For many cooks, the eternal goal is a well-stocked pantry. You may crave shelf systems and bulk ingredients, and sparkling new containers to keep them in. But ask yourself: Will my spice jars ever truly match? Do I really need to store apples in a hanging basket? Often, what we are imagining has more to do with decorating than cooking.
A truly functional pantry may not look flawless. But it can be the key to more and better cooking — as long as the contents fit your real-world cooking style and skills, so that you actually use what’s in it.
A traditional American pantry (in homes fortunate enough to have kitchens and extra food to store) was a small room off the kitchen to protect everyday ingredients, like flour, sugar and bread, from the heat of the stove. Along with a larder (for cured meat, lard and the foods preserved in it), a buttery (for wine, cider and beer, stored in barrels or “butts”) and a storeroom for dried and preserved produce, a pantry produced not only meals but a self-reliant kitchen.
A modern pantry can and should play all those parts. So we redefined the word to include the refrigerator and freezer, for the fresh and frozen staples that can make cooking easier and more productive. For example, whole-milk yogurt and lemons wouldn’t always have qualified as pantry ingredients. But now those ingredients are used so often it makes sense for cooks to keep them on hand. They last a long time in the refrigerator, and can often eliminate the need for a stop on the way home.
We’ve identified three types of home cooks, and created a pantry list for each one.
Now, we know that no two people will agree on a list of staples, just as they will never agree on a perfect recipe for macaroni and cheese. Each list is a proposal, not a prescription. There’s no reason to stock black beans if you like only red. There’s no need to have everything here available at all times. You’ll know your pantry is well stocked for your purposes when most of the time, you need only add one or two fresh ingredients to cook from scratch. Or even better, none.
Whether overhauling or starting a pantry, just free some space in the freezer, refrigerator and cupboards. So, clear the decks: Take everything out, give it a hard look and decide what you can get rid of.
Carla Lalli Music, author of the forthcoming book “Where Cooking Begins” (Clarkson Potter, 2019), is the food director at Bon Appetit, where the test kitchen is enormous and overflowing. But at home, she has been paring down her pantry for years. “I used to keep ingredients forever, even though they made me feel guilt and anxiety,” she said, like a decade-old spice mix that her husband brought her from Paris, and honey mustard that a friend contributed to a dinner party.
“I don’t like honey mustard; I have never liked honey mustard,” she said. “Why did I have to have this complicated relationship with it in my refrigerator door?”
Try to be ruthless. If you haven’t used it in a year, get rid of it. Then restock with an eye to the things you’re confident using, and what you love to eat.
Music recommends the restaurant rule of ingredients: FIFO, or first-in, first-out. In other words, cook what you have in order of freshness, and don’t let things linger. If that cauliflower you bought a week ago is beginning to wilt, cook it — even if you’re not sure how you’ll use it. Cooked ingredients are much easier to use up than fresh ones. If you use only the new ingredients, pushing the older ones to the back, they will disappear and then deteriorate.
Used this way, pantry ingredients build a healthy ecosystem in your kitchen — more cooking, less waste. When bacon, eggs and Parmesan are defined as pantry ingredients, you already have the makings of multiple dishes: a big breakfast, a frittata for lunch, a dinner-worthy pile of fried rice. Add frozen spinach, lemons and potatoes — all of which can be stored for many weeks — and another dimension opens up.
Finally, accept that your pantry will never be fully stocked and perfectly organized. Cooking creates change and disorder. Cans may never stack perfectly, spices may never live in matching containers, and your hot-sauce collection may always be attempting a takeover of the condiment shelf.
Think of it all as signs of life. And then, next year, start the process all over again.