This is of huge importance if you’re going to be making your own food. Especially on a budget. You absolutely need to have certain staples around that serve as a foundation, so you’re not always buying EVERYTHING that’s called for in every recipe.
Brace yourself. If you’re starting from an empty kitchen, this will be quite the investment, but I promise it will pay off. Not only will you be stoked when you put your first delicious meal together and discover that it’s that easy, you’ll realize how tired and crappy eating takeout all the time really makes you feel.
Here are the things that I keep around and use all the time:
Oils and fats:
- Extra virgin olive oil. Be economical, bite the bullet, and buy the huge jug when it goes on sale. It’ll last forever, and wouldn’t you rather pay $17 for something that’ll last forever than $7 for something that’ll be gone in two weeks? Me too.
- Unsalted butter. I like the regular ‘ol sticks because they fit in the butter dish and are easy to measure. I use unsalted because I think the extra sodium in salted butter is totally unnecessary. If your dish is lacking salt, add your own. Then, at least you know how much salt is going into your food. I just buy them whenever they’re on sale and throw them in the freezer.
- Vegetable oil/canola oil. For baking & things where you don’t want that olive flavor coming through.
- Apple cider vinegar. Good for marinades & whatnot.
- Red wine vinegar. Awesome for seasoning things. I use it the most on veggies. Especially greens.
- Balsamic vinegar. + olive oil, salt & pepper = salad dressing that won’t make you fat.
Grains n’ things:
- Lentils. Cheap, easy, delicious.
- Quinoa. Cheap, easy, delicious, PLUS a whole protein, so you can have a meatless dinner with serious sustenance.
- Brown rice. A true staple that hangs out under all sorts of delicious food (stir fry, anyone?).
- Pearled Barley. Good in soup, makes an awesome risotto, is a whole grain and way better for you than arborio rice.
- Flax seeds. Don’t really taste like anything, but they have Omega 3’s! I throw them in things like stir fry or salad where I get the health benefits of having them around and don’t even notice they’re there.
- Corn meal. Along with bread crumbs, is super cheap and always comes in handy.
- Plain bread crumbs. See corn meal. I get the plain kind because I’d rather season them myself. That way I know exactly whats in there.
- Unbleached all-purpose flour. Flour is the ultimate staple. It’s necessary to bake most anything and is helpful with thickening soups or sauces. Why unbleached? Mostly because I don’t like the idea of eating something that’s been bleached just because it’s prettier.
- Nuts. I keep a few cups of almonds, walnuts, and pecans around. They make a good snack, or are yummy in salad or with breakfast. They also come in handy when I feel like baking.
- Popcorn kernels. Because I love popcorn.
- Milk. I prefer lowfat (1%) organic. A friend turned me on to the fact that the organic variety has a much longer shelf life (the milk I bought September 17th has a best by date of November 6th), which makes me feel better about the quality of it in the first place. It also ends up being more economical for me, since I was dumping the non-organic kind down the drain ALL THE TIME. Plus, this way, you don’t have to make any sacrifices whatsoever on taste or texture.
- Eggs. Love them. Makes an easy and delicious breakfast, snack, and occasional dinner. They’re also super cheap at about $0.20 each. I usually buy a dozen and when I get home, boil half of them. Boiled ones are for snacks, quick breakfast, or egg salad sandwiches.
- Parmesan or Romano cheese. Adds awesome flavor to a huge variety of meals and lasts forever in an airtight ziplock bag in the fridge. I buy the blocks and grate my own. I think the flavor is better that way, plus it’s cheaper by volume.
- Salt & Pepper. If I had to pick one thing (OK, two things) to have in my spice rack, it’d be salt and pepper. Using good salt and pepper (course-grind sea salt and real peppercorns from a spice shop) makes a HUGE difference in the tastiness of the food you cook. Get the real stuff, get grinders, it’s worth it. If you’re lucky enough to have a Penzey’s nearby, they have an amazing selection.
- Herbs. Fresh if you have the space/time/patience to grow them, dry if you don’t. The ones I use most are parsley, oregano, basil, thyme, dill, and rosemary. Bonus points for sage.
- Spices. The ones I find myself using the most are cayenne, cumin, ground mustard, paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and coriander. Bonus points for ground ginger and turmeric.
- Bullion. Helps flavor things cooked in water (lentils, quinoa, rice…). There exists a kind that is actually sodium free, which is awesome since the insane sodium content is one of the major downfalls of using this stuff. It’s in powder form in a little jar, so you can just sprinkle it in cooking water as needed.
- Vanilla extract, if you ever want to bake anything. Also, if you want to bake, get baking powder and baking soda. And probably cocoa powder.
- Soy sauce. Look for the kind that’s called tamari. If it doesn’t say tamari on the bottle, it’s just brown saltwater.
- Tomato paste. Amy Pennington taught me that such a thing exists as a screw-top, double/triple-concentrated tube of tomato paste (I found it in the Italian section, next to the specialty oils n’ things). This thing rocks. I always found myself opening one of those little cans of tomato paste but never using the whole thing. The tube lets you use exactly what you need, and since it’s super-concentrated, a little goes a long way.
- I keep light brown sugar and white granulated cane sugar. I think as long as you have a white and a brown, you’ll be fine.
- Garlic. Is in everything and takes a long time to go bad. It’s also really cheap.
- Onions. I like to have one or two around of the yellow or sweet variety, since they’re pretty much in everything too.
- Carrots. Last forever, are $0.75 for a one-pound bag, make an awesome snack or salad topping, and are great in the oven or in soup.
- Whole, peeled tomatoes. I read somewhere that the tomato-packing people save the best tomatoes for the whole ones, so they look nice out of the can. I buy the whole ones and then chop, slice, or pulverize them into whatever the recipe calls for.