What to Keep in your Cupboards (And Fridge. And Freezer.)

7 Dec

In continuing with the 4 basic principles you need to get going in the kitchen, we come to: what you need to keep in the pantry.   Surprisingly, one of my favorite things to do in the kitchen is to make something out of nothing.  How many times have you been in the kitchen, staring in the fridge, thinking “there is nothing to make for dinner”?   While most people probably reach for the nearest take-out menu (and yes, sometimes I just don’t feel like cooking either), I find that these are the times when I am most creative.  

Just as there are several indispensable kitchen tools, there are also several ingredients which will enable you to make something out of nothing.  These are the basics that I think you should always keep in your kitchen.  Having them on hand will greatly reduce the number of ingredients you will be required to buy each time you want to make a recipe, and they will also help fuel your creative fire (more on that under the “Inspiration” post – coming soon).

Beautiful pantry, found here.

Pantry Staples:

  • Oil – Both extra virgin olive oil (cooking, vinaigrettes) and canola/vegetable oil (baking, Asian recipes).  Keep them in easy-to-dispense bottles (squeeze bottles or drizzle bottles next to where you cook).
  • Salt – Kosher or sea salt, it doesn’t matter to me, but do use a coarse salt – and keep it in a bowl or salt cellar so you can easily pick it up and control how you season your food).
  • Black Pepper – Freshly ground from a pepper mill.
  • Vinegar – A few types are necessary to have on hand.  I like to always have red wine vinegar, balsamic and rice wine vinegar.  At least.  I have been known to have more than 8 varieties at times…
  • Rice & Pasta- Brown rice for a healthy side dish or base for stir fry.  Italian dried pastas for obvious reasons, dried Asian noodles (I like wide rice noodles) for stir fries.
  • Beans– Any variety really, they add bulk to meals when you don’t have meat on hand.  I particularly like having black beans around for easy Mexican, any time.
  • Canned tomatoes/paste  – I love the tomato paste that comes in tubes now (so you don’t have to buy a whole can just for one tablespoon – it keeps in the fridge a very long time).  Tomatoes are used in so many recipes, if you always keep some on hand, it will be a huge life saver.

Salt, pepper and olive oil set-up – right next to the stove

Fridge Staples:

  • Mustard– Definitely keep Dijon on hand at the minimum – it’s a staple for making a quick dressing.
  • Hot sauce – It’s up to you which variety… I keep Tabasco, Frank’s and Sriracha at all times, since they are all slightly different.  Tabasco is good for adding straight heat, Frank’s definitely gives a more defined Buffalo wing flavor, and Sriracha is my new favorite – it’s ideal for Asian food, but I’m beginning to use it on everything…
  • Cheese – Some sort of shredded cheese is always handy to have, as well as good parmesan.  Not the kind from the green can!  Real parmesan, in block form, will last a long time in the fridge, and you can use it more sparingly because it has SO MUCH more flavor.  I swear by it.  It makes such a difference.
  • Corn tortillas  – I am a freak for corn tortillas.  I love them.  And I always have them in my fridge, because breakfast (Huevos rancheros?), lunch (tacos?) or dinner (enchiladas?), I can always find a way to use them.
  • Mirepoix – the fancy French word for celery, carrot and onion.  Another Holy Trinity of cooking (just like oil, salt and pepper).

Freezer Staples:

  • Bacon– It is a great flavor base for so many recipes, and if you freeze it in packs of ~4 slices you will always have the perfect amount ready for any recipe.
  • Homemade stock – I must post about this in more detail.  Sure, you can buy the boxed/canned stock and keep that in the pantry, but homemade stock is simply the best thing ever.  Think about it!  It’s incredibly easy to make using leftover vegetables and meat bones, and so it is basically the definition of making something out of nothing.  And I love that.
  • Vegetables  – Any variety you like.  I always keep frozen peas, edamame, spinach and stir-fry vegetables in the freezer.  Because they are frozen at their peak of freshness, the healthfulness of frozen veggies is the same as, or even better, than fresh.
  • Chicken – Buy it in bulk (saves money) and then individually wrap the chicken pieces in plastic wrap and freeze (then you always have it on hand); thaw it in the fridge.  I buy both boneless, skinless (to thinly slice for stir fry, for example) and bone-in, skin-on breasts (for roasting – it’s so much more juicy).
  • Ground beef – Again, buy in bulk to save money, and freeze in 1 lb increments in zip-lock bags

Countertop (or wherever you store them…):

  • Garlic – Fresh really is best.  The pre-minced refrigerated kind is just not the same -it’s spicy and hot and weird.  Fresh is cheap and easy to prep if you have a microplane or some knife skills ;-)
  • Citrus – Fresh lemons and limes give flavor to dishes like nothing else… Honestly I don’t always have them in my kitchen, but I should.
  • Wine – If you don’t want to keep bottles on hand just for cooking, or can’t seem to spare any for recipes ;-), a good alternative is to buy some cooking wine and keep it in the fridge.  Or even one of the nice boxes of wine they have now (they have come a long way in terms of boxing GOOD wine!) – because those have a very long shelf life.

Asian-Specific Ingredients:

I have been cooking a lot of Asian-inspired food in the past few years.  I love Thai curries and easy stir-fries.  There are a few basics specific to this type of cooking that I always have:

  • Sesame oil – One little bottle will last a long time.  It’s very nutty and you only need a drop or two to add serious depth of flavor to any Asian dish (it is definitely one of those secret ingredients that makes you go hmm what is that).
  • Coconut milk – A must for Thai cooking.  I usually keep the “light” kind on hand, but the full-fat variety will take your curries from ho-hum to restaurant quality.
  • Thai curry paste – If you have an Asian grocery store nearby, I HIGHLY recommend buying your curry paste there – it’s worlds better, spicier and generally more authentic tasting than the kinds I’ve seen in my regular grocery store.  I credit my Thai friend, Keng, with enlightening me on this. 
  • Soy sauce – A classic ingredient, probably not much explanation needed.
  • Sriracha – As I said before, I think it’s the best way to add heat quickly and easily to any Asian dish.

Herbs & Spices:

If I had to only pick 10 herbs and spices to have on hand, they would be: 

Cinnamon (duh), nutmeg (whole, then freshly grated), curry powder (I love curry – and combining paste and powder gives more curry flavor), cumin (essential for the Mexican cooking I love), thyme, parsley, basil, oregano (all of which I would ideally always have fresh, but that only happens if I plan to make a recipe well in advance), cayenne pepper and crushed red pepper (I am addicted to spicy lately – and it will just add that much more interest to every dish).

Spices, found here.

So that was simple right?!  Hopefully not too overwhelming.  It’s not like you have to run out and buy all these things right away, it’s just my list of what I have found most useful to have on hand.  And, you probably have many of them in your kitchen already!  As I post different recipes, I will try to go into more detail about the ingredients I use and why they are important.  I will also try to post short tips, as I think of them, about different ingredients or tricks I’ve learned.  I hope that helps!  And please ask any questions you may have in the comments section!

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3 Responses to “What to Keep in your Cupboards (And Fridge. And Freezer.)”

  1. Lindsay December 7, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    I there a way to purchase all of these ingredients directly from your site and have them delivered? Because I’m missing about 75% of them. But I did finally buy cinnamon this fall. Craziness.

    • Amy December 7, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

      Once I make it big I’ll start a mail order food service ;-)

      Cinnamon is a start… And I know you have dried pasta…

  2. Jennifer Cassidy December 12, 2011 at 7:52 pm #

    I agree with all of the above and definitely have started a system similar to your’s (though much less organized) for recipe organization.

    A new spice I added to the “must haves” in my cabinet is pumpkin pie spice. It’s really great for cookie, scone, pancake, waffle and muffin recipes- quick and easy flavors!

    This blog is amazing. I love it. And you. So many creepers, including myself, can now see into your life! feel violated.

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