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.
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.
Recipe: Janice’s Banana Bread
All-purpose unbleached flour
Whole-wheat flour (pastry flour, white whole-wheat, etc.)
Masa harina (cornmeal flour for making tortillas and tamales)
Durum or semolina flour (for pasta-making)
High-gluten flour or vital wheat gluten
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)
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
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)
Confectioners’ sugar (essential for frostings)
Raw sugar (demerara, turbinado, muscovado)
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
Oats (rolled and/or steel-cut)
Lentils (including split peas)
Beans (chickpeas, kidney beans, cannellini beans, black beans, etc.)
Polenta (coarse-ground cornmeal)
Bulgur and/or millet
Tapioca pearls (buy quick-cooking for baking, ordinary for pudding)
Barley (pearled and otherwise)
Kamut or spelt
Flaxseeds and/or flaxseed meal
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.
Durum wheat pasta (long and short varieties)
Rice noodles (vermicelli and medium-width varieties)
White rice (long, short, and risotto varieties)
Brown rice (long and short varieties)
Couscous and/or orzo
Black or red rice
If you’re allergic to chocolate, skip it in the list below. Otherwise, these baking basics are pretty basic.
Sea salt (fine and coarse varieties)
Baking powder (aluminum-free)
Baking cocoa (both Dutch-process and not)
Cream of tartar
Lemon extract and/or dried lemon zest
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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