Every good cook needs to keep some basics on hand to whip up tasty meals without a lot of shopping and hassle. Because pantry items typically last a long time, it’s worth the investment to buy good quality ingredients. Things such as good quality balsamic vinegar, for example, are very expensive but will last for years if used carefully. Obviously most cooks should have staples such as eggs, flour, sugar and milk in the kitchen but most recipes require a bit more than that! Here are ten basics I always try to have in my pantry/fridge:
1. Good Quality Balsamic Vinegar– the real thing comes from Modena, Italy and is quite expensive. You don’t have to get a $100 bottle but if you can find a reasonably priced bottle ($25 or so), it makes a huge difference in flavour. The supermarket “balsamic” vinegar that sells for less than $10 is usually just red wine vinegar with colouring.
2. Fresh Herbs– Not a pantry item per se but I like to keep a small herb garden in a pot with my favourite herbs (I particularly enjoy rosemary, sage, thyme, chives, dill, basil, oregano and Italian parsley). Even in a small apartment you can keep a small pot of herbs and I find the flavour much fresher and brighter than dried herbs.
3. Sea Salt– A decent quality sea salt is excellent for finishing dishes such as roasted potatoes or grilled meats. I use Le Saunier de Camargue Fleur de Sel from France but there are many other good brands on the market.
4. Good Vanilla – I usually keep a whole vanilla bean or two in the pantry (they come in a little glass test tube container) but I also keep pure vanilla extract on hand as well. I use Nielsen-Massey brand but there are other good brands on the market as well.
5. Oils – I like to have both decent olive oil and a neutral oil such as safflower, canola or grapeseed in my pantry. Olive oils are great for finishing dishes and salads and neutral oils can be great for frying, baking and vinaigrettes.
6. Other wine vinegars– In addition to balsamic vinegar, I like have a variety of vinegars in my cupboard. They usually aren’t too expensive and will last a very long time. White wine vinegar, sherry vinegar and red wine vinegar are basic staples but it all depends on what you like – there are tarragon vinegars, fruit vinegars (such as raspberry), white balsamics, champagne vinegars, etc.
7. Honey & Maple Syrup – Honey will last forever and can really liven up a salad dressing or grilling glaze. Likewise, maple syrup is a staple in my late winter/early spring kitchen, not only for pancakes and waffles but also for dips, glazes and vinaigrettes.
8. Spices– I try not to buy large, bulk containers of spices because they will lose their flavour over time. However, I keep small containers of the following in the pantry: whole nutmeg (not pre-ground), cinnamon, whole allspice, whole cloves, cumin seed, dried mustard, whole black peppercorns, red pepper flakes, chili powder, fennel seeds, cayenne and paprika. If possible, I buy the whole spice and grind them myself as needed. You can use a small coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle. Nutmeg can be grated with a fine grater or microplane.
9. Onions, Garlic & Shallots– These are indispensable in my kitchen. I far prefer fresh garlic and onion to the powdered or granulated stuff that comes in jars. Shallots add an extra dimension of flavour to all sort of dishes, from vinaigrettes to green beans.
10. Good Quality Chocolate– If you have decent chocolate on hand, dessert suddenly becomes simple. I generally prefer a high cocoa content (65% +), dark, bittersweet chocolate. Valrhona, Green & Black and Scharffen Berger are all varieties I use regularly.