A Dozen Indispensable Ingredients for Spanish Food

Fundamental Foods for Spanish Cooking

Olive oil and green olives shot from above
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The Spanish cook makes sure that her (or his) pantry is well-stocked with the essential ingredients used daily in Spanish food. Check this list against the contents of your pantry. You probably already have all or most of the items. Spanish cooking uses lots of olive oil, garlic, fresh or canned tomatoes and other basic ingredients found in most kitchens. If you are missing anything, go to the store and stock up!

You’ll need at least 1 liter or quart of extra virgin oil. If you prefer a lighter taste, try "ordinary virgin olive oil", but skip bottles labeled "blended" or "light”! They won't have much flavor and you cannot be sure of the quality you are buying because those terms are not regulated. In addition to olive oil, make sure to have some lighter tasting oil on hand like Canola oil, in case you want a flavor that is not as strong. To learn more about what's important, read Buying Spanish Olive Oil and read Tips for Frying with Spanish Olive Oil.

Make sure that you have at least 2 heads of garlic on hand at all times. If you do not normally cook with garlic, make sure to store it in a cool, dry place and before you start any recipe that calls for it, check to make sure it is not dried out or sprouting. If it is, toss it and buy fresh heads. When buying garlic, look for solid, firm heads, not light-feeling or hollow ones.

Learn more about garlic and "garlicky" Spanish recipes!

Peppers, also called chile, chili or chilli peppers are native to the Americas and quickly became part of the Spanish diet. In Spanish food, peppers or pimientos are used in many different kinds of dishes. There are an unlimited number of recipes for peppers stuffed with fish or meat.

The Spanish also dry peppers and grind them into a fine powder, making paprika or pimenton.

Spanish paprika or pimenton is an essential food to stock and such a prized ingredient, that there are now 2 "Denominations of Origin" for paprika in Spain. Spanish Paprika can be sweet or spicy, smoked or not. Sweet Spanish paprika can be found in upscale supermarkets and Spanish food stores. If you cannot find it in your area, check online sources, like La Española Meats. Using inferior paprika will alter the flavor. Learn about Spanish paprika, how it is made, and the different types available in this article on Spanish Paprika or Pimentón.

  •  Eggs

Keep a dozen large eggs on hand. A typical potato omelet or tortilla de patata for four takes 5-6 eggs by itself. Many recipes for Spanish desserts require at least 2 eggs.

  •  Potatoes

Potatoes are such an essential ingredient in so many Spanish soups, stews, casseroles and side dishes. Keep a 5 or 10 lb. bag on hand.

Like all Mediterranean people, the Spanish enjoy tomatoes many ways - fresh or cooked in lots of different kinds of dishes. Make sure to have on hand both fresh tomatoes, as well as a couple cans of tomato sauce and a large can of crushed tomatoes.

  •  Spanish Wine

A bottle of red wine and one of white - both on hand for cooking. If your kitchen is hot or you live in a warmer climate, store any open wine bottles in the fridge to prevent them from going bad. (Storing wine in the refrigerator won’t effect the taste if you are cooking with it.) Read about each wine-producing region in Spain in our Drinks Category. La Rioja wines are wonderfully delicious for drinking, too!

  •  Parsley

Parsley is used so much in Spanish food that butchers in Spain give it away! In the USA, buy what is called Italian parsley, since it is the type with the flat leaves, rather than curly leaves. If the parsley in your refrigerator has wilted a bit, freshen it up: Trim the stems and place in a tall glass of water in the refrigerator for an hour.

  •  Onions

Keep 3-4 onions on hand - preferably yellow onions.

They are used in the famous Spanish omelets and most Spanish main courses and side dishes. You may also wish to have a red onion on hand for salads, since they do not have as strong a flavor and are a bit sweeter.

  •  Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano and Saffron

Rosemary, thyme and oregano are the three main spices that you’ll find in most Spanish food recipes. Be sure to have a supply on hand - fresh or dried. If you buy dried spices, be sure to use them within about a year. If you don't, toss them and buy fresh bottles. Saffron is exotic and slightly pricey. It is the spice that gives the rice in paella a beautiful golden yellow. Saffron is actually a tiny part of the crocus flower and must be harvested by hand, so that keeps the price high. Most supermarkets carry it in the spice isle.

  •  French-Style Bread

Several baguettes or barras should be on hand at all times. French-style bread is essential to a Spanish meal. Bread is served at every Spanish meal and with Spanish tapas and the merienda, or afternoon snack. We suggest you buy bakery-fresh bread and freeze 2-3 baguettes, taking them out to thaw as you need them. If you need less than a whole loaf, frozen baguettes are easy to break in two by a quick whack against the counter’s edge - then return the other half to the freezer.

  •  Milk

At least a half gallon of whole or 2% milk should be on hand at all times. Spanish soups and many desserts, like flan call for it. Don’t forget that you’ll need it for the café con leche in the morning and the Spanish hot chocolate on cold nights.