Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Stocking Your Pantry

What do you need in your pantry - that is, the ingredients you always have on hand? I've seen a lot of lists. Some of them go on for pages. Obviously, the people who came up with these lists weren't on a strict budget. Nor, do they take into account what you really like to eat. There is no point in having polenta in your pantry if you don't like polenta.

We also think you need to think about what you like to eat when it comes to ethnic food. As we discussed in our post on stocking your pantry with herbs and spices, you shouldn't spend much money on ethnic ingredients you have never tried and therefore may not like. If you don't like Thai food, you have little need for fish sauce or coconut milk. If you don't like Thai food, you probably don't like fish sauce or coconut milk!

Here's our list of basic pantry staples. Everything on this list is shelf-stable, which means they require no refrigeration (except the Mayonnaise which needs to be refrigerated after opening). We are assuming that you have no food intolerances or food allergies. That will undoubtedly change your pantry quite a bit.

You don't need to get everything on this list at once. Since they are shelf-stable, you can buy a subset one week, then add to it the next week and the next week. As you use things up, restock to make sure you always have them on hand.

All-Purpose Flour: for baking, thickening, and breading ($1.49 for 5 lbs.)
Sugar: white sugar is the most versatile with brown sugar coming in second (1.99 for 2 lbs.)
Salt: we like kosher salt because the large crystals are easy to pinch and use for seasoning but most recipes assume you are using table salt when they give measurements. Salt is cheap so get both. (kosher: $3.29 for 3 lbs., table: 48¢ for 28 oz.)
Pepper: Black pepper ground fresh from a pepper mill is the most flavorful and aromatic but a good pepper mill is an investment. Get a small quantity of ground black pepper at a time (you can find it in bulk in many markets these days) and it will stay potent. ($2.59 for 1.75 oz.)
Dijon Mustard: it's the most useful in cooking as it packs a good mustard punch. Spicy brown mustard is not a bad substitute most of the time. Yellow mustard is too mild but it's great on hot dogs! ($1.69/12 fl. oz.)
Red Wine Vinegar: the basis for vinaigrette and for adding acid to many dishes. There are many varieties of vinegar but you should start with Red Wine Vinegar. ($2.69 for 12.7 oz.)
Extra-virgin Olive Oil: we like it for vinaigrette and for cooking. If you want to economize, buy a small amount that tastes really good for your vinaigrette. Many markets, such as Whole Foods, now sell it in bulk. If you buy it in larger quantities, keep it out of light and away from the heat. It will go rancid fairly quickly. ($4.29 for 8.5 oz.)
Vegetable Oil: this is for higher heat cooking where Extra-Virgin Olive Oil will break down but it can be used all the time as it is much cheaper. The flavor is very bland but for people who don't like the peppery flavor of Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, that's just fine. Lots of choices here but we like peanut oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, and corn oil. Canola oil is popular too. (Canola or Soy oil: $2.97 for  48 oz., corn oil is $4.69 for 48 oz.)
Pasta: one tubular type like elbow macaroni or penne, and one long type like spaghetti or linguini. ($1.25 per pound)
Rice: long-grain rice is the most widely used. If you like brown rice, that should be in your pantry too. ($1.59 for 2 lbs. white, $1.59 per pound for brown rice)
Beans: either dried or in cans. Lots of different varieties and a small investment. If you don't want to bother with soaking and cooking dried beans, stick to the canned. They are still really cheap food relative to other protein sources. Lentils cook quickly so you won't find them in a can, only dried. (most canned beans are 69¢ to $1.00 for 15 oz. though chickpeas are more, $1.29 per 15 oz. can)
Canned tomatoes: whole or diced peeled tomatoes are the basis for pasta sauces, soups, and braising liquids. Canned tomatoes are riper and more tomato-y than fresh plum tomatoes most of the year. (69¢ for 14.5 oz.)
Stock: chicken is the most versatile. Its mild flavor can be used in lots of recipes such as the liquid for cooking rice, and most soups and sauces. If you are a vegetarian, substitute vegetable. The concentrates are a great value. (Stock in a box: $3.19 for 48 oz., $4.39 for 8 oz. of Better than Bouillon® concentrate that makes the equivalent of 9 ½ boxes of stock.)
Mayonnaise: for salads dressings, as a binder, and a cold sauce. ($2.89 for 10 fl. oz.)
Soy Sauce: a stir-fry essential ($1.34 for 10 fl. oz.)
Hot Sauce: if you like. If spicy scares you, you don't need it, but it's essential for us. :-)

If you buy everything on the list, it adds up to about $35. That is based on prices in my local supermarket, using no sale prices. Not an insignificant sum of money, but if you spread it over a few weeks, a great investment in future cooking!

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