Global Pantry Series: Greek Cooking Essentials
Taking our pantry series back to the Mediterranean, it’s no surprise that Greek cooks work with a small foundation of ultra flavorful, often healthful ingredients. The country’s cuisine is popular all around the world, and the Greek diet is often hailed as the most healthy way of eating out there thanks to its reliance on heart-healthy olive oil, seafood, legumes, and fresh produce. Due to its well-earned popularity among home cooks and diners alike, these must-have ingredients can be sourced at most grocery stores these days. If you’ve already got most of the ingredients on our list and are looking to expand your horizons, we encourage you to seek out a Greek speciality market. They’ll have a treasure trove of ingredients like house brined feta, a dizzying array of marinated olives, and freshly baked pita. Plus, they typically serve up dishes that are native to the Greek isles like Dolma, Baklava, and Spanakopita right there while you shop!
Extra Virgin Greek Olive Oil
Olive Oil, like wine, varies in flavor by geography. The hotter the climate, the bolder the flavor. Plus, each country uses grapes native to their region. Different grapes = different flavors. Greek Olive Oil has a mild green coloring, low acidity, and strong flavor while Italian Olive Oil is a darker green with nuttier, herbal notes. Spanish, on the other hand, is golden in color. So you see…not all olive oils are made equal. Olive Oil is a staple in Mediterranean cooking in general. While shopping for olive oil, it’s important to look at the origin of the olives. Many bottles bought in America are a blend of Spanish, Italian, and Greek olives and not authentically Greek.
Red Wine Vinegar
They say oil and vinegar don’t mix – but we can’t imagine a Greek kitchen without these star ingredients! Greeks use predominantly balsamic and red wine vinegar but it’s helpful to have white wine vinegar on hand as well. Vinegar is a main ingredient for salads, especially since Greek recipes are simple. The oil and vinegar dressing gives it an extra boost of flavor that takes a salad from fresh and tasty to mind-blowing. There are, of course, many other purposes for vinegar like sauces and soups but salads are where they really get to shine.
Olives & Capers
Olives are found widely throughout Greek cooking, and both lend briny, salty flavor to a variety of dishes. Marinated olives are a pantry staple on their own for easy appetizers and roasted olives are found throughout the country in different dishes. Greek cuisine relies heavily on Kalamata and Green Olives, but there are over 100 different types – so don’t be surprised if you see recipes that call for other specific varieties!
Capers are immature flower buds native to the Mediterranean. They are mostly preserved through brining or salt curing, giving them a very pungent profile. Capers provide a unique flavor in dishes throughout the Mediterranean region. In Greek cuisine specifically, they’re traditionally used in salads as well as dishes with cooked tomatoes or fish. Capers can often be found in the Italian aisle of the grocery store since they’re a popular ingredient among Southern Italian dishes as well.
Fun Fact: Greece has the most bee hives in Europe! Greek honey is incredibly nutritious with anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal properties. There are multiple kinds of honey but the most popular for Greek cooking is Thyme. Others include Pine, Blossom or Wildflower, Heather, Chestnut, and Fir. Honey is used in sweet and savory dishes throughout Greek cuisine. A simple use that we absolutely love for snacking is baked goat cheese with honey. Because a lot of Greek flavors are so strong with often tangy or pungent aspects, honey is a great balancing ingredient. Other popular dishes you’ll see it used include Greek Honey Cake (Melopita), Loukoumades (Greek Honey Fritters), and Pasteli. Honey is used in a lot of pastries that use Phyllo Dough.
Phyllo Pastry (or Phyllo Dough) is a very delicate type of pastry dough rolled almost paper-thin. Make some on your own or buy sheets in the freezer section of the grocery store. Phyllo Pastry is used in popular Greek dishes like Spanakopita and Baklava. Spanakopita is a savory spinach and cheese pie that can be traced back to the days of Ancient Greece. Baklava also has ancient roots but is much more of a treat with flaky layers of phyllo and a honey-nut mixture. Phyllo is used in more recipes than just these two but they’re the ones its best known for.
Almonds, Figs & Currants
Nuts and dried fruits are common ingredients in Mediterranean cuisine. Almonds are much more popular in Greek cooking than most people realize. Greece is, in fact, one of the foremost almond producers in the world. Almonds are often roasted and candied for a sweet treat, used in Baklava in place of walnuts, or ground into flour for baking. Kourabiethes, Greek shortbread cookies, are a common Christmas treat similar to a biscuit and often found in crescent moon shapes or round balls.
Figs & Currants are both high in nutritional value and found in many Greek kitchens. Figs, in particular, are most popular dried when their nutritional value increases. It’s also the ideal way of storing the fruit long term. Currants, otherwise known as black raisins, have a bit more intense flavor compared to the average raisin. Both Currants and Figs are added into baking and sometimes as a finishing touch to savory dishes as well. They pair best with big flavors.
Herbs & Spices
If you enjoyed Greek food regularly, it’s no surprise that the most popular herbs found in this Mediterannean cuisine are Greek Oregano, Dill, and Mint. These three herbs are found fresh and dried throughout most savory Greek dishes and even some sweet. Other popular spices and herbs in Greek culture include Bay Leaves, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Cloves, and Parsley. Greek Oregano, while more pungent than Mexican Oregano, is still a bit more earthy and mild compared to Italian which is the most pungent of them all.
Dill and Mint are the other two most popular savory herbs found in Greek cooking. Dill is most popular for Tzatziki, a dip or sauce with yogurt and cucumber. Dill is also found in Spanakorizo, Greek Spinach and Rice with a healthy addition of the feathery herb. Cinnamon, Nutmeg, and Cloves are popular for sweets and baked goods. Cinnamon and Nutmeg are often used together and can also be found in a lot of lamb dishes to add warmth. Cloves are popular to use in their whole form, especially with winter dishes like stews, broths, and heartier recipes.