This article, written by Sam Zucker, originally published on MyFirstApartment.com.
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 some 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. The full list will cost about $100 at any large supermarket (using store brands when available) 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.
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 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. If you are buying canned (or boxed) stock, buy one that has real vegetables and meats in the ingredients list (chicken bones, onions, carrots, celery, leeks, etc.). Buy small containers of beef, chicken, and vegetable stock. If your recipe only needs a small amount, freeze the rest to use later.
Even at the Culinary Institute of America we use canned tomatoes. 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 strained 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 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, sautéed onions, ginger, garlic, and cilantro.
Spices: Every kitchen should have a basic spice rack. You can start with the obvious: Salt and black pepper. Buy a pepper mill and whole peppercorns for most flavor. In addition to salt and pepper I recommend, 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. (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, you need to have a few staples on hand. Start with all-purpose flour, white sugar, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda and vanilla extract. 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).
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, sautéing, or other things that require high heat. For other uses I prefer olive oil with a nice flavor. I 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. 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. Note: buying the cheapest possible vinegar at the supermarket is not the best idea. Go mid-priced if you want a more pleasant flavor. 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. 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 substitute for rice.
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. Just don’t forget to buy a can opener…
If you want to get started slowly, these are the pantry items that I’d buy first.
Canned Stock/Broth, Canned Tomatoes, Pasta Sauce , Canned Soup, Basic Spices (see list), All-Purpose Flour, White Sugar, Olive Oil, White Vinegar, Balsamic Vinegar, Rice, Dry Pasta, Mustard, Ketchup, Coffee, Tea.
Sam Zucker is a recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who blogs about food-related topics for MyFirstApartment.com, a website that tells you step by step how to navigate the first year of living on your own.
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