Top 5 Pantry Essentials

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If there’s any magic to pulling a meal together at the drop of a hat, it depends on having a pantry stocked with some basics.

How to Stock a Healthy Pantry

I hope that sharing my go-to pantry ingredients might help you at those stressful moments when everyone is hungry, but you have zero ideas about what to eat or cook.

For my style of cooking and the recipes on this blog, I use simple fresh ingredients that I stock up on a few times a week, like seasonal vegetables, fruit, meat and seafood.

The rest depends on minimally processed food, spices and dry goods that I keep in a pantry closet, my refrigerator or freezer.

Even a humble can of beans, tuna or chickpeas and a bag of pasta becomes a meal when combined with olive oil, cheese and a sprinkle of crushed red chili.

Top 5 Pantry Staples

  1. Lemon
  2. Chili
  3. Cheese
  4. Olive oil
  5. Salt

1. Lemon

I love all citrus, but lemon lifts my spirits — and the taste of food — like nothing else. I put lemon slices in the water I drink all day, and often squeeze a hit of juice and grate the zest into whatever I’m cooking when I taste for seasoning.

Acidity is essential for tasty food. It helps round out the salty, spicy and sweet sensations that our taste buds feel whenever we put food into our mouth.

2. Chili

Like acid, I rely on the of heat chili pepper to balance out zesty flavors. I use fresh ground black peppercorns, but chile pepper adds another layer of heat, with some fruity notes. I’m not a fan of very hot spicing (that just makes everything go numb), just enough to excite my palate with warmth and earthy flavor. My basic chili shelf contains:

3.  Cheese

I keep more than a few cheeses around, along with Parmesan.  

Pecorino Romano is one, along with creamy Greek feta, soft goat cheese and aged Gruyere.

But my desert island cheese is Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano.

I start to panic a little when I run out. Or when it gets stolen by the dog. Recently, my little mutt found a big chunk of it waiting on the counter to be put away. And then she disposed of it with good-natured doggie style. I had a sad face after that!

Yes, the real deal is expensive. But it’s economical to buy in large pieces at stores like Costco. Cut off what you need and freeze the rest. Keep it wrapped in cheese paper or securely in plastic wrap in the fridge and it will be good for months, adding one-of-a-kind umami to your cooking.

4. Olive oil

I use extra-virgin olive oil for most of my every day cooking. I buy it in gallon containers from stores like Whole Foods and Costco.

I also have a few bottles of more expensive, estate bottled oils that I use raw to drizzle over cooked food,  fresh vegetables and salads. When shopping for these special oils, look for glass bottles that are darkly colored and have a harvest date on the label.

California Olive Ranch is an excellent, affordable brand for everyday cooking.

5. Salt

I have a rainbow assortment of salts from all the world in so many beautiful colors – because I’m nerdy that way – but there are really just three that I use on a regular basis in my kitchen: Kosher, fine and flaked sea salt.

When I develop and test recipes, if I call for “salt” I mean kosher salt, which has a larger grain than regular table salt and, I think, a cleaner taste. It’s also less salty, for lack of a better word.

Because the granules are fluffier than fine salt, there’s less salt per volume in a teaspoon of kosher salt than there is fine salt. The brand of kosher salt that I use for all recipes on this site is Diamond Kosher*If you use Morton kosher salt, reduce the amount of salt specified by one-half.

Sometimes I’ll call for fine sea salt in certain dishes, usually when I need the salt to dissolve evenly, like in baking or in some sauces. I buy Celtic or French gray fine sea salts.

Flaked sea salt is what I use as a finishing touch, like a garnish. It adds a crunchy spark to food, especially grilled meats and some desserts. Check out Maldon salt (which is more economical to buy by the tub) and Jacobsen salt from Oregon.

One last note on salt: always taste your food for seasoning during every step of your preparation and cooking.

Just because a recipe calls for a certain amount or salt, or even the vague direction to  “season to taste” doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. Taste, taste and taste some more!