Sugar, and spice, and everything essential. That’s no nursery rhyme – That’s what needs to be in every home pantry, if spontaneity and discovery are to happen in your kitchen. Fact is, without a decent assortment of staples – Sweeteners, flours, herbs, spices, oils, vinegars, and the like, it can be awfully hard to successfully create on the fly. At the same time, its easy, (and pricy!), to go overboard on this stuff. What’s the happy medium, and what are the must haves? Let’s dive in and see.
Here at our kitchen, we have, well, pretty much everything. We have to, in order to do what we do for y’all – researching, creating, and testing recipes requires a ridiculous amount and variety of resources. Thankfully, your kitchen needn’t be quite so whacky to be well equipped. That said, you may want more than you’ve got currently, so how to decide what’s necessary? Let’s use our place as a guide, and pare things down to manageable for the average home kitchen. That should allow a cook to do as much as reasonably possible from scratch, and also encourage spontaneity.
Before we dive in to specifics, a note on organization. Some manner thereof is, of course, absolutely necessary. How that takes shape is up to you. The most common sense approach is to consider what you use most, and have those closest at hand. As far as I’m concerned, the Season As You Go rule is non-negotiable, so the core stuff needs to be close at hand. We keep our go-to salts and peppers front and center, right on top of the stove. Oils, vinegars, and other common sauces shouldn’t be much farther away, ditto for herbs and spices. Flours, sugars, canned, boxed, and bagged stuff is pantry fodder, if you’re fortunate enough to have one.
In any case, make arrangements that make sense to you. Once you establish an order that works for you, keep it – In a professional kitchen, having things in the same place every time is a necessity, given the time constraints under which we cook. That rule really isn’t any different for us at home – Sometimes cooking is leisurely, but more often than not, it’s home at five and dinner needed around six, or some version thereof – So having everything where you expect to find it is imperative for efficiency and peace of mind. All that said, be open minded about change, if down the road your best laid plans don’t thrill you any more. Quarterly reviews of your resources and where you have them is a very good plan to follow. That gets you looking at expiration dates, freshness, amounts on hand, and what you haven’t used in forever on a regular basis – Include your fridge and freezer in that survey as well.
Why not start with those essentials, your go-to seasonings. As savvy cooks everywhere know, the core secret to great cooking is seasoning as you go. That means that the stuff you rely on for that process should be, as noted, closest at hand. This needn’t be complex. Salt and pepper really are all you need. Were one to pick a single version of each, what should they be? I’ll advocate for a sea salt, one with a moderate grain size – For this, you don’t want either really chunky stuff or super fine – Real sea salt contains a wealth of trace minerals that taste good and are good for you. There’s a bunch out there – I like the Bob’s Red Mill a lot, as well as the Celtic brand. For Pepper, you’re hard pressed to do better than a genuine Tellicherry berry, and that requires a little explanation.
Contrary to popular culinary myth, Tellicherry Pepper does not come from its namesake city in India. Tellicherry berries are defined by size, not location or heritage, per se. Pepper berries, Piper Nigrum, are harvested in February and March, then dried to become what we recognize as a pepper corn. In order to be called Tellicherry, pepper corns need to be 4.25 mm or larger, (and there’s actually a jumbo version, at 4.75mm and up). In any given crop, maybe 10% to 15% of the berries reach Tellicherry size, so it’s a bit rarer and a bit pricier, but well worth it – You’re getting the literal cream of the crop. As for other pepper, a look through our spice cabinet finds long, Tasmanian, grains of paradise, smoked, Szechuan, Lampung, Aleppo, white, green, and red, so yeah – You can go pretty ballistic on those. As far as I’m concerned, Tellicherry is all you really need.
There are many more options for salts these days, as well – and you may or may not want or need them. Some of the legendary ones, like Malden, Sal de Mer, Himalayan pink, Bolivian Sunrise, and the like are truly spectacular, but they’re expensive – Really better suited as finishing salts for a special touch. I counted fourteen salt varieties in our spice cabinet, including kosher, flaked, smoked, and a raft of those fancy varietals – Again, you really don’t need most of those. If I had to pick a must have selection, it’d be sea, kosher, and flaked – That’ll cover the vast majority of uses you’re likely to want to mess with – And if the others catch your fancy, I say try those too, but sparingly. Salt and pepper don’t have an endless shelf life, so buy in small quantities, and use them up before adding more.
Next up, oils, and here too one can be complex or simple. For eons, what you could get was corn oil and olive oil, and little else. With the rising popularity of home gastronomy, the variety of oils available to cooks has blossomed considerably. For basic cooking, you can now find a number of relatively heart healthy oils in almost any store – canola, peanut, safflower, and sunflower, for instance. As with fancy salts, there are a bunch more fairly exotic oils – walnut, grape seed, coconut, hazelnut, avocado, and infused olive oils. While the latter bunch are delicious indeed, they’re really more for finishing or making vinaigrette than for cooking – And they’re fabulously expensive to boot. What you need is genuine Extra Virgin Olive Oil, for sure, and then a go to veg oil – Those will do the trick for 90% of your daily cooking chores. I’ll add one caveat, and that’s avocado oil. It’s become our go to, for several reasons – It’s got a light, buttery taste, it handles heat well, and is high in monounsaturated fatty acids.
For all thing flour, I’ll refer you to our Flour Power post from a while back – It’ll probably tell you more than you need to know.
Sweeteners are a bit more complex than refined white sugar, and should be – There are tastier, more potent options worth your shopping dollar. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have white sugar on hand – You should, and maybe even a couple variants – Regular white is a go to for many things, and the finer cut Baker’s sugar dissolves much faster, for baking or other cooking. Honey, real honey, local whenever possible, not only has greater sweetening power than sugar, it has the added benefit of subtle flavor notes that reflect the terroir your local bees worked to bring you their joy. Regulars here will know we’re also big on agave nectar. In addition to a lovely, light taste, like honey, agave has a lower glycemic index than white sugar, so here again, you can use less to obtain a commensurate level of sweetening power. Other sugars, brown, raw, and the like, carry a molasses flavor note white refined doesn’t, and some folks like that. If you bake, you’ll likely want some of those on hand. Molasses and corn syrup might also find favor with bakers. Alternative molasses, like Pomegranate, sorghum, carob and date, are popular for cooking Middle Eastern cuisine, and can add an exotic touch to many dishes and sauces.
Vinegar is a must as well, for everything from house made vinaigrettes to sauces and shrubs. Depending on what you like to do, you may need one or more variations on the theme. A few years back, I wrote a little primer on the basics – You can find that here. The one caveat I’ll underline is this – Infused vinegars are expensive, and they needn’t be. You can make great versions at home for next to nothing, and you should. Here are some ideas for that project.
There are a bunch of ready made sauces out there, so what do you really need? For my mind, a hot sauce or three is a necessity – A few drops of Tabasco, for instance, wakes flavor much as salt does, and adds a nice backbone note to soups and stews. Jalapeño based sauce has a milder, fruitier profile that goes great with everything from veggies to eggs. What else? Soy sauce is a must, (though beware, there are a slew of gourmet and ‘premium’ varieties that can get really pricy and aren’t really all that spectacular. There are now an abundance of dark and light varieties. Preference comes down to taste, so try a few until you find something you like, and then stick with it – The lighter version, by the way, differs mostly in color, the idea being not to turn things muddy when that’s not appealing. Fish sauce is another must have, and here you do need to be careful – There’s a lot of crap, even among the pricy stuff. Red Boat is the real deal – You can’t go wrong with a small bottle of that, and since this is added literally by the drop, a small bottle goes a long way. Obviously there are a bunch more sauces, and you may accumulate a few over time. Hopefully, you don’t get as crazy as we are, but then you never know…
Oils, vinegars, and sauces will break down in the presence of direct sunlight and heat, so store them in a cool, dark spot, in glass containers, and always read the label to see if something belongs in the fridge after opening.
And lastly, we come to herbs and spices. Here’s a place where, as you can see from our cabinet, a cook can go seriously off the deep end – That’s a blessing and a curse. Almost everything in a spice cabinet is sensitive to conditions and age – The volatile compounds that make herbs and spices do what they do mean that they can and will break down and degrade if stored improperly or kept too long. For dried herbs and spices, there are important caveats. First, sourcing – All herbs are not created equally – Provenance and proven quality matter. Although things are improving in terms of variety and quality, getting herbs and spices from the average grocery store isn’t what you want to do. A simple test illustrates why – A generic, store bought jar of oregano versus real stuff from a quality source like World Spice, or Penzeys, will prove the point. Open both and take a nice, long sniff. The sheer power and complexity of the good stuff quickly overwhelms the relatively insipid generic version. What you’re experiencing is ‘oregano’ against Mexican or Turkish oregano, with known sources of high quality – Game over. Everything you get from a good purveyor will perform like that. If you needed further motivation, what you get in the grocery is often more expensive than what the good providers charge. You’ll also have a choice as to how much of what you want to buy, and you can opt for whole or ground/mixed as well. Overall, it’s a no brainer if you’re serious about your cooking, (and if you’re here, you are.)
Onwards to storage – If your spices are in little jars in a spinny thingy on your counter top, and you got that stuff as a wedding gift and are still using it, you seriously need to repent, and soon. Sunlight, oxygen, and warmth are our friends, but for dried herbs and spices, not so much. Your stuff needs to be in a cabinet, out of direct light, away from extremes of temperature, and stored in small, airtight glass jars. That will safeguard your hard won goodies. Even so, age creeps up on us all, and spices are as susceptible as anything. This means that limiting how much and what you store is the best plan. We buy our staple, go to stuff, by the pound, but again, that’s because we do a lot of cooking to make this joint run – There are few, if any things in the spice world that the average home kitchen needs by the pound – An ounce of lemon thyme goes quite a long way, and you can have another in your mailbox in a matter of days. Buy quality, buy enough for maybe three months of use, and you’re good to go.
Of course, some herbs just beg to be used fresh, and if ever there’s an indoor gardening task you should undertake, a fresh herb window box is it. Check out our page on what we call the essentials, here. Between that and an annual herb and veggie garden, you can grow and then dry of freeze home grown stuff – There’s nothing finer, frankly.
This isn’t meant as a comprehensive kitchen analysis, but as a good starting point from which to learn and grow. Always be open to change, embrace what works and tastes good, and you’ll be hard pressed to go wrong. What we’ve outlined here should be sufficient to allow decent spur of the moment creativity on your part.