How to CookPantry

Your Essential, Must-Have Pantry Items

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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.

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 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!

Tags: Community, Advice, DIY Food, How-To & Diy, Hotline, Best Question