I’m working on a regular schedule of posts for this year. One theme that’s been bouncing around in my noggin for awhile is this Kitchen 101 Series. Going with the idea that I’ll be posting new content at least every Tuesday and Thursday (and maybe Sunday), on the 2nd Tuesday of each month you can expect a post that covers some basic kitchen knowledge that anyone who cooks at home should have. I’ll cover everything from how to set up your kitchen, to essential cooking methods, and lots of really basic recipes that you can use to build up your culinary repertoire. Since I’m now officially a culinary school student (I start this week!), I’ll also be passing along some of the “pro-tips” that I learn in class.
We’ll kick things off with a quick lesson on how to stock your pantry. This is by no means a definitive guide. The necessity of some items can vary by what part of the country you live in, how often you use a particular ingredient, family favorites, or a hundred other things. However, I think this list is a good place to start.
Flours: Historically, I haven’t really baked a lot. I feel like that’s about to change, though, so I’ll keep All Purpose and Self Rising Flour around for sure, and probably a small amount of Cake flour. If you have limited pantry space and have to choose just one, All Purpose is a safe bet. If you’re gluten intolerant, you can substitute the All Purpose with a flour specifically produced/marketed as Gluten Free, or any other number of non-wheat based flours like almond, rice, or quinoa flour.
Sugars: Granulated, powdered, and brown sugars are all good to have on hand. If you’re limited on space, you can probably skip the powdered sugar.
Other baking additives to keep on hand:
* Baking soda
* Baking powder (For advice on when to replace baking powder/soda, this is a good resource: http://joyofbaking.com/bakingsoda.html)
* Corn starch
* Cream of tartar
* Good quality vanilla extract
Salt & Pepper: I have both Iodized and Sea Salt on hand, plus a medium ground and a fine ground black pepper. If you have a pepper grinder with an adjustable grind size, you can just buy black peppercorns and keep it simple.
Herbs & Spices: When it comes to dried herbs and spices, my best advice is to keep a basic stock of the ones you use all the time, and grab the ones you need only for specific recipes as you need them. That could be a lot or a little, depending on how much you cook and how much of an “experimenter” you are. For instance, my Mom cooks at home merely to keep my brothers fed, and gets no special thrill from the act of cooking. She keeps a couple all purpose seasoning blends, a fajita spice blend, plus salt and pepper and that pretty much covers it. I have other friends who bake a lot, and so they always have cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice around. If you have a local spice shop that will hook you up with only the amount you need of any particular spice, that’s a great way to go for specialty spices that you only need for one recipe. Spices don’t really spoil, as evidenced by that 10 year old can of powdery cinnamon most of us have floating around somewhere, but they do lose their flavor over time and need to be replaced at least once a year. Unless you use a particular spice a lot, I don’t recommend stocking up on extra large quantities.
Oils: I only keep olive oil and canola oil on hand at the moment. I’ve actually read a couple of articles recently that recommend saving the olive oil for finishing dishes or for making dressings, since heat can degrade the flavor. For every day frying or sautéing, canola oil has a higher smoke point, meaning it can stand up to extended exposure to heat. Grape seed oil is another great one to have around for its high smoke point and neutral flavor.
Vinegars: I keep a large bottle of white vinegar around because it’s a great go-to for lots of things, not just cooking. I also keep a small bottle of good quality balsamic handy for finishing and to make vinaigrette, as well as a small bottle of apple cider vinegar.
Pasta, grains & beans:
Pasta: I always keep a box of long pasta like fettuccini or angel hair, as well as a box of rotini or other short pasta, and couscous because of its versatility and short cooking time. Really, just go with your favorites when it comes to pasta, but always keep some handy because you can add just about anything to pasta and call it a meal. Pasta doesn’t go bad for awhile, so keep an eye out for good sales and stock up. If you find yourself in a “too much pasta” predicament, you can always donate some of it to a local food bank.
Grains: White rice is a staple that can be stored for up to five years without going bad. Brown rice and wild rice won’t last as long, probably no more than a year, but you can extend their shelf life a bit by storing them in the refrigerator. Quinoa is a great high protein grain that will keep for up to 3 years when stored properly (airtight container, away from light). I keep cornmeal on hand, as well.
I don’t use a lot of dried beans because I just don’t have the patience for all that soaking and draining and whatnot, but I almost always keep a couple cans of chili beans, black beans, and cannellini beans handy. They can be used to fortify soups, mashed or pureed into dips, or kicked up with some spices as a tasty side dish. If you do have the time and the patience for dried beans, keep them stored in an airtight container away from light and they’ll be good for awhile.
Canned Vegetables: Canned tomatoes can be a real life saver. I like to keep around at least a couple of cans of crushed or diced tomatoes, as well as some small cans of tomato paste. Canned Corn is also helpful in a pinch. I’m not a big fan of other types of canned veggies, but I do try to always have some frozen peas and frozen broccoli. Again, you know what you like, so stay stocked on what you’ll use.
Boxed Cake Mix/Canned Vanilla Frosting: I know, I know, it might sound like cheating. You know what? It is! And that’s totally ok. Pinterest is full of ideas on how to spruce up a boxed mix and/or ready-made frosting, and I fully encourage you to keep some of them handy. Maybe even print off your favorite ones and store them on the same shelf as the cake mixes. When someone volunteers you for that pot luck, bake sale, etc., you won’t be hunting around for last minute inspiration.
Last but not least…
Peanut Butter (or other nut butters) and Jelly or Jam:
We can state the obvious here, and tell you that PB&J is probably a staple in a lot of households. But, any of these individually can be used in everything from desserts to sauces.
If I was just moving into my own place and I had even a little bit of culinary ambition, these are the things, supplemented by fresh / perishable items, that would help me feel prepared for most of my day to day cooking/baking. You probably have a few additional “must have” items to add to the list. Feel free to share!