Story by Rohana Olson
Pantry staples — what are they, why are they important, and how do they apply to different dietary needs?
We all tend to live busy lives, but a well-stalked cupboard can be a game-changer for a variety of meals at your fingertips. Pantry essentials do not only include items you keep on your shelves. They are also the foods you consistently store in your refrigerator and freezer. Maintaining staple ingredients is the key to making your cooking life simpler and more efficient. Learning how to store your food properly will extend their lifespan, reduce food waste, and make your trips to the grocery store or farmers’ market quicker.
Know What You Have On Hand
It is necessary to know what you already have on your shelves. Go through your dry-goods pantry and clean out the entire area. Wipe down the shelving and be ruthless when reviewing all the items. Check the expiration or sell-by dates. If it is expired or has been in the cupboard for a year, throw it away. Once you have decluttered the space, assess what remains, and start to make your shopping list.
Oils And Vinegars
Olive, vegetable, sesame, coconut, almond, or avocado are just some of the oils you can have on hand. Oils will last quite a while before turning rancid, and each oil has different uses. Having an assortment is essential. Determine the three top oils you use the most and consider those your staple items.
There is also a broad array of vinegars such as red wine, balsamic, apple cider, and white distilled. Red wine and balsamic vinegar are great for salads. When baking or cleaning, utilize white or apple cider vinegar.
Canned foods can include everything from legumes to meats. Consider keeping tuna, tomato paste, diced tomatoes, and a variety of beans as a part of your main line-up. These items are useful in everything, from salads to soups.
While it may not always come in a can, you should always have stock — vegetable, chicken, or beef. If your diet includes meat, it might be a good idea to have all three ready. Stock begins to turn within seven days of being opened, if only using a small amount of stock at a time, switch to bouillon.
Flours, Sweeteners And Baking Supplies
Flour is a diverse staple that goes from baking to frying. Unbleached all-purpose flour is the first choice for most people. There are other varieties such as almond, oat, cassava, and gluten-free if you have dietary restrictions. Plant-based eaters will probably want to have chickpea flour as it is full of protein and is used in creating meatless burgers.
Sweeteners can also vary by diet, and it is crucial to find one or two to keep on your shelf. White granulated and brown sugars used to be the most popular ones found in Americans’ homes, now you may find alternatives such as raw sugar, maple syrup, honey, sugar alternatives, agave syrup or coconut sugar.
Other baking items you may wish to have are cake mixes, instant puddings, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa or cacao powder, chocolate chips, and starch (corn, potato, or tapioca).
Spices and Dried Herbs
A stocked spice cabinet can be the difference between a bland meal and one that pops with flavor. While fresh herbs are often a chef’s first choice, dried herbs can play just as an essential role.
Kosher salt, pink Himalayan salt, red-pepper flakes, cayenne pepper, black pepper, curry powder, bay leaves, garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder, cumin, rosemary, thyme, oregano, garam masala, and basil are just a few of the primary herbs and spices to keep at the ready.
Legumes and Beans
Legumes and beans are a regular part of your canned goods, but having a few dried varieties on hand is also a suitable option, especially if you are on a plant-based diet. You may wish to add black beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), lentils, and kidney beans. Dry beans can last 2-3 years before they begin to lose nutritional value when stored in a cool, dry place, making them quite appealing for a pantry staple.
Nuts and Seeds
Great for a quick snack, as a garnish, added protein, or blended with a morning smoothie, nuts and seeds should be on your shopping list. Almonds, cashews, chia seeds, ground flaxseed, and sesame seeds are great places to start.
Grains and Pasta
Whether you need to make a quick spaghetti dinner or are just looking for some added protein, grains and pasta can fill that void. For pasta, choose a long and short variety. Grains that pack a protein punch are brown rice, couscous, and quinoa. Rolled and steel-cut oats will improve your breakfast game and can be used in a variety of other recipes.
Meats and Tofu
Meats can be quickly frozen and saved for later use. Try stuffing your freezer with chicken breast or thighs, whole chicken, ground beef or turkey, and a variety of fish and seafood. Bacon also freezes well.
Plant-based eaters can freeze tempeh and tofu. There are even brands that make shelf-stable tofu so you can always have it at your fingertips.
Garlic cloves, onions, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, carrots, and celery are just a few items that should always be in your refrigerator. Lemons and limes will often come in handy for recipes that call for fresh juice or when trussing a chicken to roast.
If you are concerned about food waste, some of these items freeze very well and can be prepared in a multitude of ways.
There are plenty of recipes that call for milk, yogurts, and cheese. Luckily, there are several options for vegetarians, omnivores, and vegans.
If you do not eat cheese or drink milk regularly, you can still keep them as a part of your staples. Cheese, both dairy and non-dairy varieties, can be frozen for later use, and there are plenty of shelf-stable milks to be found.
Yogurt is a great breakfast addition; It can be used in a smoothie or as a sour cream replacement. You will not be starved for choices in this department, either — original, Greek, coconut, cashew, almond, or soy yogurts can all be found in your grocery store’s dairy aisle.
Now that you have a pantry full of items that can help you make just about any meal in a pinch, the hardest part is keeping it all organized. Think about the placement of your staples in relation to how you work in the kitchen, do you keep the oils to the left of the stove with spices on the right for easy access? Review placements of regular use items to make within reach. Just keep in mind if you cannot see an item in your pantry, you will likely not use it before it expires. This may be a time to start meal prepping or buying smaller quantities of some items and larger amounts of other things you use most often.
There are endless options to ponder and everyone’s pantry looks a little different. Think of this as your starting guide and use each category to help you add the right elements to your shelves.
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The Chews Letter was created with a passion for delicious food that nourishes the body, builds community, and supports sustainability, all while bringing everyone to their table despite different tastes and dietary needs.