The secret to great cooking is having the right ingredients on hand—and being able to find them easily in your kitchen. An organized, well-stocked pantry will inspire you to create endless meals, from elaborate weekend affairs to quick weeknight dishes, while limiting trips to the grocery store for missing ingredients.
The general category of “pantry” encompasses items you keep on hand in the fridge, freezer and dry-goods cupboards. To start, sort through what you already have. Get rid of expired items in the fridge, freezer-burned or unlabeled and unknown packages in the freezer and dried-out bags of anything in the cupboards. If you have cans of pinto beans and tuna fish that you bought in a panic at the start of the pandemic but haven’t yet eaten, put them in a box and donate to a food pantry.
When it comes to the pantry, out of sight is out of mind, so put things where you can see them. Slide-out drawers, stacking shelves and lazy Susans help create extra usable space, while clearly labeled baskets and clear containers provide a snapshot of exactly what you have, avoiding duplication.
Speaking of labeling, keep a roll of masking tape and a Sharpie front and center. Label everything that goes in the freezer (even though you think you’ll remember it later, without a label, you might not), and mark dates on fridge leftovers. Also keep a notepad on the fridge door to jot things down as you run out of them, making your next trip to the grocery store easier.
When you’ve cleared space in your pantry, here’s a list of essentials to build a more efficient one.
CANS & JARS
Canned goods are the workhorses of the pantry. With an indefinite shelf life, they can be the starting point for a weeknight meal. Just don’t buy so much of anything you might not end up liking, as canned goods take up precious real estate.
• Keep on hand: Stocks and broth, tomatoes (diced, whole, sauce or paste), beans, tinned fish like sardines, anchovies and tuna in olive oil, spaghetti sauce.
Grains & starches
What’s easier than weeknight spaghetti or a one-bowl rice dish? Grains and starches are staples you should have on hand to pair with whatever protein you’re using.
• Keep on hand: Spaghetti, rice, couscous, quinoa, polenta.
Nuts, Nut Butters & Sweeteners
Assuming no one in your household is allergic to nuts, peanut butter and almond butter are sure crowd-pleasers at snack time. For those working from home, a handful of nuts can quell those between-meal hunger pangs.
• Keep on hand: A variety of nuts (almonds, peanuts, almonds), honey, agave, sweeteners for tea and coffee.
Oils, vinegars & sauces
As essential as spices, and you don’t need a wide selection to dress a salad or make a quick braise.
• Keep on hand: Extra virgin olive oil, a neutral oil with a high smoke point like avocado or canola, balsamic vinegar, white wine vinegar, red wine vinegar, soy sauce.
Spices & dried herbs
Spices are the heart of any meal. On the most basic level, Kosher salt is a must, then get fancy with various kinds of sea salts from all over the world. Keep your spices fresh by buying in small quantities and storing them in airtight glass jars. For a wide selection, check out Sheffield Spice & Tea Co. (sheffieldspices.com).
• Keep on hand: Garlic salt, curry powder, garlic powder, black peppercorns, cumin, sweet paprika, dried thyme, dried oregano, red pepper flakes.
Dedicate a section just for baking ingredients, whether you’re an avid baker or a dabbler. It will be easy to make things like biscuits or quick crusts for savory meals (think pot pies or quiches), and if the mood strikes for chocolate chip cookies or scones, you won’t need to hunt far for everything you need.
• Keep on hand: All-purpose flour, baking soda, baking powder, pure vanilla extract, light and dark brown sugar, rolled oats, semisweet chocolate chips, dried fruit.
Label everything that goes in the freezer, or you’ll have to deal with a bunch of UFOs (unidentified frozen objects) later.
• Keep on hand:Breakfast sausages, various chicken parts, ground beef or turkey, vegetables (spinach, corn, peas), berries and other fruits for smoothies.
The same rules apply for the refrigerator as for the cupboards: Don’t crowd the shelves, and be merciless in cleaning out unwanted leftovers and expired items.
• Keep on hand: Eggs, condiments (mustard, ketchup, mayo, hot sauce), salsa, cheese, milk, cream, butter, fruit preserves.
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