So if you were to walk in my kitchen right now and peek in my cabinets, what would you find? Fish sauce, black rice, and fenugreek. My kitchen is just like yours, right? If you’re a new chef, or you don’t cook much, then you might have more dishware than ingredients stashed in your cupboard.
Having the right ingredients on hand makes meal prep easy and often means the difference between take out and a home cooked meal.
My husband and I love watching shows liked Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen. It’s amazing what the chefs can make that quickly under that much pressure. Their success starts with two things: the right ingredients and the right mindset. In order to make meals fast, fresh, and tasty (the three goals I’m always chasing), you have to start with a good pantry and be savvy about your substitutions. On a side note, if you’re looking for a good substitution guide, check out this one at Common Sense Homesteading.
So how do you strategically stock your pantry?
Only buy the ingredients you like and will actually cook with. Nothing is worse than throwing something out after one use because you never found a way to use the rest of it. Learn what kind of food you like to cook and stock your cabinets appropriately. I cook a lot of French and Asian food so I keep specialty ingredients around for that purpose. Buying small quantities of herbs in the bulk section is a great way to save money when trying a new recipe or unfamiliar cuisine.
Be space conscious. I live in a tiny apartment so having five or six kinds of pasta and eight kinds of rice on hand isn’t feasible. We’ve all seen the posts about the mythical coupon queen who spends pennies to feed her family by buying in bulk. But let’s face it, 99.999%—okay maybe 87%—of the time that just doesn’t work in the real world for most people. Who has the room to store all that stuff? And besides, I’m lucky to find two $0.50 coupons that I can stack together.
Now, let’s move into my five must-haves in the pantry. I know it’s time to make a grocery run when these ingredients run out.
Herbs are the lifeblood of any pantry if you ask me. They spice up bland chicken and can take your dish in a hundred different directions when used properly. I always keep bundles of fresh rosemary, thyme, and basil in my fridge. Always. And during the summer, I grow it on my back porch. In my spice rack I keep onion powder, garlic powder, celery salt, paprika, cumin, oregano, parsley, cinnamon, cloves, and dried ginger. More exotic spices like coriander, fennel seeds, and mace also make frequent appearances.
Even though I hate tomatoes, I always keep a small can of tomato paste in my pantry. It’s my secret ingredient for stews, soups, sauces, and braised meats. Bonus points if you sauté it briefly in the pan before deglazing like Geoffrey Zakarian does. You can buy it by the tube (kind of pricey) or by the can ($0.69).
This seems like an obvious one, but having a selection of starches is important. I always have jasmine rice, arborio rice (for risotto), potatoes, spaghetti noodles, and penne pasta on hand. These all cook quickly and give you lots of variety.
I don’t think I’ve ever walked out of the grocery store without buying a lemon. They last for weeks in the fridge and they brighten the flavor of almost anything. You can toss them in a parchment or foil packet with fish, you can use them in marinades, and you can use them in baking (hello, lemon pound cake).
Maybe it’s my German heritage, but I always keep onions in my kitchen. They make a great base for roasted meats, are invaluable to stews, and when caramelized, add a ton of flavor to whatever you put them on. I usually stick to yellow onions and Vidalia varieties when they are in season.
So, the next time you go to the store, make sure you add these to your grocery list. As always, happy cooking!