Italian recipes call for dried porcini mushrooms specifically, but you can also branch out into other varieties.
If you are making pasta salad, then consider adding a splash of vinegar to your olive oil dressing. Like lemon juice, flavored vinegar will add a touch of acidity that cuts through the fat and prevents it from overwhelming the dish. Vinegar comes in all flavors and colors, from light champagne vinegar to robust balsamic vinegar, so you can choose the best one for your pasta dish.
Take your pasta dish to the next level with one or more of these pantry staples. Just do not forget to keep dried or fresh pasta on hand, and you will always be ready to whip up a delicious weeknight dinner!