You went to the grocery store. You came home with plenty of proteins, starches, and veggies. Yet, your standing in front of a wide open fridge or freezer wondering how on Earth to bring together a meal. Nothing you’ve bought seems to fit together. We’ve all been there, so what went wrong and how do we fix it?… Kitchen staples!
The reason things aren’t coming together is that a good meal is made up of so much more then these ingredients alone. Think of meats, starches, and veggies as your building blocks to a meal. But what brings these three parts together into a whole? What turns it into a meal? It’s the spices, the broths, the vinegars, the finishing salt, the crumble of nuts across the top that transform a few simple ingredients into a real meal.
What you really need to transform any meat/starch/veggie combination into a meal is to keep the pantry and fridge well stocked with these critical components. Keep these 30 items on hand, and you’ll be able to make a delicious meal out of any combo you desire. You’ll be able to follow or adapt most dinner recipes with ease. Plus, you’ll be able to improv a great menu from whatever you find on sale at the grocery store, or anything that happens to look nice at the farmers market.
So without further adieu:
1. Garlic- Garlic is probably the single most useful component in cooking. It is incredibly flavorful, aeromatic, and versatile. It is used in so many different cuisines all across the world, from Japanese food to Italian. Keep this one hand always. Even if you hate dealing with fresh garlic buy some garlic powder. Garlic is about as universal as it gets.
2. Onions- Onions are another item that packs a big flavor punch, and happens to be extremely versatile. Mince it and add it to soups, stews, dressings and sauces, as a subtle flavoring. Chop it coarse and pickle it for a salad topping. Add it to a mixture of cooked vegetables. Sauté it with peppers for fajitas… the list goes on, and on, and on…
3. Sea Salt- In addition to adding flavor to almost any dish you cook from pasta, to steak, sea salt is wonderful to have on hand for finishing a dish, or even baking. It also adds a polished feel in any salt shaker or grinder.
4. Kosher Salt- Generally cheaper then sea salt, with the added benefit of having no odd flavors or undertones as iodized salt sometimes does. Kosher salt can be used in cooking, pickling, baking, at the table, and is a safe bet to use as a substitute in almost any recipe that calls for a different type of salt.
5. Black Pepper- Another incredibly versatile seasoning, black pepper can be used in almost any instance to give a bit of mild heat. Salt and black pepper alone can be enough seasoning for many a dish.
6. A Basic Selection of Spices- Don’t waste your time with a spice rack, or zillions of exotic spices. You probably won’t use many of them more then occasionally, and spices loose their flavor over time. Instead a simple selection of basic spices can improve your cooking by leaps and bounds without getting expensive or wasteful. The best spices for your kitchen might vary a little bit from mine. It all depends on what flavor profiles you like best, and what styles of cooking you do the most. However, I find the following five to be the most helpful: rosemary or herbs de provence, cumin, paprika, chili powder, and ginger. Rosemary pairs well with almost any meat, or vegetable. It’s particularly nice with potatoes and it’s also is a wonderful spice to add to salad dressings. It kind of adds a French twist to things. Herbs de Provence a mixture spices contains rosemary and other herbs and can be used in a similar way. Cumin paprika, and chili powder might sound like they have a Mexican flair to them, and well they certainly do work in Mexican dishes, they also can be used in smaller amounts in a variety of other ways to add a subtle flavor. Think pulled pork, chili, and meats of all types. Ginger is great too, not only is it very common in Asian dishes, it adds a hint of sweet, tang, and spice to all kinds of foods (including baked goods). It’s also killer in salad dressing. Of course, keep garlic, salt, and black pepper on hand as well, and you’ll be turning out well seasoned and flavorful dishes every time you cook!
7. Fresh Basil- I know the food blogs, and many a recipe call for fresh herbs; and certainly they do add flavor, flair, and polish to many dishes. However, I personally have found the dried version of almost any spice to be a more then adequate substitute, with the exception of basil. Not that dried basil is bad, but fresh basil is amazing. It adds BIG flavor to whatever it’s added to. Use it to add some punch to pretty much anything. Chicken, salads, pasta, pizza, beans… Plus if you have fresh basil, olive oil, some hard cheese, and nuts, you can whip up some pesto which is a killer for everything to saucing fish, to dressing pasta, in enchiladas, to spreading on sandwiches.
8. Olive Oil- In my humble opinion olive oil is probably the most versatile cooking fat there is. It can be used of course to sear meats and vegetables, toast grains, roast potatoes, in homemade pasta sauces, as the base for a vinaigrette, as a dipping sauce for breads, and believe it or not substitutes fairly well for other fats in baking. Plus it’s uber good for you.
9. Butter- While not quite as versatile as olive oil, butter can still be used in a number of ways, and is incredibly pleasing to the palate. Obviously this is a big one in baking, but don’t underestimate butters powers to enhance a great steak or freshly steamed veggies. Another handy thing is that butter freezes quite well so it’s easy to store for long periods.
10. Cream- Let’s just be honest here. Cream is not so healthy… but… it makes everything it touches taste amazing. Fortunately a splash can go a long way. Cream has a magical way of working with pretty much any sauce you can think of from sweet to savory. Plus if you really want to wow in the baking department cream is where its at.
11. Tomatoes- Fresh or canned tomatoes are one of the more versatile fruit/veggies. Whether they get used in sauces, soups, stews, over meats, fish, added to beans, starches, or salads tomatoes can really help you build a complete meal.
12. Chicken Broth/Stock- The most flavorful way to build a sauce for any meat dish. Plus if you have broth on hand you can always whip up a twenty minute soup with whatever (and I do mean whatever) else you have on hand. Plus as a useful bonus, cook pretty much any grain you like in chicken broth for added flavor. If you’re wondering why chicken and not beef or veggie broth… chicken is the most versatile of the broths. There is enough flavor to really add something to your dishes, but not so much that it overwhelms.
13. Red Wine- Great to drink, great to cook with. A splash for you, a splash to deglaze your pans and add body to sauces of all types. Beef, pork, and red sauce all benefit from a nice red. The rule of thumb here is not to cook with anything your wouldn’t drink, so double up and pick a nice middle of the road red that can work in the kitchen and at the table. Merlot and Malbec are the two most versatile in my personal opinion, not only can you use them in almost any dish calling for wine, they pair well for drinking with almost any food.
14. White Wine- The white version. Think risottos and white sauces of all types. White wines can often be used in places of red with meats. The same cooking/drinking rule applies. If you wouldn’t drink it don’t bother cooking with it. Chardonnay is probably the most versatile of whites. Like a Merlot or Malbec it pairs well with many foods and is easy to cook with.
15. Balsamic Vinegar- We all love a good balsamic vinaigrette, but balsamic is also great for dipping bread (mixed with some olive oil), splashing on cooked veggies or meats. It can also add a little something special to sauces or soups.
16. White, Rice, red wine vinegar, or Apple Cider Vinegar- Balsamic vinegar tends towards the sweeter side, so its good to have some plain old white vinegar, rice wine vinegar, red wine vinegar, or apple cider vinegar to add some nice acidity to your dishes. Plus you can use any of these for quick pickling to add some serious tang to your veggies.
17. Lemons- (or Lemon Juice in a pinch)- Probably the most versatile of acids. Lemon zest or juice adds light and brightness to almost any dish. Plus it works well in baking.
18. Lime Juice- More acidity, totally different flavor. Totally worth keeping on hand. Bonus: A great addition to many a cocktail.
19. Mustard- Your favorite condiment is more useful then you think. Add it to potatoes, meats, vinaigrettes, or sauces to dial up the flavor!
20. Worcestershire- This silly sounding condiment that I often can’t pronounce correctly adds a lot of flavor to meats. I highly recommend keeping it around for marinades!
21. Soy Sauce- Not just for Asian foods, soy sauce adds the very important umami flavor to meats and gravy. It even helps out vegetarian burgers!
22. Sriracha- This Asian condiment packs a ton of heat and flavor, and works well to add some spice to foods of any type.
23. Honey- Great for adding to sauces and dressings. Of course it’s also important for topping your cornbread and biscuits, plus fairly useful in baking.
24. Hard Cheese- Hard cheese, like parmesan, saves for ages in the fridge. It finishes any pasta dish well, adds a wonderful flavor to veggies, and you can toss the rind right into a pot of soup to enhance flavor.
25. Bacon- Bacons not just for breakfast. A few strips can add great flavor to meat dishes, particularly stews. You also never know where it might come in handy, be it for an appetizer or crumbled on a salad.
26. Eggs- Eggs are amazing. Not only do they make a great breakfast and make our baked goods light and fluffy, they can be dinner in their own right. Quiche, frittatas, and omelets, are some of the fastest, easiest, and most tasty dinners around.
27. Dried or Canned Beans- Beans are cheap, flavorful, and easy to cook. They add healthy bulk to your dishes, and compliment pastas, vegetables, and meats of all kinds. Don’t regulate them just to chili, they can really add some pop to a variety of foods. In fact a transcendent pot of beans might be dinner all on it’s own.
28. Nuts- Eat em’ all alone for a healthy snack. In your cereal. On top of peanut noodles. Blended into pesto. Give your salad some crunch… Nuts add great flavor, protein, and texture to many dishes. Pine nuts are one of the most versatile, but also the most expensive. Almonds also pair well with many types of foods, and can be quite elegant. Walnuts and pecans also have their places, as does the humble peanut.
29. Flour- Of course, if you’re going to do any sort of baking, from bread to cake, flour is a pretty important ingredient. However, flour also does double time as a thickener for gravy, soups, and stews. Plus you can use it to bread chicken, fish, or whatever…
30. Panko- Part bread crumb, part well, something else… but it’s sure nice and crunchy. Use this in place of bread crumbs, or for making a quick crisp crust on chicken, fish or other meats.
Now that you’ve read this list, it’s time to start writing your next grocery list. Stock up your kitchen with these great ingredients to make your cooking taste better and make life easier!
What’s your kitchen missing? Did my list miss anything? Let me know by leaving a comment below.