Even the most resourceful housewife cannot create miracles from a rice less pantry.

                                    ~Chinese Proverb


Unfortunately, not my pantry 😦

If cooking a meal was a war, the pantry would be your armory.

And if you want to win that war, it has to be stocked and loaded with everything you need.

Ok, maybe not everything you need, that would probably require the space of a garage. And if you’re like me, chances are you don’t even have an actual “pantry” to put anything in, just a few cabinets. Cabinet or closet sized, it doesn’t matter, your pantry is your pantry.

When stocking and maintaining your pantry you have to keep in mind what you and whoever you’re cooking for enjoy to eat. You don’t want to stock up on soy sauce if you’re not fond of Chinese food. But if you love Italian, you’ll want to keep dry pasta and tomato sauce on hand all the time. It sounds like common sense, but I’ve seen plenty a pantry that was stocked with non-essential junk. Your pantry is more than just a place to keep your condiments and canned food.

If you know me, you know I’m always making stuff like brownies, cookies, cakes, breads, all sorts of different things. But I don’t go out and buy different ingredients every time I want to make something. For the most part, everything I need to cook or bake at my hearts content, uses stuff that I already have on hand. And like I said, I don’t have a closet sized pantry; I’m working out of cabinets. Two to be exact. If you keep a few basic staples in your pantry, you will be shocked at how many different things you can make. If you have a somewhat decent array of items, and want to make something but you’re missing an ingredient, just find a similar recipe that doesn’t need that certain thing you don’t have.

Or if it’s something that isn’t integral to the recipe (like eggs to a cheesecake batter), just replace it with something similar you do have.

Or, *gasp*, omit it altogether! I’m a rebel in kitchen, I know what I can and can’t get by without. Mastering your ingredients means you’ll learn which corners to cut and when. If I don’t have one ingredient, I’m not going to let it stop me from making what I want to make. And you know what; I’m not going to lose any sleep over it either.

If you’re reading between the lines, you now know you should stock your pantry with a crap load of improvisation as well.

So, in case you’re the type that has to be told what exactly you should have, you’re in luck:

Things like Spices and Oils (Extra Virgin for drizzling as a final touch on salads or meats and for pan searing, Vegetable or Canola for everything else) should always be stocked since they’re so integral to cooking.

A lot of people don’t really care for or even look at Extra Virgin Olive Oil because of the price. With the $8-$10 bottle you see at the supermarket I can understand, and agree, why it seems expensive for a small bottle of oil, especially if you can get a few bigger bottles of another type of oil for the same price. But if you’re using it correctly, and utilizing its unique flavor, then you’ll learn very quickly that spending that much on a bottle of oil is a bargain. There are some nutjobs foodies out there who will gladly pay upwards of $50-$75 for a bottle of authentic, Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and others who will live their lives perfectly content and not give a vinaigrette about how virgin their oil is. I would love to try a good oil like that, but I don’t think the wife would go with having oil for dinner all week.

If you want to get schooled a little bit more on why Extra Virgin Olive Oil is so important, check out This site and This site. Also, if you’re feeling like you want to check out the hype and try out this liquid gold from the supermarket, here is a good list of what to try and what to avoid, from Cook’s Illustrated.

Next are preference items like a few boxes of different Dried Pasta with a jar or two of your favorite Tomato Sauce, you can even use Canned Tomatoes since those are handy to keep around, not to mention you get to flavor your sauce the way you want (which is the way I recommend going). Soy and Worcestershire (or as I like to call it, Wushtisharar) Sauces are nice to keep for flavoring and marinades. Red Wine Vinegar is good, or my favorite that I always keep a bottle of and that you can never go wrong with, Balsamic Vinegar.

Let me say that again… You can Never. Go wrong with. Balsamic Vinegar. I’d say it again, but I’m sure you get it. I can’t really explain it, but Balsamic Vinegar is one of those things that you just need. And like Extra Virgin Olive Oil, you get what you pay for. You can go with a cheap supermarket bottle and be fine, or you can spend upwards of $50-$500 for a real bottle of Balsamic Vinegar that was aged from 20 all the way up to 150 years. Balsamic is to be treated like wine – Always remember – the older the better. Paired with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and maybe a little Parmesan cheese, Balsamic Vinegar is perfect for dipping a fresh, crusty bread in. And by perfect, I mean I’ll be happy eating that everyday for the rest of my life. Also great for salads and drizzling on steak after reducing it to a thick sauce, Balsamic Vinegar is worth an investment. 

For a little crash course on Balsamic Vinegar, how it’s made and what to look for when buying it, check This site out.

Moving on, Chicken or Beef Stock, the kind with lesser sodium, for a quick soup or sauce. Bread Crumbs for… breading.. stuff. You can go with regular or Panko bread crumbs for an extra crunch. Rice is always good to have on hand if you like it, and honestly who doesn’t like rice? It’s cheap, crazy versatile and can feed a lot. A bag each of Potatoes and Onions goes a long way, potatoes can be made a hundred ways and onions can flavor everything. And Corn Starch because you’ll never know when you have to thicken something up.

Now, if you plan on baking a lot, I hope you’re ready for a whole other list of things you should have:

Flour is a necessity. I use all purpose because it’s fairly all purpose, and it’s not just for baking either. Flour can be used to thicken (as part of a roux, but that’s another post), to coat stuff for frying, as well as other things. So yeah, flour is important. There are a bunch of other types of flour you can buy but only buy them if you really need them. Like for self-rising flour, all you need to do is add some baking powder and salt to all-purpose flour and BAM, it’s self-rising. You’re welcome.

Sugar in all its forms – white, brown and powdered – should be on hand. I also keep a container of Turbinado (Raw) Sugar because it is amazing for topping off cookies or cakes. Baking Soda and Baking Powder are also important staples along with a good Pure Vanilla Extract, not that imitation crap. Imitation vanilla extract is for the people who buy already ground nutmeg, and don’t get me started on that.

Then the extras like a bag or two of (preferably semi-sweet because it’s more versatile) Chocolate Chips and bars of Baking Chocolate for more rustic chunks, shavings, and duh – baking. Cocoa Powder, a can or bag of your favorite type of Nut or Nut Mix, and some Yeast if you plan on making bread a lot. Also, I have a new obsession that I think I’ll keep around regularly and that’s Marshmallow Fluff. Holy crap, it’s like magic in a jar. And if I have to tell you to stock Peanut Butter, then you need more help than what I can give you.

Keep in mind that there are plenty of other things you can stock your pantry with; these are just my suggestions because I’m a simple man. I don’t like to get all complicated with things like meringue powder, gelatin, or cream of tartar. I tip my hat to you if you use them frequently, I just don’t.

Also keep in mind that your pantry isn’t the only thing that needs maintaining. There are necessities that need to stay stocked in your fridge and freezer as well:

Eggs and Butter are on the top of that list, doesn’t matter if you’re not a fan of eggs for breakfast or buttered toast, those two things are used in a ridiculous amount of recipes. Then there’s Garlic. I buy peeled cloves by the container and then set like 20 of them aside in a airtight container and I put them in the produce drawer in the fridge, just in case I need to make roasted garlic or something. The rest of it, I throw in my food processor and chop it all up and then off it goes to my freezer. It may take away the whole “fresh garlic” aspect of it, but it works for me since I hate to peel my own garlic and it won’t go bad. Also in my cooler you’ll find Milk and most of the time Heavy Cream, which is also a necessity if you’re going to be making sauces or desserts. And cheese. If it were up to me, I’d have at least 5 different types of cheese stocked at all times. But it’s not up to me, so it’s only what we use for sandwiches, usually Sliced American or Cheddar, and Grated Parmesan. If you can though, it’s good to have Cream Cheese, some form of Mozzarella whether it is fresh or shredded, and another type of shredded cheese for the emergency cheese sauce.

In the freezer is obviously where you’ll keep the good stuff. Meats, fish, whatever protein you’re using. For us, there are always, ALWAYS, Chicken Breasts and Ground Beef in the freezer. Off the top of my head I can tell you at least 15 different things you can do with both of those. Also in there are Italian Sausage, some type or a few types of pork, whether it be Pork Chops, Tenderloin or God’s gift to mankind, Bacon. Then some form of steak, our favorite being Flank Steak or New York Strip. Other types of meats can be bought periodically for special dinners, like Pork Shoulder, Rib Roast, or Rack of Lamb. But for the most part, what we keep in our freezer gets used on a weekly basis. And that’s what you’re aiming for. Also in the freezer are frozen vegetables like Broccoli Florets, Corn, or Vegetable Medley that can be quickly utilized for a side dish. I go frozen against fresh because I like to know I have stuff that won’t go bad if I don’t feel like having vegetables that day. Or week. Or month. Ok, let me not sound like I don’t like vegetables because I am an absolute sucker for sautéed Broccoli with butter and garlic. The rest of the things you keep in your freezer and fridge are based on preference. Well, I guess it’s all based on your preference, haha. It’s good to have some ready-to-go type of bread in the freezer, like a Baguette or Dinner Rolls for a quick garlic bread or steak sandwich.

Salad greens and fresh vegetables are great for quick and easy salads, but we don’t usually go that route over here since the “two sides and a meat” is good enough for us. Also, stuff to keep around if you like them are things like Sour Cream and mayonnaise. Sour Cream is fairly versatile and can be used for sauces or desserts, and mayonnaise is… Well, it’s mayonnaise. There are very few things I hate in this world, but mayonnaise has been on the very top of that list next to war and Will Ferrell movies for a very, very long time. If I make my own mayonnaise, I can tolerate it, but that’s where our relationship ends. Notice how it doesn’t even get bold lettering or capitalization. mayonnaise does not deserve to stand out.

Other obvious things you want to keep stocked are Non-Stick Cooking Spray, Parchment Paper, Aluminum Foil, Plastic Wrap, etc…

And last but not least: The Wine, Rum, Liqueur and Brandy. For cooking purposes of course. When it comes to wine, always remember to use something that you wouldn’t mind drinking. If you use a cheap wine that you don’t like, chances are it’s not going to make your sauce taste any better. I wouldn’t worry about going all out either, I use a $10 bottle that I have no problems with. For a White Wine, it’s safe to go with a Chardonnay, and Red, a Merlot. With Rum, if a recipe calls for it, it’s most likely a Dark Rum, so use your favorite. There are plenty of Liqueur’s to choose from, but I always have a bottle of Grand Marnier, can’t go wrong with that. And my mother swears by her favorite Brandy for baking, Felipe II.

That should about cover it. I know it sounds like a lot, but once you have it all, it’s about maintaining it. And like I said, everything is based on your preference. It’s about what you like and what you use. In the end, I hope I gave you some ideas as to what you should essentially need and that this gave you some insight as to what things should be kept. I know most of you are probably reading, thinking to yourself, “duh, I knew all this.” Well, amazingly, there are a bunch of people out there who don’t know a whisk from a spatula, people who stock nothing but boxed “food” to cook dinner with. If you want to make something spontaneously, then the more things you have on hand, the better luck you have at successfully making it. Like I said, that’s common sense.