Saturday, 25 July 2009

The Pantry: Cornerstone of Home Cooking

by Kate
Living the Frugal Life

Another one from the vault. I've dusted off this older post from my blog because I think it bears repeating for those who are new to either home cooking or a more frugal lifestyle in general.

When you're new to the frugal lifestyle and you're not used to preparing your own meals, the kitchen can be a daunting place. One thing that distinguishes the kitchen of a practiced home cook from that of a drive-thru habitue is the pantry. Having familiar and versatile ingredients on hand really does make a huge difference when it comes to the ease of preparing food at home. You can think of the pantry as a sort of personal dry goods store and as the potential foundation for all your meals. A thoughtfully stocked pantry along with a productive vegetable garden can usually provide the ingredients for any number of meals at any given time.

It's best to slowly and naturally build up a pantry for yourself, paying attention to sales on shelf stable goods that will really be used in your day-to-day cooking. What you put in your pantry will depend on your family's tastes, your budget, your skills in the kitchen and perhaps your culture as well. This doesn't mean that you must stock enormous quantities of your pantry items, nor that you need to have absolutely everything on hand at all times. The purpose of a pantry is to provide a steady supply of staples that you use to prepare a large variety of dishes.

With a well stocked pantry, you won't have to run out and buy every ingredient in the recipe when you want to prepare a meal. And if you happen to get low on something you normally have on hand, a good pantry can provide alternatives that save you an unplanned trip to the grocery store. For instance, milk is the single most common item that drives us to the store. Keeping a packet of powdered milk in my pantry allows me to extend our liquid milk for a day or two, so that we shop when it's convenient for us, and not because we've suddenly run out of something essential.

Beware using pantry-stocking as an excuse for buying any esoteric ingredient. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you can think of at least three dishes in which the ingredient would be used. Have you prepared any of those dishes in the past year? If not, it's probably best put back on the shelf (unless it's a really common item and you're a complete novice in the kitchen).

All of your pantry items should be listed in your price comparison book. Because you know that you will be using them steadily, it's always a good idea to check for sales on these foods when you shop, even if you don't have immediate plans to cook with them. When these items go on sale, stock up!

Your "pantry" isn't only a shelf of dry goods. It can include items in your refrigerator, such as condiments, as well as frozen assets in your freezer, particularly common vegetables such as peas, or anything you grow in your garden that freezes well. If you're lucky enough to have a root cellar, that could also broadly be considered part of your pantry.

I especially prize those pantry items which I produce at home, either by growing them in the garden, or preparing them in some way, or both. This gives me an added layer of self-sufficiency and a feeling of accomplishment.

Here's a list of things I commonly keep on hand in my kitchen. You do not need to replicate this list, but if you're totally new to cooking, it might be a good springboard for ideas. Take what's useful to you and ignore the rest. Add more items that make sense for your family.

Long-storing produce (some of these vary by season)
fresh ginger
winter squashes

Canned/jarred foods
baby corn
bamboo shoots
water chestnuts
canned chickpeas
canned tuna
tomato paste
canned tomatoes
tomato sauce
sweetened condensed milk
canned sliced pineapple
coconut milk
apple butter

"Dry" goods
baking powder
baking soda (aka bicarb)
salt, kosher and table
corn meal
rolled oats
steel cut oats
flours (all purpose, bread, whole wheat, rice, etc.)
whole spelt berries
whole wheat berries
sugars (brown, cane, powdered, etc.)
beans (chickpeas, split peas, navy, lentils, pinto, etc.)
rice (sushi, basmati, wild, brown, etc.)
dried onions
dried apple rings
dried pumpkin slices
powdered non-fat milk
chicken broth
beef broth
vegan bouillon cubes
cooking oil
extra virgin olive oil
vinegars (balsamic, apple cider, red wine, rice, etc.)
dried fruits (raisins, cranberries, currants, figs, dates, etc.)
crystallized ginger
candied citrus peel
dried chestnuts
peanut butter
sundried tomatoes
smoked cherry tomatoes
dried unsweetened coconut flake
tea, black and herbal, many kinds
noodles/pasta, wheat and rice, several kinds
cocoa powder
chocolate bars
corn starch
bread crumbs
soy sauce
Worcestershire sauce
Tabasco sauce
mirin (Asian cooking wine)
shelf-stable tofu
vanilla extract
almond extract
nori (dried seaweed for sushi rolls)

Refrigerator items
toasted sesame oil
prepared mustard
prepared horseradish
pickled ginger
Thai curry pastes, red & green
cheeses (long storing cheeses such as parmesan and pecorino)

Freezer items
nuts (walnut, almond, pecan, roasted peanuts, etc.)
raw seeds (flax, pumpkin, poppy, sesame)
fresh orange and lemon zest
stock ingredients (chicken bones, herb stems, leek greens, etc.)
blanched, chopped kale
blanched, chopped spinach
blanched, chopped chard
roasted corn kernels, loose
yeast (active dry and instant)

Do you keep any out of the ordinary items in your pantry? If so, what do you use them for? Do you have any tricks for extending the storage life of perishable pantry items? Please share in the comments!


risa said...

Most of this looks fairly familiar. We have trash cans on casters in the cold room with sacks of whole flours and such in them, and gallon jars on shelves in the kitchen contain the more convenient quantities for distribution; we can see at a glance when it's time to refill one, and then the trip to the cold room lets us know that we're low in a timely way.

Ditto the chopped spinach, because sometimes we have lost ours in the deep of winter, but we've learned to so appreciate kale and chard from the garden year round that we reserve the freezer space to other things.

Hana said...

As I'm from the Czech Republic and don't use many of those you listed, I'm not really familiar with your list... There's one thing that makes me wonder, though. How do you make fresh ginger long-storing? I always find it dried after, let's say, a week. And it's one of those things I'd really appreciate having at hand at any given time, because it's a perfect cure for colds. :-)

Kate said...

Hana, believe it or not, ginger will last for a long time if you simply put it in the drawer in your refrigerator - no bag, no wrapper, no nothing. The very best method is to put it in a pot with very slightly damp sand, and keep it in a cool place. But if it's just kept in a drawer in the refrigerator, it will keep for at least three weeks for me.

I would love to hear about what kinds of things are in a Czech pantry!

Hana said...

Thanks, I hope that will help!

Well, things kept in Czech pantry...
Many are similar - potatoes, flour, oatmeal, eggs, jams... The difference I see is mostly in not using some of the ingrediences you have in your list, like winter squashes (although if some people grow them, they'd have them), some of the canned/jarred goods like baby corn, coconut milk and apple butter (what is apple butter?) - instead, we have pickled cucumbers, cherry compotes (because we have a cherry tree in our garden), eventually sour cabbage (not right now), such things, more traditional in our climate. :-)
We don't store popcorn because we don't eat it... some other families might.
Also, to my surprise, you mention spices among freezer goods, while we have them dried in a kitchen shelf. The only spice we keep in freezer (not right now either... I should get some) is dill, but we have dried as well (but use the frozen one much more, which is why we've ran out of it). That is actually inspirational, because there are other herbs I could use that way... But right now our freezer is full of cherries, meant for curd dumplings in winter. (I have arecipe here, if you're interested:
So that's the difference I see on a first glance. There's probably more, but the main difference, I think, is that there are other traditional meals here, which accounts for a difference in goods used and therefore also in goods stored.
BTW, you don't mention butter. Do you ever use traditional, cow-milk butter (unsalted)? It's what we use all the time, also for frying pancakes or greasing cake forms, for example. (Other people fry pancakes on oil, but I don't like the taste of it as much as when fried on butter.) Butter can also be stored in freezer, although we don't do that, because you usually can get it without problems all year round. But my sister does it from time to time.

Hana said...

OK, now I found apple butter... it's what I know as the Dutch applestroop. :-) My sister uses that sometimes, she studies Dutch and likes Dutch food.
Which reminds me of one traditional Czech commodity, povidla - plum jam, also made by long, slow cooking of the fruit. That's another of the things that are kept in our "pantry" all the time.

Jenna said...

Great post!

In regards to storing fresh ginger, I think the best way is to peel it then freeze it. It is super easy to grate or use a knife to scrape shavings off, which can then be cut or crushed. :D Hope this helps!

Kate said...

Hana, thanks for the description of a Czech pantry! Cherry-curd dumplings sound *wonderful*. What a treat, and the picture on your blog is darling! I think I've had that curd in Russia, where they call it tvarok. We might call it fresh farmer's cheese in the US, but it's not widely available here, and most people wouldn't know what it was.

I keep all of my spices and herbs in the freezer, because the flavors last longer that way. Another trick is to buy whole spices, such as cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, etc. and then grind them as I need them. I definitely notice better flavors that way. I usually end up using less spice than is called for in a recipe if I grind the spice myself. The flavor is just so much stronger.

As for butter, yes, I should have included that in the list. I do keep a few pounds in the freezer, and I always have some in the refrigerator too. I cook with it a lot, just as you do.

Jenna, thanks for the tip on ginger storage. I have heard this suggested several times but have never tried it myself. Perhaps I will now that you've reminded me.

Hana said...

Yes, it's called tvaroh in Czech, twarog in Polish... You do not have to buy it - you can make it yourself from milk. Especially if you get milk straight from a cow and it goes "sour" after few days, this is what you do with it, and it's the best tvaroh you can get. :-) It often helps to put the milk on heat if the curdling tends to go slowly.

Jenna, thanks for the other suggestion for ginger!

indi69's blog said...

Hello, found your fantastic blog and would like to leave many greetings, i'm writing from germany and i'm living as a vegetarian.. *waves* and god bless..


Lily Girl said...

This is a great list. I'm mostly vegetarian, so there are a few things I would add for the vegetarian pantry:
- nutritional yeast
- vital wheat gluten (for making homemade seitan; gluten is also a good item for bakers)

Other things I keep:
- applesauce (home canned)
- miso
- yogurt
- frozen fruit

I keep almost everything in labeled mason jars. They are inexpensive, clear, and very effective at protecting the contents from moisture, bugs, etc. Some of the larger things I keep in airtight plastic storage containers. Things like beans and grains that I buy in bulk quantities I store in restaurant style plastic tubs and refill the smaller pantry containers from those.

daharja said...

A great list and post, and most of it is pretty similar. It's interesting reading, learning what people eat in different parts of the world.

We keep a vegetarian household, with a lot of gluten-free, dairy-free stuff for my son's needs (he is vegetarian gluten-free dairy-free as it has improved his autism hugely).

Additions in our pantry are: rice flour, miso soup, herbal organic teas, gluten free packet cakes etc (I find it easier to make these as packet cakes, rather than making gluten free cakes from scratch, as the packet versions turn out better and closer to ordinary cakes, tinned fruit (various types), quinoa, millet, gluten-free pasta, regular pasta, soy and rice milks.

Most of our meals are big on fruit and vegetables, and we use a bit of tofu, which I am learning to make from scratch.

I find the key to being organised is keeping things simple, having a base of a few recipes that I am happy with an use over and over, and planning the week's menus in advance, so I know what I'll be cooking and don't have to think on the fly at the end of the day when I'm tired. To keep costs down, we eat as seasonally as possible, and as locally as possible.

Mind you, I'm getting a bit sick of the winter veggies now, and can't wait until the summer berry season!

risa said...

I LOVE Hana's list -- I feel all snug and homey just reading it!

We are drying many more things this season because we have a new solar box that we built; it does leafy vegetables in less than 48 hours. They can be crumbled up all the way down to powder size if we like. So, for breakfast today, duck eggs, new potatoes, a tomato, with some dried turnip greens and dried basil -- we have both fresh, but I'm practicing for winter cookery. I thought it came out really well, considering I'm a very hit-or-miss cook.

There will be jars of dried spinach, turnip greens, bok choi, kale, beet greens, fava leaves, dandelions, blackberry leaves and plantains (medicinal), marjoram, rosemary, chives, allium blossoms (leek, onion, elephant garlic), thyme, and lots of peppermint, along with zucchini chips and dried tomatoes and apples (we hope) on our shelves this year. Why was this box in my head all these years instead of out in the garden where it belonged??