A well-stocked pantry is essential for a smart chef, and gathering those ingredients is the first step to being a great home cook. Think of it like training wheels on a bicycle – the wheels are there to keep you steady while you learn to ride. Here are ten pantry staples that will keep you prepared and balanced as you slice, dice, marinate and braise the way to becoming adept in your own kitchen.
1. Olive Oil
For low and medium-heat cooking, olive is our oil of choice. It’s packed with monounsaturated fats (the good ones!) and plenty of polyphenols, molecules linked to good heart health.
Start by narrowing the choices to extra-virgin olive oils. The best-tasting oil for your buck will come from estate-grown olives, offers Laura Frankel, Spertus Kosher Catering Executive Chef and cookbook author.
“This means some poor farmer fretted over the crop,” Frankel says of the preferable estate-grown variety. Other oils are derived from olives at various farms, which can lead to an uneven taste and inferior product.
2. Vegetable Oil
You’ll need vegetable oil on hand for cooking at high temperatures. Vegetable oils, like canola, are preferred for their higher smoke point. Vegetable oil is also used for baking.
Salt can make a good dish into a divine meal. Despite the pristine canisters of artisan and flavored salts that now line store shelves, you really only need to stock your own pantry with the classic Kosher variety, advises Chef Bradley Borchardt. Kosher works well for most kitchen needs because its coarseness makes it simple to pinch and is dissolves clear in liquid, he says.
Iodized salt can have a chemical flavor, so only use it in a pinch. Budget-friendly Kosher is the way to go for most dishes.
4. Black Pepper
Pepper is the ultimate pairing for salt. Pre-ground black pepper is convenient, but for a fresher taste with a bit more bite, opt for whole peppercorns that you grind in a pepper mill before each use. Essential oils are stored up in the peppercorn, and cracking them releases the oils. If want to take your pepper a step further, toast the peppercorns in a dry pan over medium heat until they smoke and pop. Once cool, grind them for a nutty flavor.
Whether you’re making dressing for a salad or squeezing it onto your favorite fish, have a few lemons tucked away. Keep them sealed in a plastic bag in the fridge to keep them fresh for up to a month.
Where would we be without butter? Sauces, soups, pastries, pastas… It really does make everything better. If you buy in bulk or use butter sparingly, we suggest freezing extra bars to keep them fresh until use.
Whether a recipe requires a splash or a cup, milk’s flavor and fat is a critical component of many dishes. Whole milk is best, but scaling down to half-fat or 2% won’t hurt. Skim will work, but has less flavor than the good stuff. Go for full flavor and just eat less!
Omelets for breakfast, quiche for lunch, meatloaf for dinner – all would be impossible without eggs. When you’re picking up a dozen or two, don’t worry about whether to choose brown or white. Egg color doesn’t matter, source and freshness do.
Your best bet is to buy eggs at a farmers market or from a CSA that delivers eggs. Even if you get your eggs from the grocery store, be mindful of how long they sit in the fridge unused. The shelf life for eggs is three weeks or so if refrigerated, but are best used within a week of purchase for the best taste.
Eggs do expire, read the expiration date and heed it!
Transform stale bread into delicately seasoned crumbs that will add texture and flavor to roasted Brussels sprouts, baked chicken and pasta. They are a great addition to your favorite pasta recipes!
The smell of fresh garlic sizzling in oil, roasting in the oven or simmering in soup will lure in every member of your family to dinner. Stock granulated or powdered garlic to use in a dry rub for steaks or sprinkle on pizza, but be sure to keep fresh garlic in the pantry as well.
Store fresh bulbs uncovered in a mesh wire basket, inside a paper bag or in a small overturned clay pot made specifically for keeping garlic. The dry air and low light will help prevent garlic from sprouting. Resist the temptation to toss garlic bulbs in a plastic bag or the refrigerator, which can prompt it to mold.
When cooking, remember that the smallest cloves hold the most intense flavor, and most recipes only call for a few cloves at a time.
HOW TO: Cook Shallots, Onions & Garlic