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Keep essential pantry ingredients within reach when making meals


    A truly functional pantry may not look flawless, but it can be the key to more and better cooking.

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.


>> Oils and vinegars: Extra-virgin olive oil, neutral cooking oil (such as canola or grapeseed), red-wine vinegar, white vinegar or white-wine vinegar

>> Cans and jars: Tuna in olive oil, tomato paste, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, chicken stock or vegetable stock (box-packed tastes better than canned), fruit jams and preserves, anchovies

>> Spices and dried herbs: Kosher salt, red-pepper flakes, ground cayenne, curry powder, bay leaves, black peppercorns, sweet paprika, ground cinnamon, ground cumin, garlic powder or granulated garlic, dried thyme and dried oregano

>> Grains and starches: White rice, one or two other grains (such as quinoa or farro), dry pasta (one long, one short and chunky), plain bread crumbs, crackers, canned beans (white, black and/or chickpeas), dry lentils

>> Nuts and nut butters : Walnuts, almonds, roasted peanuts, peanut butter (smooth and crunchy)

>> Condiments and sauces: Basic vinaigrette, mustard (yellow or Dijon), mayonnaise, ketchup, hot sauce, salsa, soy sauce, fish sauce

>> Produce: Garlic, onions, all-purpose potatoes (such as Yukon Gold), lemons

>> Dairy: Eggs, unsalted butter, cheeses (cheddar, Jack or colby, Parmesan), milk (not skim) or cream for cooking

>> Frozen foods: Chicken parts, sausages, thick fish fillets, shrimp, thick-sliced bread (for toast), spinach (and other vegetables such as corn and peas), berries (and other fruit such as peaches)

>> Baking supplies: All-purpose flour, cornmeal, rolled oats, cornstarch, baking soda, baking powder, pure vanilla extract, honey, maple syrup, granulated sugar, brown sugar (light and dark), powdered sugar, bittersweet baking chocolate, semisweet chocolate chips, raisins or other dried fruit, cocoa powder


>> Oils and vinegars: Peanut, coconut and sesame oils; sherry or balsamic vinegar, apple-cider vinegar

>> Cans and jars: Sardines, unsweetened coconut milk, whole Italian plum tomatoes, beef stock (box-packed tastes better than canned), olives (oil-cured and/or in brine), capers in brine

>> Spices: Flaky salt, ground coriander, turmeric, smoked paprika, single-chili powders (such as ancho and pasilla), cardamom, zaatar, allspice, fennel seeds, dry mustard, garam masala, Chinese five-spice powder, whole nutmeg

>> Grains and starches: Rice noodles, basmati or jasmine rice, brown rice, panko bread crumbs, dry beans

>> Nuts and nut butters: Almond butter, tahini, pecans

>> Condiments and sauces: Kochujang, miso, wasabi, oyster sauce, Asian chili-bean pastes, Worcestershire sauce, hoisin, Thai red curry paste

>> Produce: Russet potatoes, carrots, celery, limes, ginger, avocados, parsley, cilantro, scallions, jalapenos

>> Dairy: Plain full-fat yogurt, more intense cheeses (pecorino, feta), salted butter

>> Frozen foods: Pancetta, artichoke hearts, homemade stock, homemade bread crumbs, fresh pasta, vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, cut and peeled winter squash, chopped onions), cooked grains

>> Baking supplies: Cake flour, whole-wheat flour, dark baking chocolate, vanilla beans, almond extract, powdered gelatin, molasses, light corn syrup, buttermilk powder, active dry yeast


>> Oils and vinegars: Walnut, avocado, roasted sesame and pumpkin-seed oil, olio santo (Italian chile-infused oil); rice vinegar, mirin (sweetened Japanese rice wine), verjus (the juice of sour fruit like green apples), raspberry and tarragon vinegar

>> Preserves and pickles: Pickled hot peppers, cornichons, kim chee, preserved lemons, roasted chilies, horseradish, caperberries, dried sausages such as saucisson sec and chorizo

>> Spices: Hot smoked paprika (pimenton), sumac, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, flaky dried chilies (such as Aleppo), dried whole chilies (like ancho and arbol), marjoram, Japanese shichimi pepper

>> Grains and starches: Dried pastas (bucatini, mezzi rigatoni or farfalle), spelt, pearl barley

>> Nuts and nut butters: Pine nuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds (pepitas), pistachios

>> Condiments and sauces: Anchovy paste, harissa, mango chutney, dark soy sauce,

>> Produce: Shallots, fresh mint, fresh rosemary, lemongrass, fresh serrano and Thai bird chilies, fresh bay leaves.

>> Dairy: Ghee, creme fraiche, aged cheeses (Gruyere, blue cheese).

>> Frozen foods: Edamame, curry leaves, makrut lime leaves, merguez (spicy lamb sausages)

>> Baking supplies: Bread flour, pectin, almond flour, tapioca pearls, rose and orange flower waters, gelatin sheets, black cocoa, currants, fresh yeast, sparkling sugar, pearl sugar, candied citrus rinds

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