How to Set Up Your Pantry Like the Kitchen Pros

March 12, 2018
Can you hear the angels sing? Photo by James Ransom

Welcome to Spring Clean Your Life, your one-stop shop for gotta-try-those tips & bookmark-me inspiration to spruce up your kitchen and home this season—and well beyond.

If you cook a lot—say, breakfast six or seven days a week, dinner five or six nights a week, maybe brunch on Saturday—then you appreciate the importance of having a well-organized pantry; you understand the value in knowing where your spices and grains and pastas and canned foods live, and the necessity of being able to easily pick out the cumin or the quinoa or a can of chickpeas. But what if you cooked, like, five times that much? In other words, what if you were Josh Cohen?

Josh is the head chef in the Food52 test kitchen, where he oversees the testing of eight to 10 recipes per day, and sometimes prepares as many as 20 dishes in a single day. (And that’s all before he cooks his own dinner at home.) As the man behind (and often in front of) our very busy kitchen, Josh has to be ready to cook everything from Green Curry with Shrimp to Fried Pickles to Farro addition to the other five to 15 recipes that might be on his schedule. With such a wide variety of dishes on his daily docket, keeping the Food52 pantry organized is a given. So how exactly does he do it?

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We talked to Josh about his go-to pantry items, the ways he keeps the Food52 pantry in tip-top shape, and the smartest things home cooks can do to make their own pantries sparkle.

The Food52 pantry, where everything has its place. Photo by James

What’s your #1 piece of advice when it comes to stocking a pantry?

The best advice I can give in terms of stocking pantry items is determining which items are used most often and store them in the areas that are easiest to reach. The mistake that I see most often in home kitchens is when the easy-to-reach areas of a cabinet are stocked with obscure items that are rarely used, and then the harder-to-reach areas of the pantry are filled with the most-used items.

Bird’s eye view: How is the Food52 pantry organized?

In terms of the pantry at Food52, we have large bulk storage for sugar and various flours, and then we organize the rest of the pantry by shelf. One shelf for nuts and dried fruit, one for pastry items (cocoa powder, food coloring, beans for blind baking, etc.), a shelf for vinegars and honey and other random liquid condiments, a shelf for dry spices, a shelf for specialty flours (almond flour, buckwheat flour, chickpea flour, etc.), and a shelf for baking tools (loaf pans, springform pans, tart pans, etc.).

How do you store bulk items?

At Food52, we store most items in plastic quart or pint containers. For larger bulk storage, I like to use rectangular Cambro containers. At home, I use glass Mason jars. But at work it would be inefficient to use hundreds of glass containers, so I go for efficiency and use plastic.

All together now! Photo by James Ransom

How to you label decanted items so you know what’s what?

I label some of the shelves at work (to keep the nuts separate from the dried fruit, for example). And all the individual items are labeled, either with a label maker or with blue tape. At home I don't label anything, except my dry spices.

If someone wanted to give their pantry a total overhaul, how should they begin?

A pet peeve of mine is when an area is so full of stuff that you feel like removing one single item may cause an avalanche of items to come crashing down upon you. This should never be allowed to happen. The solution I recommend for home cooks is to take literally every single thing out of all of their cabinets and spread these items out on a table or counter. Then, go item by item and determine what you use most often. Place the most-used items back into the pantry, making sure that the most-used items are the easiest to reach and the least-used items are the hardest to reach. This makes the space feel much less crowded and allows for better access.

If your shelves have clarity and room, then your mind is calm and you become happier and your cooking improves.
Josh Cohen, Test Kitchen Director

What are the pantry items you reach for most often?

Olive oil, vinegars, dry spices (paprika, cumin, cayenne, coriander, etc.); baking soda and baking powder, AP flour, sugar, cocoa powder, and vanilla for pastry recipes; and honey.

What are the pantry items you use infrequently but keep around anyway?

Nutritional yeast, wheat germ, orange blossom water, and bonito flakes.

Let's get a closer look at those spices... Photo by James Ransom

What do you advise people do with things that fall in between those categories: pantry items that don’t get used all the time but aren’t special enough to keep?

The truth is that home cooks could probably give away or throw away many items that currently live in their pantry. Old dry spices? Old kitchen tools that never get used? A culinary gift that someone gave you 10 years ago and you never touched it? Get rid of all that stuff. You want your kitchen to be as lean and functional as possible. If your shelves have clarity and room, then your mind is calm and you become happier and your cooking improves. Mental mise en place, it's a real thing.

Will you be incorporating any of Josh's tips in your home pantry? We'd love to know!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Robert
  • M
  • Brian Sit
    Brian Sit
  • Lara Wille-Swink
    Lara Wille-Swink
  • Sarah Whitman-Salkin
    Sarah Whitman-Salkin


Robert April 13, 2018
Does anyone know where you can get small quantities of the plastic containers shown in the picture? I can only find them in quantities of 200 of each size.
Brian S. April 13, 2018
Go to any local restaurant that also has takeout - The Chinese restaurants are your easiest choice.
They'll sell them to you but go in when they're not busy.
Lara W. April 13, 2018
M March 16, 2018
Taking everything out of your pantry/cabinets can be daunting, especially to someone looking for guidance on how to do it. A more manageable way, especially if you have a ton of pantry ingredients, is to tackle reorganizing one thing that always irks you, or that you wish was in a different or more convenient area.

For example, if your baking ingredients aren't all together, pull them all out, see how much space they take up, and re-home them in a space that's more convenient than what's in the space currently. This could put something in an inconvenient space, so in the future, that can be dealt with. It's an on-going process, but one that doesn't require you to make decisions about everything at once. (especially helpful if you need to buy or collect containers for some things.
Sarah W. March 16, 2018
Breaking the pantry down piece by piece is a great idea!