Stocking the kitchen

A shopper’s reference guide

By
May 19, 2008

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.

brown sugar
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.

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

Basics

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

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)

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

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)

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Extras

Confectioners’ sugar (essential for frostings)
Molasses
Honey
Agave nectar
Raw sugar (demerara, turbinado, muscovado)

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

Basics

Granola
Popcorn
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)
Quinoa
Bulgur and/or millet

Extras

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

grains
From the top: farro, cracked wheat berries, and millet.

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

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)

Extras

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

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)

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
Cornstarch
Vanilla extract

Extras

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

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1. by That's nuts! on May 21, 2008 at 6:10 PM PDT

I once froze a knob of ginger (whole) and when I wanted it I took it out to defrost and it became kind of spongy-- any ideas?

Also, I absolutely love those lotus bowls used to show the vinagars-- any info on where to buy them or who makes them?

2. by ruth_117 on May 23, 2008 at 10:23 AM PDT

I noticed Maple Syrup in the “Fridge” section. Is there any reason this cannot be stored in the cupboard? That is where I keep it. Thanks!

3. by Caroline Cummins on May 23, 2008 at 1:49 PM PDT

That’s nuts!: I like to buy a knob of ginger, peel it, and slice it up into 1-inch lengths. I freeze those and then, when I need a bit of ginger for a recipe, I just chop it up still frozen.
As for the bowls, they were a gift, but you can probably find similar bowls in any large Asian grocery store’s kitchen section.

4. by Caroline Cummins on May 23, 2008 at 1:51 PM PDT

ruth_117: We’ve had mold problems with opened maple syrup left out (or left in the fridge too long), so we keep our syrup jugs in the fridge. Warm it up for breakfast (with a bit of butter if you like) on the stovetop or in the microwave to get rid of the unappetizing chill.

5. by anonymous on Aug 20, 2008 at 12:04 PM PDT

Cooks Illustrated tested various methods for storing ginger and found that chucking the knob into the fridge works much better than freezing ginger.

6. by Caroline Cummins on Aug 20, 2008 at 12:42 PM PDT

Ginger in the freezer does eventually get crystalline — but this is only a problem if you need fresh ginger for a recipe. If you’re going to cook it, frozen works just fine. As for the fridge, a knob of fresh ginger stashed there long enough will eventually mold over. Blech.

7. by Chris Musser on Apr 18, 2009 at 11:47 PM PDT

Since all-purpose flour is a combination of pastry flour and bread flour, you shouldn’t need all-purpose flour if you have the other two (or four, if you’re keeping whole and white versions). I use bread flour (white whole wheat or unbleached white) for yeasted baked goods and pastry flour for most everything else.

I recently bought a peppermill specifically for grinding small amounts of spices on the fly--I use if for grinding corianders, cloves. It’s easier and quieter than getting out the coffee grinder just to grind 1/2 tsp of spices.

I find ginger keeps in the fridge for a month or more. I store it in in paper bag in the crisper.

8. by anonymous on Jan 13, 2010 at 3:22 PM PST

Fresh ginger can be peeled, cut into chunks and stored in a glass jar of dry sherry in the refrigerator. It changes the taste and texture slightly, but not enough to make a huge difference. For some dishes, it’s a definite plus.

9. by Anne on Jan 13, 2010 at 7:50 PM PST

Where can you buy White Whole Wheat Flour? I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba and I am reading about it and want to try it but can’t seem to find it anywhere.

10. by Caroline Cummins on Jan 15, 2010 at 4:10 PM PST

Anne -- You can order white whole-wheat flour online from Bob's Red Mill. Many grocery stores also stock Bob’s products.

11. by Anne on Jan 15, 2010 at 10:06 PM PST

Yeah...I’m not paying $28.75 to have a 5 lb bag of flour sent to me. Maybe I’ll try the health food store. Funny, I’ve seen a variety of products with this brand name in various grocery stores here but oddly no white whole wheat.

12. by Karalie on Apr 3, 2010 at 2:05 PM PDT

I am lucky enough to live down the road from Bob’s Red Mill. If you are looking for any type of grain, whether in flour form or whole, this is the place to go. The have conventional and organic of most varieties. I like to try something new every time I go there for my flours.

13. by nina_d on May 14, 2010 at 10:00 AM PDT

Onions and garlic stored in the refrigerator? That’s just wrong. Store in a basket in a cool, dry place, out of the light, like a pantry.

The lists are ... interesting. Some of the recipes included, outstanding.

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