Our culinary expert Sam, a student at the CIA, has put together his list of pantry essentials. The full list will cost about $100 at any large supermarket (we priced it at Fresh Direct in NYC) but if you are living solo or have minimal space, you could get started with $50 or even less. If you are living in a roommate situation, it would be smart to invest in the pantry basics together.
PANTRY ESSENTIALS by Sam
Having a kitchen that is outfitted with all your new equipment isn’t worth anything if there is no food to cook. Shopping every day is not an option for most people so stocking your pantry with a varied base of non-perishable products is important. It will allow you to cook satisfying meals without planning a trip to the market (or the pizza place) every time you’re hungry.
Canned Food: Food keeps almost indefinitely in a sealed can. Having a variety of canned foods on hand can help you quickly prepare dishes that would otherwise be quite time consuming. If you like beans, I recommend buying cans of at least three different varieties to keep in your pantry, i.e black beans, kidney beans, and cannellini (white) beans. You can use them in soups, chili, stir frys, pastas, paired with rice, or cooked/mashed into a puree. I also like to buy canned chickpeas which can be used to make hummus, falafel, or just rinsed, salted, and used as a garnish on a simple salad.
To make delicious soups, rice dishes, and sauces, stock or broth is almost always better than water (I say almost because I would sometime prefer to use water than some of those super artificial, salty canned broths). If you are buying canned (or boxed) stock, buy one that has real vegetables and meats in the ingredients list, i.e chicken bones, onions, carrots, celery, leeks, etc. Buy small containers or beef, chicken, and vegetable stock. Some stock is sold in a six-pack of 8 fl.oz boxes. If you open an entire quart of chicken stock and use a cup of it, freeze the rest to use later.
Even in our classes at the Culinary Institute of America we use canned tomatoes. Canned tomatoes can be used to create outstanding dishes. I recommend buying cans of whole, peeled tomatoes in tomato puree, or canned, diced tomatoes. They can be cooked with vegetables until the tomatoes break down to make a pasta sauce, or cooked with bacon and chicken stock, pureed, and strain to make a delicious cream of tomato soup (strain out the solids and save the liquid, puree the solids well and adjust the thickness with some of the reserved liquid. Add hot cream). If you have fresh tomatoes but there aren’t enough, go ahead and combine them with canned tomatoes to “stretch” them.
If you don’t have the time to make your own, pasta sauce and canned soups are always great to have on hand. If you like coconut milk, buy a can and see how delicious simmered rice is with coconut milk, sauteed onions, ginger, garlic, and cilantro (blend the coconut milk, sauteed vegetables, and raw cilantro in a blender, bring to a simmer, season with salt and pepper and add the rice. Garnish with sliced scallions).
Spices: Every kitchen should have a basic spice rack, shelf, drawer, etc. You can start with the obvious: Salt, it makes the world go round. Almost as important as salt is your black pepper. Buy a pepper mill and whole peppercorns and crack them yourself. They will stay fresher, you’ll thank me. In addition to salt and pepper I recommend, as a start, buying garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, curry powder, cayenne pepper, paprika, crushed red chili flakes, dried oregano, dried rosemary, dried thyme, dried parsley, dried bay leaves, ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, ground allspice, and whole cloves. Note: fresh herbs have infinitely more flavor than their dried counterparts, so if you really want to wow someone (or yourself) with a dish that has truly developed flavors, I would fork over the cash for a bundle of fresh thyme or a sprig of fragrant rosemary. (If you want build you spice shelf slowly, start with salt, pepper and 2-3 other spices you like and add more over time.)
Baking: If you like to bake, or just like the idea of baking, you need to have a few staples on hand. All-purpose flour is a middle of the road flour, not too high in gluten to be delicate but has enough gluten and protein to make pasta dough in a pinch. Sugar: Just a bag of plain old sugar can get you by in most cases, from your morning coffee to chocolate chip cookies. Brown sugar can be useful as well. Baking powder and baking soda are essential ingredients in many baking recipes. Packets of instant yeast are cheap, keep well, and allow you to make your own pizza dough in minutes (flour, warm water, yeast, salt, and oil). Buy some vanilla extract and you will find a use for it.
Oil and Vinegar: Next we have your basic oils and vinegars. I usually like to have at least two kinds of oil in the kitchen: canola oil (or other vegetable oil) for pan-frying, sauteing, or other things that require high heat. For other uses I prefer olive oil. I buy an olive oil with a nice flavor and use it for dressings, lightly cooking vegetables or proteins, dipping bread, or drizzling over a plate right before eating. Cooking exclusively with olive oil is not only expensive, but will give you that olive oil taste in places where it might not be desired. It’s good to keep some “neutral oil” too, oil that has no distinct taste and generally can be used at a higher temperature than olive oil without breaking down/smoking.
Depending on what you are cooking, different vinegars may be called for. Use cheap white vinegar when the flavor isn’t that important, like when adding vinegar to water before making poached eggs. In the professional kitchen, as well as at home I use a variety of vinegars for their distinctly different flavors. If you have ever tasted a dish and thought, “this needs something…”, chances are it was either salt or some acidity. Apple cider vinegar, white wine vinegar, red wine vinegar, and balsamic vinegar will all prove useful in brightening up your food and exploring different recipes in your kitchen. Note, buying the cheapest possible vinegar at the supermarket is not the best idea. Go mid-priced if you want a more pleasant flavor. Buying a variety of vinegars is optional but is worth it in the long run. I also like to cook with soy sauce, Sriracha (a spicy thai chili condiment), rice wine vinegar, and sesame oil when the mood for Asian flavors strikes.
Pasta, grains, and rice: You can buy a bag of rice that will keep for ages and use it little by little. Some rice comes in re-sealable bags to keep out pantry pests. If you like pasta, buy a variety of styles to keep it interesting; rigatoni, penne, farfalle, etc. Keeping bags of corn meal will allow you to make polenta, grits, and cornbread. Instant oatmeal makes a nice breakfast, and quinoa is a delicious, protein rich grain that is good as a substitute for rice, as well as cold, tossed with vegetables and dressed as a salad.
Finally, you’ll probably want to have on hand some mustard, ketchup and coffee or tea.
Once your pantry is stocked with a variety of basic, non-perishable food stuffs, all that you need to do is combine them with some fresh meats and vegetables, to create a quick, interesting meal that will leave you satisfied. You can use these meal “foundations” as a way of streamlining and simplifying the cooking process, or as a means of building your creativity and flexibility in the kitchen by challenging yourself to use the same basic ingredients in as many ways as possible. You would be amazed as what you can come up with when you have a well stock pantry at your disposal, the combinations are endless! Just don’t forget to buy a can opener…
Here’s my full pantry essentials list. If you want to get started slowly, I have highlighted the items that I’d buy first.
Canned Beans, Canned Stock/Broth, Canned Tomatoes, Pasta Sauce , Canned Soup Coconut Milk, Basic Spices (see list), All-Purpose Flour, White Sugar, Brown Sugar, Baking Powder/Baking Soda, Instant yeast, Vanilla Extract, Canola Oil, Olive Oil, Sesame Oil, White Vinegar, Apple Cider Vinegar, White Wine Vinegar, Red Wine Vinegar, Rice Wine Vinegar, Balsamic Vinegar, Soy Sauce, Hot Sauce, Rice, Dry Pasta, Cornmeal, Instant Oatmeal, Quinoa, Mustard, Ketchup, Coffee, Tea