11 Best Condiments to Enhance Your Pantry

©. The life-changing magic of mayonnaise mixed with sriracha sauce. Photo: Melissa Breyer

Healthy condiments can add vitality and versatility to the humble foods in your pandemic pantry.

Ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise may be the royal trinity of American condiments, but many versions are not especially healthy and there are so many other options that can help add flavor to your food. Don't get me wrong, I love the classic three, but there is life beyond them.

So, how do we define a condiment, anyway? So many answers, such little clarity. With this in mind, I went to my trusty copy of "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," by food scientist and historian Harold McGee; he always has the answer to life's bigger food questions. In the chapter on sauces, he explains the difference between seasonings, condiments, and sauces – and why we use them in the first place.

What is a condiment?

Our primary foods – like grains, breads, pasta, starchy vegetables – are pretty bland, McGee explains, and over time, cooks have found or invented a "vast range of ingredients with which to make them more flavorful." He breaks this down into three categories: Seasonings, condiments, and sauces – and it makes great sense. Seasonings, he explains, are the simple ingredients provided from nature, like pepper, chilis, herbs, and spices. Condiments, on the other hand, are prepared and more complex, many of them foods "preserved and transformed by fermentation: sour and aromatic vinegar, salty and savory soy and fish sauce, salty and sour pickles, pungent and sour mustard, sweet and sour and fruity ketchup," he writes. Lastly, he describes sauces as the ultimate composed flavorings. "The cook conceives and prepares sauces for particular dishes, and can give them any flavor."

Ultimately, it makes sense to consider a condiment as something that is applied by the eater once a food has been prepared. The world is filled with countless condiments, but for the purpose of this list we wanted to focus on items that are accessible, versatile, and widely available. So without further ado, here's the sauce.

Healthy and tasty condiments to brighten any meal

1. Sriracha

There's "real" Thai sriracha and there is the more interpretative "rooster sauce" sriracha as manufactured by Huy Fong Foods in California. The Huy Fong version might not be recognized as sriracha in Thailand, but it has become one of the most beloved sauces to hit American shelves since Heinz 57. The purée of red jalapeños, garlic, sugar, salt and vinegar is spicy, savory, and delicious. It is used by everyone from mega chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten to mega chains like Applebee’s.

USES: Uhm, just put it on everything! Bonus tip: Mix sriracha with mayonnaise (like in the photo above) to make the spicy sauce on sushi rolls – which can be used everywhere else as well. Kewpie mayonnaise is the most typically used brand here, but if you are concerned about monosodium glutamate (MSG) – an ingredient in Kewpie – your favorite healthy mayo will also be delicious.

2. Harissa

There are so many spicy condiments from around the world that it's hard just to pick a few, but harissa makes the grade for its blend of chilis, garlic, and aromatic spices like ground caraway seeds and cumin. It is spicy, savory, and unique – and popular enough that is available in the global sections of many supermarkets. (It's easy to make at home, too; here's a recipe from The Spruce.)

USES: Add it to traditional dishes like couscous and soups; it's also delicious on pasta, hummus, and eggs. You can mix it with mayonnaise to add to a sandwich or mix it with butter to put on vegetables. Use it in marinades, rubs, and anywhere else you want some interesting heat.

3. Coconut aminos

Coconut aminos tastes like a cousin of soy sauce, but a little sweeter and a bit more buttery. It is made by fermenting sap from the coconut palm and adding sea salt. It's not an exact swap for soy sauce, but has these advantages: It is much lower in sodium (up to 75 percent lower, depending on the brand); and it is good for those who need to stay away from gluten and soy.

USES: Use it as you use soy sauce, though it tastes a bit different; stir fries, salad dressings, on steamed or roasted vegetables, rice dishes, grain salads, et cetera.

4. Tahini

Black sesame seeds and tahini in a bowl

© Malgorzata Haggu/Pixabay You may know tahini as the sauce that comes with falafel, or as one of the essential ingredients in hummus. It is made from ground, toasted sesame seeds and is nutty, creamy, and savory – and totally tasty. It is also having a "moment" right now, and is appearing in all kinds of groovy places, especially desserts; think, a twist on the chocolate and peanut butter relationship. (I especially like it for a peanut butter swap because I am not tempted to eat the whole jar with a spoon.) Tahini made with black sesame seeds, like the one shown above, is also delicious and adds some drama to a dish.

USES: Drizzle it on roasted vegetables, green salad, pasta salad, yogurt, ice cream, grain bowls, toast with honey or bananas, sandwiches, and anywhere that a creamy, nutty flourish would be welcome.

5. Miso paste

The fermented soybean paste known as miso is obviously the magical stuff that makes miso soup, miso soup. But it is an umami workhouse in the kitchen, lending its earthy, salty savoriness to marinades, dressings, and sauces. But it can also make for a surprising and delicious condiment.

USES: You can use miso alone on a sandwich, but the best stuff happens when you mix it with mayonnaise, dressings, tahini, or cream cheese and use it anywhere you want that lingering hum of umami.

6. Better mayonnaise

From the "obviously" department, we offer the manna that is mayonnaise. But we're going with a twist here and recommending brands that are vegan and/or made with healthier ingredients than the standard. In the United States, most commercial mayonnaise is made with soybean oil, which is highly refined and not as healthy as other choices. Better options include those made with healthy avocado oil, like the ones produced by Primal Kitchen – and they just introduced a vegan version too. Also check out Sir Kensington, which has a version made with sunflower oil and aquafaba (AKA chickpea water) instead of eggs. Alternatively, you can make your own.

USES: You know what to do.

7. Healthier ketchup

If you are watching fat and calories in your diet, ketchup is a better choice than mayonnaise. But if you're trying to avoid sugar and sodium, then be careful about which ketchup brand you use. Many ketchups come with a load of high-fructose corn syrup and a mountain of salt. Check the labels and you might be surprised! But there are a number of companies making healthier ketchup now. My family loves Primal Kitchen ketchup (their second mention here; they didn't give me free stuff, I promise, I just really love their products) – you would never know there is no added sugar in it.

USES: Every kind of fried potato, and all the other usual suspects. Also as an ingredient in comeback sauce, 1000 Island dressing, barbecue sauce, cocktail sauce, and other classics. Some like it on eggs and macaroni and cheese; who are we to judge?

8. Mustard

mustard

© Melissa Breyer Mustard is so classic it may border on ho-hum, but that would be tragic. There are so many amazing mustrads in the family, and if you haven't ventured far beyond the basics, there's much to discover. From yellow and brown to dijon, stone-ground and whole grain. There are mustards with tarragon and other herbs added, with horseradish, with honey, you name it.

USES: Plant-based hot dogs and sausages, sandwiches, and pretzels, of course, but also to dab on roasted potatoes and other vegetables, and to use in a wide array of dressings.

9. Balsamic vinegar

Traditional balsamic vinegar is not your usual vinegar. Because of how it is made, it is thick and more sweet than acidic, making it almost more like a syrup than a vinegar. Despite its lack of strong tartness, it is still a delicious way to dress a salad, made even better with some lemon zest (from lemons that you may be wasting?). Try this: Use this simple trick for the best salad dressing. All of that said, it's not just for salads.

USES: Dress steamed or roasted vegetables, as well as roasted or grilled fruits, fresh fruits, and berries. It is a revelation drizzled on cheese, ice cream, yogurt, and custard desserts.

10. Fruit spread

Since you probably already have some type of cooked-fruit-in-a-jar in your refrigerator, this is just a reminder of all its glorious uses. Embrace those jams and jellies and preserves and marmalades and chutneys! They offer so much more versatility than just topping toast and partnering with peanut butter.

USES: Try it on yogurt, ice cream, pancakes, crepes, waffles, with peanut butter or cream cheese in sandwiches, in grilled cheese sandwiches. Pair it with cheese, crackers, toast, on grilled and roasted foods. Put it in cocktails, lemonade, iced tea, seltzer water, or make popsicles. Mix it in salad dressings, marinades, glazes; and try it in baked goods.

11. Maple syrup

Maple syrup is the ultimate sweetener. Yes, it's a sugary thing, but it's all-natural, unrefined, has beneficial properties, and because of its rich flavor, a little bit goes a long way. And it's a good alternative to honey for vegans.

USES: On waffles and pancakes, of course, but also on plain yogurt, oatmeal, and to sweeten coffee (yum). You can drizzle a bit on popcorn, use it on cocktails, and even use it on top of soups like butternut squash. It is also the dream ingredient for a maple-mustard vinaigrette (use a honey mustard recipe just swap the honey for maple). And a bonus: As the best ingredient for glazing roasted vegetables, see more here: Glazing roasted vegetables makes them even better