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!