One of the biggest deterrents to getting started in the kitchen is the initial stocking of the pantry. With an empty fridge, a vacant pantry, and a countertop free of fruit bowls and bread bins, you can be sure you’ll never cook.
If there’s stuff in your cabinets, on the other hand, there’s always the possibility of a meal. With have pasta, beans, or tins of sardines, you won’t need to leave the apartment, order take-out, or resort to bowls of cereal with stale rice crackers on the side. (All of these are just fine sometimes.) A stocked pantry isn’t just for desperate times. Weeknight dinners and cocktail party food might be sourced half from the pantry and half from some place fresh, like the market.
This is my guide. Stocking your pantry will be idiosyncratic and it won’t be foolproof. You also, obviously, have to keep the pantry stocked if you’re cooking from it. If you used to have canned tomatoes but you depleted your store, that go-to pantry meal of spaghetti and tomato sauce becomes totally unattainable. Check your staples occasionally, and add items you’re running low on to your next shopping list.
You’ll want to curate the foods you love. If you’re a pasta freak, keep more than a box or two on hand. But maybe limit the shapes to two or three so you can move from one box to another without changing tack.
At this point, we’ve whittled down the selection to basics below. This is stuff for everyday cooking, with an emphasis on whole foods but not an obsession with “health.” Everyone’s pantry is going to reflect individual tastes, but to give you an idea of what I’m working with, here’s the list of foodstuffs usually occupying the kitchens’ shelves.
ON THE SHELF
1. Olive oil
find an everyday one that tastes good on salads, or get two: one for cooking, for for eating plain
2. Vegetable, safflower, or coconut oil
I alternate white and brown, long and short grain, as my mood changes.
Try for two types: one long, one short.
5. Canned or dried bean
I like chickpea for canned, lentils for dried.
Whatever you’re into! Quinoa, farro, wheatberries, barley, wild rice, etc.
7. Canned whole tomatoes
8. Dried fruit
Raisins, apricots, cherries, or figs
Rice wine and red wine are a good start; I like apple cider and balsamic too.
10. Soy sauce
If you love the food of the Asian continent, add to this: fish sauce, sesame oil, and chili paste or sauce.
11. Can of full-fat coconut milk
12. White flour
14. White sugar
15. Brown sugar
–add, if you like to make sweets–
16. Confectioner’s sugar
17. Chocolate chips
18. Baking soda
19. Baking powder
20. Vanilla extract
21. Rolled oats
Good for breakfast AND for baking
22. Miscellaneous flours, if that’s your jam
ON THE COUNTER, IN A BOWL
3. Potatoes or sweet potatoes
IN THE FRIDGE
You could start with two kinds, like peanuts and almonds. Then go for a dozen. I have a huge nut stash, and I love it. The fridge keeps them fresh.
Dijon works. I use mostly in vinaigrettes.
This is a little controversial, keeping bread in the fridge, because the air in there dries out your crumb. After the first day, I’ll be toasting my slice anyway, so I don’t mind. And I’d rather dry than moldy!
5. Hot sauce
A wedge of Parmesan and a hunk of melting cheese like Swiss or cheddar is a good start.
8. Peanut butter and/or tahini
For peanut sauce and hummus
9. Opened bottle of white wine
10. Worcestershire sauce
12. “Pantry” fruit and vegetables
By which I mean: carrot, cabbage, celery, an apple or pear–anything that keeps well. A few frozen vegetables–spinach, peas, and corn–and fruit–blueberries, strawberries–come in handy too.
BASIC SPICE RACK
2. Whole peppercorns
Grind them fresh in your grinder.
3. Red pepper flakes
4. Cayenne pepper
5. Chili powder
Try different kinds! This is a mix, so every chili powder will taste different.
6. Curry powder
Comes in handy for miscellaneous veggie curries; you can also improvise curries with coriander, cumin, and turmeric.
7. Ground Cinnamon
8. Ground Coriander
9. Ground Cumin
11. Whole mustard seeds
I keep sweet and smoked around.
13. Dried oregano
14. Dried thyme
15. Bay leaves