It’s not for nothing that practical cooks repeat the old chestnut that a well-stocked pantry is the key to successful meals. The management of the larder is a delicate business, however—especially if your kitchen is as small as ours. If you keep too many things on hand it can be wasteful—and also difficult to make decisions and plan menus. The older kitchen in my Granny’s house, while larger than mine in square footage, has much less storage. Yet, when you visit her unexpectedly, she can whip up virtually any meal or dessert in a heartbeat. I don’t think I’ve ever known her to have to make a last-minute trip to the grocery store before a meal. She is always prepared.
While I like to try new ingredients, maybe more than Granny does, I only introduce them one at a time—and I am pretty selective about what stays in the rotation. Over time I have found that the following items give me the flexibility I need while creating a backbone for my everyday cooking. From the ingredients below—and without any additional provisions—you can make hundreds of meals. While we always strive to add fresh fruits, vegetables, and perhaps meats, to our meals, it’s comforting to know that your pantry has your back.
Salt: table salt, fleur de sel, kosher salt.
Flour, meal, grains: all-purpose flour, cornmeal, whole-wheat pastry flour, rolled oats, cornstarch, brown rice, arborio rice, soba noodles, capellini.
Seeds and nuts: whole almonds, pepitas, sesame seeds, poppy seeds.
Baking: granulated sugar, dark brown sugar, molasses, confectioner’s sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa powder, 70% dark chocolate bars, honey, vanilla.
Legumes: lentils, Borlotti, Good Mother Stallard and Yellow Indian Woman beans from Rancho Gordo, dried split peas, black-eyed peas.
In cans and jars: whole peeled tomatoes, diced tomatoes, tomato paste, roasted red peppers, olives, capers, horseradish, whole-grain mustard, anchovies, cannelini beans.
Oils and vinegars: olive oil, canola oil, sesame oil, champagne vinegar, red wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, apple cider vinegar.
Dried herbs and spices: fresh black pepper, oregano, Aleppo pepper, crushed red pepper, dried New Mexico chiles, sweet paprika, smoked paprika, bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, dry mustard, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger. (These are the integral herbs and spices that I purchase in relatively large quantities.)
Booze: red wine, white wine, sparkling wine, orange liqueur, brandy, beer, vermouth. (These are for deglazing, braising, desserts, etc. – for drinking I keep these plus Pernod and Campari.)
Dairy: butter, buttermilk, heavy cream, a hard grating cheese such as Parmesan or Grana Padano.
In the crisper: the aromatics – onions, garlic, shallots; the mirepoix – carrots and celery; lemons, limes.
Cured meats: pancetta or bacon.
I always keep on hand homemade chicken and beef stock, frozen in 2-cup containers. This is for deglazing pans, making sauces, and making soup. I continuously throw ends of bread into the food processor, which I keep frozen in a plastic container for breading fish or chicken or pork, or topping broiled or fried tomatoes, as well as for stuffing pork roasts. I like to keep frozen sweet corn on hand for the occasional breakfast hash, and frozen petit peas for pot pie and, for days of true dinner desperation, last-minute pasta with lemon zest and cheese.