I remember pulling out the drawers in the kitchen as a child in order to use them to climb up onto the counter so I could access the pantry cupboard. There I would sit, pondering the satiating value of crackers vs. pretzels, probably settling on whichever package appealed to me more visually because that how I (still) make most decisions.
I realize my pantry today looks very different from the pantry I remember as a child and may look very different than (or perhaps very similar to) yours. Unfortunately for my 6-year-old self, my pantry is no longer filled with quick fixes for my hunger pangs. For that, I would have more luck searching in the fridge. Rather, it is more of a treasure trove, filled with raw ingredients collected from both near and far, allowing me to both elevate the flavor of and add density to my meals.
Because the pantry is full of kitchen staples that last a long time, it can be quite valuable on those days when you don’t have time to get to the store. Between a well-stocked pantry and freezer, you should be able to survive a few days with an empty refrigerator.
Spices and Dried Herbs: I’m a fan of using spices and herbs liberally. They add so much flavor to foods without having to overdo it with cheese, butter, or salt (not that those foods are necessarily bad). Many spices and herbs contain high amounts of powerful antioxidants and phytonutrients that have been shown to support a healthy body. While fresh herbs add more flavor, dried herbs are nice to have on hand when fresh isn’t available. Just like fruits and vegetables, choose organic spices and herbs that have not been irradiated (choose organic). Spices and herbs do go bad, so write the date of purchase on the bottle and replenish as needed. Two of my favorite spices are cayenne pepper and turmeric.
Honey: Local, raw, organic honey is a wonderful, nutrient-dense way to add sweetness to dishes. Though it contains large amounts of sugar, honey also contains valuable vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that provide benefit to the body. Many people find that consuming local honey helps alleviate seasonal allergy symptoms. Look for raw, or unpasteurized honey as the pasteurization process destroys beneficial enzymes.
Vinegars and Oils: Having a variety of oils and vinegars in your pantry will take your cooking to the next level. Oils like olive, sesame, and macadamia are great for cold salads while grapeseed, peanut, and coconut oil are ideal for high heat cooking and baking. Don’t be afraid to experiment with vinegars. Rotating balsamic, sherry, champagne, apple cider, and rice vinegar in your salad dressing is an easy way to keep meals from getting boring. Oils and vinegars last a long time (especially when kept in a dark place) so don’t be afraid to stock up.
Whole, Intact Grains: Grains like quinoa, rice, and oats are useful to have on hand as they store well and provide bulk to your meals. Quinoa and oats are best soaked overnight before they are used, so they still require a little planning in advance before including them in your meal. Intact grains are far better at supporting stable blood sugar levels than processed grains, like those found in crackers, breads, and pastas. When you take the time to make a grain, make extra and store leftovers in your fridge to add to meals during the week.
Fresh Fruits and Vegetables: Alliums like onions, garlic, and shallots are must-haves for any cook’s kitchen. These vegetables have a long shelf life and can add a lot of flavor to meals even when you haven’t been to the grocery store. Many other fruits and vegetables should be kept unrefrigerated, either in the pantry or on the counter in order to ripen properly and maintain their full flavor. You can find produce storage recommendations in each month’s seasonal food guides.
Dried Beans: Beans and lentils are a wonderful way to add bulk and fiber to your meals. While canned beans are easy, many cans contain a chemical called BPA which has been shown to disrupt the endocrine system and may lead to certain cancers. Dried beans are quite easy to work with, simply soak in water overnight to soften, then heat as desired. Add a piece of kombu seaweed to the cooking liquid to neutralize the gas-causing compounds in beans and impart nourishing minerals into your dish. To make your efforts worth it, prepare a large batch of beans and freeze the extra for a quick meal another day.
Coconut Milk: A wonderful addition to smoothies, desserts, soups, cereals, and lattes, coconut milk is a useful product to have on hand. Look for traditional, full-fat coconut milk, which is often found in the ethnic foods section of the grocery store. Avoid the brands that come in cartons, often found in the milk alternatives section, as these are homogenized and contain unwanted ingredients and preservatives. Look for brands with BPA-free cans like Native Forest. (You can learn more about the benefits of coconut here.)
Tomato Sauce and Canned Tomatoes: Living with an Italian, we do a lot of tomato sauce. Tomatoes add heartiness to dishes that broth can’t. While I commend those who can their own tomatoes, store-bought brands are more realistic for those of us without gardens bursting with tomatoes. Many brands are now supplying tomato sauce in glass jars or cardboard cartons instead of BPA-lined cans. Find an organic, BPA-free brand and stock up.
Ghee: Common in Indian cuisine, ghee is clarified butter. In the clarification process, the milk proteins and sugars are removed, making it suitable for even those sensitive to casein and lactose. While ghee is often stored in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, I like to keep mine in the pantry so it remains soft and spreadable. Ghee is delicious when spread on bread and pancakes and is a perfect choice for high-heat cooking.
Coconut Oil: Another highly stable cooking fat, coconut oil is solid at room temperature and liquid when heated. It is ideal for sautéing, frying, and baking. It can also be used as a spread for toast, or delicious as a simple spoonful added to a cup of tea. (You can learn more about the benefits of coconut here.)
Salt and Pepper: I’m sure most of you already have these two in your kitchen as they are called for in pretty much every recipe. In the case of taste, quality matters. You don’t need to be afraid of adding salt to your dishes is you’re using the right kind and freshly ground black pepper elevates your meal to the next level. When you buy a pepper grinder, look for one that allows you to adjust the size of the cracked pepper flakes – don’t be afraid to get advanced like this and find your preferred pepper-flake-size. Attending to the smallest details during cooking connects us more intimately with our food and heightens our senses. (You can learn more about my favorite brands of salt here.)
Maple Syrup: Another whole-food sweetener, maple syrup is a great substitution for sugar in baking recipes or to sweeten a dressing or sauce. If you ever have the opportunity to travel to a syrup-producing area, pick up a few bottles of local, raw maple syrup. While “Light” or “Grade A” syrup is most popular, choose “Grade B” or “Very Dark” syrup as it has a higher concentration of nutrients and a more intense flavor.
Extra Provisions: If you have enough room in your pantry, stock up on all those flavor-rich goodies that don’t need to be refrigerated until they’re opened. I love keeping extra jars of capers, sun dried tomatoes, anchovies, Dijon mustard, roasted peppers, and olives in my cupboard so I can easily dress up a rather sparse meal. A simple chicken breast can turn into a gourmet meal with the addition of lemon, parsley (from your freezer!), and capers.
Protein Powder: While I fully support a whole-foods based diet, sometimes protein powder saves the day. A high-quality protein powder combined with frozen fruits or vegetables from the freezer can provide a quick meal when there’s nothing else available. You can also add protein powder to yogurt or oatmeal to provide a little protein boost. Not all protein powders are created equal, so look for one made from non-denatured whey or pea protein and is free of sugar, artificial sweeteners, allergens, or other additives. (You can find my favorite brand here.)
What else is in your pantry?
Want more kitchen essentials? Read about my freezer tips here.