Making moves: building the perfect pantry
Around the beginning of June, I started a new job and moved shortly after that. It has been a whirlwind of learning new things, pushing myself, and trying to fit in as much packing, unpacking, and organizing as possible-- with some summer grilling in between. And even though I only moved about 15 miles distance, I had a lot to reflect on as I packed up all of my belongings and many kitchen tools.
Here are some things I have learned about moving throughout the years, with a heavy emphasis on the culinary categories of life:
- Always move into a new place with a coffee maker, mugs, a can opener, a bottle opener, and wine key ready to go. All other appliances can follow from there.
- Organizing a home kitchen may be daunting, but it's also a great excuse to refresh your spice collection.
- No matter how messy things are, or how disorganized they feel, the day you set aside time to use your Kitchen Aid mixer and actually bake something is the day you're officially 'moved in', regardless of when you started paying rent (cue the beach-themed 4th of July cookies in the photo)
- It is inevitable to embrace the challenge of executing all the recipes and dinner parties you dream up within the confines of how much time* (*and budget) you actually have
Along with these kitchen lessons, I have also learned that every cook should have a solid stash of must-have ingredients for whipping up a meal on the fly. No matter what stage of life you're in, you need to know how to work your pantry to your advantage if you're going to cook at home. These are the staples I try to keep in stock at all times, my essential go-to ingredients I cannot live without:
In the pantry...
- Baking supplies and dry goods: Because you will constantly encounter recipes that call for things like AP flour, granulated sugar, powdered sugar, brown sugar, cornmeal, cornstarch, baking soda, baking powder, and oats. These are key staples to have on hand, and worth investing in from the start.
- Olive oil, vegetable oil, non-stick spray, and a good frying oil such as peanut oil: These are essential to have for both baking and cooking. Cooking spray is your best friend when it comes to the easy release of many baked goods from baking pans. Plus, it's my secret weapon when I'm measuring ultra-sticky ingredients such as molasses or honey-- just spray your measuring spoons before pouring and avoid the mess.
- Baking potatoes and sweet potatoes: Since these have a pretty good shelf life, I like to keep a few on hand to add to last minute meals.
- Corn tortillas: Because as a Californian, I was raised to think that everything can be made into some version of a taco for a quick meal.
- Hot sauces: Californians have a lot of love for hot sauce, and I have at least 5 varieties in my fridge at any given time. Breakfast burritos get Cholula, while red beans and rice get Tabasco. Sriracha is another pantry staple.
- Dijon mustard and mayonnaise: These are classic condiments to keep on hand for sandwiches, dressings, and more.
- Chicken stock: I always keep a few quarts on hand for cooking projects. Even if I have nothing specific planned for them, they always get utilized.
- Favorite canned foods including canned beans (black beans for taco night, garbanzo beans for hummus recipes), coconut milk (for whipping up quick curries), condensed milk (for baking and iced coffee), tomato paste and diced tomatoes (very versatile ingredients for a last minute sauce, braise, or soup), and tuna. Plus, sardines-- a highly underrated protein source I keep around as a last minute grab-and-go food.
- Flavorful jarred foods: I always keep things like capers, pickles, pepperoncini, artichoke hearts, and olives to open up when the occasion calls for it. Plus, one jar of marinara, one red salsa, one green salsa, and corn chips are in constant pantry rotation.
- Garlic + onions + shallots: Flavorful garlic, shallots, red onion, yellow onion, and white onion are relatively long lasting pantry staples that can add a lot of flavor to a lot of different dishes. Shallots are a personal favorite to add to simple vinaigrettes.
- Peanut butter and jelly: Because these ingredients are the base for America's favorite last minute sandwich.
- Pasta, rice, and quinoa: These staples easily plug into different dishes depending on what you're in the mood for.
- Plain/neutral table cracker: I suggest keeping a stash of plain crackers around that can be served with any cheese as a snack or appetizer. I particularly like the plain ones since they do not overpower the flavor of the cheese itself.
- Dried fruits: For when I haven't had the time to go to the market and buy fresh fruit, raisins and dried tart cherries are my regular stand ins.
- Standard spices: A spice collection starts with kosher salt, course black pepper, white pepper, and red pepper flakes. You can buy spices as you need them since buying them all at once can be expensive. Slowly add to your collection with cinnamon, nutmeg, bay leaves, paprika, oregano, cumin, thyme, and coriander. Then work your way up to specialty spices like cardamom and garam masala! Also always in my pantry: Cajun seasoning and Tajin.
- Vinegars: red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, and white vinegar are the ones I always have around.
- Wine: Always stash a bottle of red and a bottle of white that can be used for drinking or cooking.
In the fridge...
- Cheeses of the world! I love trying new ones, but I always aim to keep my old standards around including cotija, sharp cheddar, feta, goat cheese, and Parmesan.
- Butter: lots and lots of unsalted butter for cooking and baking. Plus, one stick of high quality salted butter for toast.
- Eggs: since eggs can be a main protein or an ingredient in many dishes, I like to keep a dozen on hand for cooking projects and quick meals.
- Cilantro + green onion: Other fresh produce comes and goes, but cilantro and green onion are two items I must have on hand at all times.
- Lemons and limes: These are the other two fresh produce items I always seem to need for cooking projects.
- Greek yogurt: Greek yogurt is good as a breakfast food, as a sour cream substitute, and as a base for smoothies.
- Soy sauce: Because everyone should be able to whip up a stir fry or fried rice using all of the random vegetables that happen to be in your fridge at any given moment
And don't forget that the freezer is your friend! It's an extension of your pantry. The following are my favorite freezer hacks to make the best use of this space:
- Keep a good batch of homemade frozen cookie dough to pop out & bake for last minute guests.
- Buy a good loaf of fresh, rustic bread from a bakery to freeze for later use. They key is slicing it and freezing it in between small sheets of parchment so you can toast up individual pieces for breakfast.
- Salvage stale bread by turning it into breadcrumbs and freezing it-- you can then use the crumbs as needed and season them according to the style of dish.
- Frozen shrimp (peeled and de-veined) is a favorite protein to keep on hand, as it defrosts quickly enough for a last minute meal.
- Individual pieces of bacon: Once frozen, they are conveniently easier to chop up for a recipe.
- Frozen spinach leaves: A great vegetable for breakfast scrambles and last minute dinners.
- Frozen berries: These are perfect for those last minute smoothie cravings.
- A few servings of a rustic soup or a lasagna, or another meal that freezes well: I always aim for having a few life-saving last-minute emergency dinners-- for that night when your car breaks down on the way home from work.
What are your must-have pantry essentials? Leave me a note in the comments if I forgot any of your favorites.