The Pantry Secret Weapons That Got Us Through 2020

Food Network staffers share the products that made cooking meals better and easier.

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December 25, 2020

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Photo by: Photo courtesy of A Dozen Cousins

Photo courtesy of A Dozen Cousins

2020 had many of us spending way more time in the kitchen than we were used to. Between sourdough projects and fluffier cups of coffee, getting three decent meals on the table each day was a challenge in and of itself. It forced us all to get more creative, organized and crafty. Here are the pantry staples that helped us along the way. Add these secret weapons to your arsenal to make cooking those meals easier – and tastier!


I came across A Dozen Cousins’ readymade beans this year, and I was blown away! The pouches are soulfully seasoned with flavors from Creole, Caribbean and Latin American cooking. My favorites are the Trini Chickpea Curry (Channa) and Mexican Cowboy Pinto Beans (Frijoles Charros). They come in handy especially on weekdays when I only have 20 minutes to make lunch. Just heat them up for a minute or two, and you’ve got a super flavorful way to bulk up a rice bowl. I usually just slice an avocado and pan-fry a protein while I heat the beans up. And in no time, I can dig into a delicious, well-balanced meal. I also spoon the Trini Chickpea Curry over rice and pair it with any leftover sauces I have from making a batch of Doubles. All the bean pouches are 100% plant-based and naturally gluten-free, so they’re a convenient sidekick for a number of diets.

-Maggie Wong, Editor

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At the start of the pandemic, I bought just about every canned bean I could find in a total panic, but as the months have gone on, I’ve found the only canned bean I really need is canned chickpeas. Chickpeas serve so many purposes in my weekday cooking routine. While other beans have the tendency to get super soft when cooked, chickpeas are a sturdier bean. For this reason, they work in almost everything: toss them in pasta, add some to a braised meat dish, stir some into rice. And if you have any leftover, add it to a salad for lunch the next day. For roughly $1 per 15-ounce can, the bang for my buck couldn’t be better.

-T.K. Brady, Senior Editor

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For the longest time, I never really thought of honey as an essential cooking ingredient. Sure, it was always sitting in my pantry, but it was usually reserved for whenever I made a cup of tea. However, this year I’ve discovered that not only can you cook with honey, but it can also sweeten up almost any of your favorite meals, recipes and snacks! I’ve made a ton of cheese pizzas with a sweet honey glaze, added it to curries, roasted chicken with a garlic AND honey marinade and it’s now my favorite addition to my meat and cheese charcuterie boards.

-Lauren Tom, Associate Content Producer

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My method to surviving entirely on my own cooking has been finding the easiest one-step tricks to make interesting flavor overhauls to my standby recipes. My pantry Swiss Army Knife go-to has become the Mala Spice Mix by Fly By Jing. A small sprinkle of the brilliant seasoning blend adds a salty, savory Sichuan peppercorn-spiked surge to everything, from my favorite Egg & Cheese Bread Omelet to simple spaghetti dinner, and keeps dishes tasting interesting enough that meals — and leftovers — have become a pleasure again.

-Erin Hartigan, Senior Managing Editor

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As of late, my pantry secret weapon is one that is both mundane and magical a bag of popping corn. Making it fresh on the stove is such a pleasure. Sure, it takes a few more minutes of work than just throwing a bag in the microwave, but those few minutes tending to the corns popping on the stove also serves as a little brain break and a moment to stretch my legs. Plus, the result is a giant bowl of freshly popped corn that I can top however I want — for way cheaper than the individual microwave bags. A bag of unpopped kernels seems to last forever!

-Lauren Piro, Director, Editorial

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My secret ingredient this year was something that I previously only ate once a year at Thanksgiving (on green bean casserole) — French fried onions. Turns out they are crunchy little flavor bombs that add an extra something special to just about anything. I sprinkled them on soup and in salads, stuffed them in sandwiches and topped them on veggie side dishes. They made dishes extra savory and all I had to do was open the can. Green bean casserole has known their secret for years — I’m glad I finally caught on!

-Leah Brickley, Senior Editor

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Tahini is one of those ingredients that I always have on hand. I use it when I’m baking and love a good tahini-based salad dressing. This year I purchased tahini in a squeeze bottle for the first time — and it has ended up being a good little time-saver when I’m making smoothies. I usually add a scoop of nut butter to my smoothies for protein but, because I buy all-natural, it separates. Now, instead of nervously stirring a jar of peanut or almond butter, trying not to slosh oil all over the kitchen counter, I grab the tahini. I give the bottle a good shake, squeeze it into the blender and I’m ready to go. Added bonus? Since there’s no mixing and scooping involved with the tahini, I have one less dirty dish in my sink later!

-Kristie Collado, Digital Programming Manager

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Living in a NYC apartment, it’s safe to say I don’t have a ton of storage space, let alone designated pantry space. Before 2020, I’d keep a container or two of chicken broth in my cabinets, and pick up extras or make my own from scratch whenever I needed. But then March came and I wanted to avoid making trips to the store. As much as I wanted to stock up on cases of chicken broth, I just didn’t have the room. Good news: An 8 oz-jar of Better than Bouillon Roasted Chicken Base yields 38 cups of chicken broth — just add hot water and stir! You can also adjust the amount of paste added if you need more or less chicken broth in a recipe. And, it keeps for over a year in the fridge after opening, so you don’t have to dump a half-used carton that’s been going bad in the fridge.

-Trish Clasen, Digital Programming Manager

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I always keep a jar of this in my fridge! Packed with subtle heat and a hint of garlicky goodness, this is an easy way to amp up the flavor of your dishes. I’ll add a tablespoon or two to peanut sauces for noodles or tofu, mix it into my black bean or beef burger patties, or use it as part of a marinade for chicken. (It’s made by the same company behind the super-popular Sriracha).

-Trish Clasen, Digital Programming Manager

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I’m not even gluten-free, but I always stock up on this brand’s GF pastas and now, its protein-packed "rice" made with chickpeas. While its texture reminds me more of orzo than white or brown rice, it tastes great and takes way less time to cook than conventional brown rice. I love to serve it with sesame chicken and roasted broccoli, teriyaki tofu, lemon chicken, or honestly, with whatever’s on the menu.

-Trish Clasen, Digital Programming Manager

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Earlier this year when most restaurants were still closed for indoor dining, my family and I purchased a meal kit from a Cincinnati-based restaurant called The Precinct, hoping to get a familiar steakhouse meal at home. The meal in itself was amazing, but we were also delighted to find that a jar of their signature Jeff Ruby Steak Seasoning was included for cooking. Much to our surprise, this seasoning has quickly become a pantry staple! While the exact ingredients are kept secret, as it’s used in all the Jeff Ruby restaurants, it’s a delicious blend of savory spices that’s perfect on a variety of meat and vegetable dishes. If you don’t want to spend the money on a whole steak dinner, you can also purchase the seasoning blend on its own to use throughout the year.

-Amanda Neal, Recipe Developer

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Two secret weapons: Old Bay seasoning in honor of my time in Maryland, to spice much more than crabs — chicken, rice, salad dressing. And Trader Joe’s Vanilla Bean Paste — it works about the same as vanilla extract, but has flecks of vanilla bean that visibly pumps up cookies, pancakes, waffles and crepes. I put the Old Bay on Almost-Famous Chicken Sandwiches. And use the vanilla bean paste in The Best Buttermilk Pancakes.

-Debra Puchalla, SVP, Digital Programming & Video, Food

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