When it comes time to fill your pantry here's everything you need to have a well stocked pantry for cooking.
Here’s the deal. You want to cook. Like any project, you need supplies to do it right. Sure, you’ll shop for the specific item of a particular meal, but that is only part of the time. The real fun is to be shopping, see an item that pops for you, you want to cook it and enjoy it! If your pantry is stocked with the basics, you are off and running to create a vast multitude of foods right from your own cabinet.
We are going to focus on the cooking side of the equation, versus the baking side. Each needs a certain stash of components that you will use regularly. We are going to call this the Savory Pantry build list. Of course, there will be crossover items, flour for gravy for instance, but we’ll work through things worth having and briefly how to use them. The broadest category will be seasoning, then liquids, then oils, some dry goods, and some canned goods. So, let’s open the cupboard and see what falls out.
Herbs and spices are two different categories. Spice is typically hard parts of plants, seeds, bark, stem, etc. that are ground into a powdered form. Generally, herbs are form the leaf and green areas of specific plants. Things get mixed up with garlic cloves which are neither, but generally fall into the herb realm. Cilantro is the leafy part, let it go to seed and you get coriander, although some English speakers refer to the leaves as coriander as well.
The most confusing is pepper and peppers. In addition to being bad at directions, Columbus felt the similar flavors of black pepper which he carried with him and the peppers, a fruit, he found in the ‘new’ world deserved the same name. Yet another layer is that when you dry and grind peppers, the fruit, you get the spectrum of paprika to chili powder to cayenne. Don’t worry though, we’ll clarify each as we work through a basic spice section in your pantry.
There are two forms of salt that you will want to have on hand. And no, we are not talking pink salts or lava salt or any of that. Sodium is sodium, trace impurities will alter the color with almost no affect on taste. You want kosher salt because it is iodine free. You will want tables salt to use for seasoning blends. Be aware that they do not measure the same. The coarser flakes of Kosher salt do not compact as tightly, so the finer ground table variety will have more salt per teaspoon than kosher salt.
We always recommend granulated garlic versus garlic powder. Again, there is a difference when measuring a teaspoon because the powder is so much finer. Interestingly, the powder has a longer shelf life. The granulated seemingly has a richer flavor, but perhaps that is because it disperses differently changing how sharp the taste. At any rate, the granulated is easier to work with.
Fresh ground pepper is better than pre-ground. But it is not always practical. Making soup for instance, and it calls for two teaspoons of ground pepper, what do you do? Go ahead and use a finer ground black pepper, it will blend into dishes just fine. By all means have a pepper mill to grind fresh, especially after cooking and right before serving, to enjoy the aromatic aspects of freshly ground uncooked pepper. We highly recommend a mélange that has black, white, and red peppercorns for your grinder.
Peppery red powders
Paprika, ground chili and cayenne are all pantry essentials. Paprika will mostly be a coloring agent, although in large quantities it will add richness without heat. Ground chili, Californian or New Mexico, will move slightly toward mild heat and aromatic flavors, and is a versatile tool for cooking. Cayenne is a great spice to bring a little heat without significantly changing the flavors of the dish.
You can’t hardly mention chili powder and not have cumin, especially if you like any southwestern dishes. That being said, cumin is used around the world and always brings tangy deep flavors.
This is a commercially available blend that it is used in quite a bit of Chines and other Asian based foods. With some of the other components we will list, you can build very nice Asian themed foods quite easily.
Pumpkin pie spice
Yes, you can have cinnamon, nutmeg, and such on your shelf, but this blend is pretty versatile especially on the savory side of cooking. Use it as a direct sub for cinnamon on squash, sautéed apples with pork, etc.
Pro Tip; SPG
Mix equal parts Salt, Garlic and Pepper. This little blend will make great scrambled eggs to start your day, flavorful steak, and even baked potatoes for dinner…with a lot in between. Keep the mix in a shaker and you will love how many ways you can use this.
This is one of my favorites. It brings mild flavors and is lightly sweet almost peppery. Get the leaves as opposed to ground. That allows you to use it as a direct substitution for any recipe that calls for dried parsley, giving your nicer flavor and the same look.
This one too is better in the leaf form than ground. Of course, this is a must have for anything Italian and is used in lots of Mexican dishes. There is even a Mexican strain that has more concentrated flavors, perhaps worth adding down the road. Be aware, Oregano is the most likely herb to take over a recipe if too much is used.
Like basil, this is a pleasantly mild herb. It often shows up in chowder recipes and soups, or as a blend in sauces and on roasted meats.
Now we’re getting to the bolder flavors. Rosemary is a great companion to lamb and chicken, also appears in Mediterranean foods.
An herb or a spice? Who cares, its great. Keep a bulb or two of fresh garlic on the shelf and it will find it’s way into your food. If you think it needs to get used up, mince it and freeze it for instant use in the future.
This is a huge growth category in recent years it seems. From avocado to walnut, the myriad of oils in the market today is daunting. What we are working through here, are the basics of what you will want to have on hand. More flavorful oils are fun in salads and such, other oils cook well, these are some criteria to apply when selecting oils.
There is always room for more oils, new technologies are certainly providing them, and many will lend themselves to specific uses. One defining characteristic of oils is their smoke point…this is the one right before their combustion point which should be avoided to say the least! We will address that in our listings.
The best. You can clarify butter to tale higher temperatures, or intentionally brown it for a rich nutty flavor. The same characteristic that makes whole butter brown out too quick at high temps, also makes it ideal for medium heat pan frying while imparting great browned coloration to your food…and awesome flavors.
One of the most ubiquitous and healthy oils in the market and possibly the oldest vegetable oil we know of. Relatively speaking olive oil has a low smoke point, so it is not your go-to for high temperature cooking or frying. Even with that caveat, there is a vast array of ways to use it in your cooking.
Canola is the most common generic vegetable oil, with safflower and corn also present. All of these are fairly mild and will serve as your utility oil for skillet work, pan frying and sautéing.
This is one of the oils that you use more as a flavoring to food, and it appears heavily in eastern cooking styles. Because it is good! We recommend the Toasted varieties since they bring a lot of flavors to your table.
If you cook any amount of bacon, always reserve the fat from it. That is free flavor! Rub the outside of your russet potato, dust it with SPG and you will get a classic baked potato that can be a meal unto itself. Or, try cooking pancakes in a bit of melted bacon fat for a crispy really tasty breakfast. It even makes good roux.
There are some things you can get in dry form that are also available in liquid form. The nice thing about liquids is that they permeate the fluid portions of dish much easier than stirring in dry forms. And then there are some that are only in liquid forms to use.
Vinegar choices will be listed here with the why behind each. We are also going to include stock bases in this category since they are ultimately mixed in with other liquids during the preparation and cooking processes.
Such great salty richness and flavor. While it always brings to mind Asian style cooking, its uses in no way end there. Remember the saltiness, but feel free to include soy in marinades, dressings, sauces and more. It brings not only great flavors; it adds darker colors too.
Yes, more paste than liquid, it fits best in this category. We like the spicy brown, deli style, because it has a nice balance between richness and vinegar. Yellow mustard will get sharp and has the vinegar tang. That being said, this is all about what you like, so pick a mustard, keep it on hand because it can go into dressing, sauces, or even as a schmear for meats.
In small amounts this kind of heat will have a similar affect to adding salt, making soups or sauces pop without the sodium. The dispersion of the liquid is great for a simmered dish like chili when you want to add a bit of heat, you will know right away if you hit the mark. We like the Mexican style, which are lower vinegar than Louisiana styles like Tabasco.
Don’t sell this short, it fits in to lots of foods, sauces and dressings. Any red meat soup or stew will benefit form a dash or two, again as a partial salt substitute which stills brings sodium to the dish. Especially fun to add to au jus or gravies, it is also a component in classic Caesar dressing.
Apple Cider vinegar
This is a pleasant vinegar that will add flavor to a quick pickle batch of veggies, barbecue sauce, or potato salad. Almost any recipe that calls for white vinegar will be better with this.
Super tasty, a little goes a long way. At first this seemed like it may have been a flash in the pan, but it has staying power and can be used in small amount to add subtle flavor, or directly as in a caprese salad.
Rice wine vinegar
From a splash in a stir fry or miso, to mixing with soy and sesame oil for a quick dressing, rice wine vinegar is nicely mild and enhances the flavor of the foods it is used with.
Having a quart on the shelf is handy for risotto, quick soups, simmering fondant potatoes and a multitude of uses.
The refrigerated chicken better than bouillon base is a versatile item. Use it to perk up gravy or soup, make a tasty herbed rice with chicken, or a bunch of other dishes.
Same idea as above with a better than bouillon style. Toss a dollop in your pot roast or a crock pot of French onion soup or a quick beef stroganoff. These bases have a light saltiness compared to many others, bringing more of the meaty flavors you want.
Pro Tip; Hoisin Sauce
This rich and thick sauce is a great Asian influence in all kinds of dishes. It brings a hint of sweetness and salty components.
Some of these are items that will cross over for baking needs somewhat, but they are also often used in savory recipes. Others are basics always worth having.
One word; gravy. No wait, two words: fried chicken. Flour is an essential for any thing breaded, typically fried. It is also a great thickener for opaque sauces and stews.
Also a thickener, this is great for clear sauces and glazes such as teriyaki. Adding it breader also helps get an extra crispiness to fried foods.
It will happen, sometimes you need a little sweet with your savory.
Even better it delivers sweetness with a little molasses richness. Round out barbecue sauce or the like with this.
It’s tempting to list by varieties, so here are our top ones. Start with Jasmine for general use and Cal Rose for its sticky characteristics. The ubiquitous side dish, rice is also a component in a variety of entrees.
Pro Tip: Couscous
Instant couscous is a great side dish, amazingly fast, and an incredible base for any kind of saucy dish. You can even find the tri-color couscous in the bulk food department at great prices.
Not everything does well with the canning process. But for those items that work, it is well worth keeping some of them on the shelf to finish out a particular dish or meal. In particular tomato products are handy for a multitude of dishes.
Th petite diced are the most fun to have around, using them in red sauce for pasta, chili, pot roast, and more. The juice brings flavor and color, and the bits add texture too.
Another basic essential, tomato sauce will find its way into other sauces and braised dishes and fun crock pot meals
When you need to intensify the flavors of a tomato sauce, and add a bit of texture, paste is what you need. And it comes in those cute little cans for less waste!
Corn is probably the best vegetable to have canned, it does very well. Anything Tex-Mex, some soups, and a fun assortment of other dishes will be home to corn.
Whole medium or large olives are a great staple to have around. You can buy them sliced, and that is the more likely way to use them in Mexican or Italian dishes or salads. Buying them whole gives you more flexibility to cut them the way you want. And you can re-live childhood holiday meals by putting them on your fingers.
Closing the cabinet door
We know better than to say this is the complete list of what you will want to have on hand. But this is a great array of ingredients that fill out numerous cooking styles. This should give you a starting point, and as you get further along in your cooking journeys you will continue to add to the list with the items you love to use.