By Rob Newton
Credit: David Prince/Offset
Being a professional chef, I often get asked how to do things like a chef. How do you roast a chicken? How do you cook fish? How do you cook your pasta? All of these are fair and legitimate questions, but I really want to answer their questions with my own question. What is the state of your pantry? This simple part of your kitchen game makes all the difference. I’ve put together some advice on ways to stock your pantry, organize it efficiently, and even save money in the long run.
Let’s start with the essentials I always have on hand:
Pasta, rice, grains, and stocks
These items are the backbone of my pantry. If you have two types of each of these, that’s plenty to build multiple meals around, which is the ultimate goal of a good pantry. You should try and make your own stock and freeze it, but if that’s not an option, have some canned or boxed chicken stock and vegetable stock on hand. If you’re making soup, cooking vegetables, or whipping up a quick sauce, stock is a more flavorful option than water.
Credit: Pavel Gramatikov/Stocksy
Salt, vinegar, oil, mayonnaise, and canned tomatoes
This is the second level of essentials. These ingredients bring depth, richness, pop, and soul to your pantry. I always have kosher salt for cooking. I like a flaky sea salt for finishing a dish, say sprinkling on top of roasted asparagus or a baked potato, or on roasted fish or meat. A good red wine vinegar will be the most versatile for all your vinegar needs, but apple cider and/or champagne vinegar are good options too. A quality canola or grapeseed oil will work for dressings and cooking. Toasted sesame oil is essential when you are preparing Asian food. Have one quality olive oil on hand at a price point you can afford. Please make sure it’s extra virgin. Mayonnaise: it just makes things better. Have your favorite brand on hand (I like Duke’s) and obviously refrigerate it once open. There are many canned tomatoes to choose from, but I prefer whole tomatoes. They’re generally the best from the field and are in nicer condition.
I have dozens of spices in my pantry, but chili flakes and black pepper are the two I reach for the most. I don’t think I could cook without them. Invest in a good pepper mill and use it. Don’t ever buy pre-ground pepper.
Fish sauce, soy sauce, tomato paste, anchovies, and miso
These ingredients are not basics, but all of them will elevate your cooking. A little goes a long way with these. When used properly (and carefully), you may not actually “taste” these items, but you and your guests will feel their presence with depth of flavor, richness, and umami.
Credit: James Ransom/Offset
Peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter, and sunflower seed butter
These “butters” will provide fat, depth, and toasty flavors to some of your favorite dishes. Cold pastas, salad dressings, smoothies, cooked whole grains, soups, and even roasted meats will all be enhanced with nut butters. A little almond butter, crème fraiche, salt, and lemon juice make a nice sauce for fish. Cashew butter mixed with salt, chili flakes, soy sauce, and lime are great on grilled pork.
Nuts and seeds
These simple ingredients will add dimension to anything you prepare, whether it is a salad, soup, or whole grain dish. I almost always have pumpkin seeds, peanuts, and sunflower seeds on hand. Put them toward the front as they make great snacks!
Now let’s talk about smarter shopping and storing.
Photo: Con Poulos/Stocksy
A place for everything and everything in its place
Invest in mason jars or the reusable containers of your choice and ditch the plastic and cardboard packaging that come with the items you purchase. At my restaurants, we label everything with a piece of masking tape on which we write the name of the contents and any expiration date. Once you’ve packaged everything properly, establish exactly where certain things will go—spices, pastas, nuts, etc.—and put the items back on that specific shelf and in that specific spot each time.
Buying in bulk isn’t always a bargain
Just because you can purchase something in bulk doesn’t mean you should.
Why buy three pounds of something when you only need a fraction of that? Buy small amounts of what you need to make a recipe a few times and store it in the fancy new containers you purchased. It’s not a great deal if you wind up throwing three-quarters of your “bargain” in the garbage. This is especially true when it comes to spices, most of which need to be used or discarded within six months. Make sure to mark the spice container with the date of purchase.
Don’t fall for every artisan ingredient out there
This is not a knock on an important and continually evolving industry in America. I love buying new things and experimenting. Just pick carefully and only buy what you need and/or have a real interest in cooking with. And then actually use the stuff. Don’t let it linger in your pantry for months, or even years as you know sometimes happens.
How many hot sauces do you really need?
What is it about hot sauce? I’ve seen pantries filled exclusively with bottles of hot sauce, but what good is that? Find one or two that you like based on cuisines and stick with it. I find that it’s hard to beat having Cholula and Huy Fong Sriracha around for spicing things up.
Make your kitchen the most awesome space in your house: