I think one of the greatest things I taught myself in the past few years is how to throw ingredients together and call it a meal. I remember watching some of those competition cooking shows thinking to myself, “I don’t know how they do it, I’d need recipes.” Truth of it is, back then, I wouldn’t have survived. I was just getting comfortable in the kitchen. I would rarely substitute ingredients, I’d follow a recipe the best I could (still wasn’t great at that), and would often get frustrated because I felt a bit trapped.
This began to change when I joined my first CSA and all of the sudden instead of planning meals in advance, I was planning meals based on the current ingredients in my house. I learned that some of the best meals didn’t have recipes and that a fully stocked kitchen plus a little planning can make a world of difference. I stocked up on bulk-bin items, narrowed down the dairy and cheese I kept in the house, and started channeling my inner creative.
For me, cooking is about having fun, being creative, and eliminating waste in the kitchen. I thought today I would share with you some of my basic pantry staples for stocking a pantry, along with a few extra items, that help my kitchen a creative zone and not a “we have nothing to eat” zone. (disclaimer: I do still have my lazy days. There’s no help for that…) Listed is the basic stock of my pantry at any given time with a few extras thrown in that I buy from time to time. One of the great things about keeping a stocked pantry is that not everything is bought every week which helps me cut down on my grocery bill and allow me to splurge a bit more on produce.
While I am far from being vegan, I try and use this category sparsely. I don’t smother everything with cheese (unless I’m in a nacho kind of mood), I don’t drink a lot of milk or eat a lot of yogurt (unless I just made fresh granola– that’s a different story). We do eat our fair share of eggs but never an outrageous amount. Some of these items, like heavy cream and cheese, I usually only buy every other week (if even that often).
What we have on hand:
- 2% Milk
- Heavy Cream (for coffee)
- Greek or Regular Plain Yogurt (no sugar, no flavors)
- Large Eggs
- Cheddar Cheese, Mozzarella Cheese, Goat Cheese, Blue Cheese, Feta
- Sour Cream ( I usually just use Greek Yogurt)
- extra “fun” cheeses:Mamchego, Havarti, Stilton, etc.
- Crème Fraîche (only if I’m feeling indulgent)
Grains (Gluten and Gluten Free):
The next couple of categories are really what makes having a pantry great and are the keys to always having meals on hand by just adding fresh produce. I keep a solid stock of the four base grains but often find myself picking up extra grains when I’m at the co-op. The best part about these grains is that they can lead a double life in your cupboards: as a whole grain and as a flour. As whole grains, I’ll play around with grains and figure out which ones I like best for different meals. Oats, Amaranth, Quinoa, and Millet make great breakfast grains, while wheat berries, kamut, and farro are awesome additions to salads. The best advice I can give is to learn about how the grain can function and explore from there! As flour, the combinations are virtually endless (but you’ll have to wait until my book comes out to hear more on this topic!)
Most grains can be cooked ahead of time and tossed into soups, salads, and full meals. I’ll often cook up a batch of rice and quinoa to be used for quick meals throughout the week.
- Polenta (I’ll grind popcorn for a faux-polenta)
These guys play an important role in my pantry, especially when it comes to adding protein. I’ve never been a big tofu or tempeh person, so I strive to eat a fair amount of legumes and grains that have higher protein levels.
For chickpeas and black beans, I’ll soak and cook up a large batch to store/freeze for a week. Lentils and split peas are great for a quick source of protein, especially red lentils that cook up fast and don’t require soaking.
Nuts and Seeds:
I keep a heavy dose of nuts and seeds in my house for snacks and cooking. I love the crunch they add to salads,as toppings, and in mixed into savory dishes. I’ll rotate through which nuts and seeds I have on hand but my favorites are pecans, pistachios, hazelnuts, and sunflower seeds! Nuts can go stale fairly easy, so I purchase in smaller quantities and keep in the refrigerator.
- Sunflower Seeds
- Pumpkin Seeds
- Chia Seeds
- Hemp Seeds
- Sesame Seeds
Herbs and Spices:
No cooking would be complete without herbs and spices. For the herbs, I try and use fresh whenever possible (and right now I have a rather healthy patio herb garden full of most everything I use- herbs grow wonderfully in pots). As for spices, I keep quite a few on hand to create custom spice blends and use by themselves. I buy all my spices from the bulk-bin section of the local co-op but you can also order small (and large) quantities online! Just remember to rotate through every so often to ensure freshness.
- Smoked Paprika
- Chili Powder
- Cumin (seeds or powder)
- Coriander (seeds or powder)
- yellow mustard
Everything in moderation is the key phrase for fats. I always have olive oil and butter in my kitchen. Butter for baked goods, pancakes, sauces, etc and olive oil for salad dressings, roasting vegetables, and sautéing. I’ve never been able to jump fully on the coconut oil wagon but I do occasionally keep a jar in the cupboard for popcorn, and for use in place of butter. I also occasionally keep a bottle of walnut oil as I love to use this oil in salad dressings, as a finishing oil, and in baked goods.
- Olive Oil
- Coconut Oil
- Walnut/Almond Oil
- Sesame Oil
There are a few things that I use quite frequently that don’t really fall into one category. I’m sure there are quite a few more, but this gives you the idea of what I usually start with.
- Soy sauce
- Hot Sauce
- Balsamic Vinegar
- Apple Cider vinegar
- Mayo (oocasionally)
- Peanut Butter
- Dried Fruit (mainly cranberries)
- Tomatoes (stewed, diced, sauce)
I have a bit of a sweet tooth but over the years I’ve moved from using traditional, processed sugars into using more non-processed sweeteners. However, I do still keep a bit of organic cane sugar, brown sugar, and confectioners sugar around the house for odd and end baking I love to do. The majority of my day-to-day foods rely on the three sweeteners listed. I’ve also become a big fan of using dates as a way to sweeten some items (like granolas and chutneys.)
- Maple Syrup
- Sorghum Syrup
- Turbinado,Muscovado, Demerara (replacements for brown sugar)
- Brown Rice Syrup
I would be a big fat liar if I said we didn’t have some snack foods around the house. We usually have some tortillas chips, pistachios, granola bars, grapes, apples, and peanut butter. Sometimes I make some of these items but some weeks are busy enough that convenience wins.
Where to Buy Things:
For most of the time I lived in rural Illinois, many bulk bin items, spices, and herbs were a bit harder for me to find. Luckily, now, many places online stock everything you would ever want and have rather quick shipping. A few of my favorite places to buy from are:
- Bob’s Red Mill
- Arrowhead Mills
- Frontier Co-op
- Great River
- Bluebird Grain Farm
- Jaffe Brothers
- Purcell Mountain Farms
I storage all my grains and spices in glass containers. The co-op I belong to has a great system where the jars a weighed ahead of time so that I can use my glass storage while purchasing (eliminating the need for plastic bags!) I used Ball canning jars for a long time but just recently wanted jars that had a few different sizes which led me to start using Weck jars. I still use the ball freezer safe jars for storing cooked beans, fresh tomato sauce, etc.
I try and buy smaller quantities more frequently in order to keep grains fresh. For long-term storage of bulk items, keep in an air-tight container in the freezer. I also grind flour in quantities I know I can use in a few days time and store extra flour in the refrigerator.
(*Disclaimer: Any company I link to in this post is at my own doing, no sponsor, just love.)