Virtually anyone can go to the store, buy ingredients, follow a recipe, and make a decent dinner. It’s not that hard to do, and it’s something everyone–no matter how minute their passion for cooking may be–gets an inkling to do every once in awhile, right?
But making a home-cooked dinner every night of the week? Finding time to bake a dessert for small group when you’ve spent the week shuttling kids to every extracurricular activity under the sun? That’s when cooking doesn’t sound so fun, or easy, or even doable some nights. When life gets busy and there’s no such thing as “free time,” the home cooks who still manage to prioritize making from-scratch meals and treats are the ones who really deserve a gold star. This is the quality that differentiates someone who can cook from someone who is a good cook.
Simply following a recipe and churning out a decent meal does not a good cook make–sure, that’s part of it, but anyone can do this when given ample time, ingredients, and assistance. You know what a truly good (or even great) home cook’s secret is? It’s the ability to whip up something satisfying at any moment–without running to the store or missing a beat. This agile cook (or baker) is someone who can work with what they have on hand… and this is because, this kitchen master is one who knows what to keep on hand. They make a point on their regular grocery runs to stock their kitchen with these key ingredients that are not only essential, but versatile. Prime example: My mother.
I don’t think my mother is a good cook purely because she “makes good food,” but because she has the seemingly-inherent ability to quickly take stock of what she has on hand and magically pull together a delicious dinner. Though it may seem to me–someone who looks at the same pantry and complains that there’s “nothing to eat”–like an innate gift, it’s really not; The ability comes from practice. It comes from years and years of scheduling and preparing. It comes from the meal-planning, the grocery shopping, the cooking, the baking, the cleaning, and the managing of a household. It’s all about experience.
The only way to learn is through practice and personal experience. So if you’re like myself and aiming to reach this level of being an “effortlessly” exceptional cook rather than simply someone who can cook–start stocking your pantry with the ingredients that will get you there. Soon enough, miraculously concocting a rave-worthy meal from “nothing” will just be a part of the routine. Just ask my mom.
Here are the 10 ingredients you’ll want to make sure you’ve got on your shelves at all times:
#1. Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Salt and black pepper are vital in the kitchen, but unfortunately they tend to be the unsung heroes that don’t get much street cred–though they’re essential to nearly every dish we make. can you cook without them? Yeah. Will the food be as flavorful as it ought to be without them? Of course not.
If you’re thinking, “Check! I already have these,” think again. When it comes to making flavor pop, trading iodized salt for a heartier Kosher salt and pre-ground black pepper for freshly ground peppercorns actually does make a difference. And yes, they’re going to be a little more expensive, but all things considered–even with spending a couple of extra bucks here, salt and pepper are probably the least expensive items in your pantry. And this is a low-cost way to improve your cooking. So, please, if you make one change in your life after reading this post–go buy a pepper mill and get you a big box of kosher salt.
#2. Olive oil
EVOO is another building-block ingredient that tends to be overlooked but is essential for so many dishes, from homemade salad dressing to pesto to tomato sauce and more, and if you’re cooking daily, you should always keep the next bottle in the pantry, because you’ll go through the stuff fast.Resist the urge to grab the cheapest bottle on the shelf–because the olive oil shelf is one of the biggest homes to impostors in the grocery store. Just because the label says “extra-virgin olive oil” does not mean that you are actually buying olive oil that meets the qualifications to be marked “virgin” or “extra-virgin.” In fact, you may not be getting olive oil at all. Unfortunately, passing rancid oil or blends off to the consumer (and sometimes at a hefty price tag) is fairly common. Taste it by itself–especially side-by-side with the real deal–and you’ll recognize the difference. To get the best bottle for your money and impart rich flavor depth into all that you cook, we suggest going with California Olive Ranch or Academia Barilla Extra-Virgin Olive Oil.
Yep, you guessed it. It’s smart to always keep a variety of noodles on hand for throwing together a quick dinner. From mac and cheese bake and lasagna to more sophisticated carbonara and seafood dishes, pasta is an essential pantry item guaranteed to please even the pickiest of eaters. For ideas, check out some of our best pasta recipes.
There’s a reason meat and potatoes is considered the quintessential dinner, and I’m not just talking Russet here. You should keep a variety on hand–fingerling, red potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc.–to round out the meal with a quick and filling side dish, or to serve front and center as a part of the entrée. You can bake, roast, smash, whip, skewer, and fry them, and they keep for 2-3 months when kept in a cool, dark place (i.e. the pantry).
Ah, garlic. There’s no better ingredient for turning the bland into an aromatic, vibrant feast–though onions are a close second (and also something you should keep around). I’m a big, big fan of garlic in all of its forms (powder, salt, etc.), but there’s nothing like a couple of minced, fresh cloves for flavoring meats, veggies, sauces, and everything in between. A head of fresh garlic will keep in your pantry for a few months, but once the bulb is broken, the cloves will only last about 7-10 days.
#6. Quick-Cooking Whole Grains
Always keep some of your favorite whole grains in the pantry–not only because they last forever and can be used for an endless array of dishes for all meals of the day, but also because they’re important sources of valuable nutrients, including dietary fiber, several B vitamins and minerals, iron, magnesium, and more. Pro tip: The next time you’re meal-prepping, consider making a big batch of rice, farro, quinoa, or another grain of your choice at the beginning of the week. Click here for tips on using it in salads, side dishes, breakfast bowls, and more to feed yourself for the whole week.
This golden viscous god should become one of your best friends in the kitchen–if it’s not already. It’s one of the oldest sweeteners out there, and not only is it dynamic in flavor and versatile in both cooking and baking, it also has an impressive resume. Here are some of the vastly-touted health benefits of honey for the whole body: it reduces cough and throat irritation, alleviates allergies, boosts memory, reduces ulcers, heals wounds and burns, and it’s anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and might even help prevent cancer and heart disease. Tip: If you want to get the ultimate goodness from it–make sure it’s pure and raw. Just like you always want to keep salt on hand, you always need a sweetener around. And honey is my recommended go-to.
#8. All-Purpose Flour
There’s nothing worse than realizing you’re out of flour after you’ve already creamed your butter, sugar, and eggs together. Whether you’re baking or breading chicken, you should always keep it on hand. Buy the big bag if you’re a frequent baker. And, if you’re really active in the kitchen, keep a variety of flours on hand (whole-grain, gluten-free flours, and more) for specialty cooking. You’ll want to keep any whole-grain flours, such as barley, oat, spelt, rye, whole-wheat, etc., in a tightly sealed container in the freezer once opened as they will go rancid faster.
#9. Chicken Stock
Chicken stock is a necessary convenience item when making soups and casseroles, and for giving a flavor boost to many sides dishes–including grains, veggies, and more. Unopened, chicken stock can be kept in the pantry for 6-12 months, but once opened, it can be kept in the refrigerator for a week.
#10. Peanut Butter
Because who doesn’t need a good ‘ol PB&J every once in awhile? Kidding (not really). Peanut butter, or any other nut butter you prefer, is a staple for quick snacking, on-the-fly baking, and meal prep. It’s packed with protein and potassium and can be used in a wide-range of sandwich, smoothie, sauce, and dessert recipes. To claim the most nutritional benefits, start buying the natural kind–I promise, you’ll never go back. My personal favorite is Smart Balance.