10 Simple Pantry-friendly Ingredients That Can Transform Any Meal

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With so little time to dedicate to extensive recipes and creative culinary creations, I often find myself making the same types of things over and over again. We tend to exist on a rotation of roasted vegetables, cooked grains, homemade soups, taco nights, and pasta dishes. And while my family is just happy to have a home-cooked meal, and no one ever complains, I do find myself itching for ways to spruce things up and make meal times more interesting.

It’s funny how, depending on the ingredient, something as small as a teaspoon that is added to a recipe or dish can really transform it into something new. Sprinkle sea salt on top of your morning oatmeal, and instantly go from sweet to slightly savory. Crumble roasted sunflower seeds on top of a green salad and enjoy a healthy crunch with every bite. Look for simple ingredients that can transform meals in easy, yet unexpected ways.

Here are ten ideas to help get you started!

  • Crystallized Ginger 1 of 10
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    Ginger is one of those things that people tend to either love or hate. Personally, I am in the love camp as it lends such a tangy punch of flavor to any dish. Crystallized ginger takes things to a whole other level. A few of my favorite ways to use it? Bake into cookies, chop and fold into muffins, or crumble on top of oatmeal. It is great any time of year, but I find it pairs really well with flavors that are typical of fall and holidays - things like pear, cinnamon, and vanilla. Yum!

  • Vanilla (Bean or Extract!) 2 of 10
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    Speaking of vanilla, it's another one of those ingredients that can make a big impact with just a teeny tiny amount. Add vanilla extract to baked goods, smoothies, hot breakfast porridges, and more. Or if you are feeling adventurous, splurge on some whole vanilla beans and scrape the fresh vanilla into homemade ice creams or holiday cookies.

  • Pine Nuts 3 of 10
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    There is a reason that pine nuts tend to be one of the pricier picks of the bunch -- they are also some of the most delicious, and most versatile! Tiny, crunchy, and yet totally creamy and smooth inside, a sprinkle of pine nuts on top of soup or a salad can really kick a recipe up a notch. Blend them into pesto, toast and sprinkle them onto fresh pasta, or simply add them to your favorite trail mix -- there is no wrong way to use this delicious ingredient.

  • Maple Syrup 4 of 10
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    Even though maple syrup is typically thought of as a pancake topper, there are so many other great uses and ways to incorporate it into dishes that are both savory and sweet. Of course, it lends itself well to fall flavors and baked goods, and I love to use it as a sweetener alternative in things like pumpkin spice muffins. But it can also bring a nice punch of sweetness to something like an Asian marinade - paired with orange juice, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sesame oil. Another great and unexpected use is to whisk it into homemade salad dressing! Think beyond pancakes the next time you grab a bottle.

  • Sea Salt 5 of 10
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    Salt is one of those things that is critical in almost everything we eat. Whether you prefer a little or a lot, it usually takes at least a small sprinkle to really bring out and enhance the flavor of your food. But a good, freshly ground sea salt can take an otherwise ordinary dish to a whole other level. And salt shouldn't just be reserved for savory meals and dinnertime. Add a pinch to your oatmeal, sprinkle it over banana bread, or even mix a bit into hot chocolate. You'll be amazed at how much salt can add to something that is otherwise reserved for your sweet tooth!

  • Cinnamon (Sticks or Ground!) 6 of 10
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    Cinnamon is another one of those strong flavors that lends itself really well to baked goods and the holiday season. It's strong aromatic smell makes it a great addition to things like potpourri, candles, and soaps. And of course, it's a natural ingredient in cookies, quick breads, and homemade applesauce. But cinnamon can also transform things that might be more unexpected. My personal favorite use for it is to add it to soups and chilis. Combined with chili powder, garlic, and paprika, it can really boost the flavor of a hearty bowl of bean chili on a cool, fall day!

  • Roasted Sunflower Seeds 7 of 10
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    Whenever I make something that seems like it's missing an extra boost or crunch, I always turn to my jar of roasted sesame seeds. They lend a perfect salty crunch to things like pasta dishes, stir-fries, and green salads. They are also a great addition to trail mix, sweet and salty cookies, and homemade bean burgers. I'm also guilty of just grabbing a handful of them here and there when I need a quick snack!

  • Toasted Sesame Oil 8 of 10
    sesame-oil

    While I would never claim to be able to make any sort of authentic Asian food, I do love using Asian-inspired ingredients and recipes when I cook at home. Sesame oil is a strong and unique flavor that can really enhance the natural flavors of things like vegetables, tofu, and cooked grains. I love whisking it into marinades and dressings, or even just drizzling it as a finishing touch over a completed dish.

  • Sriracha 9 of 10
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    If you like spice, then you are no stranger to Sriracha sauce. This hot chili sauce is a popular condiment for all spice lovers, and it's a daring adventure for those who tend to stick to safer things like standard ketchup or mild salsa. Add it to eggs, sprinkle a few drops on oatmeal, or kick up the heat on your favorite bowl of chili.

  • Ume Plum Vinegar 10 of 10
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    This is probably my favorite pantry item, and it is one of those things that so few people use. This tangy, salty vinegar is unlike anything else. It is actually a pickling brine made from umeboshi plums (which is where the name comes from), and it is a great swap in for other salty ingredients like soy sauce, miso, or even just traditional salt. My favorite use is to sprinkle it on vegetables and mushrooms as they cook, as I find it adds a much deeper and richer flavor than traditional salt. If you haven't tried this before, grab a bottle during your next grocery run!

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