Molly Broder remembers it like it was yesterday.
When she and her husband, Tom, opened Broder's Cucina Italiana in 1982, "no one in Minnesota had even heard of balsamic vinegar," she said. "Olive oil was almost impossible to find. Grocery stores only carried a tiny pyramid-shaped bottle called Pompeii, enough for one rarely cooked recipe."
What a difference a generation makes. Actually, in kitchen terms, countless generations have transpired in just a few decades as items once considered esoteric have expanded kitchen shelves exponentially.
The result: Today's pantries are truly, madly, deeply richer and fuller than 30, 20, even 10 years ago. The quantity and quality of packaged food has skyrocketed, and so has its availability. Once found only at ethnic markets and co-ops, now most grocery stores carry expansive selections.
The cupboards of enthusiastic home cooks have dozens of new and/or improved products — oils and vinegars, pastas and rices, spices and sauces — that were nowhere to be found in 1982.
"Think about how all those things are staples now," Broder said.
We have people like Broder and Dave Cossetta (owner of the St. Paul restaurant of the same name) to thank. And the purveyors of United Noodles and the now-shuttered Asia Imports. Plus El Burrito Mercado and Holy Land and Penzey's spices and — perhaps most of all — local importers such as Great Ciao for seeking out new and better products and bringing them to the heartland.
"We have red and green curry pastes that [are] really nice to make a quick meal," said Brenda Langton, an ardent champion of quality ingredients as chef/owner of the now-closed Cafe Brenda and Spoonriver. "The hippies had brown rice, and now we have not only brown rice but quinoa. Organic wheat, preserved lemons, pomegranate relish, Thai peanut sauce, I don't think we had them back then."
And it's not just savory fare in play here. "Even jellies, jams, mostarda have become incredibly diverse," Broder said. "Honey has become blossom-focused, instead of the old honey bear. Now it is honey from thyme blossoms, chestnut blossoms, acacia and a thousand flowers."
New and improved
While there is a bit of "what's old is new again," several other factors have come into play, including the rampant uptick of interest in gastronomy in general. That interest only intensified when millennials came of age, prompting producers to enhance their offerings.
Perhaps most important, the culinary world has gotten flatter, even in the heart of the Midwest. Boomers might have grown up with chow mein, tacos and spaghetti with meatballs, but as adults they embraced, and exposed their offspring to, much broader interpretations of those cuisines — and a raft of new ones.
Take pesto and mole. They were then-exotic additions to restaurant menus that people loved so much that they started making them at home. Today, tasty renditions are readily available in a jar. As are Sriracha, preserved lemons and peanut sauce. High-quality pastes — tomato, anchovy, curry, lemongrass — come in handy tubes. Once-exotic (and rare) noodles — udon, stir-fry, orzo, bucatini — are on their way to becoming ubiquitous.
All of which has made folks such as Minnetonka's Caroline Bach one happy cook. Bach, who actually took over cooking duties from her mother at age 16 in North Dakota because "I wanted some food with taste in it," now has a cabinet lazy Susan with dozens of spices. Perched on it are old-school staples such as celery salt ("a very underused spice") and cardamom ("because I'm married to a Norwegian") but also formerly obscure products such as pimenton, fennel seeds and herbes de Provence.
Bach makes her own rubs but also adores curry and lemongrass pastes, dried shallots and better-than-ever anchovies. "You put it in a roast, and it really adds richness to the sauce," she said.
Having different levels of balsamic vinegar is also a boon, she said, enriching her salad dressings and even her chocolate-chip cookies. (She said it "gives them a new depth.")
A healthy bent
In more recent years, the range of products has expanded in several directions as consumers became more health-focused, above and beyond the gluten-free furor. The probiotics movement has made the likes of kimchi, kombucha, miso and tempeh kitchen staples.
"So much changed when people started paying attention to gut health," said Stephanie Meyer, owner of Project Vibrancy Meals and author of the e-book "Kickass Condiments." "Purchased condiments have changed very dramatically, even in the last five years."
Concern over what they were putting in their gut also motivated people to pay more attention to the ingredients list on labels, Meyer added. That has meant goods such as sugar-free ketchup, which is made with maple syrup or honey, and salad dressings with more organic ingredients, less sugar and sodium and no vegetable oil. "I've even found [such salad dressings] at Aldi," Meyer said.
Langton also is an avid label-checker. "When I'm looking at jams or jellies, if sugar is the first ingredient, I don't want that," she said. "It should be fruit."
The bottom line, she added: "We're just so much more diverse now. And we're smarter about what we're eating."
Innovations for the oven
When talking about the pantry's evolution, let's not forget baking essentials.
A nonedible item, parchment paper, has been a godsend, said Minneapolis baker Kim Ode, and ditto for instant yeast.
"[It] was invented in the early 1980s by Fleischmann," she said, "so perhaps the big change was not that it appeared on the market, but that it's become a tool for respected professional bakers, which makes it OK for us amateurs to use."
Ode, a cookbook author and former Star Tribune staffer who led Taste's Baking Central for eight years, also cited a much wider range of chocolates, in terms of both brands and cacao content; new sweeteners such as Splenda and stevia (and more access to items such as demerara and Sucanat — both types of cane sugar), and freshly milled flour joining "old reliables such as spelt, millet, farro, bulgur, etc."
Most of the domestic enrichment, Ode added, involves "more items [making] their way from professional pantries into the kitchens of home bakers."
Whether you're just getting started or consider yourself an old pro, here are some staples you should be stocking.
For casual cooks:
• Kosher salt
• Black peppercorns
• Dijon mustard
• Worcestershire and soy sauces
• White, cider, balsamic, red-wine and white-wine vinegars
• Olive, vegetable and canola oils
• Chicken and beef stock and/or bouillon cubes
• Spaghetti, penne, macaroni and fettuccine
• White and brown rice
• Cannellini beans and chickpeas
• Canned whole tomatoes and Rotel (diced tomatoes with chiles)
• Instant yeast
For enthusiastic cooks:
• Sea salt(s)
• White peppercorns
• Spices such as smoked paprika, fennel and cumin seeds and blends such as lemon-pepper, herbes de Provence, garam masala, five-spice powder and Cajun
• Sesame and peanut oils
• Sherry and rice-wine vinegars
• Brown mustard and honey mustard
• Hoisin or tamari and fish sauces
• Green salsa
• Jarred pesto and harissa
• Blossomed honey and pure maple syrup
• Orzo, linguine, farfalle and bucatini, plus stir-fry noodles
• Tomato paste and ginger in a tube
• Red and green curry paste
• Basmati and carnaroli rice, quinoa and bulgur/barley
• Anchovies and tuna packed in oil
• Artichoke hearts
• Pine nuts
• Capers packed in salt
• Dried chiles
• Bouillon paste
For the home pro:
• Za'atar spice blend
• Palm sugar
• Coconut, avocado, sunflower or safflower and chili oils
• Jarred arrabbiata, vodka and Alfredo sauces
• Oyster and Thai peanut sauces
• Coconut milk
• Boquerones (fresh-cured anchovies)
• Miso paste
• Mostarda (an Italian condiment made with fruit in a mustard-flavored syrup)
• Preserved lemons
• Mole sauce
• Anchovy and lemongrass paste in a tube
• Carnaroli rice
• Udon noodles
• Dried fava beans (with a nice Chianti)
Bill Ward is a Twin Cities freelance writer and the author of decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.