Not long ago, a new friend asked me a question that I did not have a ready answer for:
How do you stock a pantry?
The question stumped me because a) I hadn’t (ever?) given the matter much thought–it was just something that we did–and b) it really depends on how you cook.
Still, as the week went on I thought more and more about pantry basics and what tips I could offer her. And if I’m going to answer the question for one person, maybe there are more out there who could benefit from my answers.
Let’s take this group by group, shall we?
We don’t use a whole lot of canned goods (we prefer frozen veggies to canned, for instance) but there are a few canned items that we keep around for convenience on a regular basis:
- Beans (kidney, white and black–great for a dip or quick soup or stew when you haven’t had the forethought to soak dried)
- Artichoke Hearts
- Coconut Milk
- Roasted Red Bell Peppers (which we use in place of diced tomatoes or any other tomato products, you might want to keep different types of tomatoes on hand in addition to a jar of pasta sauce if that’s something you’re likely to eat often)
- Beef and Chicken Stocks
- Peanut Butter and Jelly (even grown ups get those cravings now and then)
- Minced garlic (fresh may be best but we go through so much garlic, it makes more sense to buy it minced in a jar–a big one–than to chop it ourselves practically every night)
Grains, Pasta, etc.
Variety is always good here: grains can easily extend a smaller meal when unexpected guests arrive and are a healthy filler for hungry tummies or when comfort food is desired.
- At least three shapes of pasta noodles: orzo or couscous, rotini or ziti and spaghetti or fettuccine–each type works with different types of sauces and there are plenty of other options available. Buying what you can find in whole wheat is a healthy alternative to the more processed varieties and something we look for.
- Rice, both white and brown, along with arborio if you like risotto
- Barley, quinoa or bulgur wheat (alternatives to rice and great additions to soups)
- Dried beans (the same variety as canned or in place of canned)
- Oatmeal (quick/rolled oats, not instant, for baking OR breakfast; steel cut are also nice if you have the time to prepare them)
This is a catch-all for whatever doesn’t fit anywhere else, really. Everything from baking supplies to breadcrumbs fall in here.
- Flour (all-purpose at minimum, whole wheat, rice and gram flours are also nice to have on hand)
- Sugars (white, brown–light or dark is mostly personal preference, no matter what the recipe says, and powdered will get you through most scenarios)
- Baking soda
- Baking powder
- Salt (iodized is okay for the salt shaker but kosher is better for cooking)
- Breadcrumbs (buy plain and season them yourself when needed)
- Sliced bread or large tortillas for sandwiches
Oils, Vinegars, etc.
All fats are not evil, especially when used in moderation. They help keep your food from sticking as well as add and carry flavors. Vinegars and condiments add all sorts of flavor on their own and are worth keeping a decent variety around.
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Peanut or Canola oil (for frying, mostly, if you deep fry at all)
- Vinegars (regular is good for dying Easter eggs or cleaning; apple cider, rice, white wine and red wine are all wonderful for cooking with)
- Soy Sauce (or Teriyaki sauce or both)
- Mustard (we prefer brown or whole grain to yellow)
- Relishes and chutneys (whatever sounds good, a couple to have on hand to spice up a basic dish)
Having covered most of the basics (at least that I can think of at the moment), there are things we keep on hand because we like them more than being necessities.
- Raisins and other dried fruit (for topping salads)
- Sunflower seeds or Pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
- Chocolate-filled Oreos (a decided weakness)
- Doritos (Todd’s snack of choice)
- Chocolate chips
Beyond the Cabinets
Of course, dry goods, cans and boxes are only part of the picture. A well-stocked kitchen also includes the fridge and wherever you keep your produce.
You want to keep some obvious basics around and chilled for any recipe contingency.
- Butter (unsalted sticks are the most versatile)
- Milk (fat content or soy-substitutes are up to you)
- Eggs (large eggs are the most common size called for in recipes)
- Sour Cream OR Plain Greek-style Yogurt (we like the latter for health reasons and it’s easy to dress up sweet or savory)
- Cream Cheese
And speaking of cheese, it’s good to have a few types around but which ones and what form to buy? We tend to buy shredded cheddar, mozzarella and grated Parmesan the most often; sliced provolone is Todd’s favorite for sandwiches. Of course, if you own a box grater and a knife you can buy blocks of cheese (which are usually cheaper than the pre-shredded or -sliced) and break them down yourself for greater flexibility.
Fruits and Veggies
Produce is going to depend on seasonality and what you’re cooking. We’re more than happy to buy frozen veggies when fresh isn’t as available, but we love the fresh the best. Fruits we concentrate less on (though Todd has to have his daily banana). Here are some to keep on hand no matter what (fresh or frozen is up to you):
- Onions (yellow or white, mostly, with the occasional red onion thrown in for variety)
- Potatoes (mealy and sweet for baking, waxy for boiling and mashing and red for roasting)
- Bell Peppers, green and red
- Tomatoes when is season (off-season fresh tomatoes have zero flavor and aren’t worth the money)
- Lemons and limes
- Green Beans
- Green Peas
- Romaine Hearts
Some things you’ll only buy every now and then, others (like produce) will need constant replenishment. I didn’t even touch on spices because that’s a post all it’s own and a collection you’ll definitely build over time. And I wouldn’t suggest anyone take this list and buy everything on it in one fell swoop (that would be a serious budget-killer) but to build up to this level over time. If you do, you can make many meatless meals as well as transform any fish, shellfish or meat from boring to extraordinary.