Now that you have all the essential tools in your kitchen, it's time to move on to the ingredients. What are some of the ingredients that you should have in your pantry? Is there such thing as "Must-Have" essential ingredients and "Well-stocked pantry"? If you are interested to know the answer, read on!
Many people talk about the importance of stocking your pantry. But how do you go about stocking your pantry? I searched and read numerous sources but it left me feeling unsatisfied and overwhelmed. It seems like the list of "Essential ingredients" is never-ending and they didn't resonate with the cooking I grew up with.
Now I have a much better understanding of why I felt that way, I'd like to share the list that I find helpful to have as a beginner cook. But before we get into the list, I have to address my philosophy in stocking a pantry.
Everyone has their favorite types of food and grew up eating different types of food/cuisine. So if you were to come up with a universal answer to satisfy every type of cooking, it is simply going to be an impossible task.
With that being said, your pantry should represent who you are as a cook and the type of food you enjoy. My mom, who is Korean and eats exclusively traditional Korean food, has a pantry that looks very different from mine who likes to experiment with different types of cuisine. As one of my favorite chefs, Roy Choi, would say:
"Your pantry should reflect who you are.... Don't run away from any of these things that may not be considered gourmet or special. All of these things have a place in who you are and who you become as a cook."Roy Choi
This quote is not only empowering to know that you should embrace the food you love but also points out how everyone's pantry should be different.
Although coming up with a list of pantry items that will satisfy every cuisine is impossible, the following list will help you start cooking simple dishes like pasta with tomato sauce, pizza, and fried rice.
I have organized the ingredients into 7 categories:
- Basic seasoning - Kosher salt, pepper, dried herbs (dried basil, dried oregano, dried thyme), and other seasonings (garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, cumin, and chili powder)
- Oil, vinegar, and condiments - neutral-tasting oil and extra virgin olive oil, apple cider vinegar, and condiments (ketchup, mayo, Dijon mustard, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and hot sauces)
- Canned and boxed goods - Various canned tomato, dried pasta, and jar sauce of your choice
- Starch, legumes, nuts, and seeds - Rice, bread, beans, nuts, and sesame seeds
- Perishables - Fruits and vegetables (including aromatic vegetables like onion and garlic)
- Dairy - Butter, milk, and cheese
- Frozen - Frozen vegetables and fruits, frozen protein, and frozen meal of your choice
1. Basic seasoning
Salt: I recommend Kosher salt. Kosher salt is a type of salt with large grains that don't contain iodine or mineral. The larger flake size makes it easy for you to pinch and season the food. Please keep in mind that due to its larger flake size, it will be less salty than 1 teaspoon of table salt (with a much smaller flake size).
Pepper: I personally prefer fresh ground black pepper. The pre-ground black pepper is convenient but it is less fragrant and potent. But if it is easier for you to use, by all means, go ahead and use the pre-ground one.
Dried herbs: I always have dried basil, oregano, and thyme on my hand. Although dried herbs can't compete with fresh ones, they are easy to keep in the pantry and last longer. For home cook usage, buy the smallest quantity possible because they DO lose thier potency and flavor after a while.
Other seasonings: Having garlic powder, onion powder, paprika (and/or chili powder and cayenne powder), and cumin along with dried herbs above will be sufficient enough to help you start cooking most of the basic dishes.
2. Oil, vinegar, and condiments
Neutral tasting oil and finishing oil: Neutral tasting oil with a high smoking point is great for any type of cooking. Many people like to use canola, vegetable, peanut, and/or grapeseed oil. Finishing oil is a type of oil that requires almost no cooking. These types of oil are often used in salad or to enhance the flavor or fragrance of the dish. Extra virgin olive oil is a great oil to have in addition to neutral-tasting oil. If you like to cook lots of Asian food, sesame oil is another oil that you will use frequently.
Vinegar: Although different types of vinegar have different flavor profiles and different usages, having fewer items in the pantry makes cooking more approachable for a beginner. For that reason, I like to use apple cider vinegar or white vinegar because I find them to be most versatile. As you get more comfortable with cooking, you will find yourself collecting different types of vinegar. I currently have rice wine vinegar, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar as well as apple cider vinegar and white vinegar.
Condiments: Even if you are not much of a cook yet, you probably have most of the condiments in your fridge. The basic/essential condiments are ketchup, mayo, mustard (Dijon and yellow), soy sauce, oyster sauce and hot sauce of your choice.
3. Canned and boxed goods
When people think of pantry, this category is what most people think of along with starch, legumes, and nuts and seeds.
Canned tomato: Canned tomato products such as diced tomato, tomato sauce, and/or tomato paste are always helpful to whip up a quick meal like a red sauce for the pasta, soup, or chili.
Dried pasta of your choice: It could be spaghetti, fettuccini, or even short pasta like penne. Depending on your preference and dietary restriction, it could be whole-wheat, lentil, or rice pasta.
Jar sauce(s) of your choice: Although my mission is to help you cook more at home, there should be NO shame in opening up your favorite jar sauce of salsa or for your pasta. The whole point of stocking your pantry is for you to have something in your pantry to whip up something in no time. If that means, boiling pasta and serving with jar sauce, let it be just that.
4. Starch, legumes, nuts, and seeds
Starch and legumes: This could be bread, rice, oats, beans, peas, and lentils. Feel free to pick and choose these items. If you absolutely hate rice, there is no reason for you to have rice in your pantry. For beans, dried beans are so much cheaper and relatively easy to cook, it is time-consuming. If you are looking for something easy and quick, don't hesitate to use canned beans.
Nuts and seeds: For vegans and vegetarians, nuts and seeds are more prevalent in their cooking. I don't find too many dishes especially western cuisines that require nuts and seeds. However, they are a great addition to salad and are healthy snacks. If you plan on cooking lots of Asian dishes, you will be using lots of sesame seeds.
For the baker: The list for this section will be a little longer if you like to bake. I am not much of a baker myself so I'm referring you to this source to help stock your pantry for baking.
Because the items in this section are perishable, these are something that you need to shop for according to the recipes that you will be making. When you grocery shop, it is helpful to divide your list into 4 sections - aromatics, vegetables, fruits, and protein.
Aromatics: Garlic and onion are an excellent base for all types of cuisine. For that reason, I never run out of garlic or onion.
Vegetables, fruits, and proteins: Refer to the ingredient list on the recipe you are making.
Dairy: Butter and eggs are probably the dairy ingredient that you will be using the most. However, stocking up with cheese of your choice (for a pizza or pasta dinner) and milk is also very helpful.
Frozen fruits, vegetables, and proteins: They are inexpensive and easy to find. Keeping your favorite fruits for a smoothie and frozen vegetables as a quick side dish in the freezer will not only save you money but also time.
Frozen meal(s) of your choice: Having a couple of frozen meals in your freezer for a day that you don't even have the energy to go out is a great option. However, having a whole array of frozen meals will certainly discourage you from cooking so I recommend limiting the amount.
As I mentioned earlier, depending on the types of food you like, dietary restrictions and cultural and religious aspects of your life will be reflected in your pantry. Please keep in mind the list above is meant to be a guideline for a beginner cook.
When I first started cooking, it was extremely frustrating to find out how what I have in my kitchen was different from the "essential" ingredient list that I found from different sources. Even with the list that I've provided, I know many people may feel disconnected. That is because we all enjoy different types of food.
People who eat mainly traditional Korean food, like my mom, will be confused with this list I provided thinking why isn't gochujang (Korean pepper paste), deonjang (Korean bean paste), gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes), and fish sauce not on the list? For those of you who feel similarly, a quick online search on your favorite cuisine will provide you with its essential list and feel free to refer to that.
One thing I am certain of is that as you cook more, your spice rack and pantry will expand with your love for cooking. Now that you have the essential tools and ingredients, let's discuss the next important thing in cooking - Recipes!