DIY Food

Your Essential, Must-Have Pantry Items

March 29, 2014

There are so many great conversations on the Hotline -- it's hard to choose a favorite. But we'll be doing it, once a week, to spread the wealth of our community's knowledge -- and to keep the conversation going.

Today: A meal -- and a cook -- is only as good as the pantry behind it. Here's what you should keep in your arsenal.

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Forget shaved truffles and caviar (though we do love them dearly). A meal -- and a cook -- is only as good as the pantry behind it. A well-stocked kitchen is simultaneously comforting and empowering, letting us know that we can turn dry, tiny grains and bottled sauces into a meal at a moment's notice. When our pantries are full, we can save the grocery runs for the fun things -- fresh produce, bottles of wine, fancy cheese.

The question is: Where to begin? With a dizzying array of condiments and spices, it can be tough to distinguish the pantry essentials from the rest -- like being a kid in a candy store, only much less fun. Briget L turned to the community for pointers, and she came to the right place:

Some Tips, To Start

  • First things first: Every pantry is different, so think about tailoring yours to your go-to dishes. Maedl says: "What kind of recipes do you cook?... Look at your preferences and build a list from them." Petitbleu adds: "It really depends on your cooking habits. If it's not an item that you use regularly, there's no point in keeping it around. This is especially true for spices and dried herbs, which lose their strength if they sit around too long." If curries are your thing, consider stocking up on mustard seeds and cumin; if you're channeling Le Cordon Bleu, herbes de Provence might be more at home on your shelves.
  • LE BEC FIN recommends visiting the bulk aisle to buy spices, as it can be much cheaper than other sources. Plus, that way you get to put them in your own matching jars.

The Pantry Short List

  • To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy pantries are all alike -- there are more commonalities than differences among your lists of must-haves. Kosher salt, black pepper, and extra virgin olive oil are givens, as are canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and multiple kinds of vinegar.
  • It can be helpful to have other oils on hand, too: Petitbleu suggests "a neutral-tasting oil for high-heat cooking." Grapeseed, canola, vegetable, and peanut are all safe bets for frying.
  • Savory sauces -- ketchup, soy sauce, oyster sauce, Worcestershire -- are good for adding a dash of umami, and hot sauce is similarly versatile.
  • Conversely, when you want to add a touch of sweetness, honey and real maple syrup work in both savory and sweet applications. ATG117 likes grade B syrup, which has a darker, more complex flavor.
  • Many of you spoke up in favor of dish brighteners: Capers, anchovies, and mustards of all kinds are ready at a moment's notice. And while fresh produce isn't pantry-friendly, petitbleu bends the rules, saying: "It's a good idea to stock lemons and parsley at all times." Garlic and onions too, while you're at it.
  • Not sure what spices to marshal for your pantry? SexyLAMBCHOPx points you to this list of the essentials. Cumin, coriander, red pepper, bay leaf, paprika, and cinnamon are all good to have, and petitbleu likes to have "a good, homemade curry powder or masala."
  • If you'd like an alternative to fresh, dried herbs like thyme, rosemary, and oregano come in handy for soups and stews.

What are you always sure to have in your pantry? Tell us in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Anita Bell Gabrie
    Anita Bell Gabrie
  • Efiya Fadila
    Efiya Fadila
  • Belen Audirsch
    Belen Audirsch
  • Veganosity
  • Carolyn Z
    Carolyn Z
Fond of large dogs, tiny houses, pungent cheese, and dessert for dinner (or breakfast).


Anita B. October 18, 2016
Canned clams, little cubes of dried chipotle and shelf stable dried Spanish chorizo - throw them together with some pasta and canned tomatoes for a great impromptu dinner
Efiya F. October 18, 2016
As much as I love western dishes, my daily kitchen reality consists of preparing mainly Javanese (it's not a typo, we're not Japanese) specialties for my husband and his parents. My Javanese pantry staples: peppercorns, coriander seeds, candlenut, tamarind paste, palm sugar blocks, sweet soy sauce, chinese soy sauce, sesame oil, ground peanut paste, coconut milk, and palm oil for frying. Also of course the usual suspect of Asian dishes: at least three types of chillies are always in the fridge, then shallots, garlic, galangal, lesser galangal, ginger, turmeric. As for herbs, I mostly use three basic ones, i.e. bay leaves, spring onions and Asian celery. While my pantry is definitely not aligned with the rest of Food52 members, hope this adds to a little diversity =)
Belen A. September 17, 2014
Smoked paprika, applewood smoked salt, ginger (fresh and powdered--fresh especially if ginger is young and fresh baby pink), and horseradish. I also try to keep homemade mustards on hand.
Veganosity March 30, 2014
These are definitely all important things to keep in your pantry. Some things are a little different for us here at Veganosity. Here's a list of things that we always keep on hand:
Carolyn Z. March 30, 2014
Cloves, nutmeg, turmeric, hot curry blend, mild curry blend, dry mustard, brown mustard seeds, dry ginger and cardamom for baking. Any spices you use often. Also any spice blends you put on meats.
Josh S. March 30, 2014
This printable list from The Pioneer Woman is especially helpful
Amanda M. March 30, 2014
Also, coconut oil and popcorn kernels! Popcorn made anywhere but the stove is blasphemous.
Belen A. September 17, 2014
Amen, sister! And popcorn kernels popped in coconut oil are amazing. Or popcorn "buttered'' with coconut oil and topped with koshering salt or dark cocoa powder. Okay. Time to pop some corn...
Amanda M. March 30, 2014
Brown rice and all different types of soba noodles allow veggie-laden bowls and cold noodle salads to come together in snap, both for dinners and not sad desk lunches. Without a big knob of ginger root and lots of different citrus nestled in the crisper, I'm completely lost.
Leslie March 30, 2014
I always have pastas, beans and grains, and a good jar of basil pesto.
ONaturelle March 30, 2014
Lest we forget a can of good tuna packed in oil . . . it can take you so many places ;-)!
Belen A. September 17, 2014
Can you recommend a good packed tuna? While living in Portland, OR, good tuna was a given. Ironically, here on Hawaii, not so much.
Annette H. March 30, 2014
Rice, pasta, couscous and beans for savoury dishes. Then you've got all the baking staples - flours, sugars, good vanilla extract, chocolate, nuts, bicarbonate of soda.
marietta B. March 30, 2014
Pretty much all you say, plus cayenne, flour, sugar, rice, lentlls, coconut oil and milk,are all items that must be replenished.
JCCraves March 29, 2014
Quick cooking grains like quinoa, Freekeh, and dals, a big box of Indian spices, cartons of beans, tomatoes, broth, as well as dried, Japanese noodles (soba, udon) kombu, katsuobushi, baking shelf includes coconut shortening, backups of flours, baking soda,,baking powder. Basically, I try to have components for quick meals and meals that take a little more time, planning. Any time I need to use up stuff in the fridge I can do a stir fry noodle dish or a beans n rice type of meal. Short on fresh - I can do pasta & marinara; dashi ingredients means a Japanese comfort meal is nearly always possible. This is just dry goods...anyone wanna talk freezers? ;-)
Alice G. March 29, 2014
I get antsy if I don't have at least 3 different kinds of dry pasta in my kitchen at all times. Although they aren't pantry items per se, I always have a block of Pecorino Romano cheese and eggs in my house. I agree with Antonia James as I too love my freezer- I keep chopped uncooked bacon in individual meal sized portions to add to dishes at will. My emergency bacon stash!
AntoniaJames March 29, 2014
Not listed above: kipper snacks, tamarind, tomato paste in a tube (so convenient), dukkah, korma, za'tar (these last three, my own blends), tahini, and a variety of quick homemade "flavor pastes" in my freezer (do they count?), blitzed en masse and stored in silicone cube freezer trays: Thai basil + aromatics; this: ; cilantro + garlic + scallions; lemongrass + garlic + shallots + ginger; garlic + ginger + scallions. These little cubes are terrific helpers, when combined with other pantry items, e.g., tomatoes + coconut milk to make a curry, or on their own with vegetables + protein (plant- or animal-derived). It's how I manage to do so many fun things, even with a busy law practice, yet serving a great dinner every night. ;o) P.S. Another great pantry item is "10-minute Farro" - like orzo for its convenience, but more interesting.
AdeleK March 29, 2014
I am with Meg on the paprikas but since I cook a lot, I have lot of dried herbs from my garden and spices not listed. I also keep frozen herbs from my garden when I have an abundance of them. A good balsamic along with flavored and wine vinegars. I also stock pasta, chocolates and rices, boxed broths, and demi gloss.
Also along with the tomato products, I have canned and dried beans and dried chiles. Along with the oils, I keep duck fat and coconut oil.
luvcookbooks March 29, 2014
Sweet and spicy smoked paprika are on hand at all times. Jam and peanut butter, crunchy for me and creamy for my daughter... eggs, bread, oranges and apples ... milk and some kind of other milk for those who don't do dairy, Parmesan and cheddar cheeses, chocolate bars, plain full fat yogurt for curries, different kinds of rice, quinoa.