Pantry Essentials: A No-Nonsense List of What You Actually Need
Hey there champ. You just moved out of your mom’s basement, didn’t you? Congratulations on finally leaving the nest and taking your first step into the real world! You have to pay for rent, your Netflix account, and oh, what’s this? You need to start cooking on your own. Yes, that’s right, you’re taking your first steps into the real world, which means no more pizza deliveries, no more take out from the Thai place down the street, and no more McDonald’s. (Sure, you can treat yo' self and eat that every once in a while, but we don't recommend living off of fast food.)
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re probably a millennial and have no idea where to start or what to buy. Fear not! We have meticulously compiled a list of things that every good pantry should have. Seriously, we argued over this for like an hour and half. So go on, guilt trip your mom into taking you to the grocery store as we present to you: The Mediocre Chef’s List of Pantry Essentials for the New Chef. (A mouthful, isn’t it?)
Better Than Bouillon
Salt and pepper makes the world go ‘round — everything tastes better with it. The dried herbs and spices you buy to start out are ultimately up to you and what kind of food you want to cook. We won’t lie to you and tell you that you absolutely must have paprika in your spice rack, when really you’ll only ever use it to make deviled eggs look good. (More seriously, smoked paprika is awesome.)
That being said, a short list of spices and dried herbs we’d recommend, gun to our heads, are: oregano, basil, cumin, curry powder, cayenne pepper, chili powder, crushed red pepper flakes, smoked paprika, and cinnamon. We also recommend having a bottle of garlic powder and onion powder on hand. Yes, yes, we know. These two spices are a culinary sin, and we are sure to be sent straight to hell. But for a person who is just starting out, having garlic powder and onion powder on hand isn’t a bad idea. These two powders have their place — they're great for rubs and spice mixes. If you run out of fresh onion or garlic (or you simply misjudged the amount that you’ll need) these are perfectly fine to use, but don’t grow to rely on them. They’re the big red nuclear of button of spices — only to be used in emergencies.
Continuing on the train to Flavourtown, we recommend Better Than Bouillon. It’s super flavourful and you can use as much as the recipe calls for, so you don’t have to waste half a box of beef broth because you don’t need a full litre for a recipe. We won’t judge you for not making your own homemade stock, especially if you’re new at cooking. (Plus making stock is a chore and a half.)
Red Wine Vinegar
Do a quick Google search for pantry essentials and you’ll find that most lists have a dedicated vinegar section — and almost all of them recommend that you have 3-5 different kinds of vinegars on hand. The truth is, as a beginner, you’ll almost never need most of these vinegars.
White vinegar is an all around workhorse — it does a lot of things well, but nothing great. This is going to be the only item on here where you’re just going to have to trust us. You will need white vinegar — whether it’s for boiling eggs or cleaning up your nasty ass kitchen.
Red wine vinegar is versatile — it’s great for salad dressings, vinaigrettes, and marinades, which is why we’ve added it to our list. Balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, malt vinegar, champagne vinegar (the list goes on) all have their own place in the kitchen too. But to start, these two vinegars will enable you to begin experimenting with acidity in your cooking!
If you find yourself cooking a lot of Asian recipes, rice wine vinegar will also be a staple in your pantry.
Neutral Flavoured Oil (Canola, Vegetable, Grapeseed)
Ever since we were young and watched Rachael Ray use gallon after gallon of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) in her cooking, it’s been hard not to follow suit. It took us until we were in our early 20s to break out of the habit and experiment with different oils.
Naturally, we recommend keeping a good quality EVOO in your pantry. You should also have a neutral flavoured, high smoke point oil such as canola, vegetable, or grapeseed on hand as well. Because, as it turns out, olive oil isn’t the best oil for frying things in. Its low smoke point (the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke #science) and intense flavour means the food won’t get hot enough to cook quickly, and the olive oil will impart a strong flavour on whatever it is you’re frying. Hence why having a neutral flavoured oil with a high smoke point is a good idea.
Also, don’t use EVOO for making cupcakes. Brittany did that one time and it was gross.
Sesame oil is a must-have if you love cooking Asian cuisine, while cooking spray is perfect for making sure your cookies or french fries don't stick to your tray in the oven.
Sugar (white and brown)
All Purpose Flour
So obviously you can’t live off of spices, herbs, vinegar, or cooking oil — you actually have to eat something. We recommend keeping two different types of dry pasta on hand, and no, this doesn’t mean instant ramen noodles and boxed macaroni and cheese. Keep both a long pasta (spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine) and a short pasta (farfalle, rotini, penne, macaroni) in your pantry. Certain sauces work best with certain types of noodles, which is why we recommend having at least two different types in your pantry at all times.
There are tens of thousands of different types of rice. We aren’t going to tell you which one you should have in your pantry, but we like jasmine and basmati. They’re fragrant and work well with a multitude of dishes! Keep your favourite type of rice on hand.
Baking soda, baking powder, sugar, and flour are all essential for baking. Don’t like baking? You’ll need flour for thickening and frying, and sugar is sugar. We don’t need to explain that one, do we?
Canned goods are a tricky subject — what exactly is essential? Well, it depends on what you like to eat. We included canned tomatoes on our list because they come in a variety of options (whole, diced, stewed, strained, sauce) and because we’ve cooked with them our entire lives. If you’re a tomato hater or you don’t find yourself needing tomatoes for sauces, soups, etc, then feel free to omit them. We’ve also included tomato paste as a canned good, although it’s much better if you can find it in a tube so you can easily use as much as you need when you need it.
On a final note, if you love canned tuna and eat tuna sandwiches everyday, canned tuna is your pantry essential. If you love beans, and cannot live without them, beans are your pantry essential. Ultimately, the canned goods you have on hand are determined by your personal preference. This is a bit of a wishy-washy statement, but again, we don’t want to bullshit you and tell you that YOU ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY MUST HAVE BLACK BEANS AND CHICKPEAS ON HAND OR THE PANTRY GOD WILL RAIN DOWN A PLAGUE OF PESTILENCE UPON YOUR KITCHEN. You get it, right?
You’ve just acquired what we figure are the most essential things for your pantry.
Where do you go from here? If you’re looking to take your cooking game to the next level we have a brief list of additions — a collection of pantry essentials for the Mediocre Chef.
Elevate your dish with almonds, pistachios, walnuts, or peanuts! Cooking fish? Try adding walnuts or almonds to your breading. Making a cheese ball for a party? Roll it in chopped pecans. Add nuts to salads, or if you like to bake, in brownies, cookies, and cakes. You can also roast nuts to bring out their flavour, or create candied nuts by baking them with sugar and butter. Mmmm.
Disclaimer: Mediocre Chef does not recommend experimenting with nuts if you have a nut allergy (#CommonSense).
There are certain herbs that are fine to have on hand in dried form such as oregano, sage, thyme, and rosemary — these herbs keep their flavour during the drying process. However, some herbs are best used fresh such as basil, parsley, dill, mint, and chives (though technically chives are a vegetable). We also like having fresh rosemary and thyme on hand, but the dried herbs are just as good. Fresh herbs can also be used to make your dishes visually go from looking like they were cooked in a college dorm to a 5-star Michelin meal.
Sidenote: Yes, we know that fresh herbs belong in the fridge and not in the pantry. But they're important, so we're including them on our list.
Breadcrumbs are a fantastic way to step-up your homemade mac and cheese game. They are also the basis for numerous breaded and deep fried dishes such as chicken parmesan, mozza sticks, and fish and chips just to name a few. If breadcrumbs are on your shopping list, we recommend getting Panko breadcrumbs, a Japanese-style breadcrumb that is light and airy. Or you can make your own breadcrumbs by taking some old bread, drying it out in the oven on a low heat, and crushing it up in a ziploc bag.
Other Vinegars & Acids
If you want to begin your journey into a world of new ingredients, might we suggest starting with some vinegars? Balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, and white wine vinegar are three that we also recommend having on hand, as they each have their own acidity and flavour profile. Lemon juice is another great acid to have in your kitchen. Experiment and see which one works with what dish! Or follow the recipe. Your choice. (You should probably follow the recipe.)
For real, there are so many different types of salt you can buy. It’s a bit ridiculous really, because, at their core, they’re all the same. So why do we recommend different types? Simply put, where the salt is harvested from will determine how many extra minerals are bound to each chunk (the different minerals will change the taste of the salt slightly), and the grain size and shape will impart certain textures to your dish. On top of a fine salt, we also recommend a good kosher salt with a slightly larger grain size as well as some sea salt flakes. Kosher salt is a great all purpose cooking salt as it dissolves easily, and is a great salt for dressing up a dish due to its larger grain size. Salt flakes are almost purely for plating purposes — they can make your steak look absolutely amazing and also add a great crunch to every bite.
Did your wallet cringe after reading this post? If you’re starting from scratch, your first grocery bill is going to be expensive. (We won’t sugar coat it.) However, many of these essentials will last a long time before you have to replace them again.
Think we’re missing a pantry essential from our list? Comment below and let us know!