Home cooks constantly struggle with what ingredients to buy in advance and keep handy, versus those that should be bought when they’re actually needed for a specific recipe. Generally speaking, the things to buy and stock in advance in your kitchen are:
- The ingredients you will use in a recipe you cook frequently;
- The ingredients you will use across a number of recipes;
- The ingredients that you use infrequently but that are difficult or take time to procure.
And most importantly, stock things that have a long shelf-life. Keeping your pantry stocked with these items maximizes your flexibility if you are an impulsive cook, and also allows you to make “emergency meals” when life happens.
Here’s a checklist of what you should consider stocking in your kitchen. You don’t need to buy all of these in advance, but when you do need them, get more than you need for cooking a single recipe once. You can buy almost everything on this list in any major supermarket.
Flours: white flour, bread flour, whole wheat flour. Also vital wheat gluten (essential for baking with whole wheat flour). Optional: self-rising flour, cake flour, corn flour/masa, rye flour, other specialty flours.
Chocolate: cocoa powder, ground chocolate, baking chocolate, chocolate chips. Baking chocolate and chocolate chips come in a rage of percentages of cacao, from around 60% to 100% (“unsweetened”). 60% cacao tastes a bit diluted; on the other hand, unsweetened chocolate is too bitter to eat on its own (but can be melted and mixed with other ingredients). If you stock both unsweetened and 60%, you can mix them together in a recipe to hit whatever percentage you’re looking for in between.
Dried pasta and noodles: It comes in all shapes and sizes, and it has an almost infinite shelf-life. For pasta, keep in stock some variation of spaghetti, and some variation of smaller thicker pieces (penne, macaroni, farfale, etc.). For Asian noodles, it’s a bit more complicated since there are several options for what the noodles are made of: rice flour, wheat flour, buckwheat flour, soba, etc. Stock what you use frequently, or what you use infrequently but requires a special trip to a store that you don’t frequently shop at (many large grocery stores stock several kinds of dried Asian noodles, but nowhere near the variety you will find at an Asian grocery store).
Soups: Simple, generic soups and stocks are often ingredients in more complicated recipes. Chicken stock, vegetable stock (beef broth is less common as an ingredient). Also cream of mushroom, cream of celery, cream of chicken, and tomato in canned concentrate (e.g. Campbell’s or generic equivalents). Bouillon cubes or broth concentrate are also very handy and far more compact to store than containers of broth or soup.
Canned tomatoes: the most common ones used as ingredients in recipes are diced, crushed, paste, and sauce; whole and stewed tomatoes are far less commonly used. Try to buy the types that don’t include other ingredients (salt, herbs, etc.). Canned tomatoes come in three sizes: 6 ounce, 14.5 ounce, and 28 ounce. Buy 6-ounce cans of tomato paste: recipes often call for using small amounts (you can also buy tomato paste in squeeze-tubes). As for the other varieties of canned tomatoes, generally buy the 14.5-ounce sizes unless you know in advance that a recipe specifically calls for a 28-ounce can; it’s easier to use two 14.5-ounce cans than it is to use half a 28-ounce can.
Canned beans: common recipe ingredients are white (aka Great Northern) and black beans. You can buy dried beans instead, but be aware that you will usually need to rehydrate them first, which can take hours.
Wine/vinegar/alcohol: these are more common than you might think, since they add flavor and unlock other flavors in food. White vinegar, red wine winegar, and balsamic vinegar are all popular ingredients; rice vinegar is common in asian recipes; apple cider vinegar is optional to stock in your pantry. Several types of wine are also common: white wine, red wine (you can use table wines, but don’t use anything that you wouldn’t drink; cooking can’t make bad wine taste better), sherry, marsala. Asian recipes often use rice wine: sake or mirin (sweetened rice wine). Vodka, rum and brandy are also frequently-used ingredients. And keep a 12-ounce bottle of beer in stock; it appears on ingredient lists from time to time too.
Nuts: peanuts, almonds, walnuts, and cashews are the most popular ingredients. They come whole or in pieces. Shredded coconut is a frequent ingredient too; make sure it’s unsweetened.
Food coloring: if you can, buy gel instead of liquid; it’s much better quality.
Oils: There is a set of high-smoke-point oils that are somewhat interchangeable, but you need at least one of them for sauteing food: canola, sunflower, vegetable, corn. Stock in peanut oil if you intend to do a lot of deep-frying: it has a stronger flavor, but a high smoke-point. Olive oil is also a very common ingredient, but as a flavoring and not as a cooking oil because it has a low smoke-point. Also pick up a can of non-stick spray, either butter or canola-oil based.
Milk products: condensed milk, evaporated milk, coconut milk; keep a can of each in your pantry. Optional: powdered milk; it’s sometimes used as an ingredient directly, and in a pinch you can use it to reconstitute liquid milk.
Rice: generic white and/or brown; they are generally interchangeable, but brown rice will take longer to cook (which might be a problem it it’s cooked together with other ingredients). Optional: specialty rices such as basmati, jasmine, arborio (for making risotto), black, red, and sushi.
Other ingredients that are useful to keep stocked (usually just one can is sufficient): canned pumpkin; canned mushrooms, olives and green chiles; applesauce (plain, in snack-sized containers, not large jars); peanut butter (creamy, not chunky); raisins; hot sauce.