I regard a well-stocked pantry to be the foundation of a kitchen of any person who plans to cook and eat at home. Yes, I suppose it is entirely possible to buy everything for every meal on the day you plan to prepare it, but it is neither convenient, nor easy, and since most of our food is meant to be easily stored even without refrigeration, it is rather pointless not to take advantage of the fact. Being that I unabashedly adore food, my pantry probably holds enough food to feed me for a good couple of weeks without restocking. I do not suggest that everyone must or even should want to keep that quantity of food around, but if you wish to, so long as you rotate the stock, so to speak, and do not let anything go stale, and have the storage space… you get the idea!
A few days ago my friend Sophie has announced to me over dinner at my place, that once she gets a new place, she wants me to come shopping with her to properly stock her pantry, since she does not really know where to begin. “Larder” was the very British word she used, actually, but since I don’t own an actual larder (nor have seen one in any modern kitchen I’ve been to), I take it as just on-hand food storage of any variety. And, surprisingly to me, she is not the first person to whose home I have been, that does not have food on hand unless they buy if for that very day, and do not know how to start and shop for a properly stocked pantry.
The reason that is so, is simple. Most of us, provided our parents did cook at home (If they didn’t then we’d have never seen a properly stocked pantry – as most civilized people do not normally snoop in their friends’ parents’ kitchen cupboards!), have lived with a properly stocked pantry. It was a series of cupboards, or a large cabinet in the kichen somewhere, with shelves that were full of various things that made sense being there. So if we wanted pasta, there was pasta, or rice, and flour for pancakes, and a bag of sugar, jar of honey, pickles, jams, a can or bottles of oil… the things you’d reach for in the kitchen, and they would be just there.
Then we moved out and were suddenly faced with a kitchen full of empty cupboards, and, despite buying this and that as we go, the cupboard never seems to have that one thing we want or need, and we are left with a perpetual feeling that “there is nothing to eat”. What happened? Well, it is simple – the truth about a pantry is that it is far easier to maintain once stocked, than to build from nothing: you run out of item X, you replace it next shopping run, problem solved. We’ve all been there – you simply never think of needing item X till you are trying to make, say, scones, and realise that baking powder is something you did not pick up on your shopping trip, since you’ve always just assumed it would be there in the pantry.
The contents of the pantry, of course, will depend on your particular taste in food, and extent to which you go in home cooking, but the basic components are always more or less the same:
- Salt and Sugar. This ranges from basic table salt and white granulated sugar, to sea salt flakes or a grinder, and whatever variety of sugar you may like. For all I don’t advocate eating sugar, neither do I advocate utter self-deprivation, so I usually have some on hand for preparing desserts. Some cane sugar varieties taste and smell simply gorgeous. For starters, a box of table salt and a bag of golden granulated sugar will do. I generally also keep a box of decent artificial sweetener around, since I do love my coffee sweetened, and refuse to eat sugar in the quantity that would be needed to sweeten all my endless cups of coffee.
- Spices. Those can be savoury and sweet, from black pepper, whole nutmeg and chili flakes to Ras-Al-Hanout, if that floats your boat. As a minimum, however, I would suggest black or mixed pepper in a grinder (pre-ground stuff tastes of nothing), jar of dried greens such as oregano or Herbes de Provence, and a bit of pre-ground cinnamon (do check it is actually cinnamon, though!). Here I also include a box of basic baking powder, and perhaps a box of baking soda (for more than food prep applications – for many reasons, it is one of the things which are just good to have around the house).
- Dry Starches. This has the most variation, from very simple pasta, rice, and flour to oriental noodles, legumes [that's beans and lentils - I like Puy aka French Green ones, and also chickpeas], quinoa, bulgur wheat and whatever else you can imagine as “filler” in your food).
- Cans. These will depend more heavily on your tastes in food, but in my house contain tuna in oil, crabmeat, mackerel in oil, coconut milk, the occasional bamboo shoots, and kalamata olives. I would not presume to lecture others on what they should or shouldn’t eat canned, but I find most meat products in a can somewhat offputting, and the same goes for most canned soups. Some canned fruit in syrup or juice are all right as dessert ingredients, especially if no fresh ones are available, like apricots in mid-winter.
- Cooking and Salad Oils. I normally avoid polyunsaturate-rich oils, and stick with mono-unsaturated and the good variety of saturated fats for my food (I will elaborate on this in detail another time), but I am not fanatical about it. The only things I refuse to have around are hydrogenated shortenings, or hardened vegetable fats of any variety, and spreads (unless they are butter or mostly butter). I discriminate against those with a passion, not least because even if they look like butter (which they don’t), they won’t either taste or smell like it, and if not, then what is the point of eating them? The fats I normally keep around in the pantry (i.e. outside the fridge) are: coconut oil (Holland and Barrett sell a really good unrefined cold-pressed one), extra-virgin olive oil of some variety for salads, rapeseed or peanut oil (refined) for general saute and shallow frying needs, and sesame oil for seasoning oriental food. Most beginners will be just fine with one frying oil and one salad oil, however.
- Nuts. My nuts of choice are almonds and pine nuts. Being that my much-adored boyfriend is notably allergic to the latter, they get kept in a tightly closed jar and I am careful what I put them into. I work with that sort of thing, so I do not tend to forget it. A safer choice for someone who does not wish to make a significant other sick (or worse) in this manner, is to not keep whatever the other is allergic around at all.
- Jars and bottles. Sauces, vinegars, pickles, sieved and chopped tomatoes (those can also be found in cans/tetrapacks). I usually keep a minimum of chopped tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, white vinegar (cider, rice or white wine one), soy sauce (basic Kikkoman is not to be beaten for multitasking!), and fish sauce. Honey should also be mentioned – as both, food and an on-hand sore throat remedy. I usually keep a jar of strong (eucalyptus, orange blossom or forest) honey around. A jar or two of good quality high fruit content jam of your choice also won’t go amiss as an elegant (if sugartastic) breakfast on toast, or a quick way to perk up a dairy-based dessert or a tart.
- Alcohol. Provided your faith or philosophical convictions, or previous addiction to it do not disallow such, I would suggest keeping a bottle of your choice of poison around. One, it is good to have in case you want some, or if it is involved in your favourite cooking recipe. Two, having something around tends to reduce temptation (at least for me it does. Works with chocolate, too). I generally settle on a bottle of French brandy, or a Romanian/Slovak fruit brandy to spike my caffeine fix on weekend evenings, and a bottle of cooking wine (but I keep the latter in my refrigerator after it is open).
- Chocolate. Really good chocolate in moderate quantity (sugar-free diabetic or just high cocoa content dark if you are watching your sugar intake). I do not need to explain this further, do I?
- Tea and/or Coffee. Those should be more or less self-explanatory to those who drink either or both. Me, I would not be caught dead without coffee in the house on a weekend morning, as lack of it makes me positively insufferable even to myself. You, my fellow coffee addicts, I am sure you do know what I mean!
Unless I have blanked out and completely forgotten something, the above mentioned items, along with various specifics (some people like jarred chilies in brine, capers, tinned anchovies in oil, etc.) that you yourself would consider essential, should provide a very good foundation for a well-stocked pantry. In fact, excluding fresh vegetables and dairy, in a pinch (say, should your refrigerator give out one night, spoiling all in it, or you simply cannot be bothered to go out to shop), a lot of these can be combined into a passable meal (such as a simple dish of pasta with tomato and extra virgin olive oil sauce). Counting on the refrigerator and its fresh and frozen meat, seafood, dairy and vegetable contents being there, this should more than provide a foundation for preparation of a basic meal.
Note: I do not mention eggs, as despite the fact that they can keep outside the refrigerator, I prefer to store mine in it, and not in the pantry. Same goes for hard cheeses, even grated and boxed. I do plan to write about a refrigerator, but this has already gotten rather long. Another time. :) Same applies to the method of storing ingredients, which, once the shop packaging is open, is not always straighforward.
Disclaimer: Where possible and convenient, I link the products I mention to their wikipedia page, as a reasonably neutral source which gives good explanation. When and where I do link to a brand, it is my preference for such, or the more common availability of it which make it more convenient. It is by no means anything more than a personal endorsement of something I use.