A Squared: Top 10 Pantry Essentials

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Top 10 Pantry Essentials

I love our loft, but one of my biggest complaints about it is how little storage space we have in our kitchen.  The kitchen in our last place was a lot bigger and we had a huge pantry so I have really had to get smart about which items I stock up on-- there just isn't enough room for impulse grocery shopping anymore!  It's a bit of a challenge since I love cooking so much.  What I have found though is that you don't need to go crazy with stocking every item under the sun in your kitchen to be a good cook.  There are a few key pantry items that you should always keep around in order to prepare delicious and healthy homemade meals.  None of them are crazy expensive and most have a pretty long shelf life, so you can be prepared for any dinner situation-- even at the last minute.

Here are my top 10 items to keep stocked in your pantry-- I'm not including items like rice or pasta as I figure that most of us always have a box or two around (and if you don't, I highly recommend you do that too).  These are ingredients for adding flavor, saucing, and putting the finishing touches on your meal.  If you have these items on hand, just add a protein, grain, some fresh veggies and you have dinner! 

Oh, and that pantry photo?  That's mine.  I just wanted to prove that this is all the space you really need to stock up on pantry essentials.  Please don't judge how disorganized it is-- or the fact that there is a large jar of Nutella front and center.  We all have our vices.  See item #4 for a continuation of that discussion.

1. Dijon Mustard - This is one of my newfound favorite ingredients.  Just a little bit of dijon adds so much spicy tangy flavor to whatever it is you are making.  Truthfully, I learned to love dijon during a brief stint on Weight Watchers a few years ago and found it was a great ingredient to use that was full of flavor and worth 0 points.  Win-win.  Aside from adding it to a sandwich (of course you knew you could do that), I love adding it as an emulsifier to homemade salad dressings and using it in glazes for chicken or fish.  I also found an amazing recipe for a dijon pasta, but it sounds pretty heavy so I will be reserving that for a special occasion.

2. Vinegars - The more, the merrier.  I have quite a variety in my pantry: balsamic (fave), apple cider, red wine, white wine, sherry, rice wine, standard white (although that's usually reserved for cleaning and Easter egg dying).  I could go on.  I even picked up a fun cherry wine vinegar in Traverse City last summer which had a nice sweet and tart taste.  You can do so much with a good vinegar-- sauces, marinades, dressings, etc.  One of the easiest ways to start making healthier food is by making your own sauces.  Even the healthier options at the store are loaded with sugar, sodium, and high fructose corn syrup so creating your own at home is a much smarter (and tastier) option as you can control what's going into your sauce and into your body.  Start with a vinegar, add oil, and then get creative with herbs (fresh or dry) and other additions like honey, mustard, or citrus juices to add a little variety.

3. Fat free low sodium chicken broth - It's always nice to keep a few cans stocked in your cupboard or to have one of those large resealable cartons in your fridge.  Chicken broth is a great way to add flavor and body to your food without adding tons of calories.  I've used it a number of times in conjunction with skim milk and flour to create a rue (sauce base) that is less fatty, but just as flavorful as the ones often made with butter or heavy cream.  It's also nice for simpler pan sauces-- just add herbs and maybe some onions or wine and boil until it cooks down and it is a really light and elegant meal.  Chicken broth is also a staple in one of my go to dishes-- a risotto-style orzo that makes a great light pasta side to any chicken, fish, or vegetable entree.

4. Wine - Both red and white.  For cooking and for drinking, of course.  Cooking with wine is a great way to add depth to the flavor of your food.  A dry white wine is one of my favorite bases for seafood and light pasta sauces.  It's also great for basting a roasted chicken and for making a delicious pan sauce after the fact.  Red wine is one of my go to winter cooking ingredients.  It lends itself really well to heavier dishes and heartier ingredients.  I love making red wine and tomato sauces, braising chicken or beef in it, and then adding hearty winter vegetables like carrots and mushrooms.  Serve it with roasted potatoes or over egg noodles (my husband's alltime favorite... I should probably add it to the blog sometime!) and it's a delicious and light comfort-style dinner.  Additionally, you can use white wine and chicken broth pretty interchangeably, depending on the recipe.  I have had a few moments where I thought I had the broth I needed for a recipe and didn't so I used Pinot Grigio in a pinch.  Just make sure you cook it long enough to burn off the alcohol.

5. Extra virgin olive oil - A staple.  There aren't many dinners that I make that don't incorporate EVOO.  Anything sauteed gets sauteed in olive oil.  It's also a wonderful and flavorful base for salad dressings, for pasta tosses, and for getting meats and potatoes roasted and crispy.  It beats butter any day in terms of flavor and health.  I've also moved away from the traditional cooking spray-- it kind of scares me.  Instead, I got a Misto, which is a handy little spray bottle that you fill with your own oil.  It's genius.

6. Canned tomatoes - Canned tomatoes are a fantastic ingredient to keep on hand to make a healthy homemade dinner in a pinch.  They're cheap, have a long shelf life, and as long as you get the kind with little or no sodium added they can serve as a base for a flavorful and healthy meal.  You can use a variety of canned tomatoes for whatever meal you are making-- crushed, whole, diced, fire roasted, pureed-- they are all great.  Add some onions, garlic, and herbs and you have a delicious and quick stew or soup base or sauce for pasta, chicken, or beef.  You can also get creative with it by adding wine, peppers (sweet or spicy), cheese, or veggies like carrots or mushrooms to create a variety of dishes. 

7. Real Maple Syrup - This does not include Aunt Jemima, Hungry Jack, or Mrs. Butterworth maple-flavored "breakfast syrup."  Have you ever checked out the ingredients list on one of those bottles?  It's a lot of corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, caramel coloring, and no actual maple syrup.  Gross.  The real stuff (which needs to be refrigerated after opening, FYI) is a staple in our house for lazy weekend breakfasts.  It is also a great addition to sauces and glazes for meat dishes-- especially chicken, pork, and salmon.  It thickens it up and adds a great sweetness.

8. Honey - Like maple syrup, honey is a great way to add some natural sweetness and thickness to your sauces and glazes.  It pairs really well with the spiciness of dijon mustard or the tangy flavor of balsamic vinegar so the possibilities are really endless.  I like to add a little honey to a simple vinegar and oil dressing-- it cuts the acidity of the vinegar and also works an emulsifier. 

9. Nuts - Like vinegar, I like to keep a wide variety of nuts on hand.  Currently in my house you'll find walnuts, pecans, almonds (slivered and whole), pine nuts, hazelnuts, and some disgusting spicy chile roasted peanuts that my husband loves.  Nuts make such a great addition to any meal and are so versatile-- I love almonds or walnuts in my oatmeal or yogurt for breakfast, pecans and almonds in a salad at lunch, or maybe toasted hazelnuts or pine nuts in a pasta toss or in a crusty breading on chicken or fish for dinner.

10. Herbs & Spices - Fresh or dried.  I know from personal experience that fresh herbs are a huge pain to keep alive.  My thumb is brown.  But, fresh herbs give a much different flavor to your dishes than dried herbs do.  It's super expensive to buy them in those pre-washed and cut packages in the grocery store, which is why I would recommend buying a potted herb plant.  Even if you can only get a handful of uses out of it before it keels over you have still gotten your money's worth (again, speaking from personal experience).  If you don't have the time or the outdoor space, start with one or two windowsill pots of the ones of you use most-- maybe parsley and basil-- and go from there.  My favorite/most used fresh herbs are basil, flat-leaf parsley, rosemary, and thyme.  I have also planted some chives, oregano, dill, cilantro, and sage this year.
Dry herbs and spices are also key items to stock in your pantry.  They are great for making rubs, seasoning sauces and soups, or for whenever you need to add a punch of flavor to your food.  My must have dry herbs and spices (in addition to dry versions of the fresh herbs I already listed) are cayenne pepper, dry mustard, cinnamon (ground and/or sticks), chili powder, herbes de provence (a combo of herbs), bay leaves, cumin, curry powder, garlic powder, onion powder, ground cloves, allspice, ground nutmeg, and paprika (both traditional and smoked).  And don't forget salt and pepper!  If you can keep some kosher salt and fresh black peppercorns (for grinding) on hand, then consider your pantry well-equipped.


  1. Great list! I definitely agree with the chicken broth and mustard - I have a great Mustard Chicken recipe that uses few ingredients that I make all the time. Here are some of mine: flour, salsa, beans, artichokes, and mayonnaise. Chicken, chicken broth, beans, a jar of salsa, and a jar of tomatoes make a really quick and easy chili.

    1. Thanks, Kit! Salsa would have made an excellent #11! And although Alex won't eat the beans (bummer), your list has inspired me to buy some artichoke hearts and get creative. I don't cook with them nearly enough!

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