It's a weekday night and you reach into the cabinets to find the pantry essentials you need to make dinner. What's there? And what should be there? These days, there are dozens of oils, infinite types of grains, and more spices than you can shake out in a lifetime. And even though options are plentiful, if you're living in a small apartment or have a less than roomy kitchen, pantry space can be an issue. But do you really need three kinds of cooking oils or six bins of rice?
Here's what you really need in your pantry, freezer, and fridge—plus a few picks from pro chefs to stretch those basics into something great.
Essentials: There are so many cooking oils available, plus ones made specifically to go into salad dressings, flavored oils, and oils made from all sorts of seeds and nuts. You'll need at least two in your pantry: one with a high smoke point (like peanut oil or rice bran oil) when you're sauteeing (so it won't lose its flavor or any nutritional value) as well as extra virgin olive oil for salads and lower temperature cooking.
Make room for: Ghee (clarified butter), which adds a slightly nutty flavor, is good for high-temp cooking and is practically lactose free.
Essentials: Balsamic vinegar adds an instant taste of salty-savory umami as long as it's aged for a bit and made with high quality ingredients (look for the "D.O.P" stamp on Italian balsamics which assures this). Use it in salad dressings, to glaze vegetables, as a reduction over roasted roots or salmon, and countless other ways.
Make room for: Rice wine vinegar and apple cider vinegar are also handy to have around, especially for salad dressings, dipping sauces, and to add a little acid to balance your dishes.
Essentials: Keep these basics on hand: dried basil, Bay leaves, cayenne or crushed red pepper flakes, curry powder, seasoned salt, chili powder, cinnamon, garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, rosemary, paprika, and dried parsley. Black peppercorns will hold their oils and flavor much longer than ground pepper, and are easily ground with a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder or or pepper grinder. Whole cumin and coriander are especially good for roasted meats as well as Mexican and Indian dishes. Store them all a sleek space-saving spice rack.
Pro tip: Have one of those built-in grinder plastic pepper mills? Keep the mill when it's empty and refill it with fresh peppercorns. Also: jarred, pre-ground spices often lose their flavor when they've been packaged for a while. Instead, buy spices in bulk in small quantities.
Essentials: Kosher salt (used to finish and salt to taste) and sea salt (used in cooking) are the most commonly used for recipes and everyday use. They're also super cheap in large quantities, though if you don't have a lot of space to store that box of Diamond Kosher, share a box with friends and store in a smaller container.
Essentials: Quinoa, farro, white rice, brown rice—there are so many grains and it's easy to overload. Always have white or brown rice on hand and, if you have room, pick just a couple others and sub them in in new ways: making teriyaki? Try using farro instead of rice, or pop in quinoa in your soups. They're inexpensive ways to mix up your side starches.
Make room for: Wild rice and barley—both hearty and toothsome.
Fresh pasta is delightful, but there's no substitute for the long lifespan and in-a-pinch helpfulness of penne rigate or fettuccine noodles from the pantry. Always have a box on hand.
Really Good Canned Tomatoes
Probably the vegetable with the biggest "in season" versus "definitely not in season" flavor difference is the tomato, which doesn't taste as anywhere near as flavorful and juicy in the off season. Instead, buy high quality canned or boxed tomatoes, like San Marzano or Muir Glen fire-roasted tomatoes. Juicy and flavorful—and already half-way to sauce—every time.
Refrigerator and Freezer Staples
Eggs, butter, and some sort of cheese, such as sharp cheddar always come in handy, as does whole grain or dijon mustard.
Use chicken stock in soups, stews, cooking meat and vegetables, for noodles and in pasta sauces. Keep cartons in your pantry or make your own and store it in the freezer if you have the time.
Pro tip: To make your own veggie stock, save the ends and scraps of veggies in a plastic bag in the freezer whenever you cook and you'll have enough for a pot in no time.
For veggie staples, keep onions, carrots, and garlic on hand. They are super versatile and have no dried or frozen substitute that will add the same flavor as their fresh counterparts. Lemons add unbeatable brightness and freshness to food.
You can freeze fresh herbs to hold on to more of their flavor. Plus, bacon and bread keep well in the freezer to always have them on hand.
Want to really amp up your pantry? We checked in with culinary pros in restaurant hot-spot Seattle to discover their go-to pantry ingredients.
Becky Selengut, Seattle-based private chef, teacher and author of Good Fish loves fish sauce "for its instant depth and savoriness. Mike Easton, Chef and Owner of Il Corvo Pasta & Pasta Studio adds that "Italian 'Colatura' or any type of fish sauce is a must have. "I use it to bring life to sautéed vegetables, transforming boxed beef broth into some quick and dirty pho broth (with the help of sliced ginger and star anise)," he says. "But my all time favorite "quick dinner" is just pouring a teaspoon over freshly boiled tagliatelle, and tossing it with a good knob of butter. It's a dish I'd take over white truffles any day of the week."
Selengut's other go-to is canned smoked fish, which she says makes any salad or appetizer instantly better.
"When you're too lazy to grill, it adds quick atmosphere to your food," Selengut says.
Seattle-based chef and food stylist Jason Scherer loves this trusty tomato concentrate because "it thickens sauces and stocks and is useful in a number of dishes. Just make sure to caramelize it to a deep brown so it doesn't taste like Chef Boyardee," he advises.
Sherer also finds anchovy fillets and paste are super useful.
Montreal Steak Seasoning
Scherer loves this spice blend on prime rib crust or in mayo for burgers or with cream cheese on a bagel.
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