With the restaurant world continuing its devastating free-fall and more cities issuing stay-at-home orders, it’s a fair assumption that you will be cooking at home, potentially more than ever.
If you’re used to going out to restaurants, this can feel like a jarring transition at first. Professional chefs are professionals for a reason; they have an arsenal of techniques and ingredients that few home cooks — even the most enthusiastic ones — can match. That said, there are a few things you can do to load your pantry with both the basics and a few restaurant-style secret weapons to take your home cooking to the next level.
A few things to keep in mind: There is no one-size-fits-all shopping list. Take a look at what you already have, and think about how you actually eat. Sure, beans are so hot right now, but do you like beans? Be realistic with your cooking plans and ability — if spending hours on an intricate pastry project is soothing for you, by all means, but if you just need to get a meal on the table for you and your family, that’s absolutely okay too. Not every meal needs to be blockbuster; even the most food-obsessed among us sometimes just eat to live.
When it comes to shopping, make a list and have a plan so you can get in and out of the store quickly. If the store doesn’t have what you need, it’s probably not worth going to another — be flexible and try something you maybe wouldn’t have picked up before. And if you can’t get to a store (or there aren’t open ones near you), online grocery remains an option, from the likes of Amazon and Shipt. It’s also worth noting here that many restaurants are selling pantry items and produce as part of their takeout packages — check their Instagrams or websites for up-to-date info on where to shop.
Stocking your pantry: the basics
Consider these items the foundation of a well-stocked kitchen — essential building blocks to cooking all kinds of dishes. Many of the items here are shelf-stable, and we’ve provided tips for shopping and storing meat, dairy, and produce as well.
Pasta and grains
- Long pasta, short pasta, tubular pasta — whatever you can get your hands on, really.
- Grain-wise, rice is an obvious choice (short and long grain, all colors), but don’t forget whole and ancient grains like farro, barley, bulgur, freekeh, and quinoa.
Canned and jarred goods
- Canned tomatoes (whole provides the most versatility — you can always crush or blend them yourself)
- Coconut milk for enhancing soups and curries, cooking rice, or poaching meat
- Stock/broth (though you can also make your own, it doesn’t hurt to have backup)
- Jarred salsas/simmer sauces (great for tying together a bunch of refrigerator loose ends in a pot)
- Nut butters
- Condiments (mustard, jam, soy sauce, etc.)
Beans and legumes
- Nutritious and long-lasting, and can be eaten on their own, or added to soups, stews, salads, stir-fries, and more. Dried beans are all the rage, and generally taste better if you’re willing to put in the time to cook them, but canned also work.
- Yes, you should definitely get chickpeas and cannellini beans, but don’t forget lentils, split peas, and black-eyed peas, too.
- Flour (and alternative flours if that’s how you roll)
- Sugar (brown, white, confectioners)
- Baking soda and powder
- Yeast for that bread you’re going to make
- Homemade or not, can be pre-sliced and frozen for easier heating
Oil, vinegar, spices
- Olive is standard, though grab canola too, which is better for high-heat cooking.
- Vinegar (apple cider and rice are good starting points)
- Whatever spices you frequently cook or bake with — allspice, bay leaves, cumin, cinnamon, chile flakes, oregano, paprika, pepper, vanilla, etc.
- Lemons, limes, onions, garlic, and root vegetables (potatoes, squash, carrots, beets) last a long time.
- Hearty greens like kale and collards will keep for a week, as will most uncut fruit.
- Frozen fruit and veggies are also an option, and you can do it yourself — on the fruit front, berries, bananas, and mango do well; veggie-wise, peas, corn, kale, and edamame are easy to throw in a plastic bag, squeeze all the air out, and pop in the freezer.
- Fresh soft herbs such as parsley, cilantro, and mint can keep for up to a week if washed, dried, and covered loosely in the fridge. If a bunch is on the verge of collapsing, blitz it into pesto, chimichurri, or an herby vinaigrette. Fresh herbs can also be chopped or pureed with oil and frozen in ice cube trays.
Dairy and eggs
- Hard cheeses like Parmesan (in block form) last for weeks; cheddar, Gruyere, and feta are also safe bets.
- Eggs are good for breakfast, baking, and tying a bowl of odds and ends together; they keep in the refrigerator for several weeks, as does butter (which also freezes well).
Meat and seafood
- The best meats to freeze are cuts that can stand up to a long cook (braising or roasting) without losing their integrity — think ground meat, bone-in chicken legs and thighs, beef brisket or chuck. Frozen shrimp and fish filets are also convenient to keep on hand.
Stocking your pantry: the not-so-basics
Consider these your next-level flavor enhancers — not strictly essential but the welcome-if-you-can-get-’em ingredients that chefs frequently employ to add more depth, spice, tang, or zip to a dish.
- Fried shallots: Fried shallots make it easy to add crunch to rice and noodles, salads, and baked pastas or casseroles. Buy a big bag at an Asian grocer, or turn to the classics (French’s fried onions) in a pinch. They’re also easy (if a little time consuming) to make yourself if you bring home enough shallots from the market.
- Chile oil/chile crisp: Add a spicy, garlicky, crunchy kick to everything from rice to veggies to chicken and fish. If you’re feeling frisky, try it on vanilla ice cream.
Fermented and pickled things
- Kimchi, sauerkraut, pickled beets, and miso are all instant flavor enhancers and keep indefinitely in the fridge. Miso in particular is a versatile umami-booster that’s at home in soup, marinades, cookies, and more.
- Preserved lemons: They last forever, add a cured citrus brightness to stews, curries, grain dishes, and more, and are easy to make.
Cured meats and tinned seafood
- Tinned fish: anchovies for melting into sauces and dressings; sardines, mackerel, salmon and/or oil-packed tuna for snacking or flaking into a salad or pasta.
- Charcuterie: In addition to being good snacking material, cured meats like salami and smoked meats like bacon keep well, and can be added to broths and stir-fries, and baked into or on top of bready things.
Spreads and stir-ins
- Fancy dairy: Labneh and/or creme fraiche are exactly the type of rich, creamy, tangy, dairy-based comfort that can pump a dish up. Throw a dollop on top of roasted vegetables, soups, or baked goods.
- Tahini: Use the creamy ground sesame paste in salad dressings, veggie dips, and baked goods.
- Turmeric: It’s been popular in India for thousands of years, and with good reason — its vibrant golden hue and electric flavor enhance everything from curries to cakes to eggs to smoothies.
- Harissa: A spicy North African chile paste that zips up sauces, eggs, marinades, dips, stir-fries, and more.
- Finishing salt: Kosher salt is the type most commonly called for in recipes, but finishing dishes with a sprinkle of flaky sea salt (Maldon for purists, Jacobsen’s for modern tastes) is an easy way to feel fancy at home.
Jamie Feldmar is a Los Angeles-based writer and cookbook author. See more at jamiefeldmar.com and follow her @jfeldmar.
Photo credits: Kale photo, Lew Robertson/Getty; Olive oil photo, George Clerk/Getty; Dried pasta photo, Brian Hagiwara/Getty; Loaf of bread photo, Diamond Sky Images/Getty; all other product images courtesy vendors