When I'm invited into a friend or neighbor's home, I always notice that the books and knicknacks tell much about their owner's personality and preferences. Of course my favorite room is the kitchen, and that's where you really see how people live and what they are about.
On the theory that I should let others look into my life if I want to look into theirs, I'm taking you on a tour of my pantry. Rather than just aimlessly wandering though, I decided to figure out which pantry items are essential to the meals that I regularly prepare. Initially I tried to limit myself to 10 items, but ended up with 15. This list does not include my favorite herbs or spices (covered earlier) or refrigerated items, which I’ll cover soon in a separate post. Several of the listed essentials are categories rather than single ingredients, but the list still gives you a sense for unrefrigerated ingredients I keep on hand for routine cooking and baking.
My 15 Pantry Essentials
- Flour (Actually a grain under the nutrition guidelines, but I'm listing it separately for these purposes.) – All purpose white for baking and cooking, along with cake flour (finer than all purpose) for baking recipes that call for it. I keep whole wheat in the refrigerator, so it isn’t included here.
- Sugar – White for baking, confectioner’s sugar for dusting cakes instead of frosting (poppy seed and apple cakes especially) and demerara (raw) for lattes. I refrigerate light and dark brown once they are opened to keep them from getting stiff.
- Oils – Always canola and olive, sometimes safflower for cooking, with olive oil also for salad dressing. I keep a few other oils refrigerated too.
- Vinegars – Red wine, red and white balsamic, sherry, cider, (plain) white and unseasoned rice wine. I use all of them in different salad dressings, red balsamic for dessert sauce, and the others as a component in many stir-fry or other dishes that call for a bit of zip.
- Rice – Long grain (for “standard” and stir-fries), arborio (for risotto), jasmine (because it smells so good) and basmati (for Indian dishes).
- Beans – Chick peas, split peas, lentils, black beans, kidney and others such as cannellini. Many great chefs advise using dried beans, but sometimes I don't have enough time to make them, so I also keep canned on hand for last minute cooking. Great for soup, chili, refried beans and many more dishes.
- Tomatoes - Large cans of whole tomatoes for stew-type dishes, dried for using with basil in olive oil, and tomato paste for sauces.
- Pasta – Too many types to name, including long spaghetti-type, shorter bow-ties (farfalle) or rotelle, and Jewish-style egg noodles for kugel.
- Whole grains – Barley, cous cous, cornmeal, oatmeal and brown rice. I'm trying to like quinoa, a nutritious whole grain, but haven’t yet found quinoa recipes that I like enough to make it one of my pantry essentials. Barley is great for soup and cooked by itself, cous cous salad is great and hot cous cous is one of my staple hot side dishes. Although I prefer the taste of white rice, I do use brown when I’m trying to be “good” and I’m experimenting with brown jasmine and brown basmati as good alternatives to “regular” brown.
- Boxed broth – Chicken, beef, and vegetable. I use it in place of part or all of the water in rice to give rice an extra kick, often with chopped and sautéed onion and red bell pepper. It’s also a great starter for soup and sauces.
- Breadcrumbs – I’m on a panko kick these days, preferring these crunchy, Japanese breadcrumbs to the American version. I also try to keep homemade in the freezer. I use breadcrumbs primarily for chicken cutlets and vegetables such as fried green tomatoes, but also for casserole toppings.
- Cornstarch – For thickening sauces, especially in stir-fries.
- Baking Powder – Essential for baking.
- Baking Soda – Essential for baking.
- Chocolate – Essential for baking and eating, plain and in treats such as chocolate bark. I keep more types than I should admit to stocking and will cover chocolate in more detail in a separate post. Bars of unsweetened, bittersweet, and semi sweet and at least semi-sweet chips are always around, as is unsweetened cocoa for baking.
If you have an empty pantry that you’d like to fill, I hope my 15 essentials help you start a shopping list. Of course, you'll tailor it to your own eating habits, needs, and dietary restrictions. If you have a well-stocked pantry, I'd love to hear what other items you consider pantry essentials.