My 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 high-quality ingredients. My cooking style for all the recipes on Familystyle Food, simple fresh ingredients are the base. 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.

How to Stock a Healthy Pantry

Top 5 Pantry Staples

  1. Lemon
  2. Chili
  3. Cheese
  4. Olive oil
  5. Salt
Lemon Ricotta Cake with Creamy Mascarpone Icing

1. How to use lemon

Acidity found in lemons is essential for tasty food. It helps round out and balance the salty, spicy and sweet sensations that our taste buds feel whenever we put food into our mouth. I love all citrus, but lemon lifts everyone’s spirits — and of course, the taste of food! — like nothing else.

  • How much juice is in a lemon? Generally, one lemon contains about 2 tablespoons of juice.
  • Put lemon slices in a glass or pitcher of water and they add their fragrance and flavor.
  • Squeeze a hit of juice into a salad dressing or over cooked fish, chicken or pasta to add tangy bite.
  • Grate the fresh zest whenever you’re using the juice to amplify the lemon taste.

2. Seasoning food with chili pepper

Like adding acid to your food, you can rely on the natural heat chili pepper to balance out zesty flavors. I use freshly ground black peppercorns for seasoning, but chili pepper adds another type of heat, along with some fruity notes. I’m not a fan of very hot spicing (that just makes your taste buds 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 for basic everyday cooking.

  • Grating cheeses: Parmesan and Pecorino Romano
  • Cheddar or Fontina for melting and adding to salads or stews.
  • Greek feta
  • Soft goat cheese

Yes, real-deal imported cheese can be expensive. But, it’s economical to buy cheese in large chunks at stores like Costco. Cut off what you need and freeze the rest. Keep it wrapped in specialty 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 recommend extra-virgin olive oil for most cooking. I buy it in gallon containers from stores like Whole Foods and Costco. And yes, it’s perfectly safe to use extra-virgin oil to saute and even deep-dry.

This California extra-virgin oil is an excellent, affordable brand for everyday cooking. You can keep one or two fancy estate-bottled oils 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.

5. Types of salt to keep in your pantry

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.

  • In my recipes, “salt” means 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!