What’s the difference between a boring piece of chicken and a delicious one; a plain bowl of spaghetti and the perfect simple weeknight meal; or sad, dry toast and a fancy little treat? The simple answer is flavor. But all too often, there’s a catch: adding (or creating) that extra zest can feel daunting. Buying several new spices just to experiment on a one-time dish can quickly get pricey, not to mention wasteful if you don’t use them again. Furthermore, cooking new recipes can be time consuming, exhausting, and plain old difficult. That’s where having the right sauces, spreads, oils, and condiments come in handy. Whether they are ready-to-cook or require a simple step (like adding water), these premade ingredients can be the perfect shortcut to a delicious and nourishing meal.
For SELF’s inaugural Pantry Awards, we’ve awarded the best items for zhuzhing up any dish. Many of them are low effort and high reward (a tahini you can slather on just about anything, a decadent truffle oil that will make you say, “Italian restaurant who?!,” and more), and others will be staples you’ll want to stock in your pantry again and again—from no-nut butters to a savory gluten-free teriyaki sauce.
Be sure to check out the rest of SELF’s 2023 Pantry Award winners, including the most snackable chips, crackers, bars, pretzels, and popcorn and tinned, canned, and boxed goods perfect for any weeknight meal.
The Best Tahini: Soom Foods Premium Tahini
If you’re unfamiliar with tahini, buckle up. The butter/paste/sauce/condiment (you can use it as anything, really!) made from roasted sesame seeds is delish when slathered on just about anything. (It also makes an excellent dip—try it with bread, crackers, or raw veggies.) Now, let’s talk about Soom. This jar is easy to open, mess-free (which isn’t guaranteed when it comes to tahini), and ready-to-eat (other store-bought tahinis require you to add water). One tester used this as a dairy substitute; another said it was an excellent way to add taste and texture to her roux. Keep this in your pantry and you’ll find yourself reaching for it again and again.
The Best Almond Butter: Barney Butter Smooth Almond Butter
Barney Butter is the smoothest and creamiest almond butter we’ve ever come across—and in a market where almond butter exists aplenty, that’s an impressive feat. You won’t find a single grain or chunk in Barney’s smooth variety—its texture is most comparable to the Skippy you ate as a kid. It’s magic.
The Best Peanut Butter: Once Again Nut Butter No-Salt, Unsweetened Peanut Butter
“I’ve tried more than a few no-salt peanut butters that are extremely bland and feel like a tasteless paste in my mouth, but this wasn’t one of them,” one tester reported. “I’m not sure what peanuts they’re using or what they do to them before grinding, but it works.” This smooth peanut butter from Once Again only contains one ingredient—peanuts—but it’s more than enough to do the trick.
The Best Flavored Peanut Butter: Justin’s Honey Peanut Butter
Justin’s Honey Peanut Butter adds just the right amount of sweetness to this classic spread, turning any piece of toast or bowl of oatmeal into a real treat. Though the consistency is technically smooth (and certainly not chunky), this peanut butter has a natural graininess to it, perfect for all you texture freaks out there. Just don’t forget to give it a good stir before opening!
The Best Nut-Alternative Butter: Voyage Foods Peanut-Free Spread
Can’t do nuts? This tasty—and aesthetically pleasing—alternative will have you eager to swap out your go-to peanut butter. Voyage Foods Peanut-Free Spread is made with sunflower and grape seeds, alongside wild rice and chickpea flour. Its flavor is mild and not too seedy. “You get the sunflower flavor right at the top, but then it mellows into a really well-balanced and delicious taste,” one tester wrote.
The Best Marinara Sauce: Rao’s Homemade Marinara Sauce
Rao’s restaurant opened in East Harlem, New York, in 1896. Though there are locations in Las Vegas and Los Angeles today, the original spot remains one of the most exclusive eateries in NYC. While the restaurant is no longer connected to the Rao’s Homemade brand, you can still can get a taste of that delicious Italian experience with this marinara, sold nationwide. “I thought that all jarred sauces were more or less equivalent in that you have to doctor them up to be worth eating,” one tester said. “But this was not the case with Rao’s—it was fresh-tasting, totally savory, and rich, with a hearty, inviting texture. Even just heated and served over chickpea spaghetti, this felt like a satisfying and full meal and, within that, [the] total pleasure of one.”
The Best Tomato Sauce: Colavita Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce
This modest-looking carton of tomato sauce comes from Italy, where Colavita produces and packages it. The flavor is bright and fresh, with a thicker consistency that enables it to stick to pasta nicely. Our testers liked how it wasn’t too salty, like many premade sauces. But it didn’t skimp on flavor, either, and had faint traces of earthy basil.
The Best Sauce Mix: Alcoeats Easy Indie Bowls – Indian Gravies
An Indian sauce or gravy, like butter paneer or masala, can turn plain chicken breasts into a delicious weeknight dinner. These sauce mixes from Alcoeats allow you to create a variety of dynamic dishes with only a few added minutes of prep (and next-to-no cooking skills required). “They offer a foolproof base that takes the trial and error out of trying different recipes and spice combinations to achieve these classic dishes,” one tester said. Each $10 jar makes about four meals.
The Best Premade Curry Sauce: Saffron Road Coconut Curry
Sauce in a pouch—I really can’t recommend it enough. All you have to do is add Saffron Road’s Coconut Curry to your protein or veggie of choice and let it simmer on the stovetop. The packaging is convenient and easy to open and pour from; the directions are clear; and the consistency is nice and thick, requiring no zhushing up at all.
The Best Enchilada Sauce: Siete Foods Siete Enchilada Sauce
Bring on the heat. Free of dairy, grains, soy, and gluten, Siete’s enchilada sauce packs a punch with its fiery (but not too hot) flavor. “The sauce tastes fresh, vibrant, acidic, and a little bit earthy (in a good way),” one tester said. She recommends sautéeing the sauce with chicken, or pouring it over homemade enchiladas. “For anyone who wants to make ‘homemade’ a little easier, these sauces are fun, easy, and enjoyable to cook with.”
The Best Chili Sauce: Omsom Krapow Starter
We first reviewed Omsom’s sauce starters in 2020—and we’re still loving them three years later. Krapow translates to “holy basil” in Thai, according to Omsom’s website, alluding to the multidimensional flavor profile in this more-than-just-chili sauce. Simply rip your packet open, toss it in the pan with your veggie or protein of choice, and voilà—you’ve got a delectable spicy-sweet meal.
The Best Chili Crunch: Momofuku Goods Chili Crunch
If you’re unfamiliar with chili crunch/crisp, allow me to make the introduction: Part oil and part crispy, crunchy topping (typically made of, well, chili peppers), chili crunch can be used to roast potatoes and proteins, as a drizzle on your sandwich of choice, and more. New York restaurant Momofuku’s line of packaged goods allows you to create a gourmet cooking experience in your own kitchen. According to our testers, this chili crunch is “the perfect ratio of crunch to oil,” and delightful on top of ramen, pasta, eggs, and beans—just to name a few. It adds just a bit of heat and has a well-rounded flavor profile with garlic and shallots in the ingredient list too.
The Best Chili Paste: Sky Valley Organic Sambal Oelek Chili Paste
“This is exactly what you want sambal oelek to taste like,” one tester said. “It has that vinegary kick right at the start and warms to a really mild, palatable heat. Pretty much perfect in every way.” For those new to the chili paste train, sambal oelek is an Indonesian variety made of raw red chiles, vinegar, and salt. It’s flavorful, straightforward, and a versatile way to add chili heat to any dish. We recommend using this one from Sky Valley on noodles, rice, beans, eggs, veggies, and even pizza.
The Best Salad Dressing: SideDish Multi-Pack
SideDish, a brand founded by New York Times best-selling author Alex Snodgrass last year, launched with three dressing flavors—creamy sesame, chipotle ranch, and honey dijon—that are, in reality, so much more than dressings. Use any of them as marinades, to create sauces, or to add a flavor boost to anything you’re cooking. Or, of course, you could toss it into a salad. That’s good too.
The Best Flavored Hot Sauce: Heartbeat Hot Sauce
Ever tried dill pickle flavored hot sauce? What about pineapple or blueberry? Heartbeat’s hot sauces come in more than 10 flavors, the aforementioned included. According to our testers, each one is distinct and delicious, adding not just heat but flavor too. The bottles are durable, spill-proof, and easy to squirt. Plus each flavor comes with a handy “heat scale” on its label, helpful for hot sauce newbies and seasoned veterans alike.
The Best Classic Hot Sauce: Woodstock Hot Sauces
Some like it hot—and those who do should try Woodstock’s hot sauce. All you need is a drop of the habanero or ghost pepper flavors to bring plenty of heat to your dish. If you’re looking for something really fiery, test your strength with the scorpion. (But don’t say we didn’t warn you.)
The Best Teriyaki Sauce: Coconut Secret Organic Teriyaki Sauce & Marinade
Delicious, soy-free teriyaki? Yes, it can be done! Coconut Secret’s teriyaki sauce uses coconut aminos—a popular soy substitute—to create a sweet and tangy taste indecipherable from a more traditional formula. “It was excellent as a stand-alone sauce on my stir fry and as a marinade for chicken,” one tester wrote. Another noted how the sauce had significantly lower sodium levels than most teriyaki options she’s come across, which is helpful for anyone who might need to monitor their intake.
The Best Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Thrive Market Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
This grassy, fruity, and yet still mild extra virgin olive oil is the perfect neutral base for cooking. The oil comes out nicely—no glugging, dripping, or spilling—and the canister is appropriately kitchen counter cute. (“It came in this super chic Art Deco tin cylinder packaging,” one tester described.) With 25.4 fluid ounces of EVOO at your fingertips, you’ll be cooking happy for a while.
The Best Flavored Olive Oil: Corto Agrumato-Method Olive Oil
To make their agrumato-method olive oil, Corto crushes and extracts olives at the same time as putting in flavor-infusing ingredients like chili and yuzu (rather than adding in flavor separately). At $70 for a set of two (one bottle of each flavor), it’s one of the pricier items on this list, but, according to our testers, the intensive extraction process pays off: They described the oils as “beautiful,” “heavenly,” “airy,” and “powerful.” At-home gourmet chefs—or anyone who simply enjoys dunking a piece of bread in something delicious—add this to your cart, stat.
The Best Truffle Oil: Truff White Truffle Oil
Truffles (or anything truffle-flavored) can usually be found at upscale restaurants for a high markup. But Truff’s truffle oil will make any at-home meal feel a little bit fancy for a much more affordable price. “I tried this straight out of the bottle, with bread, on polenta, in a risotto, and on a coconut curry,” one tester wrote. “In each case, it was outstanding. The white truffle, the rarer sibling of the black truffle, is both delicate and rich at the same time, and its flavor shines here. This product is a powerhouse. I would eat this on everything. I can’t think of a savory dish that this wouldn’t improve.” •
We can’t talk about food without talking about food access, which is why we put together this guide to redistributing food to the people in your community who need it. As part of the 2023 Pantry Awards, SELF has made a $2,500 donation to God’s Love We Deliver, a New York–based non-sectarian organization that prepares and delivers meals to people with HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other serious illnesses. We also donated the unopened items from our photoshoot for this project to New York Common Pantry.