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Stocking the kitchen

(article, Culinate staff)

We've all been there: halfway through a recipe (because we know we're supposed to read recipes all the way through first, but often forget) when we realize that, while the liquid ingredients are slowly fermenting in a bowl or the mirepoix is simmering in the Dutch oven, we're missing an essential ingredient. We're even missing the backup ingredients that would make good substitutes. We are, in a word, stuck.

Having a well-stocked pantry goes a long, long way toward salvaging these situations. Don't have brown sugar on hand? Make your own from white sugar and molasses. No cake flour? Whip up a chemical-free version with ordinary flour and cornstarch.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Brown sugar."]

The following list of pantry essentials was culled, with extraordinarily unscientific precision, from the kitchens of the Culinate staff. Divided by category (whole grains, baking ingredients) and subdivided by priority (basics versus extras), we hope this list will serve as a handy buying reference. We might even update it from time to time. 

Cynthia Lair has her own list of pantry basics, and Matthew Amster-Burton has tips on buying and storing bulk goods. Store all your pantry goods in resealable, airtight containers, and stash them depending on how fast you consume them: on a shelf if you eat them quickly, in the fridge or freezer if you don't.

Your pantry may vary depending on what kinds of food you like to cook the most; a pantry geared toward Mexican cuisine, for example, is going to look very different from one focused on Chinese cooking. Mark Bittman's The Best Recipes in the World has a lengthy section titled "The International Pantry," broken down by region of the world. 

Of course, you can stock all you want and still forget to note when the flour bin is getting empty. So figure out which items are truly essential for your own kitchen, and then keep them around. You'll need 'em.

h3. Flours

Unless you're a baking demon, you won't need too many flours on hand. Ellen Jackson has tips on wheat flours and non-wheat flours, too.

Recipe: Janice's Banana Bread

h4. Basics

All-purpose unbleached flour
Whole-wheat flour (pastry flour, white whole-wheat, etc.)

h4. Extras

Bread flour
Masa harina (cornmeal flour for making tortillas and tamales)
Buckwheat flour
Spelt flour
Kamut flour
Rice flour
Durum or semolina flour (for pasta-making)
High-gluten flour or vital wheat gluten
Pastry flour
Cake flour (or make your own: add 2 tablespoons cornstarch to 3/4 cup bleached all-purpose flour for the equivalent of 1 cup cake flour)

h3. Sugars

As Nancy Schatz Alton has pointed out on these pages, there's a bewildering variety of sugars on the market. Keep in mind that cheap "sugar" at the store is probably derived from sugar beets, not cane sugar; if cane sugar is what you want, make sure the label says so.

Recipe: Multigrain No-Knead Bread

h4. Basics

Granulated sugar (evaporated instead of refined is fine)
Light or dark brown sugar (or make your own: add 2 tablespoons molasses to 1 cup white sugar)

h4. Extras

Confectioners' sugar (essential for frostings)
Agave nectar
Raw sugar (demerara, turbinado, muscovado)

h3. Whole grains

Man does not live by refined products alone; he needs whole grains. Get a variety for taste interest and good nutrition.

Recipe: Quinoa Salad with Lemon Dressing

h4. Basics

Oats (rolled and/or steel-cut)
Lentils (including split peas)
Beans (chickpeas, kidney beans, cannellini beans, black beans, etc.)
Polenta (coarse-ground cornmeal)
Cornmeal (fine-ground)
Bulgur and/or millet

h4. Extras

Wheat bran
Wheat germ
Tapioca pearls (buy quick-cooking for baking, ordinary for pudding)
Barley (pearled and otherwise)
Kamut or spelt
Flaxseeds and/or flaxseed meal

[%image grains float=right width=300 caption="From the top: farro, cracked wheat berries, and millet."]

h3. Pasta, noodles, and rice

Rice and noodles get most of us through the week; along with bread, they make up a nice carbohydrate trinity. Buy unrefined or multigrain versions for better nutrition.

Recipe: Morel and Chicken Wild Rice Risotto

h4. Basics

Durum wheat pasta (long and short varieties)
Whole-wheat pasta
Rice noodles (vermicelli and medium-width varieties)
White rice (long, short, and risotto varieties)
Brown rice (long and short varieties)

h4. Extras

Couscous and/or orzo
Soba noodles
Rice paper
Wild rice
Black or red rice

h3. Baking ingredients

If you're allergic to chocolate, skip it in the list below. Otherwise, these baking basics are pretty basic.

Recipe: Chocolate & Zucchini Cake (Gâteau Chocolat & Courgette)

h4. Basics

Sea salt (fine and coarse varieties)
Kosher salt
Baking powder (aluminum-free)
Baking soda
Baking cocoa (both Dutch-process and not)
Baking chocolate
Chocolate chips
Vanilla extract

h4. Extras

Cream of tartar
Almond extract
Lemon extract and/or dried lemon zest
Mint extract
Dried buttermilk


h3. Oils

You can probably get away with using nothing but olive oil and butter in your kitchen, but you might want to consider corn oil for Mexican food and peanut, sesame, and coconut oils, as well as ghee, for Asian food. Canola oil is popular with bakers for its neutral taste. See also Matthew Amster-Burton's column on liquid oils.

Recipe: Rosemary and Pepperoncino Oil

h4. Basics

Extra-virgin olive oil
Canola oil (GMO-free and expeller-pressed)
Peanut oil
Sesame oil

h4. Extras

Corn oil
Coconut oil (unrefined)
Walnut oil (good for salads; keep in fridge)

[%image vinegars float=right width=350 caption="Clockwise from top: red-wine vinegar, rice-wine vinegar, and balsamic vinegar."]

h3. Vinegars

This acidic condiment isn't just for salads; you'll need it for pickling and for adding pop to anything savory that might benefit from, say, fresh lemon juice.

Recipe: Tahini Salad Dressing

h4. Basics

Balsamic vinegar
Red-wine vinegar
Rice vinegar
Distilled white vinegar

h4. Extras

Sherry vinegar
Apple-cider vinegar
Black rice vinegar

h3. Condiments

Apart from soy sauce and nut butters, you may not need any of these condiments. But bottled condiments, especially the Asian variety, are handy to have around. Read labels carefully; soy sauce, for example, should contain nothing more than soy, wheat, salt, water, and bacteria, but many "soy sauces" are just a batch of chemicals darkened with caramel coloring.

Recipe: Red-Cooked Chinese Chicken

h4. Basics

Soy sauce (light, dark, tamari)
Nut butters (peanut, almond, etc.)

h4. Extras

Worcestershire sauce
Fish sauce (nam pla or nuoc mam)
Sweet chile sauce
Hot chile sauce (sambal oelek)
Hoisin sauce
Ponzu sauce
Plum sauce
Tamarind concentrate

h3. Dried goods

If you live in a caffeine-free world and can't stand gorp, skip this section.

Recipe: Couscous with Dates, Cinnamon, and Toasted Almonds 

h4. Basics

Nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, peanuts, etc.)
Fruit (cranberries, raisins, figs, peaches, etc.)
Shiitake mushrooms

h4. Extras

Seaweed sheets (for making sushi)
Kelp (for making dashi stock)
Instant coffee or espresso powder (for baking)

h3. Canned goods

The old reliables, useful on those days when you think you have nothing in the house to eat.

Recipe: Friday-Night Spaghetti with Tuna and Black Olives

h4. Basics

Broth or stock
Tuna and anchovies
Whole tomatoes, purée, and paste
Coconut milk
Chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
Capers and olives

[%image nutmeg float=right width=350 caption="Buy nutmeg whole and grate it as needed."]

h3. Whole spices

Buy these spices in whole form and use them that way. If you're hardcore, toast and grind some of them yourself as needed; they'll always taste fresher. 

Recipe: Custard Tart

h4. Basics

Peppercorns (kept in a grinder)
Chile flakes
Sesame seed (black and white)

h4. Extras

Cinnamon sticks
Mustard seed
Celery seed
Cumin seed
Coriander seed
Caraway seed
Dill seed
Fennel seed
Poppy seed
Star anise
Cardamom (black and green)

h3. Ground spices

Buy small quantities of these and replace them every year; because they're ground, they lose flavor fast.

Recipe: Indian-Style Sauté of Cauliflower and Greens

h4. Basics

Paprikas (hot, sweet and smoked)

h4. Extras

Chinese five-spice blend
Garam masala curry blend
Zatar blend

h3. Dried herbs

Fresh herbs are almost always better, but for soups and stews, dried is often best.

Recipe: Eggplant Involtini

h4. Basics

Bay leaves

h4. Extras

Herbes de Provence/Bouquet garni blends

h3. Fridge

The fridge is perhaps the most idiosyncratic storage unit in the American home, a way station between the seldom-stale land of the pantry and the long-preserved domain of the freezer. These are the things that the Culinate staff — all omnivores — keep in the fridge.

Recipe: Frisée aux Lardons

h4. Basics

Maple syrup
Yeast (instant or active dry)
Fruit juice
Butter (unsalted)
Cheese (Parmesan, Cheddar, goat, cream, etc.)
Onions, carrots, celery, garlic
Fresh herbs (parsley, cilantro, basil, etc.)

h4. Extras

Chocolate sauce

h3. Freezer

If you're really into hoarding, consider getting a chest freezer. Otherwise, freeze items individually, then repackage them in plastic freezer bags to maximize the limited space of the average freezer.

Recipe: Apricot Dumplings

h4. Basics

Sliced bread 
Homemade stock
Homemade breadcrumbs

h4. Extras

Ginger (peeled and sliced into 1-inch chunks)
Tomato-paste cubes (tablespoons dolloped onto waxed paper, frozen, then stored in a plastic bag)
Chipotle-chile cubes (same method as the tomato-paste cubes)
Buttermilk (in 1-cup measures)
Lemongrass stalks
Kaffir lime and curry leaves
Nuts, including pine nuts
Shredded coconut
Bones and vegetable scraps for making stock

p(blue). Got pantry suggestions? Leave 'em in the comments below.

vinegars, l

grains, l

reference-image, l

nutmeg, l