While you’ll find familiar ingredients like chicken and beef scattered throughout the Mediterranean, you’ll also find a lot of less familiar ingredients: grains like freekeh and farro, beans like cranberry and fava, meats like oxtail and quail, and seafood like monkfish and squid. To have success with Mediterranean cooking, you’ll have to stock your pantry with ingredients native to the Mediterranean (especially flavor building ingredients like sumac and pomegranate molasses, which the average American home cook might not have on hand). Below, you’ll find information about core pantry ingredients crucial to the Mediterranean diet.
Canned and Dried Beans
Legumes are a major source of protein in the Mediterranean diet. They are eaten simply on their own and also paired with diverse other ingredients to add heft and texture. For salads, quicker-cooking soups, and sautés, canned beans work just as well as or even better than dried; they hold their shape nicely and don’t require soaking or extended cooking. Use dried beans in recipes where the cooking of the beans builds body and flavor in the dish. Brining dried beans helps them to hold their shape during cooking and results in fewer blown-out beans.
Rice and Grains
Rice and grains are a vital part of many Mediterranean dishes. There’s also a best way to cook each grain. Grains like farro are best when cooked in a large amount of water like pasta, but finer-grained bulgur needs only to be rehydrated in water. At least half of the grains you eat should be whole grains (those that retain their original kernel); we like barley, bulgur, farro, freekeh, and wheat berries in the test kitchen.
Pasta and Couscous
Pasta takes center stage in many Mediterranean dishes but is often used in ways unfamiliar to most American home cooks. Try to use hearty whole-wheat pasta, which has an earthy flavor that pairs well with robust ingredients like pancetta and escarole. In North Africa, couscous, which is made of the same type of wheat as pasta, is popular both as a vehicle to sop up saucy dishes and stews and as a small plate in its own right. Eastern Mediterranean cuisines often use pearl couscous; its grains are larger than those of regular couscous and are toasted rather than dried, which gives them a nutty flavor.
Fresh and Dried Herbs
The brightly flavored dishes of the Mediterranean region rely on an abundance of fresh herbs, especially mint, oregano, dill, and basil, so it is helpful to keep your fridge or garden well stocked with these essentials. In the test kitchen, we use fresh herbs as a bright garnish for a large number of dishes, but they also act as main flavor components in some recipes too.
Most fresh herbs are fairly perishable, but if washed and stored correctly they will keep for a week or longer. We recommend gently rinsing and drying herbs (a salad spinner works perfectly) and then loosely rolling them in a few sheets of paper towel. Seal the roll of herbs in a zipper-lock bag and store it in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.
We also like to keep a variety of dried herbs on hand, which are great for use in long-cooked dishes like stews and braises. Although we usually use only hardy herbs such as rosemary and thyme in dried form, mint is another important dried herb in Mediterranean cuisines, valued for its earthy yet bright flavor.
Dried herbs lose their potency six to 12 months after opening, so it’s important to replace them frequently. You can test dried herbs for freshness by rubbing a small amount between your fingers; if the herbs don’t release a bright aroma, it’s time to buy a new jar. You can quickly dry hearty herbs (thyme, rosemary, oregano, and bay leaf ) in the microwave. Lay a single layer of herbs on a paper towel–lined plate and cover with a second paper towel. Microwave on high for 1 to 3 minutes, checking occasionally, until the herb appears dehydrated. Cool at room temperature and then crumble or store whole in a plastic bag.
Olives and Olive Oil
If there is one ingredient that is the emblem of Mediterranean cooking, it is olives. Of course they are best known for their use in olive oil. There are countless varieties of eating olives, from French niçoise to Greek kalamata. We recommend buying olives from the refrigerated section of your supermarket, since jarred shelf-stable ones tend to be saltier. If you have time, we recommend that you buy unpitted olives and pit them yourself, as they will be less mushy than prepitted ones. (Pitting an olive is easy: place the olive on a cutting board and hold the flat edge of a knife over it. Press the blade firmly with your hand to loosen the olive meat from the pit, then remove the pit with your fingers.)
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Spices, Spice Blends, and Pastes
The flavor combinations vary, but spices are often what make one Mediterranean cuisine distinct from another. Many of the spices used in Mediterranean cooking are probably already in your pantry, like cinnamon, paprika (both sweet and smoked), and saffron. There are also a number of spices that may be unfamiliar to you, such as sumac, which adds a floral, tangy flavor to recipes, and Aleppo pepper, which lends subtle heat to dishes.
Spice blends and pastes also add potent flavor: There’s North African ras el hanout, which can include some 25 spices, seeds, dried flowers, berries, and nuts; za’atar, a popular eastern Mediterranean blend that consists of wild thyme, sumac, sesame seeds, and salt and is used as both a seasoning and a condiment; and harissa, a North African chili paste made with hot and/or mild chiles, garlic, and oil and often cumin, coriander, and caraway. You can buy these and other spice blends, but if you can’t find them you can make your own at home.
Storing your spices out of the light and heat will extend their shelf life. Check for freshness by observing the aroma and color of your spices. When buying spices, brand makes a difference. Some of our favorites are Penzey’s Extra Fancy Vietnamese Cassia Cinnamon, The Spice House Hungarian Sweet Paprika, Simply Organic Smoked Paprika, and Morton & Bassett Saffron Threads.
Cheeses, Cured Meats, and Nuts
A little cheese (feta or goat cheese), cured meat (pancetta or chorizo), or nuts (almonds or pine nuts) goes a long way in adding rich flavor to Mediterranean dishes. For example, Paniscia, a regional Italian risotto, is flavored with bits of salami, and many pastas and vegetable salads rely on a little nutty Parmesan to boost savory flavor. Nuts are common additions to salads and are also an essential element of the North African seasoning blend dukkah.
(For long-term storage in the refrigerator, we find that cheeses are best wrapped in parchment paper and then aluminum foil. The paper allows the cheese to breathe, and the foil keeps out off-flavors and prevents the cheese from drying out. We recommend storing nuts in the freezer to prevent their natural oils from turning rancid. We often toast nuts before using them to bring out more depth of flavor.)
Yogurt: You may not think of yogurt as a condiment, but it’s used that way in much of the Mediterranean, where a small dollop is used as a topping or it’s mixed into sauces and drizzled over kebabs or falafel. We usually prefer the richer flavor of whole-milk yogurt (our favorite is Brown Cow Cream Top), but some recipes will work with low-fat yogurt as well. Our favorite Greek yogurt is Fage Total Classic Greek Yogurt. (Buy Now on Amazon | Fage Total Classic Greek Yogurt)
Tahini: Made from ground sesame seeds, tahini is used much like yogurt: It can be used as a topping on its own or as a base for sauces. It’s also an essential component of dips like hummus and baba ganoush. Our favorite brand is Joyva Sesame Tahini. (Buy Now on Amazon | Joyva Sesame Tahini)
Pomegranate molasses: A reduction of pomegranate juice, pomegranate molasses is thick and syrupy with a unique, sweet-sour flavor. You can buy it or make your own. Pomegranate molasses adds complex tanginess to many Mediterranean dishes. (Buy Now on Amazon | Pomegranate Molasses)
Preserved lemons: Preserved lemons, a specialty of North Africa, add an intense lemon flavor to many dishes. They are easy to make, and they keep for six months in the fridge.
Dukkah: This Egyptian condiment is a blend of nuts, seeds, and spices that can be sprinkled into olive oil as a dip for bread or can be used to add texture and flavor to certain Mediterranean dishes. Note: the ingredients vary depending on the brand. (Buy Now on Amazon | Dukkah)
For more information on the Mediterranean Diet, read the following posts:
- What is the Mediterranean Diet?
- 8 Easy Ways to Eat the Mediterranean Way
- Everything You Need to Know About Olive Oil
- The Mediterranean Diet Food Pyramid [INFOGRAPHIC]
What's your favorite Mediterranean cuisine? Let us know in the comments!
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Bring the Mediterranean—from Italy and Greece, to Morocco and Egypt, to Turkey and Lebanon—into your kitchen with 500+ fresh, flavorful recipes. This comprehensive cookbook translates the famously health Mediterranean diet for home cooks with a wide range of creative recipes.