The more cooking you do at home, the more you tend to recognize that a well-stocked pantry is an absolute necessity. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure this out. I found myself grocery shopping nearly daily, making only very basic meals (or buying for very specific ones) because I was too exhausted to try to get creative. How was I supposed to deviate from my established plan when I almost assuredly didn’t have the necessary ingredients at home in my pantry?
Beyond the fact that there’s always the option to just boil some noodles and call it a day, a pantry (and—once they’re opened—refrigerator) full of staples can help you build out a meal, taking a plate of buttered noodles or cooked rice from bland to something way more exciting. I didn’t always fully understand that (and ate a lot of buttery, garlicky noodles). But once you have your basics set, cooking with “nothing in the house” becomes much easier to pull off.
Of course, what qualifies as a basic is going to vary from person to person. It might have to do with the food you grew up eating, the kinds of foods you’ve embraced since you started cooking for yourself, or the foundational ingredients for the recipes in your new favorite cookbook. My pantry has gotten pretty expansive over the years, but for the purposes of this article, I had to cut it down to a very limited list of essentials. The ingredients themselves are definitely customizable based on your preferences (these are just some of what I use!), but the kinds of things that you’ll likely find yourself needing—and reaching for again and again—are a bit more universal. These foods are versatile, nutritious, and delicious, it just depends on how you choose to use them in your own kitchen.
Oils are a necessity for everything from sautéing and roasting to things like making dips, spreads, sauces, and dressings. Depending on what you like to cook, you may need a good olive oil, avocado oil, sesame oil, peanut oil, vegetable oil, or coconut oil. Invest in the ones that you’ll use, because oils don’t last forever.
My pantry staples: olive, avocado
Vinegar is another must-have ingredient that is useful for so many things. Whip up a vinaigrette in no time, add some tangy, acidic balance to your soups, stews, and sauces, and more. Apple cider, red wine, white wine, balsamic, and white distilled vinegar are all solid choices. Rice wine vinegar is another that I personally have in my regular rotation.
My pantry staples: apple cider, white wine
3. Hot sauce
Even if you’re not a huge fan of spicy foods, you need hot sauce (or sauces) in your at-home cooking arsenal. I always have several on-hand for different kinds of foods. There are tons of different spicy sauces out there that you should get better acquainted with, if you aren’t already. Find the ones that you like best, do a little research (into the type of sauce itself! Learn about what you’re cooking with and the culture that created it!) and experimentation to figure out which foods which sauces pair best with, and then get to cooking. For a basic foundation: sambal oelek for Indonesian, Singaporean, and Malaysian food, gochujang for Korean food, hot sauce like Tapatío or Cholula for Mexican food, hot sauce like Crystal or Tabasco for a variety of things, sriracha for Thai food, etc.
My pantry staples: sambal oelek, Cholula
4. Grains and other dried bowl bases
Grains, lentils, and quinoa are so important to have in your kitchen (if you eat them, of course). They’re easy to cook, last forever (OK, maybe not *forever,* but still, a very long time), and are endlessly customizable. Add beans, fish, eggs, or meat, lots of fresh veggies, sauces, and other toppings and bam—an instant meal. I always have several kinds of rice, quinoa, and lentils, and then usually also have farro, polenta, amaranth, or another grain as well.
My pantry staples: farro, short-grain rice (like arborio or sushi), quinoa
5. Noodles and pasta
Noodles are absolutely a staple of my diet. I can cook up rice noodles for an Asian-inspired dish in under 10 minutes, throw pastina (the star-shaped kind!) into a broth or soup, or make my fallback pantry meal: aglio e olio. Noodles are easy, filling, and oh so versatile. You need them—stock up.
My pantry staples: linguine, rigatoni, rice noodles
6. Condiments and pickled vegetables
Condiments and pickled vegetables can take your meals from just OK to truly great. Jarred pesto can be useful in a pinch; mayo, coconut cream, and sour cream can make sauces for topping tacos, soup, and more. Giardiniera is great for adding heat, acid, crunch, and flavor to pizzas, sandwiches, salads, appetizers, and more. Pickled red onions can go on oh so many things. If you already have a lot of condiments at home, get creative with them. Some of my favorite cooking comes from times when I use ingredients I already had in a whole new-to-me way.
My pantry (or fridge!) staples: mayonnaise, yogurt, pickled red onions, tomato paste (does that count?)
Whether dried or canned, every house should have some beans in their cabinets. You can whir them into a spread or dip in a food processor, cook them down into a side dish, marinate them and make them into a salad, smash and season them to make burger patties, and more. They add protein, creaminess, and flavor to all kinds of meals.
My pantry staples: black beans, chickpeas, cannellini beans
8. Canned fish or seafood
Canned fish and seafood can boost a salad or upgrade your usual pasta dish. Flake fish into a soup, mix with mayo to make a seafood salad, the possibilities are nearly endless. Plus, canned fish lasts for a while in your cabinet, so you can buy a few cans and make sure to have them when you need them for a last-minute lunch or dinner that will end up being way better than it would’ve been otherwise.
My pantry staple: tuna
9. Jarred or canned vegetables
Don’t sleep on jarred and canned vegetables, guys. Marinated artichokes (or non-marinated!), bell peppers, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, corn, peas, green beans, tomatoes— you name it, it’s useful. It may not be your first choice when it comes to getting vegetables in your meals and on the table, but keeping them around means that you’re never vegetable-less when you need them. Plus, what’s a cheese board without marinated vegetables, anyway?
My pantry staples: artichokes, bell peppers, tomatoes, olives
10. Dried herbs
So you’re not exactly an ace gardener, so what. Dried herbs are your saving grace. Add them to, well, just about anything. Though nothing beats fresh herbs in my opinion, I always make sure my dried herb collection is well-stocked. They last longer and are more cost-effective, so there’s no need to stress if you only need a tiny bit at once. Just make sure to periodically check to make sure they’re not expired, though. They don’t last as long as you might think they do. As an expert once told me, if they smell like nothing, they’ll probably taste like nothing too.
My pantry staples: oregano, dill, thyme, bay leaves
Spices are another must-have that is really dependent on your personal preferences. If you cook foods regularly that have certain spices in them, make sure you always have plenty of that on-hand. But you probably don’t need to go out and buy a spice rack full of spices that you’ll never use. Like dried herbs, spices only last for so long, so that spice rack full of spices you got when you got married five years ago probably needs to be cleaned out a bit. Buying in bulk can be a good way to stock up on your favorites or buy just a tiny bit of a new-to-you spice that you aren’t sure if you’ll use up before it goes bad. Cut down on waste by using your own container.
My pantry staples: cumin, garlic granules, smoked paprika, cinnamon, coriander, chili powder, ginger
I love mustard—Dijon, that classic yellow, spicy brown mustard, whole grain versions, varieties that are flavored with other things—and a few definitely need to have a place in your refrigerator. Mix with honey into a sauce, use them for marinades, vinaigrettes, slather some on fish or chicken before roasting or grilling, there are so many options. Mustard adds that special zing to so. many. dishes.
My pantry staple: Dijon
Kitchen all stocked? Now put it to work, using these recipes as inspo: