It’s true: I’ve dragged my feet over writing a guide to what I keep in my “pantry” (I don’t have a pantry) and fridge for 14 years now. I have my reasons, primarily that I’m not sure I know what your kitchen needs. I mean, shouldn’t you stock the stuff you need for what you’ll want to cook and not some arbitrary list from a lady who loves Triscuits? Maybe you don’t love Triscuits! (Sorry you’re so wrong.) The idea of buying a kitchen full of someone else’s groceries is very much against the way I think anyone should shop. I know your kitchen will grow organically, and accurately reflect what you need if you buy things for what you want to cook as you want to cook them. Second, due to the nature of my work here I have an absolutely unusual amount of stuff in my kitchen cabinets and fridge. It’s totally justified for me, while making little sense for others. On the flip side, I live in NYC and have grocery stores and Greenmarkets quite close, but also as a small kitchen with very few cabinets, meaning that not only can I not stock very much at a time, I don’t need to — I can always dash out for vinegar or dried pasta. This is not the way most people shop.
So why now? Shopping and stocking up has taken on a whole new meaning during the pandemic, for us too. I can’t safely go to the store as often as I used to and there isn’t as much on the shelves when I do. I have to be strategic; I need a system. And of course I’ve amassed a lot of opinions on groceries after 14 years of a cooking career. Thus, please, think of this less as The Last Pantry Shopping Guide You’ll Ever Need, but a tour of the things I keep around more often than not — and would make a point to restock when I’m out of them (vs. say, the 00 flour I’ve bought for a few recipes over the years but don’t consistently keep around). Perhaps you’ll find something useful in planning your own next grocery order or pantry meal; I hope you do.
Things I Keep In The Pantry
Flours: All-purpose and whole-wheat flour get me through 99% of my baking. I never buy cake flour, preferring to make my own. I also keep whole-wheat flour around; it goes rancid (it will smell musty) much faster than white flour; if you only use it sporadically, keep it in the freezer. I rarely buy bread flour unless I’m on a bread-making kick, but if you make enough pizza or other breads, it can be worth it. (Note: You can also make your own bread flour.) If you like to make pasta, you should buy fine semolina. For specific cooking projects, I sometimes keep rye flour, barley flour, spelt, oat, almond meal, and/or gluten-free flour blends around, but I don’t consider them staples that must be replenished as soon as they’re depleted. // New York Deli Rye Bread, Whole Wheat Apple Muffins
Pasta and noodles: I keep a mix of pasta shapes around, some long, some short plus some tiny ones, like orzo, ditalini, and fregola/large couscous. When I find it, Setaro is one of my favorite brands of dried pasta. I like to stock dried rice noodles and ramen-style noodles, too. // Quick, Essential Stovetop Mac-and-Cheese, Crispy Tofu Pad Thai
Rice and grains: My personal favorites are a really long-grain white and a short-grain brown rice; it’s a bit random. I also keep a short-grain white rice like arborio or carnaroli for risotto and rice pudding, plus small couscous and farro (or barley, wheatbeeries, or freekeh). I tend to only buy quinoa, millet, or buckwheat when working on specific recipes that use them. Worth knowing: Cooked grains freeze fantastically for future dishes. // One-Pan Farro with Tomatoes, Crispy Rice and Egg Bowl with Ginger-Scallion Vinaigrette, Arborio Rice Pudding
Dried beans, lentils, and split peas: I like to keep dried black, small red, and chickpeas around but would caution you not to buy much more than you think you’ll use, as they will ultimately get stale and there’s no crime in being a canned bean person. A few random favorites of mine: dried chana dal (also sold as split chickpeas or bengal grams) makes for the smoothest hummus, no peeling required. Lentils de puy are dark green and don’t fall apart in soups and salads. Yellow split peas make a fantastic everyday dal, and black lentils make a stunning special one. // Ethereally Smooth Hummus, A Really Great Pot of Chickpeas, Burrata with Lentils and Basil Vinaigrette, Everyday Yellow Dal, Punjabi-Style Black Lentils
Sugar: Granulated sugar, raw or turbinado sugar, light brown, dark brown, and powdered sugar are always around in my pantry but I, of course, bake quite a bit. I mean, I also have pearl sugar, but I’m still on the bag I bought we-will-not-talk-about-it years ago. Brown sugars should be kept as airtight as possible. Nothing here goes bad. // Unfussy Sugar Cookies
More dry goods: Rolled oats and Irish oats, panko-style breadcrumbs, cornstarch and tapioca starch/flour (which is my favorite pie thickener these days), dried unsweetened coconut, cornmeal, nuts (we like whole and sliced almonds, peanuts, and I like walnuts; keep nuts in the freezer for longer storage as they will get rancid at room temperature) a mix of dried fruit, and always, non-negotiably, ground espresso for our Moka pot. (Lavazza Crema e Gusto is our current favorite). // Thick, Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, Chicken Milanese, Even More Perfect Apple Pie, Green Beans with Almond Pesto, Stovetop Americanos
Spices: I have a rack off the side of my kitchen with my spices. Listen, I can tell you to buy Aleppo flakes, allspice, anise, bay leaves, cayenne, and celery seed — and that’s just the first row — but it will make a lot more sense for you to buy spices as you long for them in your food. I firmly disagree with anyone who tells you spices that are 6 months or a year old have to go — trust your nose and your food. When it doesn’t smell like much anymore or you’re not finding flavor in the dishes that contain it, it’s time for a refresh.
Beans: Black beans, kidney beans, small red beans, cannellini beans, small white beans, and chickpeas are my standards but you probably know that I really love beans. I often buy a canned black bean soup, pouring off some of the extra liquid at the top instead of mixing it in, for shortcut saucy black beans. For everyday beans, I mostly buy Goya. For special cooking, or simpler bean dishes that really glow up with better ingredients, I use Rancho Gordo. // Crisp Black Bean Tacos, Red Kidney Bean Curry, Cannellini Aglio e Olio, Crisped Chickpeas with Herbs and Garlic Yogurt
Tomatoes: 28-ounce cans (one whole and one crushed) prove the most versatile to me, as well as tomato paste (although I also like to keep a tube in the fridge for when I need less than a can). Should you only have tomato paste cans, you can freeze the extra paste in tablespoon-sized dollops for future recipes and be glad you did. // Quick Pasta and Chickpeas, Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter
Coconut milk: I always regret it when I don’t have a can. In my unscientific studies, I’ve found Trader Joe’s coconut milk to be the richest/creamiest. // Braised Ginger Meatballs in Coconut Broth
Vinegars: Vinegar keeps for eons and we love acidic stuff, so I keep many around, including plain white vinegar, white wine vinegar, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, sherry vinegar, rice vinegar, and black vinegar. Do you need all of these? Of course not. But I don’t think I could pick two desert island favorites. // Use in: Easiest Fridge Dill Pickles, Pickled Vegetable Sandwich Slaw, Giardinera, and Pickled Cabbage Salad.
Olive oils: I like to keep a “good” olive oil around (something delicate for finishing a dish or salad dressing) and an everyday one around (for roasting, sautéing, frying, and baking). Repeat after me: There is no reason to fry an egg at high heat in your best olive oil. California Olive Ranch makes a great everyday olive oil; 3-liter cans, decanted as needed, brings the price down. If not, the bottles are generous. // Crisp Rosemary Flatbreads and Chocolate Olive Oil Cake
Other oils: Toasted sesame, safflower/sunflower (my go-to vegetable oil for high-heat cooking and roasting, and cakes that need a neutral oil), coconut oil, and I don’t deep-fry often, but peanut oil is my favorite for when I do. Toasted sesame oil has the shortest shelf life; keep yours in the fridge if you use it infrequently. Do you love the taste of butter but dislike that it burns easily at high temperatures? I am the last person on earth to discover ghee — which is like clarified butter but tastes a bit toastier, due to the way it is made — I’ve been making up for lost time. Known better for its application to Indian cuisine, I also love it for frying eggs (even The Crispy Egg) and rather luxuriously roasting potatoes. It keeps a very long time at room temperature // Black Pepper Tofu and Eggplant, Double Chocolate Layer Cake, Easiest French Fries, Ginger Fried Rice
Liquid sweeteners: I keep molasses, honey, and golden syrup (which I prefer to corn syrup for flavor) around, mostly for baking. (I keep maple syrup in the fridge.) // Flapjacks, Majestic and Moist Honey Cake, Pecan Pie, and Nutmeg Maple Cream Pie
Vanilla extract and vanilla bean paste: I make my own vanilla extract. I recently picked up vanilla bean paste for a wedding cake project; I don’t use it as a replacement for vanilla extract (to me, they have different flavors) but in recipes where I’d otherwise add all or part of a vanilla bean. Heilala vanilla bean paste is highly concentrated and wonderful. // Make Your Own Vanilla Extract, New Classic Wedding Cake + How To
Everything else: Nutella; Triscuits; Ryvita or Wasa crisps; cheddar bunnies or rockets, sadly not homemade; at times, granola, chocolate, and cocoa for baking. I actually keep a box of baking chocolate in a cooler part of our apartment because our kitchen runs warm and I don’t want to melt and bloom it. My favorite baking chocolate is Guittard, but it’s not widely-enough available near me that I buy it exclusively. The pound-plus bars from Trader Joe’s are excellent for bittersweet baking. My favorite cocoa powder (Valrhona) is one of the most expensive and I can only encourage you not to try it because I’ve found it impossible to use others since. Should you buy it, I highly encourage you to buy a 3kg package (in 3 1-kg bags) to bring the price down and split it with friends who like to bake.
Things I Keep In The Fridge
Butter: Like olive oil, I keep two levels of butter around, one that is more everyday and unsalted for baking, usually a store brand or whatever was on sale, and a fancier or European-style (higher butterfat) salted around for toast and other finishes, where the flavor difference is more apparent. Butter absolutely goes rancid — and unsalted butter turns faster than salted butter (salt is a preservative) — so if you’re not going to use it within 3 to 4 weeks, I’d definitely keep it in the freezer.
Dairy: Milk, cream, half-and-half, sour cream, yogurt, buttermilk. Yes, we keep an unusual amount of dairy around. I don’t believe in buttermilk expiration dates. There, I said it. // Buttermilk Roast Chicken, Dreamy Cream Scones
Dijon and spicy mustards: I’m not going to tell you how many types of mustard we have in the fridge because you’ll unfollow me forever. But if I had to only choose one, it would be a smooth Dijon — this is a great everyday Dijon mustard. This is a delightfully crunchy whole-grain Dijon, and this our current favorite spicy mustard, // Mustard-Roasted Potatoes, Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew
Bouillon: I am a great fan of Better than Bouillon concentrates, which have much better flavor than most boxed stocks, keep for ages, and are wonderfully space-efficient. I actually keep one of each (beef, chicken, vegetable, mushroom, turkey) but if you were just choosing one, don’t sleep on that No-Chicken Base one because it has a cozy soup flavor but is also vegetarian. The turkey is great when you need extra stock for Thanksgiving cooking.
Cheese: We also love cheese and keep sharp white cheddar, aged parmesan and pecorino, halloumi, cotija, cream cheese, and sometimes feta around. Halloumi and cotija keep a very long time. Always save your parmesan rinds for flavoring soups. Nobody asked, but this is my favorite grocery store cheddar and my favorite feta is Bulgarian. // Parmesan Broth with Kale and White Beans, Foolproof Cacio e Pepe
Eggs: Most baking recipes call for large eggs. // 44 Egg-Centric Recipes
Yeast: I keep both active dry and instant yeast around, but I mostly use the latter these days and so can you. (Here’s an excellent primer on why.) Instant yeast keeps longer than active dry, but both keep longer in the fridge, and longest in the freezer. SAF Instant yeast is considered one of the best // No-Knead Bread
Jams: Our go-tos are raspberry and apricot, but we also have fig, cherry, and more. We use a lot of jam because my kids (cough “kids”) like peanut butter and jelly a whole lot, and because I think a freshly baked biscuit with salted butter and apricot jam is a very fine thing. // Austrian Raspberry Shortbread, Easy Jam Tart, My Favorite Buttermilk Biscuits
Nut and seed butters: Peanut butter, tahini, almond, or sunflower seed butter. Sunflower seed is my favorite nut-free peanut butter swap. // Salted Peanut Butter Cookies
Extras that make us happy: Fish sauce (Megachef and Red Boat are my go-tos), mayo, preserved lemon paste, (a great alternative to chopping all or part of a preserved lemon for recipes), a favorite harissa (or a homemade one), capers, olives, I get these anchovies when I can, salami, chile-garlic sauce, this hot fudge sauce, maple syrup, and we always have this chili crisp.
Things I Keep In The Freezer
Bread: We don’t go through bread fast enough to keep it at room temperature, but the freezer keeps it perfectly.
Fruit: Mango, berries, strawberries, sometimes old bananas, and other fruits we might use to make smoothies. Frozen fresh pineapple and/or watermelon chunks make for some fine cocktails. // Frozen Watermelon Mojitos, Piña Colada
Vegetables: I like to keep edamame, peas, corn, and artichoke hearts around.
Pasta and dumplings: Potstickers, wontons, pelmeni and vareniki (we have a ton of these right now because my MIL got us Russian groceries last weekend), and tortellini are very helpful to keep around for kids lunches and easy dinners. // Spring Vegetable Potstickers, Chicken Wonton Soup, Potato Vareniki
Burritos, Tarts, and Casserole-ish things: I don’t plan well enough ahead to do this often, but when I do, I’m thrilled to have burritos, galettes or quiches, an extra lasagna, ziti, or pizza beans in the freezer for future meals. // Breakfast Burritos, Perfect Vegetable Lasagna, My Old-School Ziti, Pizza Beans
Meat: Bacon, sometimes pancetta, sausage, and recently I’ve been buying some vacuum-sealed steaks and pork chops, although I’ve yet to get in the habit of remembering that they’re there and need to be defrosted at least half day before we want them. // Bacon Corn Hash, Steak Sandwiches
Stock: I love to make extra chicken stock and freeze it in quart bags. I don’t think every soup needs homemade stock, but for simpler ones, the extra depth of real bone broth makes a difference. If I don’t have time to make stock, I keep a “stock bag” in the freezer with the backs, wings, and/or other unused parts of chicken plus any onions, carrots, or celery that I don’t think I’ll get to. // Perfect, Uncluttered Chicken Stock
Ice cream and sorbet: I’m married to someone who (understandably) requires a bowl of Haagen Dazs chocolate each evening, so that’s a given, but I also should confess that I splurged on a no-bowl-to-chill ice cream maker last summer and it’s definitely led to an ongoing supply of homemade delights like lemon sorbet, passionfruit sorbet, and real mint ice cream; I get 95% of my ice cream recipes from David Lebovitz’s Perfect Scoop.
Fruit: Lemons and limes keep and are two of my favorite ingredients; don’t underestimate the importance of acidity in making simple ingredients taste magical. Until better local fruit is available, we look out for decent apples, oranges, mango (our family favorite), cantaloupe, and pineapple to keep around, as they have a longer shelf life than raspberries (which we also buy, but eat quickly or regret not doing so). // Whole Lemon Tart, Even More Perfect Apple Pie
Fridge vegetables: Carrots, celery, cabbage (green, red, and savoy), cauliflower, broccoli, leeks, scallions, and greens (curly kale, broccoli rabe, spinach) are my go-tos. If you’re buying greens to cook, try to wilt them down when you get home from the store, as they’ll keep better in softened bundles (and can be frozen) than they will in boxes and bags, and take up less space too. I find that leafy herbs like mint, cilantro, and parsley keep 1 to 2 weeks longer if I first wrap them in a barely damp paper towel and put them in a zip-lock bag. // Roasted Cabbage with Walnuts and Parmesan, Carrot Salad with Tahini and Crisped Chickpeas, Broccoli Slaw
- I lean brand-ambivalent. Sure, I like Goya beans and Better than Boullon but I try not to get too stuck on a brand of flour (I use King Arthur or Gold Medal but also Heckers sometimes) because I think it does SK readers a disservice if my recipes work best with xyz brand that maybe isn’t easy to get. Before you buy any fancy brand of olive oil, why not taste the reasonably priced ones and see if you like it? Are you sure you can’t make great cookies with 365 brand butter? (Spoiler: You can.) Where I’ve linked to product here, however, I really just buy that one specific brand so it’s worth noting.
- Most dry goods that you hope to keep for a longer period of time or don’t go through quickly benefit from being stored in the freezer, from yeast to whole wheat flour to nuts and seeds and coffee. Everything I just listed here doesn’t need to be defrosted either; you can use them very cold as you would at room temperature.
- I keep all dried goods — everything — in jars. I honestly think there are people who don’t keep things in airtight containers and there are people who have had… crawly things. I had them one time four kitchens ago and I will not let that happen again. When everything is self-contained, even if you bring home something compromised, it would keep to itself. I have jars from all over (Weck, Le Parfait, Bormioli Rocco) but when I need more, usually buy 6- or 12-packs of Ball Wide-Mouth Jars in 16-ounce and 24-ounce because (praise hands) they stack! I have various sizes of these small clamp-top jars for easy access to salts, baking powder, and baking soda I buy in larger quantities. I keep my flours and sugar in Borgonovo 145-ounce jars I can never find anymore but I’m working on a new solution — for you and me.
- As always on Smitten Kitchen, nothing here is sponsored. I do all my own shopping and most of the schlepping.
Finally, it’s always a little incongruous to write about shopping and cooking in a casual way (“Ugh, my quinoa went rancid again!” — me, too often, not proud of this) at a time when so many people are don’t have enough to eat. If you’re looking for a place or places to help, I can tell you what I do: I have automatic monthly donations (my favorite no-planning-required way to support what I feel strongly about) set up for No Kid Hungry (which focuses on ending child hunger) and Feeding America (a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks).