Years ago, I watched Nigella Lawson rush about her very posh London home in search of cocoa. A few frames into her search and we see her ensconced in her enormous pantry. Can I tell you my heart dropped? I leaned into the television and gawked as she sifted and searched through rows of jars, packages and tins for her precious cocoa. The camera panned throughout the room and while I could appreciate that this was a woman devoted to food and the creation of it, I was downright jealous. At the time I shared a one-bedroom apartment in Little Italy, and our vary narrow living room served as a combination bedroom-livingroom-dining room. So while my roommate chatted on the phone I pressed my nose up against the screen, determined that one day I’ll have such a luxury.
Nearly a decade later I don’t yet have that proverbial pantry of one’s own, I do have a nicely appointed apartment in New York, sans roommate, with a small cupboard that is solely devoted to spices, tins, jars, packages and other gastronomic goodies. I purchased the shabby cupboard from the previous tenants, and while I initially thought it might be perfect for my bedroom (I have one TINY closet in my whole apartment), I remembered Nigella and left it where it was.
When my work colleague, Meg Burns, suggested I write a post showing newbie cooks like her what’s in my pantry, what are my essentials, all that jazz, I was a tad trepidatious. For me, this is a bit like waving out your private drawer, your unmentionables for everyone to see, but I got over that quickly as I believe one should share how they cultivate and curate a pantry. Of note, this is not reflective of a certain type of cook. If you tend to cook Indian food, for example, your basics might be markedly different than mine, however, this is a look at how I grew my pantry.
The Basics: Every pantry should be stocked with the following: unbleached white flour, kosher salt, cane sugar, cooking spray, baking soda/powder (these are NOT interchangeable), cracked pepper, olive oil, dry instant yeast, balsamic vinegar, whole wheat pasta, rice (fine grain/arborio), stock (chicken or vegetable), honey, chocolate (just because), vanilla extract, some form of preserves, peanut (or almond) butter and a basic set of dried herbs (thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage). These basics are the fundamentals for a considerable amount of dishes/baked goods, and will help you amp the flavor quotient of what you’re trying to make/bake. I consistently stock up on the basics and add in fancier items (various oils, vinegars, salts, dried herbs, flours) as I get a little more diverse in my oeuvre. I should say that you can also keep canned food, but I tend to buy/make fresh, so I have very food tins in my home (mostly tomatoes). This is purely a personal choice.
Getting a Little Fancy: As you start baking, you will realize that there are a million different kinds of everything. From flours (self-rising, cake, bread, whole wheat, coconut, almond, white pastry, semolina — it’s endless, people, ENDLESS) to sugars (cane, icing, caster, brown, dark brown, coconut palm) to salts (sea, kosher, flaked) to extracts (almond, orange, coconut) to spices (coriander, cumin, parsley, ginger, all-spice, curry powder, cinnamon sticks, vanilla beans, and the list goes on), to oils/sauces (fish oil, soy sauce, sesame oil) there is no shortage of foodstuffs to stockpile.
I also tend to vary my grains so I routinely purchase rice noodles, oats, quinoa, cous cous, black, brown and wild rice, and whole grain varieties of pastas. While all of this can be very overwhelming, my recommendation is this: start low and slow. Start to add to your pantry based on how you evolve as a cook/baker. Don’t get exotics just to get them — they’ll sit in your pantry, untouched. After I’ve mastered a lot of basic baked goods and basic dishes, I’m now experimenting with flours and seasonings, and have added to my pantry ingredients as I’ve evolved. I started out with three cookbooks of foods that I’d likely make, and grew my collection and favorite websites and my pantry (and kitchen gadgets) followed suit.
My Regrets: Because I sometimes get overzealous (shocker), I went bananas with the exotics and now they’re collecting dust. They collect dust because they’re expensive, great for one recipe, but don’t have the diversity to work in a multitude of dishes. Think of this akin to the cost-per-wear rule. Remember those fancy, trendy and very expensive shoes you purchased that are shoved in the back of your closet? Apply this thinking to your pantry. I might have refrained from quinoa flour (not for my taste), orange blossom water, oyster sauce, etc. Bottom line: Buy things that have diversified use; buy things you will use repeatedly, not just for one recipe.
Check + Refresh: Every month I clean out my small pantry (much like how one should with a closet) and refresh any items, dispose of items that have gone bad and make a list of items I need to purchase. I’m also employing this trick of stickering or marking my spices with the purchase date so I know when to toss them. Additionally, I use my blog + Pinterest as a reminder of the kinds of things I’ve evolved into making, to determine where I need to upgrade. For example, I’m cooking with a lot of almond meal and coconut palm sugar, so instead of getting two packages of white flour, I may get one of almond, one of unbleached white.
Hope you enjoyed this quick glimpse into my pantry + how I cultivated it over the years. Over the next few weeks, I plan to share my kitchen gadget strategy and cookbook/favorite website selects. Please feel free to leave your tips, feedback in the comments.