Food Well Done

Deb Perelman, Eric Kim, and Other Culinary Luminaries Reveal Their Most Underrated and Overrated Ingredients

A well-stocked pantry is like a well-stocked closet. If you let a professional loose inside, they can create something that you never would have come up with on your own. That’s why, over the past year, CULTURED polled some of the food world’s brightest minds about the pantry staples that are not given enough credit—and those that get a little too much attention. As you spiff up your kitchen for 2024, take a look at these highlights from our Well Done series. The experts are here to remind us that simplicity can be the secret to a meal remembered and that sometimes, the best-kept culinary secrets are hidden in plain sight.

Hillary Dixler Canavan. Image courtesy of Eater.

Hillary Dixler Canavan, Eater’s restaurant editor

"I think tahini is underrated. Yes, people are using it now, which is great, but it can do so much more than just jump start your hummus. I use tahini for enhancing sauces for noodles. I use it for salad dressings. I use it as a topping for toast. Tahini toast with honey, that’s a great breakfast. Overrated? I’m gonna get flamed for this, but very, very, expensive tinned fish. People need to know that you don’t need the most expensive one to get what you’re after."

Portrait of Deb Perelman by Christine Han. Image courtesy of Perelman.

Deb Perelman, OG food blogger behind The Smitten Kitchen

"How long do you have? I don’t like sheet-pan gnocchi. I feel like it gets really chewy and hard. I don’t like 'spa water,' you know, when there’s stuff floating in water? Like a cucumber? It’s so gross. It just tastes like dirty water to me. And I’m like, 'How long has that stuff been floating in there?'

I have so many little things that drive me crazy. I don't like smoked cheese. I don't know what it ever did to me, it just tastes very artificial and not like real smoke. 

I think we should all be putting lemon zest in everything. I'm just a total lemon head and I feel like everything needs lemon, but a lot of times we're looking for the flavor from the juice and the real amazing fragrance and flavor comes from the peel. Can you tell I'm working on a lemon cake right now, and it's all I can think about?"

Portrait of Eric Kim by Bobbi Lin/The New York Times. Image courtesy of Kim.

Eric Kim, New York Times recipe developer and author of Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home

"Throughout my entire book tour, I’ve been shouting it from the rooftops: doenjang! It's the older cousin to gochujang—one of those very original Korean soybean pastes. It underpins so much of Korean cuisine, and yet it still hasn't had the huge globalization effect that gochujang has had. It's really good glazed over fish, especially salmon. I think the world is still figuring it out, but I'll be here when they're ready for it."

Courtney Storer working with the cast of The Bear on their culinary skills. Photography by Dae Narciso and courtesy of Storer.

Courtney Storer, chef and culinary producer of The Bear

"Simplicity is underrated. Lemon juice is underrated. Seasoning something really well is underrated. I know firsthand as a chef that I've complicated things in my own brain when I'm listening to other people. I'm like, 'Oh, I need to reinvent chicken parmesan.' Chicken parmesan is great as chicken parmesan. We don't need to reinvent it; just make a really good one."

Portrait of Angela Dimayuga by Farah Al Qasimi. Image courtesy of Dimayuga.

Angela Dimayuga, chef and activist

"Nattō. These sticky fermented soybeans are always overlooked because people are averse to the texture. But there's this deep umami that is unmatched, and lots of different applications besides just eating it sticky out of the container, like dehydrating it and making it into a powder or putting it in soups."

Image courtesy of Andrew Tarlow.

Andrew Tarlow, Brooklyn’s farm-to-table king and restaurateur 

"I mean, good tomato paste is definitely underrated. Overrated: truffles. That's probably too easy."