Being an avid home cook and former food editor, I’m always looking for ways to take my culinary game to the next level. Several years ago, my resolution was to learn how to cook with the ingredients I had on hand. Instead of finding a recipe, heading to the store, and purchasing the necessary elements to make a meal, I would scour the contents of my fridge and pantry and figure out what I could make with broccoli stems, one russet potato, and a block of extra sharp cheddar cheese (as it turns out, a very delicious broccoli cheese soup!). At first it was difficult, but I’ve become a much stronger cook because I no longer rely on recipes and specialty ingredients. However, there is one crucial component to cooking on the fly: a pantry stocked with everyday essentials that will make whipping up a variety of meals a cinch. Here is what I always have on hand—and what I regularly make with these important building blocks.
There are all sorts of canned bean varieties—stock up on the types that are most important to you. Black, garbanzo, and cannellini are always in my pantry because those are my favorites. Black beans can be used to make Mexican food, from black bean and squash enchiladas to black bean and quinoa salad. Garbanzo beans can be turned into homemade hummus or falafel and cannellini are great stewed with greens or stirred into hearty vegetable soups. If you’re a fan of kidney or pinto, purchase multiple cans of those types. Any type of bean can also be turned into a delicious veggie-based patty. Purchase them in bulk at Costco and you’ll never grow hungry.
No pantry should be without two to three boxes of good quality, low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth. With a can of beans and some vegetables scraps, you can put together a sensational soup. Stock is also crucial to making sauces and adding moisture to leftovers.
The majority of dried beans require advanced planning and an overnight soak in water. This is fine, but not for busy weeknight meals. Lentils are one of the few dried legumes that don’t need an overnight bath, but simply cook simmered in liquid for 20 to 25 minutes. Cooked lentils can be used in salads, soups, and stews. There are a great accompaniment to rich proteins like sausages, roast salmon, or pork chops.
Not everyone is a fan of canned tuna, anchovies, and clams, but if you do enjoy these items, make sure your pantry is never without them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had no food in my kitchen except a can of tuna. Combined with condiments in my fridge: a little chopped pickle, a generous dollop of mayonnaise and dijon mustard, and a few stray parsley stems, finely minced—et voila! Tasty tuna salad. A can of clams can be turned into a luxurious pasta dish. Sauté with garlic and onion, deglaze with white wine, then toss with spaghetti, lemon zest, and lots of parmesan cheese. Quicker than Emeril could say “Bam!” you’ve got a linguine con vongole impressive enough to serve guests. Anchovies add umami flavor to pasta sauces and stews.
Dried pasta is a quintessential pantry ingredient. It’s also the easiest place to start learning how to wean yourself off of recipes. Basically anything can be tossed with a little cooked pasta. Keep two different kinds (one long like spaghetti and another short like fusilli), so you can make everything from pasta salad to pasta carbonara. Even when all you have left is a nub of parmesan cheese, you can still make cacio e pepe, the classic Italian pasta dish that simply consists of cheese, black pepper, and pasta.
Like canned beans, canned tomatoes (whole, diced, and pureed) are a wonderful building block to countless soups and sauces. Off the top of my head, here are six ways to use a can of tomato puree: add to sautéed onion and garlic to make marinara sauce—use on pizza or with pasta. Mix with chipotle chiles in adobo and aromatics like cumin to make a red sauce for enchiladas. Thin with broth and cream to make a rich tomato soup. Add to browned ground turkey for an easy weeknight bolognese sauce. Simmer chicken thighs in the sauce to make cacciatore. Simmer cod or halibut in the tomato sauce thinned with water to make fish in crazy water. Lasagna, eggplant parmesan, tikka masala, eggs in purgatory, Sloppy Joes, and Bloody Marys are other uses for canned tomatoes.
Every pantry needs some sort of healthy staple grain. I like quinoa because it’s nutritious and quick cooking. Brown rice takes about 40 minutes to cook, while quinoa takes less than 20. Quinoa is scrumptious in salads and soups, and can be the base for fish or bean cakes. It’s wildly versatile. Eat it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Do a quick internet search and you’ll realize quinoa can be added to just about everything!
Oil and Vinegar
Oil—olive, coconut, peanut, vegetable—is crucial to cooking. Without oil you wouldn’t be able to sauté vegetables, whip up salad dressing, or deep fry cauliflower. Vinegar is oil’s partner in crime and an important ingredient because it is acid forming.
Garlic and Shallots
Produce may not be considered a pantry item, but garlic and shallots are two vegetables that have a long shelf life and don’t require refrigeration to keep for several weeks. The aromatics are also flavor builders that will enhance dressings and sauces.
What ingredients do you consider your pantry staples?