One of the easiest ways to set yourself up for success in the kitchen is to have a well stocked pantry. Having an arsenal of staples means you can make a quick dinner without having to think about going to the grocery store. I find that I’m more likely to cook when I have ingredients laying around ready for me. And since many pantry staples like oil, salt, pasta and beans have a long shelf life, a well stocked pantry makes grocery shopping a breeze. Not to mention that the more you cook, the more affordable it is. A bag of onions is way cheaper than buying one at a time, and the shelf life is easily a week or two. The trick is figuring out which staples you are really going to use and which will lay around taking up space. If you are cooking every day, several different oils and vinegars in your pantry can make sense, but most people really only need 2 bottles (extra virgin and vegetable or canola) to make any meal under the sun. So stock up that pantry with essentials and cook with abandon.
◊ Salt: If you are only going to have one salt in your kitchen, it should be kosher salt. For my everyday salt, I use Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt. The big crystals make it easy to grad with your fingers, giving you lots of control over your seasoning. If you want to get fancy with finishing salts, there are dozens to choose from, himalayan pink, truffle, smoked, but my favorite for finishing is Maldon Sea Salt.
◊ Pepper: Black peppercorns and a pepper mill is really all you need, but red chili flakes, cayenne and white pepper will cover you for all your basic heat needs.
◊ Oil: As I wrote above, with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Canola or Vegetable Oil, you can cook anything under the sun. If you do a lot of deep frying, peanut oil might be an option to consider as well.
◊ Vinegar: I must confess that I have a bit of a vinegar addiction. In my pantry are literally a dozen different bottles. Honestly though, cider and red wine vinegar will work for most kitchen tasks and recipes. The next most commonly called for bottle would be balsamic, and I have a very special love for Sherry vinegar. I always have a big jug of plain old white vinegar as well, if you are making pickles its a good choice, but I also use it for cleaning.
◊ Sweeteners: Granulated sugar and honey is all you need. If you love baking cookies, I’d add brown sugar to the mix. Love cupcakes and homemade frosting? Then you want to add powdered or confectioners sugar. Agave and maple syrup have their uses, but they definitely aren’t necessities.
◊ Flour: If you are only going to have one flour in your pantry, I’d definitely recommend King Arthur All-Purpose Unbleached. Bread flour, whole wheat flour, cake flour and cornstarch all have their places and advantages, but good old AP will work to dredge fried chicken, make pancake batter, and even bread.
◊ Specialty Flours: I really like the Bob’s Red Mill brand of flours and grains. I use their semolina (for pastas, pizzas, breads), almond flour (macarons), tapioca starch (ice cream), and while it has nothing to do with baking, don’t forget the grains and lentils.
◊ Leavening: Baking soda, baking powder, and cream of tarter are all common leaveners for basic baking along with Active Dry Yeast if you are interested in baking bread.
◊ Miscellaneous: Pure vanilla extract is a must, almost all dessert recipes use it. If you love chocolate, I love Valhrona Chocolate bars and cocoa. I have a hard time finding it in Orlando though, so for cocoa I often use Scharffen Berger, and for bars/chips I stick with Ghiradelli or E. Guittard. There is absolutely nothing wrong though with standard Nestle Morsels. Other popular things to consider are dried fruit, oatmeal, sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, chopped nuts, peanut butter and applesauce. I’ve listed those under baking, but dried fruit, nuts, peanut butter, applesauce and oatmeal also make for great breakfast, granola, or just plain snacks.
◊ Rice: Long grain white rice will serve you well for both pilafs and Asian dishes where you need plain white rice. Brown rice, risotto rice, and the dozens of other specialty rices are great and have a long shelf life, but in the beginning, long grain white rice is all you need.
◊ Pasta: Standard dry pasta comes in a myriad of shapes and lasts forever in the pantry. Egg noodles, orzo, chinese noodles, rice noodles, wheat pasta, cous cous and more are all tasty and last a long time, but I’d suggest starting slow. I always have more noodles than I need taking up space.
◊ Grains: Quinoa, farro, bulghur, polenta are all pretty easy to make and last at least a year in your pantry.
◊ Anchovies: Maybe you already like anchovies, maybe they frighten the dickens out of you. If you are one of the latter, it’s probably because you haven’t eaten the right anchovies. There are a lot of inferior, fishy products out there, but when they are good, they add a depth of flavor and salty umami kick that can’t be beaten. Remember that anchovies are a main ingredients in things like caesar dressing and worcestershire and fish sauce, so you may already be consuming and loving that anchovy flavor without knowing it. My favorite brand is Ortiz, and their personal packed anchovies are super convenient cause you don’t need to open a huge can or jar.
◊ Beans: I usually use canned beans. In the rare cases that I do use dried, I prefer Rancho Gordo beans, but I just don’t seem to ever think about it early enough to get them soaking the night before. So whenever I’m using beans in a recipe, they are probably from a can. And my can of choice? Goya. Every time. They are tender without being mushy, although for most dishes, I do rinse off the thick liquid they are canned in.
◊ Broth or Stock: I prefer to have homemade in my freezer, but I always have bought stuff around cause it is so dang useful. I don’t use my precious homemade stock for things like cous cous. Even in soups, I will often go half homemade and half store bought since I don’t want to have to make stock every weekend. For this category I have a tie as well, depending on purpose. For soups, my go to is Swanson’s Certified Organic Chicken Broth. It has a clean chicken flavor that is great. When I want something a little more intense (for deglazing a pan, making sauces, etc) my favorite is Kitchen Basics Chicken Stock. It is a darker color, has more body, and a richer flavor. One big note, I do not use stock or broth from a can, I prefer from those aseptic packages. It might be in my mind, but I feel like I can taste metal in canned stocks.
◊ Tomatoes: Whether it is sauce, whole tomatoes, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, there are so many tomato products that I use and a handful that I love. For canned tomatoes, I like Carmellina, San Marzano or Muir Glen, I think they give a slightly sweet, fruity tomato flavor. For tomato sauce and puree, I am a big fan of the Pomi in the aseptic packages. For tomato paste, San Marzano wins again. A couple of new loves for me, Cento now has canned whole cherry tomatoes that I’m loving as well.
◊ Miscellaneous: I love olives, capers (salt packed are even better than brined if you can find them), and roasted red peppers in jars, not to mention tuna, salsa, and canned chiles, whether chipotles in adobo or pickled green chiles. And lets not forget general pickles.
◊ Produce: Onions, carrots, celery and garlic make up the flavor base for so many recipes, I always have these on hand. Also, fresh citrus is great and I would consider lemons a necessity.
◊ Dairy and Eggs: Milk, eggs and butter are essentials in the kitchen. I would also have to add cheese to that list, but that just might be me. The one cheese that I do think is essential and has a long shelf life in the fridge, good old Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s used in so many dishes it’s a necessity. Please don’t use the dried powder in the green container. It just makes me sad.
◊ Condiments: Mayonnaise, mustard, catsup, worcestershire, hot sauce and jam/jelly will always get use.
◊ Meat: People forget how easy it is to pick up meat when its on sale and just pop it in your freezer. From ground beef to sausages to chicken breast, they hold up in the freezer for months. And don’t forget to freeze your bacon. I freeze it with paper between every 2 slices so I can pull out only what I need.
◊ Seafood: If you aren’t one for frozen fish, then frozen shrimp is a great staple to keep in the freezer.
◊ Frozen Veggies: While I generally prefer fresh veggies, frozen peas, corn and kale are always in my freezer. Spinach is also great, and there are veggie mixes that are decent and make for a quick weeknight meal.
ASIAN PANTRY ITEMS
If you plan on cooking a lot of Asian dishes, you are definitely going to want to add these to your pantry.
◊ Soy Sauce: I prefer the brand I grew up with, called Silver Swan, made in the Philippines. It has real soy flavor without fake sweetness. In general, its what I use, although I have branched out and started playing with other soy sauces from Asian markets depending on the cruising I’m cooking, but in general find a soy sauce with flavor you love that really has fermented soy in the ingredient list, not artificial caramel coloring that is just brown salt.
◊ Fish Sauce: I love anchovies, and fish sauce goes right up there with it. A few drops of my favorite, Red Boat 40° N (made in Vietnam) adds just the right punch to anything I made that is Asian inspired, and you’d be surprised what a few drops of this will do to your next pot roast. Like anchovies, people won’t know it’s there, they’ll just know they can’t get enough.
◊ Miscellaneous: Depending on what type of Asian cuisine you are making, items like sesame oil and rice vinegar are necessities, but other common pantry items for Asian dishes include Kombu, black bean paste, hoisin, sriracha, and tamari.